Breaking into the South II


General Sherman in Atlanta Georgia.

General John Bell Hood’s first battle as commander of the Army of Tennessee was at Peach Tree Creek, north of Atlanta, where he intended to carry out Johnston’s plan to drive the Army of the Cumberland farther west so that Sherman could not concentrate his forces on Atlanta. Hood first came forward from the Peach Tree Creek position on July 20, and attacked the corps opposite, commanded by Hooker, which had crossed the creek on pontoon bridges. A bitter battle ensued, lasting five hours. The Confederates were driven back, leaving in the fields their dead and wounded, 4,796 altogether, to the Union loss of 1,710. Throughout the Atlanta campaign Confederate losses were to be much heavier than the Union’s, a grievous disadvantage for the Confederacy, which could afford the losses much less. Hood fell back into his lines around Atlanta. Sherman closed up, and Hood, leaving half his force to defend the city, led the other half, under the cover of darkness, in a long, circuitous march through woodland, round Sherman’s left flank. This led to what Sherman called “the hardest battle of the campaign.”

The outer line of Atlanta’s defences had now been reached. As Grant recalled:

We feigned to the right, but crossed the Chattahoochee by the left, and soon confronted our enemy behind his first line of entrenchments at Peach Tree Creek, prepared in advance for this very occasion. At this critical moment, the Confederate Government rendered us most valuable service. Being dissatisfied with the Fabian policy of General Johnston, it relieved him and General Hood was substituted to command the Confederate army (near Atlanta), July 18. Hood was known to us to be a “fighter,” a graduate of West Point of the class of 1853, No. 44 (in the order of merit), of which class two of my army commanders, McPherson and Schofield were No. 1 and No. 7. The character of a leader is a large factor in the game of war, and I confess, I was pleased at this change, of which I had early notice. I know that I had an army superior in numbers and morale to that of my antagonist; but being so far from my base and operating in a country devoid of food and forage, I was dependent on a poorly constructed railroad, back to Louisville, five hundred miles. I was willing to meet the enemy in open country, but not behind weak constructed parapets.

Grant may have been exaggerating the value of the change of command. Johnston was not as averse to fighting as he made out, while Hood was a doughtier and cleverer opponent. He would not allow Atlanta to fall easily into Sherman’s hands.

The battle of Atlanta began on July 22, when, believing that Hood had abandoned the city, the Army of the Tennessee advanced to the lines of earthworks the Confederate defenders had dug. At first they settled down, intending to harass the earthworks, to use them for their purposes, when in early afternoon Confederates appeared in large numbers and began to attack them. Hood had planned a complex offensive, sending part of his force to make a long flank march to take the enemy in the rear. The fighting soon became intense, as some of the Union troops found themselves attacked on three sides. Casualties quickly rose high, but the Union forces held their ground, greatly assisted by the presence in their ranks of two regiments of Illinois sharpshooters who had purchased, at their own expense, the Henry sixteen-shot breech-loading rifle. These two regiments inflicted terrible casualties on the Confederates they encountered, at a much smaller cost to themselves. The Confederates lost control of three of the four railroads leading into the city and suffered 8,499 casualties, to 3,641 on the Union side. Among the Union dead was General McPherson, who rode into Confederate lines whilst on reconnaissance, was called upon to surrender, but, tipping his hat to the enemy, turned his horse and was shot and killed as he rode away. His loss was deeply regretted by Sherman, who valued him highly. He was replaced temporarily by General John A. Logan, an Illinois congressman much valued by Lincoln as a political ally. He made an unforgettable impression on the battlefield, where he was temperamentally at home. Black-haired, with fiery eyes, he led by example, waving his sword overhead and shouting encouragement to his soldiers from the back of his warhorse. Unlike other notable mounts which had unmilitary names, such as Lee’s Traveller and Jackson’s Little Sorrell, Logan’s was appropriately called Slasher. Command of the Army of the Tennessee was later given to General Oliver Howard.

In the later afternoon, Hood’s men renewed their attack on the Union’s advance lines in great force and with high ferocity. The fighting became very confused, with the Union jumping from one side to the other of the entrenchments that crisscrossed the battlefield, some Confederate, some Union. Hood’s attack shook the Union lines, opening a wide gap which threatened to collapse Sherman’s army. In this crisis, Logan, who had observed the disaster from a vantage point, turned his horse and galloped to intervene, leading a large reinforcement. As he approached the Union lines a cry of “Black Jack! Black Jack!” sped through the ranks. Inspired by Logan’s arrival, and strengthened by the reinforcements he brought, the Union troops recaptured several guns the enemy had taken and turned them round against the attackers, who were quickly driven into retreat. During the fighting the Union forces were able to retrieve McPherson’s body, sending a special detachment to do so. They also, at one stage of the fighting for the trenches, retrieved McPherson’s hat, binoculars, and documents from Confederate prisoners who had taken them. At about six o’clock, with darkness drawing in, the battle of Atlanta reached its climax, leaving the field, littered with the dead and wounded, in Union hands. Sherman had scored a victory, though one of the most costly and hard-fought of his career as a general.

Sherman’s troops now surrounded Atlanta, though they just failed to cut it off from contact with the outside world. A battle fought at Ezra Church on July 28 was again disproportionately costly to the Confederates, who lost 4,632 to the Union’s 700, but it left them still protecting Atlanta from capture. Thereafter Hood contented himself with holding Atlanta’s earthworks, and accepting siege, which was to last the whole of August.

Sherman spent August manoeuvring around the Atlanta defences with the object of severing the city’s last railroad communications with Alabama. He also sent a large cavalry force, under General George Stoneman, on a raid to liberate the Andersonville prison camp. The raid was badly conducted, however, with the result that it not only failed but that Stoneman and 700 of his men themselves were taken prisoner and interned at Andersonville. Andersonville, a principal Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, had already become notorious in the North because of the very high death rate among its inmates. The prison camps of both sides had high death rates because they were vectors of disease. Disease at Andersonville was enhanced by malnutrition, though perhaps also by mismanagement. The commandant of Andersonville, Captain Heinrich Hartmann Wirtz, a native of Switzerland, was tried and executed on criminal charges after the war. He may have been overwhelmed by circumstances, but not even the most dedicated Confederates have ever tried to argue that he was unfairly treated.

Hood was so encouraged by the Union failure that he sent his 4,000 cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler on a raid of his own against Sherman’s principal supply link, the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Its apparent success led him wrongly to conclude that Sherman was giving up the siege of Atlanta. In fact the Union, which had gone off Hood’s map, had placed themselves astride the railroad to Macon and thus cut off Atlanta from the outside world. During September 1-2, Hood therefore withdrew from Atlanta, correctly recognising that it could no longer be defended. Sherman telegraphed Lincoln on September 3: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”

The sensation aroused in both North and South by the fall of Atlanta reinforced the equal sensation caused by the Union victory at Mobile Bay on August 5. Both Grant and Sherman had long sought to capture Mobile, as a means of opening up a local campaign in Alabama. When Mobile’s fall came, it was as a result of a naval, not a land, battle. Mobile in August 1864 was one of the last active naval bases and blockade-running centres still open to the South, and home to some of the Confederate navy’s most powerful ships, including the ironclad Tennessee. Admiral David Farragut commanded a sizable fleet in the Gulf, and in early August led it into Mobile Bay with the aim of destroying the forts and the Confederate fleet they protected. The anchorage was defended by belts of what were then called torpedoes and today would be called mines, barrels filled with gunpowder to be detonated by fulminate of mercury contact fuses. The Union’s eighteen vessels, some ironclad, most wooden, advanced in pairs, lashed together, starting out early in the morning of August 6. They were brought under fire both by Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, and by the Confederate fleet. Farragut had climbed the mainmast of his flagship, the USS Hartford, where the quartermaster had lashed him to the rigging. When the danger of the mines became apparent, Farragut uttered what were to become immortal words: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” A lively gun duel then opened up, causing heavy casualties on the Union ships. One Union seaman lost both legs to a conical shot, then throwing up his arms in agony, lost both arms to another. The Tennessee, which boldly took on the entire Union fleet single-handed, attempting to sink her enemies by ramming, made herself the target of its combined gunnery and had her rudder chains shot away as a result. Not answering her helm, she was surrendered under a white flag by her captain, and with her capitulation the rest of the Confederate ships gave up the fight. The Union troops in the vicinity then came up and secured the surrender of the forts, though the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands until April 12, 1865.

The victories of Atlanta and Mobile had a crucial effect on the impending presidential election campaign of 1864. Both parties had already chosen their candidates; the Republicans, known for purposes of the election as the Union Party, had nominated Abraham Lincoln at Baltimore in June; the Democrats were running George McClellan. Frémont, the “Pathfinder,” offered himself as a third-party candidate, tepidly opposed to the war, but made no showing and soon withdrew. McClellan, who had fought to preserve the Union without crushing the South, was identified as an anti-war candidate, though he wisely restored his pro-war position, saying that the sacrifices his comrades in arms had made could not be set aside for electoral purposes. During the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago, proceedings had been disturbed by the intervention of the long-term anti-war campaigner and troublemaker Clement Vallandigham, whose position was dramatised, though he did not deliberately encourage it, by an anti-war conspiracy based in Canada; arms were collected, and there were even some minor attempts at arson in New York and elsewhere, but the conspiracy failed to take fire. It was too blatantly pro-rebellion to win support among the partisans of peace. Nevertheless, at Niagara Falls, emissaries from Richmond hoped to manoeuvre the president into discussing familiar conditions for peace, including recognition, independence, and the continuation of slavery, but Lincoln issued a letter restating his inflexible commitment to restoration of the Union and abolition. At the same time the Republican Party weakly agreed to send its own peace mission to Richmond, with a letter from Lincoln offering peace upon the basis of the Constitution; Lincoln, however, recognised the pitfall, since the Constitution accepted slavery, and at the last moment declined to be caught. Nevertheless, he was, on the eve of the election, wholly uncertain of re-election, apparently believing that McClellan would win and that his last public duty would be to negotiate a way out of the war which would not compromise the Union.


