THE COSSACK MILITARY SYSTEM AS DESCRIBED
BY THE SIEUR DE BEAUPLAN
Free, O God, a poor slave;
Permit him to land on the shores of
That beautiful country--
Among Christian people!
The Zaporozhian Cossacks answered this prayer of the Ukrainian
Kolzars.(1) Evolving in response to the Tatar threat, these
Cossacks provided an alternative political, social, and economic model for the
oppressed Ukrainians of the 17th century. The growth of the Cossack military
system ultimately provided the means for the overthrow of the Ukraine's Polish
overlords. The development of this system into the Hetmanate further ensured
the preservation of this early institution of the Ukrainian people.
Accordingly, the study of the Cossack military system prior to the Khmelnytsky
Wars is important for an understanding both of those wars and of the subsequent
flowering of the Hetmanate.
A Description of the Ukraine by Guillame Le Vasseur de Beauplan provides
a valuable source for the Cossack military system prior to the Khmelnytsky
Wars. A French military engineer in the Polish army, the Sieur de Beauplan
soldiered in the Ukraine for 17 years, from 1630 to 1647. Despite participation
in battles against Cossacks, he remained impartial in his study of the Ukraine
and the Cossacks. His account, first published in 1650, told of the Cossacks as
they existed just before 1648. Beauplan's presence on campaign and experience
as an engineer and commander of troops made him a most authoritative
commentator on the Cossack military system. Moreover, his West European outlook
on the Cossacks greatly influenced Europe's view of the Ukraine, being
translated into French, Latin, English, German, Polish, and Russian. A
Description of the Ukraine thus presents a view of the Cossack military
system full of the author's military insights, and was influential in Western
As a Polish officer, Beauplan maintained an interest primarily in the fighting
ability of the Cossacks, not in their institutions. Accordingly, he limited his
comments on the military organization of the Cossacks to describing the
locations of a few registered Cossack regiments. However, he did make extensive
observations on the Cossack hetman, an elective post of the colonels and
elders. The winner dared not refuse on pain of death. On the other hand,
"The general may fall into disgrace, if he have not such conduct when he
leads them out to war that no disaster befall them, and if he does not appear
brave and politic...for if he commits any act of cowardice they kill him as a
traitor."3 Beauplan, unimpressed with this elective process,
further stated that the hetman was only rewarded with trouble and probable
death. He observed that a council, the Rada (ruds) elected a different hetman
for sea expeditions, who "generally has the van."4 From
this, the hetmans of 1647 seem to have retained more of the character of the
warrior-leader than of the wise statesman, to have been leading charges, not
directing them. During a military campaign, he was almost a dictator, but on
returning the cossacks could depose him.
Inspiration and discipline charcterized Cossacks in the pages of Beauplan. On
the one hand, a number of motives inspired the Cossacks. At first, the
slave-raiding of the Muslim Tatars encouraged the Cossacks to "go to fight
the infidel for the Christian Faith...(and) to set the prisoner
free..."5 Later, economic exploitation and religious tension
combined with a specifically Ukrainian folk consciousness to produce the great
hatred between oppressed, Orthodox, Ukrainian peasants and the oppressing,
Roman Catholic, Polish overlords. Beauplan wrote of the peasants, "This
slavery makes many of them runaway and the boldest of them fly to the
Zaporouys."6 These motives mixed with desire for revenge,
plunder, and adventure to create highly-motivated soldiers. On the other hand,
such motivation sparked an ability to acknowledge discipline as maintained by
the hetman. "They are very obedient to him...His power is
absolute..."7 Inflamed by their passion for freedom but
strictly disciplined, the Cossacks proved courageous in battle and "great
lovers of their liberty."8
Cossack weapons received considerable attention from Beauplan. He wrote,
"They are very expert at their fire arms, their usual
weapons..."9 On land, Cossacks carried "firelocks (mostly
'Dutch' muskets, with a few arquebuses), and half-pikes and scythes upon long
poles..."10 At sea, a Cossack brought "two firelocks and a
scymitar."11 Additionally, the Cossacks possessed large numbers
of cannon, usually captured brass pieces stored in the marshes.12
Each Cossack boat carried "four or five falconets."13
Basically a river craft adapted for the Black Sea, these cholna14
were, "sixty feet long, ten or twelve foot wide, and twelve foot
deep...," 15 constructed without a keel on willow bottoms
raised with pitched planking on a wooden frame. They mounted two rudders, ten
or fifteen oars to a side, and a mast with crude lanteen rigging. Without
decks, these boats required bundles of reeds to keep them afloat, yet could
"row faster than the Turkish galleys."16 Easily built,
they were just as easily discarded. Beauplan went into considerable detail
concerning these cholna, reflecting the general European interest in how the
Cossacks attacked the Porte.17
On land, the Cossacks used tabord wagons. Although Beauplan called them carts,
these wagons no longer resembled Tatar carts, their probable antecedents.
