Gustavus Adolphus in the Battle of Lützen on November 6, 1632.


The Battle of Lützen by Carl Wahlbom shows the death of King Gustavus Adolphus on 16 November 1632.


Albrecht von Waldstein, commonly known as Wallenstein, was one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures of the Thirty Years’ War. Born in 1583, the son of a minor Czech nobleman, he was raised a Lutheran before converting to Catholicism and marrying a wealthy widow who died not long thereafter, leaving him a rich man. He used his newfound wealth to become the most successful military entrepreneur in Europe. Most of his competitors were small-timers; they raised companies or regiments. Wallenstein thought big. He raised whole armies out of the revenues generated by his vast estates. He led his forces on behalf of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, who would reward him with additional lands and titles seized from Protestant nobles. This, in turn, increased Wallenstein’s wealth and allowed him to build a series of foundries and arsenals to equip his forces. In the 1620s, he enjoyed considerable success as a general; it was his victories that had brought Catholic power to the shores of the Baltic and precipitated Sweden’s entry into the war. But he was relieved of command in 1630 by Ferdinand, who suspected that this scheming careerist did not always have the Empire’s best interests at heart. This suspicion proved correct, for before long Wallenstein was secretly negotiating with Gustavus to join the Swedish cause, although these talks came to nothing. With the Empire in dire straits after Tilly’s defeat, Ferdinand had no choice in 1632 but to give command back to Wallenstein.

By then Wallenstein had amassed riches to rival a king, and indeed the suspicion was prevalent that this wealthy upstart had his eye on a throne—possibly even the emperor’s. He shuttled between his baroque palace in Prague and his many country houses accompanied by no fewer than fifty carriages for his court and one hundred wagons carrying his baggage. He was said to hate noise so much that upon his arrival in a town he would order all dogs and cats killed and all streets around his residence cordoned off. The wearing of spurs or loud talking was forbidden in his presence. Those who disobeyed his diktats were liable to get a call from his household executioner. One servant reportedly was hanged for waking him in the middle of the night. Such cruel and mercurial behavior did not make the “tall, thin, forbidding” Wallenstein very popular. But he was nevertheless an effective military leader, one who appointed officers based strictly on merit and was not averse to having Protestants in senior positions.

In mid-June 1632, Gustavus Adolphus reached the city of Nuremberg, where he fortified his army. Wallenstein decided to occupy his own fortifications nearby at Alte Feste and starve the Swedes out. The siege dragged on for two months before Gustavus felt compelled to risk an attack because he could no longer feed his troops within the city walls. His offensive on September 3–4 failed to dislodge Wallenstein. It was the first major Swedish setback after a long string of victories. Gustavus lost 1,000 troops. In the next two weeks, epidemics and desertions cost his dispirited army one-third its strength. As Monro dourly observed, “oftimes an army is lost sooner by hunger than by fighting.”

In search of fresh supplies and fresh manpower, Gustavus marched out of Nuremberg on September 18, heading south along the Danube. The two armies spent the next two months shadow-boxing, never able to land a punch, seldom able even to figure out where the enemy was—a testament to the poor quality of communications and intelligence in the seventeenth century.

In late October 1632, Gustavus received word that Wallenstein had led his army northward where it had rendezvoused with another Imperial force under Count Pappenheim. Together the two Imperial commanders were once again threatening to seize Saxony and cut off Gustavus’s rear. For a second and final time, Gustavus hurried north. His troops covered an impressive 380 miles in seventeen days. Unfortunately Gustavus could take only 19,000 men with him; the rest (more than 163,000) were scattered in garrisons or committed to other operations around northern Europe.

Reaching Naumburg on November 10, 1632, Gustavus made a fortified camp there. Wallenstein mistakenly believed that the Swedes were suspending campaigning for the year and going into winter quarters, so he decided to do the same. He began to scatter his forces, because his base near Leipzig could not provide enough sustenance for his large army. When he heard on Sunday, November 14, what Wallenstein was up to—dispersing his forces in the face of the Swedish army—Gustavus felt as if his prayers had been answered. “Now in very truth I believe that God has delivered him into my hands,” he cackled.