The original US nuclear-war plans were prepared at a time when bombers predominated, atomic bombs were in very short supply, and there was a lack of co-ordination of plans. The 1947 plan concentrated on destroying the war-making capability of the Soviet Union through attacks on government, political and administrative centres, urban–industrial areas and fuel-supply facilities. It was to have been achieved by dropping 133 atomic bombs on seventy Soviet cities in thirty days, including eight on Moscow and seven on Leningrad. This plan was ambitious, to say the least, primarily because the USA possessed a total of only thirteen atomic bombs in 1947 and fifty in 1948.

In May 1949 a new plan, named Trojan, required 150 atomic bombs, with a first-phase attack against thirty cities during a period of fourteen days. Then, also in 1949, came another plan, named Dropshot, in which a war in 1957 would be centred on a thirty-day programme in which 300 atomic bombs and 20,000 tonnes of conventional bombs would be dropped on about 200 targets, with the atomic bombs being used against a mix of military, industrial and civil targets, including Moscow and Leningrad.

All these plans included substantial quantities of conventional bombs and were essentially continuations of Second World War strategies. Interestingly, even as early as 1949, planners were earmarking command centres for exemption from early strikes (‘withholds’ in nuclear parlance), so that the Soviet leadership could continue to exercise control.

Up to about 1956 the US authorities based their plans on intelligence which was far from complete and, as a result, they deliberately over-estimated their opponent’s strengths. In 1956, however, the Lockheed U-2 spy plane started to overfly the USSR, and this, coupled with more effective ELINT and SIGINT, meant that a more accurate picture was obtained.

By the early 1950s the production rate of atomic bombs had increased to the point where US field commanders – both air-force and navy – began to make plans for their use, each of them planning to use them in support of his battle. There was nothing in this situation to prevent several commanders from selecting the same target; indeed, a US Senate committee was told that in the Far East 155 targets had been listed by two commanders and 44 by three, while in Europe 121 airfields had been targeted by two commanders and 31 by three.

A first attempt at some form of co-ordination was made in a series of conferences held in the early 1950s, which achieved partial success. The situation came to a head, however, when the navy’s Polaris SLBMs and the air force’s Atlas ICBMs became operational in the early 1960s, and a Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) was established, with an air-force lieutenant-general at its head but with a naval officer as his deputy. The first outcome of the JSTPS’ work was the Comprehensive Strategic Target List (CSTL), which identified 2,021 nuclear targets in the USSR, China and their satellites, including 121 ICBM sites, 140 air-defence bases, 200 bomber bases, 218 military and political command centres, 124 other military targets, and 131 urban centres.5 This CSTL duly became an integral part of the first Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), which was produced in December 1960.

There were no alternatives in this SIOP-60, which consisted of one massive nuclear attack, and it was one of the earliest targets for reform when President Kennedy took power in January 1961. US planners were now, however, aided by virtually complete satellite coverage of the USSR, giving them information on the potential enemy never previously available (and which, among other things, made it clear that the supposed ‘missile gap’ did not exist). This resulted in SIOP-63, which consisted of five categories of counter-force option: Soviet missile sites; bomber and submarine bases; other military targets; command-and-control centres; and urban–industrial targets. This received serious criticism from three separate quarters. First, from within the USA, because of what appeared to be a first-strike strategy; second, from the USSR, which denied the possibility of controlled counter-force warfare; and, third, from NATO allies, who were very alarmed by the total absence of any urban targets (the so-called ‘no cities’ strategy).

President Kennedy’s secretary of state for defense, Robert McNamara, then developed the concept of Assured Destruction, which he described in public first as ‘one-quarter to one-third of [the Soviet Union’s] population and about two-thirds of its industrial capacity’ and later as ‘one-fifth to one-fourth of its population and one-half to two-thirds of its industrial capacity’. Whatever was said in public, however, within the US armed forces SIOP-63 was not withdrawn, and thus there appears to have been a marked divergence between the public and the internal rhetoric.

Proponents of this policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) argued that the one way to make nuclear war impossible was to make it clear that any nuclear attack would be answered by a total attack on an enemy’s population, together with its industrial and agricultural base. While such a concept might have been valid in the early days of the nuclear confrontation, it rapidly lost its credibility when it became clear that, even after such a strike, the USSR would still have sufficient weapons to make a response-in-kind on US cities.

The strategy of ‘flexible response,’ introduced in 1967, required facing an opponent with a credible reaction which would to inflict losses out-weighing any potential gain. The deterrent power of such a strategy depended on the capacity of the proposed response to inflict unacceptable losses on the opponent, while its credibility depended upon its ability to minimize the risks of higher-order losses on the responder’s own country in subsequent rounds. This posed something of a dilemma, in that the deterrent power of the response was enhanced by escalation to a higher level, while credibility tended in the other direction, since a lower-level response carried no inherent escalatory risks. The plans implement this strategy were promulgated in a revised version of the SIOP which became effective on 1 January 1976.

It became customary for all incoming presidents to initiate a review of the strategic nuclear-war plans, and that carried out by President Jimmy Carter in 1977–9, was expected to result in major changes. In the event, however, it led only to a refinement of the previous plan, together with the introduction of rather more political sophistication. Thus, for example, targets were selected in the Far East, not so much for their immediate relevance to the superpower conflict, but because their destruction would make the USSR more vulnerable to attack by the People’s Republic of China.

A further review was conducted when the Reagan administration came to power in 1981. This resulted in a new version of the SIOP, which included some 40,000 potential targets, divided into Soviet nuclear forces; conventional military forces; military and political leadership command posts and communications systems; and economic and industrial targets, both war-supporting and those which would contribute to post-war economic recovery. The plan allocated these targets to a number of discrete packages, of differing size and characteristics, to provide the National Command Authority (the president and his immediate advisers) with an almost limitless range of options.

The new plan also included particular categories of target for other plans, for possible implementation on receipt of an unequivocal warning of a Soviet attack. These included a pre-emptive strike, launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack. The plan also included a number of ‘withholds’, but stipulated that a reserve of weapons must be retained for possible use against those ‘withholds’ if the developing scenario so dictated.

The real calculations of strategic nuclear war – known as ‘dynamic’ assessments – were extremely detailed and were far more complex than the static measurements. One such ‘dynamic’ calculation in the period following the Soviets’ fielding of the SS-18 resulted in an assessment that, under certain conditions, a Soviet counter-force first strike would appear to be a possibility. In this assessment it was calculated that the USSR, which normally had only about 10 per cent of its SSBN force at sea, would gradually, and covertly, increase that number, and, if the US command decided to ride out the attack, the Soviets would then destroy approximately 45 per cent of the US strategic forces. As a result, the ensuing US counter-military retaliatory strike on the Soviets (who would be on full alert) would leave the Soviets with 75 per cent of what had been left after their first strike. This meant that the USSR would retain not only a reserve capable of carrying out either an urban–industrial strike on US cities or an attack on US ‘other military targets’, but also a reserve for use against another opponent (the so-called ‘nth-country reserve’) – an outcome which would have been distinctly favourable to the Soviets. If the USA managed to launch all its ICBMs under attack, however, the damage ratio more or less reversed: 40 per cent damage to remaining Soviet forces versus 25 per cent damage to US strategic forces.

Thus, argued the US planners, a credible US launch-on-warning/launch-under-attack capability was a mandatory element of an effective deterrent. These results posed a problem encountered in numerous US war games: that neither side could enhance stability by pursuing its own best interests of a secure deterrent potential, but, conversely, neither side could unilaterally lower its deterrent. For the US to do the latter gambled on a US judgement of how the Soviets treated ‘uncertainty’ and what their perceptions of relative advantage might have been.

This whole area highlighted the decision to launch as one of the major problems associated with missiles. Launching bombers for possible nuclear missions was relatively easy, since crews were under firm instructions that they had to receive a positive (and encoded) order from the ground to continue before reaching specified waypoints, otherwise a return to base was mandatory. Missiles, on the other hand, received only one order – to take off; there was then no turning back. Thus the decision to launch the missile was much harder to make.

The Scottish Wars of Independence: 1296 – 1313


Notable figures from the first War of Independence as depicted by the Victorian artist William Hole.


  1. Inverurie (1307)
  2. Methven (1306)
  3. Pass of Brander (1307)
  4. Dalry (1306)
  5. Dupplin Moor (1332)
  6. Stirling Bridge(1297)
  7. Bannockburn (1314)
  8. Falkirk (1298)
  9. Dunbar (1296)
  10. Loudon Hill (1307)

The Wars of Independence justifiably occupy a defining place in the history of Scotland. Before embarking on a record of the events which took place during the long, dour Wars of Independence, let us first examine the condition of the country in the remaining years of the reign of Alexander III (1249 – 86). In the latter half of the thirteenth century Scotland’s population was about 500,000. The majority of the people lived and worked in the countryside, earning their daily bread from the land. However, the royal burghs which David I established in the twelfth century in the interests of trade – both domestic and overseas – had increased in number, attracting a significant percentage of the working population to settle in towns on the east coast like Berwick-upon-Tweed. Others such as Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Elgin, Inverness and Perth were not only trading with their less privileged neighbours but Europe as well; we know that by the thirteenth century, Scottish royal burghs were engaged in commerce with towns such as Lübeck and Hamburg, two of the Hanseatic League of trading ports. In the west, Ayr, Dumfries, Glasgow, Irvine and Renfrew exchanged trade with Ireland and even western England.

The country’s wealth lay chiefly in wool; the great Abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and others grew rich on the wool-clip from the vast flocks of sheep pastured not only in their own immediate vicinity of the Merse but through the Lammermuir Hills and into East Lothian. (The name Lammermuir derives from the old Celtic lamber-mohr meaning great sheep hills.) Trade in fish, timber and animal hides was also profitable and, like wool, these were exported to the Continent.

As we have seen, Alexander III had made a good marriage to Margaret, daughter of Henry III. Among the honoured guests at their wedding was a prince who would earn the epithet ‘Hammer of the Scots’ when he became Edward I (1272 – 1307). Alexander was determined to present his kingdom as a free, independent nation to the English crown, an equal partner as well as an equally important realm.

