The Potato War
The Russo-Ottoman War, Part Two
Despite having provoked war with the Ottoman Empire, Empress Catherine II of Russia and her advisors had done nothing to plan for it. Nearly a month passed before the Empress established a new Council of State and met with it over the course of several days to decide on Russian war aims.
With winter coming, the Russians felt no urgency to rush headlong into war, and took their time preparing. The Council decided on an aggressive posture: Russia would seek to capture several fortified ports on the Black Sea, obtain free navigation on that body of water (at the start of the war, the Turks or their allies controlled the entire Black Sea coastline) and expand into the Caucasus region. Meanwhile a Russian fleet would sail from the Baltic to the Mediterranean in hopes of fomenting rebellions in Ottoman territories.
Russia and the Ottoman Empire actually shared only a very short frontier, along the southern reaches of the Bug River in what today is Ukraine. To the north of the border, Polish territory separated the two powers, and to the east the lands of the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea were ruled by the Khan of the Crimea, a Turkish ally. Turkey controlled several fortresses on the Sea of Azov to the north-east of the Crimean peninsula that bordered on Russian territory, and the two empires shared an ill-defined boundary in the wilds of the north-west Caucasus Mountains where armies were unlikely to operate.
The Russians chose to place the weight of their forces along the Bug, with Prince Alexander Golitsyn leading 80,000 men on the southern segment of the border and Petyr Rumyantsev with 40,000 to his right. Golitsyn would make the main effort against the Turks, with Rumyantsev charged with protecting his supply lines and guarding against Tartar incursions into Russian territory from the Crimea.
Year One: 1769
The Turks struck first. In early January 1769, Crimean Khan Kirim Ghirei led a large army of Turks, Tatars and Nogais (he claimed 200,000 men, but probably had a little less than half that) out of Bucak across the Bug into Russian territory. The raiders brought back 20,000 captives for sale as slaves and a large herd of livestock, but failed to accomplish anything else and were turned back by freezing rain rather than Russian resistance.
Cossack and Tatar light cavalry clash.
The Russians began their own advance in April, with Golitsyn marching on the Turkish fortress of Khotyn on the banks of the river Dnester, facing Polish territory. After a three-hour bombardment, Golitsyn sent his infantry forward, but recalled them as soon as the Turks opened fire. The Russians retreated back across Polish Right-Bank Ukraine to their own lands, having lost five dead. Forbidden to advance into Bessarabia, Rumyantsev’s Second Army detached forces to seize Azov and Taganrog at the mouth of the river Don and, reinforced by 50,000 Kalmyks, occupy the Tauride, the mainland portion of the Crimean Khanate just north of the peninsula.
Golitsyn marched against Khotyn again in July, only to find a Turkish-Tatar army of 80,000 (including the fortress garrison) awaiting him. Despite repeated battles with the enemy field army, Golitsyn opened a siege but could not dent the fortifications. After 27 days of bombardment – four days after the Turkish garrison had run out of food – Golitsyn ordered another withdrawal. The empress responded by replacing Golitsyn with Rumyatsev, while the sultan ordered both his grand vizier and the Khotyn garrison commander executed for their failure to crush Golitsyn’s army between them.
When word came of his pending releief, Golitsyn turned his army around to try again to capture the fortress before Rumyantsev arrived. The Turks and Russians fought a series of battles on both banks of the Dnestr, and on 9 September the Turks withdrew, taking the fortress garrison with them as it lacked the supplies to withstand a siege. Rumyantsev arrived nine days later, and detached small forces to raid into Turkish Moldavia and raise volunteer forces from the local Christian population, but soon he took his army into winter quarters.
The war’s first year concluded with the Russians having taken an abandoned fortress and made some inroads in the Danube Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia), the Black Sea Steppe and the Caucasus, as well as in suppressing the Polish rebels of the Bar Confederation.
Year Two: 1770
On the Russian side, Rumyantsev hoped to take decisive action in the new year, making use of his armies to reduce Turkish fortresses and seek out a major field battle with the Turks. The new Turkish grand vizier, Ivaz Pashazade Halil Pasha, faced the same problem as his predecessor: the de-centralization drive of the previous decades meant that Turkish regional governors could send huge numbers of armed men into the field, but could do little to feed them. Halil Pasha would therefore keep his main army on the right bank of the Danube where they could be supplied and hope the Russians came within striking distance.