Gustavus knew he had not a moment to lose. Pappenheim, with a force of 3,000 cavalry, had already left Wallenstein’s encampment for the town of Halle, thirty-five miles away. As long as Pappenheim was absent, the Swedes had a slight numerical advantage, with 19,000 men to 16,000 Imperial soldiers. Pappenheim’s arrival would even the odds. The Swedes needed to strike before Wallenstein became aware of their strategy and combined his forces again.

In the early morning hours of Monday, November 15, the Swedish troops marched out of Naumburg in the direction of Wallenstein’s camp located fifteen miles southwest of Leipzig near the village of Lützen. They might have caught the unsuspecting Imperial forces by surprise were it not for one of those strokes of ill luck that often frustrates the best-laid plans. In their advance, the Swedes stumbled upon a small Imperial reconnaissance party near a stream called the Rippach. The patrol put up an unexpectedly stiff resistance that delayed the Swedes for a few vital hours in the midafternoon. Not wanting to start his attack at dusk, Gustavus reluctantly decided to wait until the morning. Now amply forewarned, Wallenstein spent all night working feverishly by torchlight to mobilize his men and prepare a strong defensive position. He immediately sent an order recalling Pappenheim, which arrived around midnight. Pappenheim’s cavalry set off at once, though his infantry waited another six hours to start back.

Wallenstein prepared a strong position running parallel to the high road from Leipzig to Lützen. In a deep ditch just north of the road, Wallenstein positioned musketeers to protect his front. Only the tops of their feathered hats and the muzzles of their muskets must have been visible to the approaching Swedes. Wallenstein anchored his position on the right along some windmills. On the left his line was less secure, not quite reaching a small canal called the Flossgraben. Wallenstein hoped that Pappenheim’s men would fill in the rest of the space, but until their arrival he had to resort to bluff to avoid being flanked. He mounted supply drivers and camp followers on baggage horses in order to give the impression that he had more cavalry than he actually did.

Wallenstein positioned his men differently than Tilly had at Breitenfeld; he had learned something from his predecessor’s defeat. The Catholic army copied many of the Swedish innovations. They thinned out their ranks: Although still thicker than the Swedish formations, the infantry was reduced to ten ranks deep from the previous thirty. Instead of positioning his men in one giant line, Wallenstein employed two or three parallel lines of roughly equal strength (accounts vary), each having infantry in the center and cavalry on the wings. And, like the Swedes, the Imperial army spread small detachments of musketeers among its cavalry. The Empire even had a slight advantage in artillery, with Wallenstein deploying twenty-four guns to the Swedes’ twenty. He positioned fourteen of them in front of the windmills on his right, making this the strong point of the Imperial line.

Gustavus drew up his army in his usual array, with two main lines and a small reserve of cavalry, all positioned south of the high road with the winding Flossgraben at their backs. Knowing that Pappenheim could not be expected to arrive before noon, Gustavus got his men up before dawn on Tuesday, November 16. By 7 A.M., the Swedes were ready to go, only to find the whole battlefield covered in a thick, impenetrable fog, a hindrance that would beset the combatants on and off all day. While he waited for the fog to clear, Gustavus led the troops in a prayer and delivered a pre-battle oration in which he exhorted his “true and valiant brethren” to “see that you do valiantly carry yourselves this day, fighting bravely for God’s Word and your King.” He promised that if they stood with him, he would “hazard my body and blood with you.”

He got his chance soon enough. The sun broke through the mist at 11 A.M., the signal for the Swedes to attack. Gustavus led his right wing into action against the enemy’s weaker left wing, the Swedes crying, “God with us!”, the Imperial soldiers countering with “Jesus Maria!” The Swedes took heavy losses from the fire of the Imperial musketeers but managed, in Monro’s account, to chase “the enemy a little out of the ditch, and took seven of the Imperialist cannon, that were planted along the [ditch].” Gustavus’s horsemen were on the verge of wheeling left and falling on the main body of Imperial soldiers when, as if out of a storybook, Pappenheim’s cavalry appeared to restore the Imperial position at the last possible moment. The fortunes of battle instantly shifted against the Swedes.