Alexander III’s marriage to Margaret of England had produced three children, two sons, Alexander and David and a daughter, Margaret, before she died in 1275. The succession seemed secure. Alexander gave his daughter Margaret in marriage to King Eric II of Norway to cement the new-found friendship between the two countries following the Norwegian debacle at the battle of Largs. However, before the wedding took place, the young Prince David died. A year later, Margaret and Eric produced their only child, a daughter named after her mother; sadly Queen Margaret died giving birth to her daughter. At least Alexander’s remaining son, Prince Alexander, was healthy; he married in 1283 and there seemed every likelihood that his marriage would produce a son and heir. However, Prince Alexander fell ill and died in January 1284.

Immediately after the death of his last male heir, Alexander convened a council at Scone to settle the succession on his granddaughter, known to Scottish history as ‘The Fair Maid of Norway’. His nobles agreed to this, albeit reluctantly, as many held the view that only a male heir should succeed to the throne. However, aged forty-three, Alexander could still produce heirs and to this end he married Yolande, the young and fertile daughter of Robert IV, Comte de Dreux, Dreux being a town near Chartres in France. It was highly likely that Yolande would give Alexander the male heir he wanted. This was not to be.

On 19 March 1286 Alexander held a council in Edinburgh Castle. It was a wild, tempestuous day, with equinoctial gales that brought sleet and hail. It was nightfall before Alexander completed consultations with his nobles. Despite the atrocious weather and against the advice of his counsellors, Alexander insisted on taking horse to join Queen Yolande at Kinghorn. While, to modern eyes, his decision seems foolhardy, we must judge Alexander on the prevailing issue uppermost in his mind – his need for a male heir.

When he reached the Firth of Forth, even the ferryman who would row him to Inverkeithing argued against the journey. Alexander was adamant and disembarked with his small retinue. When the party reached Inverkeithing the night was so dark that his companions could distinguish each other only by their voices and even their words were carried away on the fierce winds. Alexander pressed on with only two guides, trusting on the instincts of their horses to make safe passage. Just before reaching Kinghorn, Alexander’s horse stumbled in the dark and plunged over a steep cliff on to the sands below. The next morning, the King was found dead, his neck broken. When news of his death was broadcast the nation was plunged into despair.

Alexander left Scotland a prosperous and consolidated kingdom but his failure to produce a male heir to succeed him was as tragic as his untimely death. An assembly was convened at Scone on 11 April to discuss the late king’s successor. The sole legitimate descendant of Alexander, his granddaughter Margaret, ‘The Fair Maid of Norway’, an infant in a foreign country, could hardly be expected to rule the country. A regency of six lords spiritual and temporal was appointed to govern Scotland. This unhappy council faced insurmountable problems. An infant female heir was bad enough; quarrels broke out among the nobility which formed into factions and there was a band of competitors eager to profit from the Fair Maid’s death should that occur before she reached her majority, which was years away. Also, hovering in the wings was a ruthless English king who was hell-bent on annexing Scotland and making it his feudal fiefdom. Trouble came in the person of Robert the Bruce of Annandale. In 1238 Alexander II had designated him as his successor before Alexander III was born. Bruce, known in this account as Bruce the Competitor, was in advanced years but his claim to the throne would be supported by his son Robert, known as Bruce the Elder and his grandson, also Robert, known as Bruce the Younger until he became King Robert the Bruce in 1306.

It was in the year 1289 that events began to develop at an ever-increasing pace. In that year Eric II of Norway sent commissioners to England concerning the affairs of his daughter, the Fair Maid and lawful heir to the throne of Scotland. Eric was hardly in a position to act independently of the council of six guardians appointed to rule Scotland during his daughter’s minority. That council was comprised of two clergymen, William Fraser, Bishop of St Andrews and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, Alexander Comyn, 2nd Earl of Buchan, Duncan MacDuff, Earl of Fife and two barons, John Comyn, 2nd Lord of Badenoch and James the Steward. Together, the six represented the major political parties – the Bruce/Stewart and the Comyn/Balliol factions. (John Balliol, Lord of Galloway had family ties with the Comyns in the north as his sister had married into the Comyn family.)

At the request of Edward I and apparently with the unanimous agreement of the six guardians, four commissioners from Scotland were sent to England to support King Eric of Norway’s claim on behalf of his daughter as rightful queen of Scotland. Three of the commissioners were guardians – Wishart, Fraser and Comyn, 2nd Lord of Badenoch; the fourth was Bruce the Competitor. These commissioners were charged with the task of assenting to whatever King Eric of Norway’s representatives proposed. The resulting treaty did not mince matters; the Scots would receive their young queen only on condition that order would be established in the country and that the council of guardians were to be no more than in nominal command and appointed by Edward I. A further condition was that the young queen could not be married without the consent of her father, advised by Edward. One does not have to be a genius to understand the motives behind these conditions; Edward had his mind set on the subjugation of Scotland and expected her monarch – whoever that would be – to pay homage to him as Scotland’s feudal superior.

Edward I had already decided that the Fair Maid of Norway should marry none other than his son Edward of Caernarfon. Edward submitted no formal overture to the Scottish Council of Guardians, nor to Eric of Norway but by 1290 his intentions became known to the Scots. In March 1290 the Scottish parliament met at Brigham-on-Tweed; it was attended by Scotland’s nobles, clergy and the Community of the Realm. The parliament engrossed a charter signed by twelve earls giving their consent to the marriage of the Fair Maid of Norway to Edward’s son, the future Edward II. This decision was relayed to Eric of Norway and Edward I, both of whom accepted it; a ‘Solemn Treaty’ between the Scottish parliament and Edward’s commissioners was drawn up at Brigham-on-Tweed on 18 July 1290 ratifying the proposed marriage while preserving Scotland’s sovereignty. The treaty also stipulated that no vassal of the Scottish crown would be required to pay homage for their Scottish lands to Edward I; further, Scotland’s laws, rights and ancient liberties would continue entire and inviolate. Eric of Norway was also required to send the Fair Maid of Norway to England at the earliest possible moment.

The Treaty of Brigham was a compromise which Edward I exploited to his fullest advantage. On the surface, his initial reaction seemed favourable; he even took an oath to defend the laws of Scotland, appointing Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham to reinforce his oath in Scotland and to protect the Fair Maid’s interests – meaning his own. This was a cynical move on Edward’s part; Bek’s presence in the Scottish Council of Guardians can be interpreted in only one way; he was thus able to monitor the Council’s activities. Emboldened by this, Edward next demanded that all the main strongholds in Scotland should be surrendered into his hands, a demand the Scots resolutely opposed. Edward apparently took the rebuff in good part – for the moment.

Then, as if the Scots had not suffered enough with the death of their King, a further calamity threw the realm into panic and despair. In the month of September 1290 the Fair Maid set sail from Norway for England and her wedding; tragically, she died at Orkney in October. The Maid’s death denied Edward the special position he had engineered to interfere in Scotland’s constitutional and domestic affairs; however, his hopes were boosted by assistance from an unexpected quarter. On 7 October 1290 William Fraser, Bishop of St Andrews wrote to him, describing the parlous state of the kingdom and claimed that it was poised on the brink of civil war, with factions of Scottish nobles quarrelling with each other. Matters concerning the succession to the throne had come to a head with the rival claims for kingship by Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol. Fraser urged Edward to intervene in the dispute to avoid bloodshed. Edward grasped this opportunity with unconcealed glee. He responded by inviting the Scottish nobles and clergy to meet him at Norham-on-Tweed on 10 May 1291. (Norham Castle was the fortified home of Bishop Bek.) At the outset of the proceedings, Edward described himself as Superior and Lord Paramount of Scotland and that he saw his role as settling the affairs of the country. The Scottish Guardians, nobility and clergy were stunned by his audacity but they had little choice other than to submit to Edward’s demands in the interests of settling the succession question. This became known as ‘The Great Cause’ – the bid to decide the rightful heir to the Scottish throne, with Edward I as judge and jury. Thirteen claimants submitted their petitions, Bruce the Competitor coming first, John Balliol last.

Events had reached a watershed in the spring of 1291. The Scottish Guardians agreed to meet Edward at Norham on 10 May. Edward demanded they acknowledge his rights as feudal superior over Scotland; he gave the Scots three weeks to prepare their reply. The Guardians responded in courteous and diplomatic terms but were unequivocal in one respect. The Guardians informed Edward they had no knowledge of any document confirming his right to claim superiority over Scotland:

Nor did they [the Guardians] ever see it claimed by you and your ancestors, therefore they answer you as far as in them lies, that they have no power to reply to your statement in default of a Lord to whom that demand ought to be addressed and who will have power to answer to it.

On 5 June Edward appointed 140 commissioners to examine the claims of the thirteen competitors – forty each for Bruce and Balliol and sixty for the other eleven. On 6 and 11 June nine competitors solemnly swore that saisin (ownership) of Scotland and its royal castles be surrendered to Edward who by then had promised to announce his decision on the succession by 2 August.

Shabby though the events of June 1291 appear to modern eyes, they were necessary and inevitable. There was not a single direct or legitimate – in terms of birth – survivor from the last three generations of Scottish kings; many of the thirteen claimants were foreign, remote, their claims based on extremely shaky and tenuous grounds. Only four, all descended from Henry, son of David I, had anything approaching a legitimate claim. Of these, Edward himself acknowledged that only Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol had strong claims – hence the appointment of forty auditors each to investigate their merits. Bruce had the claim of nearness of degree, whereas Balliol enjoyed the prerogative of seniority of line.

So, as mentioned above, the demeaning ‘negotiations’ of June 1291 must be viewed in the context of their time. In Scotland, a system of government had collapsed; underlying this were the serious divisions between the nobility and the senior clergymen as to whom should rule the country. Without a king the feudal system could not operate effectively and decisively. Edward I, self-confessed champion of the code of chivalry and feudal law – when these suited his purpose – was a devious and cunning ruler who would brook no challenge to his authority and was devoid of any genuine compassion for a country he knew to be prostrated at his feet. All he had to do was to summon his scribes and dictate terms in the full knowledge that the Scottish magnates could hardly refuse his demands, even if they wanted to.

The way seemed clear for Edward’s decision but he stalled, rubbing salt into already smarting wounds on 13 June 1291 at Uppsettlington, a small hamlet on the north bank of the Tweed (now known as Ladykirk, which has a certain ring of irony in its name). It was there that the Scottish Guardians and other nobles were required to swear fealty to Edward. Among the twenty-seven signatories were the Bruces of Annandale (Robert the Competitor and Bruce the Elder), Balliol, Atholl, Mar, Randolph, Comyn of Badenoch, two de Umfravilles and Stewart of Menteith.