Instead, they more closely approximated Hussite war wagons, at least in use,
since they served for both fortifications and supplies. Yet Cossack logistics
remained largely improvised. On raids they brought dough and millet in common
tuns, with individuals supplying their own weapons, ball, clothing, and six
pounds of cannon powder.18 The regiment probably purchased the food,
while the Cossacks made the coarse cannon powder themselves, at times even
exporting it as far as Holland.19 Beauplan thus provided an overall
glimpse of the small arms, cannon, cholna, wagons, and crude logistics of the
Ukrainian geography largely determined the forms of Cossack military tactics
and strategy. Beuaplan noted a generally level, fertile plain composed much of
the Ukraine. Grass grew two to four feet high on the plain, providing some
cover. However, at isolated points across the steppe, hills and marshes
provided very strong, defensive positions. In addition the specific crossings
of the Dnieper channeled operations (especially Tatar raids) into easily
ambushed routes. At the same time, the Black Sea provided numerous harbors for
cholna and a fast and easy highway to prosperous Turkish provinces. Cossack
tactics and strategy naturally developed in accord with these conditions.
Cossack tactics entailed both land and sea fighting. On land Cossack tactics
remained primarily defensive. In response to the primarily offensive tactics of
Tatar hordes of highly-mobile cavalry, the Cossacks developed the tabord,
subsequently applied against the heavy lancers of the Polish army. As few
defensive positions existed on the plains of Zaporozhia, any body of 17th
century infantry remained at the mercy of the mass of mounted Tatar archers or
the shock force of Polish heavy cavalry. As a result Cossacks quickly developed
a knack for digging fieldworks. More importantly, they began to take their
defenses with them, in the form of wagons. Thus, "because of the danger
there is in crossing those plains, the Cossacks go in taborts, that is, they
travel in the middle of their carts, which march in two files on their flanks,
eight or ten of them in the front, and as many in the rear, they themselves are
in the middle...the best mounted among them about their taborts, with a
centinel posted a quarter of a league before them, another at the same distance
behind, and one upon each flank. If these discover Tartars, they make a sign
and the tabort halts. If the Tartars are discovered first, the Cossacks beat
them, and if the Tartars discover the Cossacks first, they give them a fierce
assault by way of surprise in their tabort."20
The tabord in this way provided mobile fortifications in an environment
requiring frequent movement and allowing little time for entrenching. It was
highly effective against Tatars. Beauplan related his own experience in
resisting five hundred Tatars with fifty or sixty Cossacks in their tabord.
When the Cossacks came into conflict with the Poles, Cossack forces naturally
used the tabord against the Polish heavy cavalry. Despite Beauplan's contempt
for them,21 the weight and shock of a Polish lancer charge could
break any unranked troops in an open plain. Yet behind three to five rows of
large wagons, in any available advantageous position, and often applying
continuous musketry,22 Cossacks had little to fear. "They show
most valour and conduct when...covered with their carts (for they are very
expert at their fire-arms, their usual weapons) and in defending strong
places." Beauplan continued, "A hundred of these Cossacks, under the
shelter of their tabords, do not fear a thousand Polanders, nor as many
Tartars."23 The Hussites, also unable to field heavy cavalry to
match their opponents, developed similar if more sophisticated wagon tactics.
Thus Doroshenko describes the Cossack defenses at Kumeyki, "which had been
fortified by several lines of carts, in the Czech manner."24 In
this way, the Cossacks secured the key to resisting both Tatars and Poles
through the tabord. Whenever the Poles managed to break the tabord, however,
they defeated the Cossacks, as stated Beauplan, who fought at Kumeyki, in
Conversely, Beauplan seldom mentioned the Cossacks on the tactical offensive.
