The struggle at Lützen in 1632 had a decisive impact on the narrative of the Thirty Years War. The engagement also provides an interesting showcase for the tactics used in the Thirty Years War.
While Gustavus honed the Swedish military and replaced its old guard of senior officers with new professional officers he personally trained and promoted, he relied more on diplomacy than battle to consolidate and protect his northern realm. He thus recovered Sweden’s Baltic provinces by appeasing Denmark with a huge indemnity that ended the Kalmar War in 1613. In a sharp war with more backward Muscovy, he added parts of Finland (1617) to the Swedish empire, and he continued to fend off Polish territorial and dynastic claims on Sweden. His power rested solidly on his successful reform of the bureaucracy, the education system, and a national military. Since Sweden was a poor and sparsely populated country he went to war to enrich it with new lands. Like all commanders of his era, he sought to “make war pay for war” by battening and billeting his army on other people’s estates and cities. He briefly made peace with Poland in 1620, only to regroup the next year and capture Riga in the first real use of his reformed army. By 1626 he added most of Latvia to the Swedish empire. Next, he campaigned to take Royal Prussia, driving amorphous Polish forces before him. He won in the forest at Wallhof (January 17, 1626) in a surprise dawn attack on an ill-sited camp. At Mewe (September 22-October 1, 1626), Swedish infantry firing volleys with heavy “Dutch muskets” overmatched Polish infantry armed with arquebuses. Shooting from behind field fortifications, they devastated Polish hussars, taking a measure of revenge for the slaughter at Kirkholm (September 27, 1605). In 1627, Gustavus attacked Danzig. At Dirshau (August 17-18, 1627) he was seriously wounded in the neck but won the battle. This was one of many occasions where he led bravely but recklessly from the front, and not the last: he was nearly killed or captured, as well as badly beaten, at Stuhm (June 17/27, 1629). As Gustavus withdrew to prepare defenses, Cardinal Richelieu arranged the Truce of Altmark with Sigismund III, who finally renounced his claim to the Swedish throne. That freed Gustavus to enter the Thirty Years’ War.
The Imperial defeat and humiliation of Christian IV in 1629 ended the Danish phase of the German war and opened to door to Swedish intervention. Geopolitics, piety, princely ambition, fear of Habsburg domination of the Baltic, and long-standing Swedish ambition to control the mouths of major Baltic rivers and the Baltic trade combined to shape Gustavus’ fateful decision to intervene. Yet, he would not move until assured of rich financing from the deep coffers of France. Despite that alliance with Catholic power, Gustavus was received by ordinary Protestants as the great, indeed prophesied, champion of the Reformed Faith come to rescue the cause at the apex of Catholic-Habsburg triumph. He was widely seen as nothing short of a Protestant Joshua marching at the head of an “Army of God.” Singing Lutheran hymns on the march only reinforced this popular image. Protestant princes were not nearly so enthusiastic: Saxony and Brandenburg alike refused his initial entreaties to form an alliance of northern powers. As a result, Gustavus landed at Peenemünde, on Usedom, in July 1630, with just 14,000 men. He brought with him 80 field pieces along with larger siege guns. The ratio of nearly 10 artillery pieces per 1,000 men in the Swedish Army compared to just one cannon per 1,000 men for the Imperials. Bogged down by the need to secure provisions for the Imperial Army, the Habsburg General Conti failed to concentrate against Gustavus at this, his most vulnerable moment. Yet, supply problems-which were endemic to the age-along with Gustavus’ great caution about securing a strategic base in north Germany also delayed any decisive move on the Swedish side.
Instead, Gustavus moved slowly and in force from Straslund to Stettin in search of food and fodder. This took the Swedish Army beyond Pomerania which had already been eaten out by prior invasions and other armies. As he moved along the major river routes, Gustavus subjugated and garrisoned the largest towns, securing lines of supply and building a buffer between Sweden and its enemies in Poland and the Habsburg lands. Then he settled down for the winter months, during which he recruited and trained tens of thousands of Germans and other mercenaries in the Swedish way of war. This grew combat strength but exacerbated logistical problems and so forced him onto the road with the spring thaw of 1631. Gustavus marched into Brandenburg to expand his base and force the Elector to join the war. Insofar as he took a strategic direction it was south to capture the fortress at Küstrin, then west to Berlin to take Spandau. This move secured the confluences of the major navigable rivers in north Germany, which Gustavus needed to move his heavy artillery closer to the Habsburg heartland and bring in follow-on supplies. While he was thus engaged Magdeburg fell to Johann Tilly and was sacked, before the Imperial siege could be relieved by Gustavus, who was unable to move his artillery or army without negotiating with Elector Georg Wilhelm for unimpeded access down the riverine routes of north-central Germany. Gustavus belatedly engaged Tilly at Werben (July 22-28, 1631), inflicting a hard and punitive defeat on the Catholic army.
