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Peter Defeats the Swedes in the Ukraine

In August 1706, Charles XII of Sweden attacked at Dresden and Leipzig. Augustus the Saxon was forced to surrender and to renounce the throne of Poland that he had lost four years before. Charles then turned his attention to the Russians. Charles wanted restitution of all lands that he thought were his, which included the area where St. Petersburg was being built, and he wanted Russia to pay restitution for having gone to war against him.

In November, Peter ordered a speeded construction at St. Petersburg – the formation of two shifts of workers, 15,000 for each shift, for the summer building season of 1707. And early in 1707 into his military he drafted clerks, sons of priests and deacons and other non-ordained men associated with the Orthodox Church, and he made a cavalry regiment of former secretaries.

In 1707, Sweden's Charles XII and his army moved into Poland with 24,000 horses and 20,000 foot-soldiers, and there he waited for reinforcements from Pomerania. On January 1, 1708, Charles and his army moved across the Vistula River in the direction of Moscow. In late January, the Swedes defeated a Russian force at Grodno. They captured a bridge and crossed the Niemen River. Peter and the retreating Russians set fire to what they could, and as the Swedes advanced across sparsely populated Lithuania they had difficulty finding food for themselves and adequate forage for their horses, while Lithuanian peasants hid their stores as they had from the Russians. Until spring, the Swedes sought quarters at various places across Lithuania, as far east at Minsk, Charles staying about twenty miles northwest of there until early June, when the pasture grass was again green and thick and the roads that had been mire were again dry.

In early July 1708, Charles and his army reached a six-mile long battle line that Peter had created on the east side of the Bibitch River at Holowczyn. The Swedes surprised the Russians by crossing the river to marshland that separated the Russian line, and the Swedes were victorious. The divided Russian forces fell back in another retreat. Russian moral was low. Rumors were that Charles and his army were headed for Moscow. Peter ordered that everything be destroyed in front of the advancing Swedes: food, crops, anything that could be useful to the Swedes. But during the hasty retreat much was missed, and rain had made green crops difficult to burn.

The Swedes reached Mogilev on the Dnieper River four days after their victory at Holowczyn. They were around 45,000 in number – combatants and laborers – with 30,000 horses, and they wanted to accumulate supplies including grain that would last at least six weeks before moving ahead. They waited also for some of their number who had been wounded at Holowczyn to be fit to march. And they waited also for a supply train of several thousand carts accompanied by another army from Riga.

By the end of July the wounded had recovered, but rain was delaying the local grain harvest. The supply train and reinforcements from Riga were late in arriving. Charles and his army survived off the land by staying on the move. It was Peter's strategy, at this point, to wear down the Swedes by means of quick strikes and withdrawal, and on August 31 in the morning fog at Malatitze, Peter used infantry for the first time and attacked two Swedish regiments. The Swedes lost almost 300 men killed and 500 wounded. The Russians lost around 700 killed and 2000 wounded. After two hours of fighting the Russians withdrew, leaving the Swedes with the impression that the Russians had improved militarily.

In pulling back, Peter kept to his scorched earth policy. Anyone who gave or sold food to the enemy, or knew of such an act and said nothing, was to be hanged, and those villages guilty of giving food to the enemy were to be burned to the ground. The Swedes reached Tatarsk, but the countryside between them and Smolensk was barren of whatever they needed to survive. By mid-September the supply train and army the Swedes had been expecting from Riga had not yet arrived. Charles and his men and horses faced starvation. Facing the coming of winter and devastation along the road to Moscow, Charles decided to turn south, into the Ukraine, into terrain that was more densely populated and that held supplies of food and fodder. There also he hoped to team up with the ruler of the Ukraine's Left Bank east of Kiev, Ivan Mezeppa, a Cossack who had been appointed by Peter but who believed that Charles would win against Peter and was secretly negotiating an alliance with Charles.