They proved much less effective in this role. Since the tabord favored the
defensive, they tended to march into an exposed position and await enemy
attack. An infantry attack generally consisted of dashing at the enemy,
entrenching very quickly, and trying to outlast the ensuing musketry. On the
attack the Cossacks were as unruly as any other body of unformed,
semi-organized troops. Moreover, Cossack cavalry proved much too light to face
Polish lancers. Beauplan wrote that they "are not very good a horseback. I
remember I have seen two hundred Polish horse rout two thousand of their best
Cossacks in ambush did prove danger-ous. Due to the tall steppe grass, whole
regiments could lay hidden anywhere. Cossacks constantly ambushed Tatars in
this way, as the latter converged to ford rivers. "The Tatars are afraid
of the Cossacks, who are not generally from those parts, and lay ambushes for
them."27 In attacking castles, the Cossacks often tried to
surprise an outnumbered garrison. Beauplan observed of his own Fort Kodak:
"One Solyman, general of certain rebellious Cossacks... perceiving that
the castle obstructed his return into the country, surprised it, and cut the
garrison to pieces."28 Otherwise, the Cossacks had to wait out
a long siege, playing upon the castle with their cannon. Thus, unless the
Cossacks could outnumber and surprise their enemy, they were largely
ineffectual in the assault. Even the famed Cossack counterattack at the Battle
of Khotyn in 1621 only succeeded with the achievement of tactical surprise over
exhausted Turkish troops.
Artillery occupied a special niche within the Cossack military system for a
number of reasons. First introduced to Cossack ranks in 1580, cannon rapidly
gained their favor. They captured numerous guns from both Turks and Poles, or
occasionally received them as gifts for military service.29 Cannon
used the Cossacks' coarse gunpower without decreased effectiveness. Moreover,
as musketeers tended to overshoot, especially in high grass, the cannon
provided a very effective, means of covering the broad ranges of the steppe. In
any case, Cossack guns helped to reduce the numerous castles garrisoned by
Poles. Finally, cannon generally posed the main threat to the tabord, so that
Cossacks needed cannon for counter-fire. Cannon were so important on the plains
that Beauplan even took several guns on a small reconnaissance.30 In
short, cannon formed an integral part of Cossack forces, even at this early
period. United behind a tabord bristling with cannon and muskets, Cossacks
could resist both Tatar and Pole successfully.
Cossack tactics at sea were highly aggressive. The keys to the success of the
Cossacks lay in speed and numbers. In late summer the Cossacks sent all their
provisions to the Sich. According to Beauplan, the entire raiding force moved
there later, an event sure to attract Turkish agents. "Five or six
thousand Cossacks all good able men, well armed, take the field... (who) in
three weeks time make ready eighty or a hundred boats...This is the flying army
of the Cossacks..."31 The Turkish squadron stationed off
Ochakiv, alerted but not yet reinforced, usually lost the Cossacks among the
diverse channels of the Dnieper mouth. Then, "The grand seignior sends
expresses all along the coast of Anatolia, Bulgaria, and Romania...But all this
is to no purpose, for they make such use of their time that in thirty-six or
forty hours time they are in Anatolia..."32 The Cossacks thus
moved in such numbers that they annihilated any local resistance, while their
speed enabled them to strike before the Porte's own troops moved.
Before returning, the Cossacks coasted, looking for easy targets and destroying
Turkish galleys to hide their moves. At all costs they avoided lengthy
conflicts, which used up powder, men, and time. Their return needed to be
equally fast; they slipped into the Dnieper by a number of routes and returned
before the reinforced Turkish squadron at Ochakiv discovered them. Cossack
raids therefore entailed rapid preparation, advances, and retreats to surprise
the Porte and large numbers to overwhelm local defenses. The Cossacks became so
proficient at raiding that, "The news that there were four Kozak boats on
the Black Sea gave the Turks more alarm than the Black
Cossack Black Sea squadrons usually avoided naval engagements and only won such
battles in restricted waters or at night. Their cholna, fast but not very
seaworthy as Beauplan noted, had to fight Turkish fleets if they met either in
choppy water or with the wind for the Turks. "When the gallies meet them
at sea in the day-time, they set them hard with their guns, scattering
them...Upon these occasions (the Cossacks ) commonly lose two-thirds of their
men..." The Turks simply stood out of range and fired on the fragile
craft, which could only reply with musketry and small cannon. On the other
hand, Cossacks sighting individual Turkish ships waited until nightfall to
board them, overwhelming a surprised foe. "Those in the ship or galley are
astonished to be attacked by eighty or a hundred vessels, which fill them full
of men and in a moment bear all down..."34 Beauplan also
mentioned how the Cossacks ran Turkish galleys ashore and overwhelmed them in
rivers and marshes, especially in the Scharbniza Woyskowa. "Many Turkish
galleys have been lost there as they pursued the Cossacks returning from the
Black Sea: for being got into this labyrinth, they could not find their way
back, and the Cossacks with their boats played upon them."35 So
despite their raiding capabilities, the Cossacks remained inferior to the Turks
in open water, only fighting in restricted waters or by surprise.