Gradually the thirteen contenders were reduced to two – Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol. Under modern Scottish law, Bruce’s claim was the stronger as he was closer to the throne through his mother Isabella, daughter of William I’s brother, David of Huntingdon. However, under feudal law, John Balliol’s claim took precedence; although he was the great-grandson of Isabella’s sister Margaret, the latter was senior which gave him the edge on Bruce. Bruce argued against Balliol’s claim, declaring it to be weaker than his own since it was based on Balliol’s mother Dervorgilla’s relationship to the royal line whereas Bruce’s claim was based on his father’s marriage to Isabella. He was also at pains to remind Edward’s auditors that he had been named as Alexander II’s heir in 1238. Bruce’s appeals were dismissed out of hand. Edward chose Balliol for legal and political reasons; in Bruce the Competitor, Edward saw a man who would be less compliant than the weak John Balliol. To his credit Bruce the Competitor accepted Edward’s judgement; on 7 November 1291 he quietly transferred his claim to the throne to his son, Bruce the Elder and his heirs. Two days later Bruce the Elder gave his earldom of Carrick to his son Bruce the Younger, then aged eighteen. It was clear that the two senior Bruces saw the younger Bruce as potential ruler of Scotland. By 1310 the propaganda of the Bruce cause would assert that the patriotic people of Scotland had always believed that Bruce the Competitor had had the rightful and legal claim to the throne of Scotland and that his grandson, Robert the Bruce, had inherited the right to be king.

Balliol, that unhappy king, was crowned at Scone on St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1292. He would be the last king of Scotland to be crowned on the Stone of Destiny which would be appropriated by Edward I in 1296.

From the outset Balliol was nothing more than a vassal of the King of England, bending his knee to his feudal superior Edward I at every turn. At Newcastle, on 26 December 1292, Balliol swore fealty to Edward, addressing him as ‘Lord Superior of the Realm of Scotland’. Bruce the Competitor withdrew from what he considered an ignominious and shameful ceremony; he died in 1295, never having sworn allegiance to Edward.

Edward’s true intentions towards Scotland soon became apparent. In 1294 he summoned the English parliament to advise and provide funds for a contemplated expedition into his fiefdom of Gascony, English interests there being managed by Philip IV of France. Edward summoned Balliol to his side and on 29 June ordered the Scottish king and ten of his earls and fourteen barons who possessed lands in England to reinforce him in his expedition. Balliol returned to Scotland to raise money and troops for the forthcoming campaign; he found his nobles and subjects in no mood to defer to Edward’s demands. A defiant council held at Scone agreed that all English subjects were to be expelled from the Scottish court, their Scottish estates being forfeited to the Crown. Edward had other problems to preoccupy him; in addition to his proposed French campaign, a rebellion in Wales had to be subdued and so the expedition to Gascony was postponed. Angered by Balliol’s intransigence, Edward demanded reparation; Balliol protested his loyalty and, by way of appeasing the English King, offered the castles of Roxburgh, Berwick and Jedburgh to the Bishop of Carlisle. It was an empty gesture. By now the Scottish nobles were in despair of their weak King.

On 5 July 1295 the Scottish parliament effectively removed the reins of power from the lacklustre Balliol’s hands. A council, or Standing Committee of twelve magnates – four earls, four barons and four bishops – was appointed to govern the country. Earlier that year Philip IV of France had appealed to the Scots to enter – or renew – an alliance with France against England. The Council of Twelve ratified this, the Treaty of Paris pledging mutual support against England; this formal treaty became known as the Auld Alliance. The treaty was signed by Balliol and Philip IV, ‘Le Bel’, and kept secret from Edward; ratified by the Scottish parliament on 23 October 1295, the alliance would remain in place for over three centuries.

Meanwhile, events in Scotland were proceeding at a pace with a wapinshaw (a medieval muster of able-bodied men) being called in February 1296. Parliament issued a summons for war, an order which Bruce the Elder, de Umfraville of Angus and the Earl of Dunbar studiously ignored; Balliol’s reaction was to declare their estates forfeit to the Crown. The three nobles were hardly troubled; they had sworn allegiance to Edward I and knew he would restore their lands. Edward retaliated to Scotland’s declaration of war by issuing writs for the seizure of all English estates owned by those Scottish nobles who refused to join him against Balliol. Perhaps because Scottish morale was low, more than eighty Scottish nobles met Edward at Wark Castle, Northumberland, to pay homage to him. Among those present were Bruce the Elder, de Umfraville and Dunbar who swore they would serve him

well and loyally against all mortal men, on every occasion we are so required or instructed by our lord the king of England and his heirs …

Even so, there was no mass exodus of the patriotic nobles to France; instead, the common army and the feudal host gathered at the traditional mustering-point at Caddonlee, near Selkirk, on 11 March 1296. An invasion force was organized and led by John ‘the Black’ Comyn, 2nd Lord of Badenoch, his son, John ‘the Red’ Comyn and Badenoch’s cousin, John Comyn, 3rd Earl of Buchan. The expedition entered Cumberland; apart from an orgy of looting and plundering, the raid was inconclusive, although for a single day, the Scots besieged Carlisle Castle held by Bruce the Elder for Edward. Edward would wreak a terrible revenge for this insult. In the spring of 1296 the English army numbered 4,000 heavy cavalry and 25,000 infantry, many of whom were veterans of Edward’s Welsh campaigns. By contrast, the Scottish host was inexperienced, having seen no action in the field since Largs in 1263; it contained few archers and only light cavalry which were scant in number. As for the 40,000 infantry, many were old men and boys, armed with mere farm tools for weapons.

While the Scottish host was attacking Carlisle, Edward’s army had mustered at Newcastle and now confronted Berwick, one of the earliest of the Scottish royal burghs. Crossing the Tweed at Coldstream, Edward exacted a terrible price from the people of Berwick on 30 March 1296, offering no quarter. The siege of Berwick lasted three hours, the sack of the town three days. Between 7,000 and 8,000 were put to the sword; only thirty Flemish merchants occupying the town’s Red Hall put up any resistance but they were slaughtered to a man. Comyn of Badenoch (the Black Comyn) had retreated over the Border after the unsuccessful siege of Carlisle, then he re-crossed the Tweed on 1 April, leading an inconclusive raid in Northumberland. Balliol’s sole response to the sack of Berwick was to withdraw his diffidato (the feudal term for homage) to Edward; this was delivered by the Abbot of Arbroath to the English king in Berwick on 5 April.

War had broken out suddenly and brutally. The populations of the Merse (Berwickshire) and East Lothian were panic-stricken, even if their feudal superior, Patrick, 8th Earl of Dunbar had sworn allegiance to Edward. The knight-tenants who owed homage to Dunbar were obliged – and probably glad – to do so as their lands would hopefully escape the retribution Edward had wrought on Berwick. Then, on 23 April, news reached the English king at Berwick that the Scottish host had laid siege to Dunbar Castle. Edward lost no time in meeting the challenge.

Qing and Opium Wars I


China specialists Peter Perdue and Frederic Wakeman have both suggested, in separate publications, that the Qing were, in a way, victims of their own success. The period of Qing conquest, consolidation, and expansion had been exceedingly violent, with devastating wars that wracked East and Central Asia and corresponded with a significant decrease in China’s population. But once the Qing had established its dominance, expanding China’s borders to their largest extent in history, it remained virtually unchallenged until the mid-nineteenth century. In those generations of relative peace, 1760 to 1839, military leaders in China had little need to focus on innovation or incorporate new methods and technologies from beyond East Asia. Korea and Japan were also generally at peace during this period. East Asians had access to the new technologies and techniques of war that were being forged on the other side of Eurasia, but they had few incentives to adopt or incorporate them on a significant scale.

The resulting military gap became clear to observers before the Opium War. In 1836, an anonymous British correspondent prepared a report about China’s military strength and concluded that if the art of war was the most “infallible criterion of the civilization and advancement of societies,” then China was in the lowest state of civilization. Its gunpowder was coarse, uneven, and liable to spoil. Its cannons were old-fashioned, with uneven bores and primitive carriages, “mere blocks of wood, or solid beds on which the gun is lashed down with rattans, so that it must be impossible to fire any but point blank shots, and very difficult to direct the gun to an object, except that immediately in front of the embrasure whence fired.” For firearms it had only “ill-made” matchlock muskets and no flintlocks, pistols, or any of the other “tribes of fire-arm.” In fact, he observed, China’s soldiers still relied heavily on the bow and arrow, which, given how poor the rest of their weapons were, was “the most efficient of their arms.”

Chinese defenses were, the reporter noted, mere “samples of fortification in its infant state; without fosses, bastions, glacis, or counter defences of any kind; being, in fact, but such lines as the engineers of a disciplined army would throw up, as temporary defences and to cover their guns, in the course of a single night.” Chinese naval vessels were so laughable that they were “beyond the power of description or ridicule to portray.” Indeed, the correspondent wrote, he wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of New Zealand war canoes wouldn’t outmatch the entire Chinese navy. (Charles Dickens would later describe a Chinese junk, which he saw at the Crystal Palace in 1848, as a “ridiculous abortion.”)

But it wasn’t just technology and engineering that the Chinese lacked. The reporter discerned a marked deficiency in military readiness. When garrison troops in Guangzhou mustered for duty, he wrote, they

come in, one by one, undressed, unarmed, unprepared, and half asleep; while piles of brown felt caps, and heaps of shabby looking red and yellow long jackets, bearing the character “courage” … are brought through the gates, for the adornment of the heroes of the hour; by and bye, straggles in an officer, generally the largest sized man that can be found; some bows, sheaves of arrows, and rusty swords, make up the warlike show; evidently got up for the nonce to astonish and awe “the barbarians,” who might, did they please, be in the governor’s harem before the guard could awake from their slumbers.

On occasion European travelers had observed that Chinese swords were so rusty that the soldiers could scarcely draw them.