At the peak of his power Gustavus commanded a coalition army that exceeded 100,000 men and was supported by river barge supply lines drawing resources from half of Germany. By 1632 this host was no longer made up of disciplined Swedish conscripts but of largely non-Swedish mercenaries, including 10,000 Scots. It was reinforced by several untrustworthy Saxon regiments supplied by a most reluctant ally he essentially forced into the war. With this polyglot force he won at First Breitenfeld (September 17, 1631) over the combined Imperial Army and the army of the Catholic League, led by Tilly. The defeat scattered Habsburg and Catholic forces. Once again, logistical problems slowed Gustavus so that he was unable to pursue the Imperials or the advantage won in battle. In the autumn of 1631 he moved farther south, to Erfurt, thence west to winter in Frankfurt. For the 1632 campaign he hoped to raise a force of 200,000 men with which to invade the Habsburg heartland from multiple directions, coordinating attacks by five armies. This strategic ambition was admirable, but also technically and logistically impossible in his day (war on such a scale would not be achieved until Ulysses S. Grant managed multiple invasions of the Confederacy using railways and the telegraph in 1864). Nor was he able to raise the forces envisioned. The lands he traversed could not sustain so large an army, and by 1632 even allies feared what the great Swede might attempt and achieve with such a force. Might not the Empire itself fall to him if he drove Ferdinand II from Vienna? Gustavus instead sought a decisive battle of encounter with the Imperial Army. In March 1632, he moved southeast to Nördlingen, then stormed the Bavarian fortress of Donauwörth. He again defeated the Imperials, mortally wounding Tilly, at Rain (April 5, 1632). That left the Catholic armies scattered and leaderless. Gustavus was free to eat out Bavaria or move on to Vienna; he chose Bavaria. He received huge contributions from Nuremberg and Augsburg. Even so, he was once again impelled by logistical need to keep moving his men, who ate out the country as they meandered through it following the course of the Danube.
With Tilly dead Ferdinand had no choice but to recall Albrecht von Wallenstein, who raised a new army of 70,000 mercenaries from his own resources which he hired to the desperate Ferdinand. Meanwhile, some Protestant cities and princes were restless as the Swedish Army moved through Germany for a second season, eating out whole regions like so many locust. They had reason to be suspicious: it was likely the Swedish king’s plan to make Germany a forward base to defend his enlarged Swedish empire, to include large parts of northern Germany. Through deliberate depredations, Gustavus tried to compel Wallenstein to move into Bavaria to protect its Catholic population and towns. Instead, Wallenstein marched into Bohemia to drive out the Saxon Army. This might look to modern eyes like an effort to cut off the Swedish lines of supply, reinforcement, and communication, but those were minor considerations in 17th-century warfare. Instead, as Basil Liddell Hart argued, Wallenstein was employing a strategy of “indirection.” By taking Leipzig and despoiling Saxony he looked to break the fragile Swedish-Saxon alliance and draw Gustavus north, away from Vienna. It worked: Gustavus swung north with 20,000 men, arriving at Nuremberg in May and moving to Naumburg in October, capturing crucial crossings over the River Halle. North of the river, near Leipzig, he caught up with Wallenstein’s army of 33,000 men. The two great captains and armies fought a desperate battle at Lützen (November 6, 1632). Gustavus was brought low while leading a cavalry charge, shot off his horse by three musket balls: one struck his arm, a second hit him in the back, the fatal third opened his skull. The Swedes won the battle but Gustavus was dead before it ended. The Swedish warlord-king and champion of the Protestant cause was just 38 years old. What Gustavus proved in his battles was that the old tactic of standing on the defensive behind a wall of pikes no longer assured victory. He showed that superior mobility, combined with rapid rates of musketry and field artillery, could dislodge and defeat even a numerically superior force in prepared defensive positions, such as behind the double ditch line at Lützen. This put another nail in the coffin of late-medieval-style warfare. No more was it sufficient to raise lumbering armies of pikemen protected by a few musketeers. That was the style of Tilly and Imperial tercios. Modified by the contribution system, it was also Wallenstein’s before he saw the Swedes in action. After Lützen, Wallenstein and other generals and militaries imitated to the degree they were able the new Swedish way of war, emphasizing drill, professionalism, firepower, and mobility. So influential were Gustavus’ reforms and reputation as a field commander that, 70 years later, Peter I of Russia, and 50 years after him, Frederick II of Prussia, emulated the great Swede’s reforms in their own armies so that they, too, could ride a military tiger into the upper ranks of the Great Powers.
Suggested Reading: Nils Ahnlund, Gustavus Adolphus the Great (1940); Michael Roberts, Gustavus Adolphus and the Rise of Sweden (1973) and Gustavus Adolphus (1992).