The Battle of Targoviste was fought on the night of June 17, 1462 between the armies of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II and Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. Better known as “Vlad the Impaler” or “Dracula,” the real Vlad was a hardened veteran of the long Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Mehmed demanded a jizya, or tax on non-Muslims, from many bordering states, but Vlad refused to pay. In 1460, the Hungarian regent Michael Szilagyi (Vlad’s main ally against the Ottomans) was captured by the Turks and sawed in half.
When Mehmed’s forces crossed the Danube and began pressing young boys into military service, Vlad responded by capturing Turkish soldiers and impaling them. Mehmed attempted to trick Vlad into an ambush, but the Wallachians surrounded and massacred his force of 1,000 cavalry. By 1462, Vlad was engaging in outright ethnic cleansing—by his own estimate, his forces slaughtered over 23,000 Muslim civilians and sympathizers. In response, Mehmed invaded Wallachia with at least 150,000 men. Vlad could only field around 30,000.
Vlad began a scorched-earth campaign, retreating while burning crops, poisoning water supplies, and diverting small rivers to create marshlands. He even sent civilians infected with syphilis, leprosy, and bubonic plague into the Turkish ranks.
In 1462 Vlad Dracula of Wallachia wrote a letter to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary describing how he had killed precisely ‘23,884 Turks and Bulgarians in all, not including those who were burned in their houses and whose heads were not presented for our officials’. The raids are also described in the later German accounts of Vlad Dracula’s life. These are often exaggerated, but the description of the Danube campaign cannot be very far from the truth, because he:
ordered that all these men, together with their maidens, should be slaughtered with swords and spears, like cabbage … Dracula had all of Bulgaria burned down, and he impaled all of the people that he captured. There were 25,000 of them, to say nothing of those who perished in the fires.
When the Ottomans advanced on Wallachia Vlad Dracula realised that he could not face the Ottoman Army in open field combat, so he decided to retreat covered by a scorched earth policy, after which he would launch guerrilla raids on the Turks. This inevitably caused great suffering to the population when Vlad burned fields and destroyed villages in his own territory so as to deny supplies to the enemy. Wells were poisoned and lifestock slaughtered. ‘Thus’, wrote Dukas, ‘after having crossed the Danube and advanced for seven days, Mehmet II found no man, nor any significant animal, and nothing to eat or drink.’ The Turkish chronicler Tursun Beg described how:
the front ranks of the army reported that there was not a drop of water to quench their thirst. All the carts and animals came to a halt. The heat of the sun was so great that you could cook kebabs on the mail shirts of the ghazis.
Soon the guerrilla raids began, with stragglers being either beheaded or impaled. On the night of 17 June 1462, when the Turks were well on their way to Tirgoviste (Targoviste), Vlad the Impaler launched a daring night attack on the Sultan’s camp. Chalkondylas tells us how:
At first there was a lot of terror in the camp because people thought that a new foreign army had come and attacked them. Scared out of their wits by this attack, they considered themselves to be lost as it was being made using torchlight and the sounding of horns to indicate the place to assault.
When Vlad launched a surprise night attack with 7,000 to 10,000 cavalry. The attack caused chaos in the Ottoman ranks (historians differ on the numbers killed, but many of the casualties were inflicted by confused Turkish units attacking each other). By dawn they had regrouped and pursued Vlad’s forces toward Targoviste. Thousands may have been slain, but the raid failed in its primary purpose of killing Mehmet the Conqueror himself because his loyal Janissaries rallied. The raiders were driven off and disappeared into the darkness. A few days later the Ottoman Army drew near to Tirgoviste. It had been prepared for a siege like any other medieval town, but with one unique addition. As Chalkondylas relates, Mehmet:
saw men impaled. The Emperor’s army came across a field with stakes, about two miles long and half a mile wide. And there were large stakes upon which he could see the impeded bodies of men, women and children, about 20,000 of them … There were babies clinging to their mothers on the stakes, and the birds had made nests in their breasts.
The sight of the famous ‘forest of the impaled’ persuaded Mehmet the Conqueror, a man who was well used to the horrors of war, to pull back from Tirgoviste.