At the end of his report, the correspondent expressed surprise himself at the extent of China’s military backwardness. “We have now gone through the subject which we sat down to discuss, and although we were well aware that the military force of the Chinese empire was much overrated, we rise astonished at the weakness, the utter imbecility.… It seems indeed strange that the whole fabric does not fall asunder of itself. Of this we are convinced; that, at the first vigorous and well directed blow from a foreign power, it will totter to its base.”

He was wrong about how much the Qing would totter, but modern research corroborates his views about Qing military capacity. Historians Liu Hongliang and Zhang Jianxiong have conducted an exhaustive and detailed comparison of Chinese and European guns circa 1840 and conclude, “At the time of the Opium War, the difference between British and Chinese cannon technology and capacity is an objective fact.… The British military had made innovations and improvements in all aspects—design, ammunition, powder technology, firing mechanisms, and especially in the quality of the iron, the production, the finishing and other such key technologies—such that their cannons’ range, speed of firing, accuracy, and lethality were superior to Qing cannons.” The Qing had not made such improvements. As Liu Hongliang notes in a different work, “At the time of the Opium War, the Qing military’s front-loading cannon form was the same type as that of seventeenth century Europe, and … the design hadn’t seen any kind of change.” Qing cannons were heavier, clumsier, slower to load and fire, and far less efficient in terms of powder use. Indeed, many of the cannons deployed in coastal forts were actually forged or cast in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. To be sure there were local exceptions. Artisans in coastal regions—particularly in Guangdong Province—could produce more up-to-date ordnance based on Western models, but they were still not as effective as the advanced guns of Britain, and in any case they were outliers.

Modern research also shows that Qing infantry forces were also backward. Liu and Zhang note that troops “were equipped with sixty or seventy percent traditional weapons, of which the most important were the long lance, the side sword, the bow and arrow, and the rattan shield, and only thirty or forty percent [of their armament consisted of] gunpowder weapons, of which the most important were the matchlock musket, the heavy musket, the cannon, the fire arrow, and the earth-shaking bomb and such things.” The Qing matchlock musket was constructed according to a design that hadn’t changed much since the seventeenth century. (It’s interesting to note that Qing armies weren’t the only non-European forces clinging to matchlocks. They were still in use in the Levant and Iran, for example.)

European armies had long since switched to flintlocks, and the British were undergoing a transition to percussion cap muskets, which required no externally applied sparks at all. In contrast, the Qing matchlock guns were slow, unwieldy, and dangerous, as British observers noted with empathy and derision. “Every soldier,” wrote naval officer William Hutcheon Hall, “has to carry a match or port fire to ignite the powder in the matchlock when loaded. Hence, when a poor fellow is wounded and falls, the powder, which is very apt to run out of his pouch over his clothes, is very likely to be ignited by his own match, and in this way he may either be blown up at once, or else his clothes may be ignited; … it is therefore not surprising that they should regard the matchlock with some little apprehension.”

Many Qing soldiers preferred to fight the British with bow and arrow, a matchup that did not usually end well, as this same William Hutcheon Hall found to his good fortune. One of Hall’s subordinates records how a Chinese officer, “with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer: the aim was unerring, and he fell.” Someone tried to rescue the fallen Qing officer, “for his coolness and courage,” but the attempt failed because “in the heat of an engagement it is impossible to control every man.”

Historians have suggested that Manchu leaders privileged the bow because of its traditional role in Manchu culture. Indeed, Manchu banner forces devoted more time to archery practice than to firearms practice. Moreover, the Manchu court at times actively suppressed firearms, reserving them for hunting and prohibiting their use by fishing boats and coastal vessels. Firearms were even restricted within the military itself, as when Qing leaders at times tried to prevent Han Chinese divisions from using the most powerful types of handguns, reserving them for Manchu units. Similarly, provincial officials were sometimes even discouraged from arming local militias with firearms, fearing that those militias might rebel. In 1778, for example, the Qianlong Emperor severely rebuked the governor of Shandong Province for training militia forces in firearms. Another provincial official was instructed to take his militia units’ muskets, “and exchange them for bows and arrows.” This sort of suppression was only possible because the Qing Pax was so complete, just as in Japan the Great Tokugawa Peace supposedly made it possible to “give up the gun.” The Qing didn’t give up the gun, of course, and we mustn’t exaggerate the suppression of firearms. Indeed, sometimes Qing officials actively stimulated firearms use, as for example in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi Emperor encouraged the casting of Western-style cannons to combat pirates.

Yet the problem for the Qing wasn’t just antiquated weapons; its forces also suffered from ineffective drill. Historians have found that by the early nineteenth century, China’s once vibrant tradition of drill had withered, becoming “highly formalized and ritualistic, with little attention given to practical problems of warfare.” In Beijing’s banner armies, for instance, it seems that musketeers drilled only five times a month, and although they did perform volley fire maneuvers, their exercises were, according to an American observer named Emory Upton, “mere burlesque of infantry drill.”

Upton describes how twelve hundred musketeers formed themselves into a dense column and awaited a signal from their officers, who were not even on the training field but sat under tents to the side. When the signal was given, the troops arranged themselves into lines, but “there was no order, nor step; the men marched in twos, threes, and fours, toward the line, laughing, talking, and firing their pieces in the air.” They shot and then, to the clamor of gongs, drums, and cymbals, faced to the rear and shot again. This was repeated by another unit, with heavy matchlocks, and then the drill was over and the men, “individually and in squads, wandered back to the city.” Emory Upton’s description is from 1877, by which time some forces in China had improved drilling techniques, adopting Western practices and revivifying those of the past (Qi Jiguang’s drilling manuals were an inspiration), but Upton’s account is just one of many that indicates the feebleness of Chinese drill in the nineteenth century. By the eve of the Opium War, drilling standards had fallen well below those of the early Qing, even as European drilling patterns had altered to suit the more effective weapons being produced in the West.

Qing military readiness on the eve of the Opium War can be summed up in an image from our anonymous British writer of 1836: a sword so rusty it couldn’t be removed from the scabbard. The Europeans, of course, hadn’t had the luxury of such tranquility and order. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period of the Great Qing Peace, Europeans had continued fighting each other. Their eighteenth century wasn’t as warlike as their seventeenth, but conflagrations regularly rocked the subcontinent—the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), and, most devastating of all, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), which convulsed Europe from Madrid to Moscow and provided a massive stimulus for European warcraft.

This warfare spurred rapid and continuing improvement in gunpowder and associated technologies, but geopolitical friction wasn’t the only underpinning of Europe’s Great Military Divergence. Equally important was a strong tradition of experimental science, whose roots lay firmly in the seventeenth century.

Qing and Opium Wars II


HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth confront Chinese war junks at Chuenpee, 3 November 1839.


The British repulse the Chinese advance in the city.

Today many prominent historians downplay the role of science in the rise of the West, and the topic has aroused considerable discussion. As usual most of this debate has focused on economic history, and it’s been hard for either side to sway the other, largely because the links between science and economic growth are difficult to pin down for the period when the Great Divergence was opening up, to wit the 1700s.

But if the links between science and eighteenth-century economies remain unclear, there’s no doubt about the links between science and the eighteenth century military divergence. European advances in gunpowder manufacture and gun design were based on discoveries from experimental science, and those advances played a key role in the British victory in the Opium War.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, people did not understand some very basic things about guns and gunpowder. What was the precise relationship between the amount of gunpowder used, the shape of the barrel, and the velocity of a projectile of a given mass and size? How much air resistance did the projectile face once it exited the barrel, and how did that resistance affect the trajectory?

In the seventeenth century, Galileo and others had developed a theory of ballistics and put together tables to help artillerists—Galileo had even developed instruments for aiming cannons, which brought him significant income. Over the ensuing generations, others had refined these tables and instruments, but by the mid-eighteenth century these tools were still inaccurate, useful for a limited range and only in certain conditions.

In order to develop more effective models one needed to know how fast projectiles came out of guns. It wasn’t an easy problem. Enter Benjamin Robins (1707–1751). A disciple of Isaac Newton, Robins developed an instrument that transformed the science of guns: the ballistic pendulum. It was a tripod the height of a tall man with a heavy pendulum hanging down from it. On the pendulum was affixed a target. The experiment started with the pendulum at rest. When struck by a projectile, the pendulum swung upward. By measuring how high it went one could determine the projectile’s momentum, and using Newtonian models one could calculate its velocity.

The ballistics pendulum revolutionized gunnery. The most exciting findings had to do with the effect of air pressure on projectiles. Galileo had dismissed the effects of air pressure in his work on ballistics, and Newton, too, underestimated it, or, rather, expected that its effects were linear at increasing speeds. But Robins showed that air resistance was incredibly significant. Whereas then-current models predicted that a twenty-four-pound cannonball should, at the muzzle velocity Robins had measured, fly sixteen miles, in actuality it flew only three. Air resistance was thus much higher than expected. Even more surprising was the nonlinearity of the results. The higher the muzzle velocity, the greater the effect, with extreme drag as you approached the speed of sound. His research thus revealed a hitherto invisible threshold: the speed of sound, at which air resistance increased greatly. No one could have predicted this phenomenon. Only careful experiment could have revealed it.

Robins’s slim book, New Principles of Gunnery, was translated and emulated. The great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) produced a German edition with the support of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, converting Robins’s hundred fifty pages into more than seven hundred and providing even more complex equations, which took into account such factors as the rate of the gunpowder reaction itself (Robins had postulated an instantaneous expansion of gas) and the effects on barrel pressure of the gas that inevitably blew through the touchhole or past the projectile.49 The result was a set of equations of unprecedented efficacy, which were quickly adopted by artillerists to compute new ballistics tables. Robins in turn responded to Euler’s work, further refining his own, and all over Europe dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists built on Robins and Euler’s models: the Irishman Patrick d’Arcy (working for France), the Piedmontese Papacino d’Antoni, the Frenchman Charles de Borda, the Englishman Charles Hutton, the Prussian Georg Friedrich Tempelhoff, the Austrian Georg Vega, and the Frenchman Jean-Louis Lombard, to name a few of the most important.