A few minutes later they shifted back when Pappenheim was mortally wounded by two musket balls (or, according to some accounts, by a cannonball). Seeing this inspirational commander taken off the field in a cart unnerved the Imperial army. Panic spread in their ranks. Their left flank once again began to disintegrate, once again the Swedish cavalry started to attack the Imperial center, and once again victory appeared to be in Gustavus’s grasp—only to have it snatched away once again by a caprice of nature. Another heavy mist rolled in, thicker than before, which concealed from the Swedes the extent of their enemies’ disarray and ground their offensive to a halt.

On the other side of the field, the battle was not going the Swedes’ way. The Imperial guns in front of the windmills were taking a heavy toll on the Swedish left wing led by Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar. Gustavus decided to lead a cavalry regiment over to help strengthen Bernard’s attack. As usual, he led from the front, and now he paid a catastrophic price for his daring. Gustavus rode so fast that he left most of his escort behind and found himself in close proximity to the enemy lines. An Imperial musketeer took careful aim, fired, and shattered Gustavus’s left arm. His horse galloped wildly out of control, leading him straight into a party of enemy cavalry, one of whom fired a pistol into his back. As usual, because his shoulder was sore from an old bullet wound, Gustavus was not wearing any armor, and the pistol ball wounded him grievously. He fell from the saddle. With a foot still stuck in his stirrup, he was dragged along the ground by his horse until he finally twisted free. Lying facedown in the mud, he was shot a third time, through the head. It was an inglorious end for such a historic military career, made all the more so by the fact that the Imperial soldiers plundered the king’s body, stripping him down to his shirt before abandoning the corpse in the mud.

The sight of the king’s wounded horse, Streiff, dashing madly around without a rider and covered with blood made clear to both sides what had happened. As word spread through the Swedish ranks that their sovereign was dead, panic momentarily set in, but the court chaplain rallied the men by singing, “Sustain Us by Thy Mighty Word.” As soldiers joined in the psalm, they gained a fresh injection of courage and determination to avenge their fallen leader. The Imperial soldiers, for their part, were heartened by the news of their foe’s demise. Pappenheim died a happy man, knowing that his arch-enemy had predeceased him, if only by a few hours.

The Imperial cavalry, now under Count Ottavio Piccolomini, surged forward and swept over the Swedish right wing, taking back the lost Imperial guns. By 2 P.M., the battle was going against the Swedes. Duke Bernard, left in charge of the Swedish army after Gustavus’s death, decided to stage one last desperate lunge to turn things around. The Swedes, closely supported by their regimental artillery, charged straight into the heart of the Imperial position. In hard, bloody fighting, they crossed the high road and took the windmills one by one. By 5 P.M., as dusk was descending over the battlefield, every piece of Imperial artillery was in Swedish hands. To compound Wallenstein’s problems, his powder wagons caught fire and exploded, leading many of his men to jump to the erroneous conclusion that they were being attacked from the rear.

After dark, Wallenstein took a survey of his forces and found they had suffered crippling losses. He had no choice but to retreat. He did not stop running until he had reached the safety of Bohemia. The battlefield was left to the Swedes. (Although Wallenstein had survived, he was disgraced and did not have long to live. He would be assassinated two years later at the instigation of the emperor, who suspected him of treason.)

It was a battle fought “with such fury as no man hath ever seen or heard,” Wallenstein wrote the next day, and both sides were thoroughly drained by their exertions. Sweden lost an estimated five thousand to six thousand men (about a third of its force), the Empire even more. “The entire plain from Lützen to the [Flossgraben] Canal,” wrote Friedrich von Schiller, “was strewed with the wounded, the dying and the dead.” The outcome was hardly as one-sided as at Breitenfeld, but once again superior Swedish firepower and maneuverability had won the day. Monro was right to pay tribute to his fellow soldiers who “did crown the lamentable death of the King’s majesty with a stately and heroical victory.”

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