On September 28, 1708, Peter's army found the Swedish baggage train from Riga. A battle ensued at Lesnaia about thirty miles southeast of Mogilev. Each side had about 12,000 men. After eight hours of fighting the Russians lost 1,111 killed and 2,856 wounded. note1   Swedish losses were at least as heavy. The army accompanying the baggage train scattered. The Russians captured some of the supplies, and about a thousand of the Swedes headed back in the direction of Riga. The commander of the baggage train, General Lewenhaupt, ordered what remained of the supplies burned, believing that he was no longer able to protect it from the Russians.

Lewenhaupt and his men found Charles' army and joined them in heading for Katurin, Mazepa's capital, where Charles hoped to be supplied with gunpowder and other necessities. Winter was setting in. Mazepa, fearing retribution from Peter, fled from Katurin. The Russian army arrived at Katurin in early November and destroyed the town, leaving nothing for the Swedes. The town's inhabitants were massacred, except for boys who were carried off by the Russians and about a thousand Cossack warriors who managed to fight their way through the Russian line.

The Cossack leader, Mazepa, and the modest remnant of his army joined Charles XII and his army, and Charles quartered for the winter at Romny where his famished and exhausted men found an abundance of supplies, including hay, oats, cattle, sheep and wine.

It was an exceptionally cold winter. The Baltic Sea was frozen over and the canals of Venice were covered with ice. In the Ukraine birds in flight fell dead. But Charles XII believed that he had to keep up his offensive against the Russians, to keep the Russians from rebuilding their forces. His strategy was to poke at the Russians, keep them off balance and to lure them into the showdown that the Russians had heretofore avoided. Charles wanted another battle like the one at Narva. He was confident that again his smaller army of Swedes could defeat a larger Russian army. And this time he wanted to destroy the army, which he believed would end the war in his favor.

Winter fighting took a toll on the Swedes, Charles losing perhaps more than 1,000 men in January and more men in another skirmish in February. Many of his troops suffered from frostbite. By spring the army was at about 24 or 25 thousand. Local grain supplies and cattle were sufficient, but gunpowder was low, some of it having been damaged by the wet weather in February.

In April, the Swedes lost 400 men in another battle. That month, Charles was reconnoitering the Russian fortress at Poltava (about a hundred miles southeast of Romny). There the Russians had about 30 cannon and 4,000 troops. In mid-May, Charles laid siege to the fortress, hoping this would bring the main Russian force, against which he planned to spring a trap.

Meanwhile, competition was taking place for the friendship of the Khan of the Tatars in the Crimea. The Swedes were trying to bring the Khan into the war on their side, while Russians were misinforming the Tatars about the Swedes and distributing gold coin to influential Tatars. The Russians told the Tatars that the Swedes were about to conclude a peace with them, and the Tatars chose to stay out of the fighting.

Peter moved his army – around 45,000 men – on the Vorskla River, opposite the fortress at Poltava. In a minor skirmish on June 28, Charles XII received a bullet wound in his foot. Many of the Swedes had come to believe that God had been shielding their anointed king, and dismay spread among them. The days were now unusually hot. Wounds, including that of the king's, were not healing well, and Charles barely survived.

The showdown came on July 8, 1709, without the trap that the Swedes had been hoping for. They were eager for battle and moved with élan against the Russian entrenchment. Not yet recovered, Charles was carried about on a litter. In two hours of battle, the Russians overwhelmed the Swedes and Mazepa's Cossacks. Russian artillery cut the Swedes down, and the poor quality of the gunpowder used by the Swedes caused their shots to fall short. The Swedes and Mezepa's troops fled. A remnant of the Swedish army – 14,299 men and 34 cannon – surrendered at Perevolchna. The Swedes had lost 6,901 dead and wounded, and 2,760 captured. The Russians had lost 1,345 dead and 3,290 wounded. note2   Charles, his aides, a few hundred cavalry, Mazepa and around 1500 of his Cossack warriors escaped across the border into Ottoman territory to Okyakov. And with Mazepa went hope for Ukrainian independence.

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