Their research programs were often sponsored by governments, and the governments were motivated by war. The War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) stimulated ballistics research in Austria, France, Britain, and, perhaps most notably, the Piedmontese state, whose leader Charles Emanuel III sought advice from Robins himself (Robins advised him to employ low muzzle velocities). During and after the war, the Piedmontese used the ballistic pendulum and other instruments to produce data that led them to develop new guns that optimized muzzle velocity. They also developed a method to estimate muzzle velocity in the field, without instruments: fire projectiles into compacted earth and compare the depths of penetration to the depths produced by a calibrated musket that fired pellets at a known muzzle velocity.

The new ballistics science revolutionized gun design. Artillerists had generally believed that faster projectiles led to greater power. But the new science indicated that air resistance was such an important variable that it made sense in many cases to lower the power of guns, to attain the lowest possible muzzle velocity necessary for one’s objectives. This meant that cannons could be made smaller relative to projectile weight.

Robins himself put the principle into practice. Working with the Royal Navy, he developed a proposal for a new gun with short barrel and thin walls, which would use smaller charges of powder to fire heavy rounds at low velocities. The Royal Navy’s adoption of the carronade in the late eighteenth century was based on these ideas. And the carronade proved enormously useful. A short, light cannon used for close range antiship combat, it was far more destructive than traditional guns of the same size. Moreover, its rate of fire was also higher because its walls were thinner and cooled quickly. In addition, it was light enough to sit on a sliding carriage that absorbed recoil, which meant that it kept its aim after each shot, whereas cannons on traditional carriages had to be wheeled back into place and re-aimed. A carronade also required fewer hands to operate.

The carronade played a major role in the Opium War from the very first battle. In early November 1839, two British sailing vessels were confronted by a Qing fleet of sixteen warjunks and thirteen fireboats guarding the river passage to Canton. HMS Volage carried twenty-six guns, of which at least eighteen were carronades, and HMS Hyacinth carried eighteen guns, of which sixteen were carronades. Taking advantage of the carronades’ quick-fire capacities, they sailed in close and shot devastating broadsides, destroying six junks and throwing the rest into flight, except for the Qing flagship, which the British decided to stop shooting after a good barrage. The Qing ships had guns, but they were older-style cannons. The two British ships sustained little damage.

The carronade played a key role in nearly all subsequent naval battles. For instance, in January 1841 it helped the British capture three fortified islands that guarded the approaches to Guangzhou. The British vessels in the battles carried far more carronades than traditional artillery: the Algerine carried ten guns, of which eight were carronades; the Conway carried twenty-eight guns, of which twenty-six were carronades; the Herald carried twenty-eight guns, of which twenty-six were carronades; and so on. The Qing defenders were overwhelmed by the fast and powerful barrages. It’s not that they lacked cannons; it’s just that theirs were old-fashioned, difficult to aim and fire (although they had managed to obtain one or two carronades). Surveying the guns captured in one fortress, for example, British naval lieutenant John Bingham wrote, “The guns were very long Chinese twelve and twenty-four pounders, with the exception of two carronades, evidently old English ship guns.” He also noted that the gun carriages were primitive: “Their carriages were of the most ordinary description, only a few of them having trucks, the others being merely beds of wood on which the guns rested.” Carronades, able to hurl massive amounts of iron at close range, in rapid succession, and with relatively little powder, were a key armament of the war.

The new ballistics science also underlay the development of new field guns, which, like the carronade, were shorter, thinner-walled, faster, and far more portable than previous models. Small field guns and related guns called howitzers transformed land battles in Europe, and, like the carronade, played key roles in the Opium War. The most striking example—and the saddest—was the Battle of Ningbo in March 1842. The British had captured Ningbo several months before, in October 1841, and the Qing were determined to take it back. After long preparations, the Manchu nobleman Yijing (1793–1853) led thousands upon thousands of Qing troops to attack from two directions at once. They scaled walls and began pouring through gates.

A British force of a hundred men, armed with muskets, four field pieces, and a howitzer, opened fire. “The slaughter,” wrote one British participant, “was quite horrible; the mangled bodies lay in huge piles, heaped one upon another; and old Peninsular officers present declared that, the breach of Badajos alone excepted, they never in a similar small space saw such a mass of slain.” (The Siege of Badajoz of 1812 was one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars.) Another account notes that “the howitzer only discontinued its fire from the impossibility of directing its shot upon a living foe, clear of the writhing and shrieking hecatomb which it had already piled up.” In the Ningbo battles, the British decisively repulsed the most important Chinese offensive in the war, losing only twenty-five men. As Scottish surgeon Duncan MacPherson noted, “the salutary effect produced by the above engagements was very evident, no further molestation being offered to us during our occupation of this city.”

Not only were the new field guns and howitzers powerful. They were also able to be transported by human beings, whereas traditional cannons of equivalent power required teams of horses or oxen. Sometimes the new guns were even pushed on wheelbarrows, “it being easier with these to transport guns over the narrow paths which intersect the paddy grounds, and which present such continual difficulties to the movement of troops through the entire cultivated districts of this country.” In many cases, the British simply made use of China’s excellent roadways. On approaching Nanjing, for example, British lieutenant John Ouchterlony noted, “the road was so broad and straight, that a field-piece could be run along it with ease until within a short distance of the gates.” For cases in which there were no good roads or paths, some pieces, like mountain howitzers, could be disassembled and the parts carried separately.

The evolution of carronades and light field pieces wasn’t of course due to science alone. A multitude of formal and informal experiments played a role, as did new methods of casting and boring. But the new science of ballistics provided the theoretical and mathematical basis, and the Chinese had no equivalent knowledge. They were unprepared for the overwhelming advantage the British had in terms of firepower.

The British also excelled in accuracy, because the new ballistics revolutionized the calculation of trajectories and times to impact. Such calculations were highly technical, requiring trigonometry and calculus, and so in the course of the eighteenth century, European states had increasingly funded military education systems focusing on the mathematics of artillery, such as the Piedmontese Royal Artillery and Military Engineering Academy (established in 1739) and, even more famously, the artillery schools of France.

Qing and Opium Wars III


Second Battle of Chuenpi. The Nemesis (right background) destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay


The Nemesis and boats of the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne, and Starling destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.


British forces advancing in Chuenpi. The storming of the forts and entrenchments of Chuenpee on 7 January 1841.

The French artillery schools, particularly the Ecole Royale d’Artillerie, were famous not just for their exacting curricula, but also because of their alumni, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. As a student, he took detailed notes on Robins and Euler, paying special attention to air resistance and the fact that Robins’s work showed one could make effective field guns by shortening barrels and decreasing weight. As a student he even conducted his own research into ballistics, writing a treatise on the use of standard cannons to fire mortar rounds. In fact, Napoleon so enjoyed his studies that he later said that if his military career hadn’t worked out he would have been content as a math professor. Some have suggested that his mathematical background may have been key to his wider success, giving him a scientific understanding of warfare. That may be overreaching, but there’s no doubt that his mastery of scientific ballistics helped him in battle. His field cannons decimated enemies in precisely the way that British field cannons would later annihilate Chinese forces.

The British refused to be outdone by the French and invested in their own military academies. An academy at Woolrich was established in 1741, to instruct “the raw and inexperienced People belonging to the Military Branch of this (Ordnance) Office, in the several parts of Mathematicks necessary to qualify them for the Service of the Artillery, and the business of Engineers.” Robins’s New Principles of Gunnery became the basis of the curriculum and was even used as a textbook.

As a result of such education, the British artillerists who fought in the Opium War were able to use ballistics models that took into account the expansion of gas in the gunpowder reaction, the loss of pressure due to the leaking of gas through touchholes and past projectiles, and the effects of wind resistance. The Qing gunners had no such resources. Renaissance ballistics models had been imported into China in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and data from the Sino-Dutch War of 1661 to 1668 suggest that Chinese artillerists were as effective as the Europeans, perhaps more so. (As the Dutch governor of Taiwan once lamented, during an artillery battle, “The enemy … is able to handle his cannon so effectively.… They put our own men to shame.”) But in the mid-eighteenth century, while Europeans were experimenting with the ballistic pendulum, the Chinese were making no significant investigations into ballistics, and this gave the British an overwhelming advantage. In fact, Qing gun carriages usually didn’t even allow for easy rotation or changing elevation, whereas British guns had all manner of aiming devices.

But calculations weren’t just for aiming. They were also about timing. The new ballistics science revolutionized the use of explosive shells. Chinese and Europeans had fired explosive rounds for centuries, but thanks to the new science of ballistics—and to considerable experimental data concerning the speed at which fuses burned—European artillery officers were able to time the explosion of shells with unprecedented precision. Success was measured in hundredths of seconds. When firing mortars, for instance, the object was to make the shell explode just after it had landed. When firing against human targets, the shell needed to explode in the air above the enemies’ heads. The new artillery manuals contained detailed tables classified by gun type, size of gunpowder charge, and so on, and these tables could be used effectively only if one possessed the requisite mathematical training.

Like carronades and howitzers, explosive shells played a key role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example, shells were lobbed into a Chinese fort, exploding “with great precision … much to the astonishment of the Chinese, who were unacquainted with this engine of destruction.… The Chinese could not long withstand the fire of the 68-pounder of the Queen, and the two 32-pounder pivot-guns of the Nemesis, the shells from which could be seen bursting within the walls of the fort.” Field pieces also used exploding shells, especially the dreade howitzers, which, as we’ve seen, caused so much carnage in Ningbo that its handlers had to stop shooting because the corpses piled too high. Howitzers, placed in batteries and fired in concert, to deadly effect, are referred to repeatedly in British sources on the Opium War. In general, explosive shells were one of the technologies most marveled at by Chinese.

The ballistics revolution may have been the most important scientific advance of the eighteenth century as regards war, but it was far from the only one. Europeans also conducted research into gunpowder. Perhaps the greatest innovations came after 1783, when William Congreve the Elder (1742–1814) was placed in charge of gunpowder manufacture at England’s Royal Powder Mills. He conducted systematic experiments and built dedicated testing ranges, new saltpeter refineries, and special proving houses. Among his findings was the discovery that charcoal made in sealed iron cylinders produced superior powder. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, this “cylinder powder” gave British gunpowder a reputation as the best in the world, nearly twice as powerful as traditional powders and far less vulnerable to spoilage.