Rumyantsev’s First Army marched south from Khotyn in late May, and on 17 June overran the fortified camp of Crimean Khan Kaplan II Ghirei’s Turco-Tatar army. Rumyantsev pressed his troops forward, concerned that the Turks would interpose themselves between his army and Second Army, now commanded by Peter Panin. In the early morning hours of 7 July First Army attacked a force of about 80,000 Turks and Tatars encamped at Larga, including the remnants of the Khan’s army. Though badly outnumbered, the 31,000 Russians caught the Turks by surprise in the darkness, using large divisional squares to negate the massive swarms of enemy cavalry and battle groups of light infantry with their own integral light artillery (tapered-barrel “unicorn guns”) to exploit weak points along ravines leading into the Turkish entrenched position.
The Turks and Tatars retreated from Larga along separate axes, the Turks southward to link up with the grand vizier’s army that had finally crossed the Danube and the Tatars eastward into Crimean territory. Rumyantsev pursued, leaving 8,000 men to guard his supply train and pressing forward with the remaining 25,000 into an entrenched camp close to the Turkish positions near the town of Kagul. The Turks had also entrenched themselves, and found the Russians in an inferior, downhill position. The grand vizier decided to attack at first light and eliminated the Russians.
Rumyantsev orders the attack at Kagul.
Rumyantsev never gave him that chance. Once again, the Russians made a night attack, this time in five columns. The Turkish cavalry counter-attacked, but could not break the massive Russian squares and did not return to the battle after their first failure. A division of janissaries broke one of the squares amid fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Rumyantsev personally intervened at the head of a brigade of grenadiers, restoring the situation. By mid-morning the Turks had broken and streamed off the battlefield; three Turkish frigates anchored in the Danube shot it out at close range with Russian field artillery but failed to stem the rout. The Russians claimed over 20,000 Turks killed at the cost of 353 of their own dead.
While Rumyantsev smashed the Turkish field army, Peter Panin’s Second Army opened a siege of the large Turkish fortress of Bender, on the right (western) bank of the Dnester in Bessarabia. Panin had about 45,000 men, and had to detail about 12,000 of them to protect his lines of communication and his baggage train. The Turkish garrison numbered about 10,000, most of them janissaries or sipahi cavalrymen. The Russians steadily pressed their trenches forward, but the Turks responded with a blizzard of return fire, flinging 300 rounds a day into the Russian siege works. Turkish morale apparently held up well, with the garrison conducting several sorties in strength against the besiegers.
By September, Panin appeared no closer to taking Bender and Rumyantsev sent word that he was dispatching reinforcements from First Army to aid in the siege. Fearing that credit for the fortress’ fall would go to Rumyantsev, Panin ordered an immediate, full-scale assault before they could arrive. The Russians exploded a huge mine against the walls of Bender and then surged forward with scaling ladders.
The Turks put up fierce resistance, and hand-to-hand fighting raged for ten hours before the town itself caught fire. With their shelter destroyed and civilians dying in huge numbers, the Turks finally surrendered the town and fortress. Half of the garrison had been killed in the final assault, while the Russians had lost over 2,500 dead, and another 4,000 wounded.
“To lose so many and to gain so little,” Empress Catherine wrote, “it would have been better not to have taken Bender.”
The empress approved only a third of Panin’s recommendations for promotion or decoration, granted him the Order of St. George and sent him into forced retirement “as a mark of the Sovereign’s kind consideration.”
While Second Army broke itself on the walls of Bender, First Army sent out detachments to overrun under-garrisoned Turkish fortresses across southern Bessarabia and Moldavia and eastern Wallachia. The Turkish grand vizier pulled his army back across the Danube rather than challenge Rumyantsev or dispatch reinforcements to the beleaguered fortresses. Rumyantsev’s generals racked up a series of successes before the Russians went into winter quarters.
Note: Our Soldier Kings: The Potato War expansion book is built around two conflicts that took place in the latter half of the 18th century: the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768 and the Potato War/American War of 1778.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.