Soldier Emperor
The Ottoman Empire
in the Napoleonic Wars, Part Two

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2023

The Russo-Ottoman War would be the Ottoman Empire’s major conflict of the Napoleonic Wars. The ultimate Turkish defeat and loss of a distant frontier province (Bessarabia) would be the least of the profound changes to wash over the Ottoman Empire, changes with their roots in the conflict.

About 40,000 Russians invaded Bessarabia in November 1806, telling the locals that they came to support the Ottoman Empire against Napoleon. They paused in their march for a round of genocide against the Budzhak Tatars, a branch of the Nogai Horde who had settled in Bessarabia in the late 15th Century. After massacring all the Tatars they could find, the Russians moved on into Moldavia and Wallachia.

The Russian invasion ground to a halt thanks to Pechlivan Ibrahim Aga, who conducted a mobile campaign with a few thousand volunteer cavalrymen – including survivors of the Budzhak massacres. With the Russians still occupied by their campaign in Poland against the French and their invasion of Moldavia stalled by Pechlivan, the Ottomans appeared to be in a strong position. But Selim’s attempts to mobilize the Janissaries and send them to the front failed. The Janissaries resisted the orders, claiming that the Sultan had started the war as a pretext to have them slaughtered in combat with the Russians (an outcome that likely would not have distressed Selim). The handful of Janissaries who did arrive at the front attached themselves to the armies as bakers of bread and pastries, using their tax exemption to profit from the troops’ hunger and their leaders’ craving for sweets.

Britain soon joined the war on the side of the Russians, and in February 1807 a British fleet forced its way through the Dardanelles strait, crushed an Ottoman fleet and anchored in front of Constantinople. Ottoman batteries eventually forced their withdrawal but it was a humiliation for the Sultan.

In response, Selim sought assistance from his French allies, who dispatched gunners and fortification engineers to strength the defenses at the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits and the capital. One of the first steps required the artillerymen at the Dardanelles, the Yamaks, to wear European-style uniforms and adopt French training methods. The Yamaks mutinied instead, with the Janissaries and religious students joining them to march on Topkapi Palace and overthrow Selim. The recently-installed Grand Mufti, the chief religious authority of Constantinople, issued a fatwa deposing Selim. In his place went the mentally unstable Mustafa IV; meanwhile, the mutineers massacred as many New Order troops as they could find.

The Russian squadron off Anapa on the Turkish coast, 1807.

In 1800, the Russians had finally obtained their long-desired naval base in the Mediterranean, seizing control of the former Venetian fortress on the island of Corfu off the north-western coast of Greece. In 1805 Tsar Alexander dispatched a fleet to Corfu, commanded by Dmitri Senyavin, to reinforce the squadron already based there. By the spring of 1807 the Russian Mediterranean Fleet had grown to include 10 ships of the line and four frigates, plus smaller supporting vessels.

Senyavin took his fleet to join the British blockade of the Dardanelles Strait linking the Black and Aegean Seas (and giving the Ottoman capital and main fleet base of Constantinople access to the Mediterranean). The British refused to cooperate, but Senyavin defeated the Turkish fleet in a pair of battles in May and June 1807.

Things soon grew worse, as Napoleon signed the Peace of Tilsit with Russia’s Tsar Alexander in July 1807, bring the Russian naval campaign to an end as the agreement required that they hand their base at Corfu to the French. But it also abandoned Mustafa to face the Russians alone. The Russians now could pour men and materiel into the Balkan and Caucasus fronts, and steadily they redeployed through the course of 1808.

In the meantime, the powerful and reform-minded governor of Rustchuk in northern Bulgaria, Alemdar Mustafa (known as Bayrakdar, or the “Banner Bearer”) signed a temporary truce with the Russians and marched on Constantinople in June 1808, intending to restore Selim to the throne. With the Banner of the Prophet leading the way, he made a show of his advance, demanding that Mustafa abdicate. More quietly, he sent a team of assassins ahead of him to dispatch the leaders of the Janissary rebellion.

Mustafa reacted to Bayrakdar’s march by ordering the immediate execution of his only two living male relatives, Selim and Mahmud. The Chief Black Eunuch found Selim – an accomplished musician and master of the flute – playing his flute when the eunuchs attacked him. He defended himself with the flute in a furious hand-to-hand fight before sheer numbers overwhelmed him and he was strangled to death (since a commoner could not spill the blood of a Sultan). Meanwhile Mahmud’s concubines, alerted by the sounds of the fighting, hustled the prince to the roof of Topkapi Palace and hid him there. As Bayrakdar entered the palace grounds, Mustafa ordered the bodies tossed in front of him but only Selim’s appeared. When a living Mahmud showed up, Bayrakdar deposed Mustafa and installed Mahmud II as Sultan with himself as Grand Vizier. The New Order reforms would continue – as did the war with Russia.

Mustafa Alemdar Bayrakdar blowed up good. He blowed up real good.

Alemdar restored the New Order troops, now styled the Sekban (the name of one of the Janissary divisions). To fund his new troops, he collected and burned the pay tickets of former Janissaries who no longer served, diverting the money from these sons and grandsons now working as tradesmen (or simply living on this militarized dole) to actual soldiers. For his own personal protection he relied on a unit of Albanian mercenaries, also seen as an insult to the Janissaries.