In contrast, in the 1830s the Chinese were still using the same methods for producing gunpowder that had been used in the early Qing period. The British recognized its inferiority. Lieutenant John Elliot Bingham captured some Chinese powder in 1841 and wrote that “though the proportions in Chinese powder are very nearly ours, it is a most inferior article.” He and his comrades threw several thousand pounds of it into the ocean. Sometimes the British condescended to use Chinese powder to blow up captured ships or forts, but even then it was found wanting.

Even as European powder got better, it got cheaper and more plentiful. The Napoleonic Wars created demand for gunpowder and attracted funding for new equipment and personnel, which William Congreve the Elder used to increase experimentation and production.

He died in 1814, but his son, William Congreve the Younger (1772–1828), continued the experiments. He developed a machine that mixed the ingredients of powder in the correct proportions and another machine that could granulate powder, with toothed rollers and filters that sorted granules by size.

He was also good at the main task that scientists face: gaining financial support. A tireless lobbyist, he made his case on the basis of warfare. Napoleon, he wrote, controlled realms that were so vast that Britain had to invest in technology to even the odds: “England has now, with ten millions of population, to wage war against ten times that number—what man can do, Englishmen will accomplish! But there is a limit to all physical force; and when the difference in number is so enormous, it is no disgrace to have recourse to every aid that human ingenuity can support. He, therefore, that strives to supply the deficiency of real power by mechanical combinations, cannot but deserve well of his country.”

Congreve the Younger was particularly excited by rocketry. His famous “Congreve rocket”—whose “red glare” features so prominently in the USA’s National Anthem—was actually inspired by Indian rockets. In the late eighteenth century, the Sultanate of Mysore, located in what is today southern India, fought against Britain in a series of conflicts known today as the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1767–1792). Although the British eventually prevailed, the sultanate’s forces proved effective, and among their weapons were large iron rockets, which the British began trying to copy. Congreve didn’t like to admit this. He merely noted, in an aside, that rockets were invented by some “heroes of Chinese antiquity.”

His rockets, however, were unusually effective. By means of experiments he improved their range, accuracy, and power, and he lobbied the Royal Navy to use them as a lighter alternative to shipborne mortars. He had to overcome skepticism. As one naval commander wrote, “Mr. Congreve, who is ingenious, is wholly wrapt up in rockets, from which I expect little success.” Yet Congreve had powerful patrons. The Prince of Wales himself read Congreve’s plans at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a mock Mughal temple whose interiors were decorated with Chinese dragons, miniature pagodas, and paintings of mandarins in official robes. The prince ordered expensive sea trials. They didn’t go terribly well, but Congreve was persistent, and eventually his rockets were adopted by the Royal Navy.

They played a devastating role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi (1841), for example, a Congreve rocket helped defeat a Chinese fleet of fifteen warjunks (or perhaps eleven, depending on which source you believe). A British participant later recalled the flying body parts:

One of the most formidable engines of destruction which any vessel … can make use of is the Congreve rocket, a most terrible weapon when judiciously applied, especially where there are combustible materials to act upon. The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk against which it was directed, near that of the admiral, and almost instantly it blew up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano. The instantaneous destruction of the huge body seemed appalling to both sides engaged. The smoke, and flame, and thunder of the explosion, with the fragments falling round, and even portions of dissevered bodies scattering as they fell, were enough to strike with awe, if not with fear, the stoutest heart that looked upon it.

The effect was so terrifying that everyone paused for a moment, frozen with shock. The Qing abandoned the rest of their ships. Thirteen warjunks were destroyed.

Congreve rockets were also useful on land. On 27 February 1841, they helped the British capture an island guarding the approaches to Guangzhou. One British account notes that “operations commenced by throwing a few rockets into … the … custom-house, situated at the entrance of the North Wang-Tong fort; and such was the precision with which these were directed, that the place was soon in a blaze of fire, which rapidly communicated with the encampment, and presented an animating and inciting appearance.” Again, the precision and destructive power of the rockets created shock and awe: “The panic created by the bursting of the shells and rockets, which were quite new to them, evidently threw them into great disorder. It was reported, and there is reason to believe with truth, that the Chinese officers abandoned the place at the first commencement of the firing, and ran down to their boats.” At nearly every major engagement in the war, rockets proved enormously effective, and, as a British account noted, “amused the enemy.”

Examples of Britain’s deadly use of rockets, carronades, field cannons, explosive shells, and howitzers abound in Opium War sources, and all of these weapons were based on experimental science. Robins’s ballistics revolution, which developed from the work of Newton, Boyle, and Bernoulli, and which was carried forward by Leonhard Euler and dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists, represented a deep transformation in the understanding of how guns worked. The experiments were painstaking, the results far from intuitive. Without the experimental culture and heritage that made them possible, the knowledge would never have been won, and it turned out to be a very practical knowledge, which directly influenced the work of war makers. When British observers noted how bad Chinese guns were, or how poor at aiming the Chinese artillerists were, they were drawing a clear and objective contrast. British gunnery was based on experimental science. Chinese gunnery wasn’t.

To be sure, the Opium War was also decided by more typical tools of industrialization. The steamer Nemesis was the war’s workhorse, paddling against the wind and towing sailing vessels upriver. Nor was steam power the Nemesis’s only edge. It also had a very shallow draft. In the 1500s and 1600s, the Chinese had used shallow-draft vessels against the Dutch and Portuguese, outmaneuvering them by sailing on flats and shallows. Such tactics didn’t work against the Nemesis, which drew only five feet (one-and-a-half meters) with keel retracted. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example (1841), a fleet of warjunks took refuge in shallows. She maneuvered right up to them, and when they tried fleeing into an even shallower channel, she simply towed them away from their moorings and destroyed them. One British officer records the words of some Chinese who watched the Nemesis maneuver where, at low water, they were accustomed to wade: “He-yaw! how can! My never see devil-ship so fashion before; can go all same man walkee.”

The Opium War was an industrial war: steamers like the Nemesis played key roles, and industrial manufacturing techniques helped make steel, bore cannon, and mix powder, even as they made those products cheaper. Nonetheless, it was the science developed by Robins and others that played the greatest part in Britain’s Great Military Divergence vis-à-vis China, combined, of course, with the fact that China had undergone a long period of relative peace.

But now that the Great Qing Peace had been overturned, how would the leaders, statesmen, and scholars of China react? In the Ming and early Qing periods, China had adapted quickly and effectively, maintaining parity with European powers. The nineteenth century proved more challenging.

The Coalition


Clockwise from top: Battle of Narva, Battle of Düna, Battle of Poltava, Battle of Gangut, Battle of Gadebusch.


Campaigns and territorial changes 1700–1709.


Campaigns and territorial changes 1709–1721.

The enterprise that was to become known as the Great Northern War was not entirely Peter the Great’s own idea. Frederick IV of Denmark was eager to recapture Scania, the southernmost province of the Swedish peninsula, which had once been a Danish possession. And Augustus of Poland, the third member of the coalition, had an even more complex scheme in hand. Having been elected king of Poland, he wished to convert the republic into an absolute monarchy, with himself as the founder of a new hereditary dynasty. Augustus had been approached by a Livonian noble by the name of Johann von Patkul with an offer that might make this wish a reality. Patkul had been condemned for treason by the Swedish king for speaking out against the seizure of Livonian estates by the Swedish crown. He had come to the decision that if the Polish were to take Livonia, they would allow Livonian nobles a greater degree of freedom than they had enjoyed under their Swedish masters. Patkul’s argument was that, if Augustus, who was Elector of Saxony in addition to being king of Poland, used his Saxon soldiers to conquer Livonia, he could then present Livonia to the Polish Diet as a sort of gift, in exchange for being made hereditary king.

Between them, so the plan went, Augustus and Frederick of Denmark would engage the Swedish forces on three fronts. Denmark would attack Scania and drive Swedish troops out of the German principality of Holstein-Gottorp to the south; Augustus would attack Livonia. Peter, tsar of Russia, was invited into the enterprise almost as an afterthought, and not without some hesitation. There was always the chance that Peter would seize Livonia for himself, if they were not careful.

Peter agreed that he would join Denmark and Poland in the offense against Sweden, but the date was left unspecified, and there was a catch: the Russian ambassador in Constantinople was in the process of negotiating a thirty-year temporary peace treaty between Russia and the Ottoman empire, and until it was formalized, he could spare no troops to fight the Swedish, lest negotiation prove unsuccessful and war break out with the Turks. Confident of their success, Frederick and Augustus did not wait for Russian assistance before Saxony attacked Livonia (without going through the formality of declaring war first, an insult that Augustus’s cousin, Charles XII, would not forget) and Denmark attacked Holstein-Gottorp. On August 8, 1700, Peter received word from his ambassador that the peace had been secured in Constantinople. He had spent the past six months preparing Russia for war, and now at last he knew who he was going to war with.

When the formal declaration of war against Sweden was read out in Moscow, the casus bellum was phrased in simple terms that simple Russians could understand. The tsar was going to reclaim Ingria and Karelia, which had belonged to Russia before the Romanov dynasty was founded. And he was going to attack Livonia, because it was there, in the city of Riga, that Peter had been treated with such churlish inhospitality at the beginning of his Great Embassy to Europe three years before.


All three members of the coalition, Peter, Augustus, and Frederick, had been in agreement on at least one point: now was the opportune moment to break the might of the Swedish empire, because Charles XII was still only eighteen, and it was assumed that he would be flustered and over-awed by the sudden assault.

But as the coming conflict was to prove, Charles XII was “the most daring and aggressive soldier of the age.” One historian writes that he was “anxious for battle, at any time and at any odds.” In other words, no one was prepared, or could have foreseen, that the teenage king whose youth and inexperience was supposed to open the doors of his empire to foreign aggressors would prove to be nothing less than a military genius. When Charles received news that the Polish king had attacked Livonia, he addressed the Swedish Parliament, declaring that, because Augustus had broken his word to honor existing treaties between Poland and Sweden, Sweden occupied the moral high ground. This was an important distinction to the deeply religious Charles, and to his subjects, because it meant that God was on their side and would uphold the justice of their cause.

Charles attacked the Danes first, leaving the defense of Livonia to the garrison in Riga. He was supported by Holland and England, as William of Orange wanted the conflict in the north ended quickly, so that Europe would not grow distracted while Louis XIV threatened to annex Spain. The Danish had attacked the Swedes in Holstein-Gottorp, but the Swedish, Dutch, and English coalition struck directly at Copenhagen, on the island of Zealand. Frederick IV was entirely unprepared for an assault against his capital; Copenhagen surrendered under siege, and Denmark was forced to sign a peace treaty with Sweden and withdraw its soldiers from Holstein. The entire campaign lasted only two weeks. Now Charles, who made a firm policy of only fighting wars in one place at one time, was free to turn his attention north.

The Polish siege of Riga had not been immediately successful, and by the time Charles had won his swift, decisive victory in Denmark, Augustus was ready to retreat for the winter. Peter, meanwhile, was two weeks into the siege of Narva, a coastal city close to the Estonian border with Ingria. Charles was spoiling for a fight, and since Augustus had forsaken the field of battle, his sights landed on Narva. This was more than mere belligerence; if the Russians took Narva, then Estonia, Ingria, and Livonia would fall to them in short order. Even if Charles had not been determined to fight someone, the Swedish regiment at Narva was badly in need of relief.

When Peter received word that the Swedish army was approaching, he was prepared for a long wait before any fighting broke out. The Swedish forces were outnumbered by the Russians four to one, and they had just finished an exhausting march over hundreds of miles of territory. They would need time, he thought, to build encampments and regain their strength. Anticipating weeks of inaction, Peter left for the Russian city of Novgorod to confer with Augustus of Poland, whose retreat from Riga had come as an irritation and a disappointment.

He was due for an astonishing surprise and unwelcome surprise, however. The very next day, in the middle of a snowstorm, Charles ordered his beleaguered forces to charge the Russian siege line. Panic broke out amongst the untested, undisciplined Russian soldiers, who, in the words of one observer, “fell like grass.”. Surrender followed, but there were so many more defeated Russian soldiers than there were victorious Swedes that the Swedish officers were nervous that the Russians would notice their numerical advantage and mount a counter-attack. Instead, the Russians departed east for Russia, leaving most of their officers behind as prisoners of war.

Years later, after Peter’s great victory against the Swedish at Poltava, he wrote of the aftermath of his defeat at Narva:

Our army was vanquished by the Swedes—that is incontestable. But one should remember what sort of army it was. The Lefort regiment was the only old one. The two regiments of Guards…had never seen any field fighting, especially with regular troops. The other regiments consisted—even to some of the colonels—of raw recruits, both officers and soldiers. Besides that, there was the great famine… In brief, it was like child’s play [for the Swedes]. One cannot, then, be surprised that against such an old, disciplined, and experienced army, these untried pupils got the worst of it. The victory then was indeed a sad and severe blow to us. It seemed to rob us of all hope for the future, and to come from the wrath of God. But now, when we think of it rightly, we ascribe it rather to the goodness of God than his anger; for if we had conquered then, when we knew as little of war as of government, this piece of luck might have had unfortunate consequences… That we lived through this disaster, or rather this good fortune, forced us to be industrious, laborious, and experienced.

In the wake of his victory, Charles had a choice: either to follow the retreating soldiers and invade Russia itself, or to invade Poland and redress his grievance against Augustus. At this juncture, it becomes evident why Peter later considered his defeat at Narva to be a blessing. Russia was now the laughingstock of Europe. There could be little glory for Charles in winning additional victories against the Russians; he stood to gain nothing except Peter’s humiliation, which he had already achieved. The Saxon army of the Polish king, on the other hand, was technically undefeated, which made it a more tempting challenge for a soldier like Charles. Furthermore, the political climate in Poland was auspicious for an invasion. Augustus’s relationship with his Polish subjects was growing uneasy. He had not won the promised victory over Livonia; instead, he had angered the Swedes and risked their retaliation. The Primate of Poland, Cardinal Radiejowski, had written to Charles, declaring that Augustus had made war against Sweden without the consent of the Polish people, who wanted only peace with his country. Charles replied by asking the Poles to convene the Diet, dethrone Augustus, and choose another king.

When this request met with no definitive response, Charles decided to invade Poland, with the intent of forcing a new election. This was the best possible outcome for Peter. Had Charles not been diverted by Poland, he would have found the road to Moscow virtually unobstructed—Peter’s armies were in no condition to repel an invasion. Though he was deliberately choosing to invade the stronger of his two enemies, Charles believed he was on the path to another rapid victory. Instead, he became embroiled in a war that would last for six years—six years of reprieve for Russia that Peter would put to excellent use.

In 1702, while Charles was distracted by Poland, Russian forces seized the Swedish fortress of Nöteberg; this gave them undisputed possession of the Neva river, and, through it, a permanent foothold on the Baltic Sea. Conquest of Ingria followed in 1703. Anticipating that the Swedish would soon try to wrest these possessions from his grasp, Peter set about making his claim on them in as permanent a fashion as can be imagined—by building a fortress at the mouth of the Neva, and, around the fortress, a city, which he named St. Petersburg. More convenient than Archangel, blessed with slightly warmer winters, Peter’s city was the Russian answer to Amsterdam, to London, to Venice. Some part of him had loathed Moscow and the Kremlin since the Streltsy revolt in his childhood. A new capital, named for his patron saint, with its face turned to the sea, was Peter’s attempt to remake Russia in his image.

Abdication of Augustus of Poland

In 1705, after years of indecisive conflict between the Swedish army of Charles XII and the Saxon army in Poland, the Polish Diet bowed to pressure and elected a new king, Charles’s hand-picked protégé, Stanislaus I. But the election was considered illegitimate by many Poles—not only had it been transparently manipulated by Charles, but Stanislaus was crowned in Warsaw, rather than the traditional coronation seat of Krakow, with a new crown and scepter ordered and paid for by Charles. Furthermore, Augustus refused to abdicate, which meant that Charles was obliged to leave some ten thousand Swedish troops in Poland when he turned his sights back on Peter—who, in 1704, had reversed his disastrous defeat at Narva and seized the fortress. Swedish troops advanced on Grodno, a fortress town in Lithuania, some four hundred miles away from Moscow. But Peter, wishing to preserve his army, abandoned Grodno rather than engaging the Swedish in open battle. When Charles attempted to follow their retreat, the bridge over the river Neman collapsed. By the time the Swedish had navigated around it, the Russians had made a clean escape.

In 1706, Charles forced Augustus’s hand by invading Saxony, where he met with little resistance, as the Saxons were tired of Augustus’s long war on foreign soil and were not willing to see the electorate pillaged by Swedish soldiers for the sake of their erratic Elector. Without the support of the Saxon army, Augustus was no longer a useful ally to Peter. He traveled to meet Charles in person, promising to abdicate from the Polish throne in exchange for mercy towards Saxony. To Peter, this meant one thing. Charles was well-known for fighting only one war at a time. His attempted attack against Grodno had been unsuccessful in part because his heart was not in it, not while matters with Augustus in Poland remained unsettled. When Peter received word of Augustus’s abdication, however, he knew that Charles’s next move would be an attempted invasion of Russia—of Moscow itself.

The Great Northern War had begun with a coalition of Russia, Poland, and Denmark arrayed in opposition against the Swedish empire. Now, only Russia remained. Peter was without allies. Charles was inclined towards single-minded vendettas; any nation that attacked him must be prepared to fight to the bitter finish, because Charles would end the war on no other terms. Now, with the Swedish army positioned in Saxony, near the heart of western Europe, no European monarch would dare risk angering him by coming to Russia’s assistance, even if they wished to. The Protestant powers, England, Holland, and the German states, were particularly concerned that Charles might make an alliance with France, which would radically unbalance the distribution of power in Europe. It was in their best interests for Charles to engage distant Russia, and leave the French to them. And though Peter made tentative overtures of peace towards Charles, they had little common ground from which to negotiate. Peter would not surrender St. Petersburg upon any persuasion, and St. Petersburg’s position at the mouth of the Neva effectively cut Sweden’s Baltic possessions in half, disrupting communications and lines of supply. Charles could make no concession on this point.

Besides all of this, Charles was eager to face the Russian army in open battle once more. He had heard rumors of the extraordinary reformation of the Russian army that had taken place since the first battle of Narva, and he looked forward to the opportunity to face them in open battle. There was a certain strain of fanaticism in his character; not only would a negotiated peace fail to satisfy him, but so would a victory that consisted only in restoring the Baltic states to the Swedish empire. These were the two options that lay before him—either a Baltic offensive, or an arduous campaign to the heart of Russia, crossing thousands of miles overland. He opted for the latter, over the concerns of his generals, for reasons that were more mystical and personal than pragmatic. Peter must be utterly and decisively ruined; God had chosen Charles for that mission. Moscow itself must be seized, and a puppet tsar of Charles’s choosing installed in the Kremlin.


Though Charles attempted to confuse Peter regarding his chosen route by ordering military actions in the Baltic, Peter was not taken by surprise. He had been anticipating and preparing for a Swedish invasion of Moscow for years; indeed, he had feared that it would follow swiftly after his defeat at Narva. Since 1707, Peter had left standing orders with the Don Cossacks of the steppes to utterly destroy the countryside frontier bordering Poland as soon as Swedish troops were spotted. Advancing armies could not carry enough food and supplies with them to sustain a march of so many miles; they depended on being able to raid farms and ransack villages as they passed. Peter’s goal was to leave them with no source of sustenance. In case this was not sufficient, he likewise ordered new fortifications for the city of Moscow itself.

Advancing through Poland, the Swedish made their first strike in Grodno, the fortress that commanded the Neman river. Russian troops were on their way to secure Grodno, but the Swedish beat them to it; it was so deserted that once they had taken the bridge, they allowed the few Russian soldiers present to retreat to the town unmolested. Unbeknownst to Charles, Peter himself was in residence at the fortress, conferring with Menshikov, his most capable native Russian commander. It was a near-miss with disastrous potential consequences. If Peter’s person fell into Swedish hands, the war would effectively be over. Charles remained in Lithuania near Minsk throughout the winter, which was reckoned the be “the worst winter within memory”; many of his soldiers, inadequately sheltered and supplied, died of disease and cold. Though the Swedish army was famous for its hardiness in extreme winter weather, it would not be able to move again until the grasses began to thaw in June of 1708.