In October 1808 Alemdar brought together a council of the Empire’s notables to forge the “Deed of Agreement” – a codification of relations between the ruler and the ruled, a hesitant step toward a constitution for the Ottoman Empire. This document clarified limits on the sultan’s authority, which openly turned the ulema and quietly turned Mahmud against the banner bearer. Meanwhile, conscription had begun for the Sekban, including Christians.

Inevitably, the Janissaries revolted. In November a mob of Janissaries attacked, surrounding Alemdar in his headquarters, the Sublime Porte, and slaughtering the Sekban troops stationed there. When the building had filled with rampaging Janissaries, Alemdar ignited the gunpowder store in the basement, ending his own life but taking of the insurgents who’d breached the capitol with him. Other Janissaries and their supporters attacked Topkapi Palace with the intent of overthrowing the Sultan, but the Sekban fought them off while the Navy’s warships opened fire on the Janissary barracks and eventually over 3,000 insurgents would be executed for the role in the uprising. But the Janissaries ultimately prevailed; Mahmud rewarded the loyalty of the Sekban by dissolving the unit and executing their valiant commander, Abdurrahman Pasha.

Britain dropped out of the war in January 1809, but the Russians took the offensive in March with 80,000 men commanded by 76-year-old Alexander Prozorovsky. His frontal assault on the Turkish fortress at Braila on the Danube River failed miserably. Prozorovsky blamed his assistant, Mikhail Kutuzov, and ordered a withdrawal. Returning to the offensive in August, he brought his army across the Danube but suddenly gathered his staff around him, told them all farewell, and dropped dead on the spot.

Tsar Alexander replaced him with Pyotr Bagration, fresh from successes in Finland against the Swedes. Bagration resumed the offensive, taking a pair of fortresses along the Danube and defeating an Ottoman relief force before moving against the large fortress of Silistra on the south bank of the big river. The valiant Pechlivan struck again, forcing Bagration to lift the siege and then defeating him in a field battle at Tatarice in early October. As the weather worsened and both armies sought winter quarters, the Turks had pushed the Russians back from the Danube and crushed a Serbian rebellion, but the Russians had finally captured the fortress of Ismail.

Kutuzov trapped a Turkish army at Slobodzeya on the Danube.

Alexander fired Bagration in the spring, replacing him with Nikolai Kamensky. Once again the Russians fought to capture the line of Turkish fortresses along the Danube, but the dynamic defense provided by Pechlivan came to a close when he was wounded, contracted a fever and was captured. With liberal use of bribes for fortress commandants, Kamensky and his elder brother, Sergei, steadily reduced the Turkish defenses and inflicted repeated defeats on their field armies.

Kamensky withdrew into winter quarters with his forces still in Bulgaria, on the south bank of the Danube. But Alexander withdrew some of his troops, and in March 1811 Kamensky fell ill with the fever that would take his life later that year. Alexander named Kutuzov to replace him, and in June Ahmed Pasha, the Grand Vizier, attacked Kutuzov at Rustchuk. The new-model Turkish artillery and gunners performed very well, and a massed Turkish cavalry charge broke the Russian flank, but Kutuzov turned the tables with a timely counter-attack and Ahmed’s army broke, giving the Russians a victory. Kutuzov then abandoned Rustchuk, allowing Ahmed to claim both the fortress and a victory of his own. Alexander gave Kutuzov a portrait of himself; Mahmud gave Ahmed a fur coat.

Mahmud sent more reinforcements, including the bostancji, the “gardeners,” his personal Janissary guard force. But Kutuzov won more victories, and trapped a large Turkish force on the north bank of the Danube. Ahmed was forced to negotiate an armistice to free them, which developed into talks for a general peace, concluded in Bucharest in May 1812. The Ottomans lost some territories along the Black Sea coast and Bessarabia, while the Serbs and Wallachians gained some special rights. “Never was there a war so poorly fought,” wrote Russian corps commander Louis Alexandre Langeron, a French émigré, “with such a happy end.”

The Ottomans fought the war with their old-style army: provincial militias under the command of their governors and subordinate officials. Governors from the interior provinces, ordered to mobilize and provide troops, emptied their prisons and conscripted peasants and the unemployed, keeping their actual soldiers at home. The result was massive desertion, even before the troops reached the front (some of these same men would then be conscripted by other governors along their march route).

Performance varied according to the quality of their commanders. Ahmed fought well at Rustchuk, despite his defeat, thanks to the skills of the new-model artillerymen and the ferocity of the contingent led by Bosnak Agha. Pechlivan registered a series of victories before his capture. But troops led by less charismatic commanders simply melted away before the Russians, or fled at the first sign of misfortune.

Hurshid Pasha built a tower from the skulls of slain Serbian rebels.

With the war ended, Mahmud and his Grand Vizier, Hurshid Pasha, kept a carefully neutral position for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. They put their focus instead on stamping out rebellions in Serbia and Bosnia, and repressing the more-or-less independent Ali Pasha of Janina. Hurshid took personal command of these campaigns, signifying their importance.

Meanwhile, Mahmud began the careful plotting of the Auspicious Event of 1826, the Sultan-led revolution to overthrow the power of the Janissaries and open the way to modernizing not just the Imperial army but the entire Ottoman state and society. But that’s another story.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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