In the pages of Beauplan, Cossack naval tactics appeared to be an application
of Tatar raiding to a naval environment. Cossacks remained essentially
landsmen. Only on water for a few weeks at a time, they retained their steppe
ideas. Hence they never developed seaworthy ships or even useful sail rigging.
The Cossacks could not even handle Turkish vessels, "had they skill to
manage a ship or galley, they might carry it away, but they have not that
knack."36 Accordingly, when at sea they applied the tactics of
the Tatars on the steppe. Both moved quickly in large, lightly-armed groups,
avoiding battles and seeking booty. Cossacks only fought when cornered,
retained the sun, and individually carried quadrants, just as the Tatars
did.37 Both retained the same advantages, in their speed, ease of
mobilization, and ability to operate without bases of support. Although similar
Tatar tactics could have developed independently, the ever-present Tatar model
probably determined the form of Cossack naval tactics.
The military strategy glimpsed by Beauplan foreshadowed later developments
under Khmelnytsky. A secure base area, in Zaporozhia, composed a prime element
in this rudimentary strategy. The Sich was easily defended, having immense
spaces and the Dneiper around it, and the marshes of Scobnicza Woyskowa to draw
on for cannon, silver, and cholna. Revolting forces could, advance from there,
or return if necessary. The Poles crushed the 1637 uprising through the failure
of Hunia to move back on the Sich after Kumeyki. Beauplan also said of the
Tomakivka Sich, "(Khmelnytsky) had made choice of this place for his
retreat when he was threatened with siege, and it was there they began to
rendezvous when they rebell'd and took the field in May
1648."38 This strategy also required the support of the
populace in the Hadyach, Poltava, Ladizhin, Berdychiv rectangle south of Kiev
to consolidate initial Cossack gains and preserve them against the inevitable
Polish reaction.39 Oppressed peasants joined the Cossacks by the
tens of thousands, as Beauplan noted.40 Other considerations played
significant parts in this strategy. The failed revolts Beauplan mentioned had
little in the way of precise plans. Ultimately, the inability of the insurgents
to make castles untenable for the Poles, by their own arms or by foreign
intervention, determined the outcome. Thus, Beauplan's account first indicated
many of the elements Khmelnytsky incorporated into his uprising.
A Description of the Ukraine furthermore exemplified the Western
European view of the Cossacks. Western Europeans, including Beauplan, primarily
saw the military potential of the Cossacks against the Turks. The Porte had
seized all the Balkans except Montenegro and pushed up the Danube, spinning off
vassal states in Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia, and the Crimea. The Ottoman
garrison in Budapest threatened a future Turkish push to take Vienna and clear
the Danube Valley. This intrusion of a non-Christian, non-European power into
Europe evoked concern in the West. Erich Lassota's mission to the Tomakivka
Sich in 1594 and the subsequent Austrian-Cossack alliance first showed
Europeans the possibilities of Cossack aid in the upcoming struggle. The unique
tactics and easy access to Asia Minor of the Cossacks made them the only force
capable of a direct strike at the Porte. As the Gazette de France said,
"The position of Turkey has deteriorated because the Kozaks on their boats
entered the Black Sea, trying to reach Constantinople."41
Throughout his book, Beauplan emphasized the fighting qualities of the Cossacks
against the Tatars and Turks. His first mention of the Cossacks stated,
"(their) number at present amounts to 120,000 disciplin'd men, and ready
in less than eight days upon the least command they receive from the king.
These are the people, who very often, and almost every year, make excursions
upon the Euxine Sea, to the great detriment of the Turks... (reaching) within
three leagues of Constantinople..."42 In this manner, Beauplan
examined the Cossacks, and their military system, with an eye toward their use
against the Ottoman Empire, just as Western Europe looked on them as possible
allies against the Porte.
A Description of the Ukraine thus provides an authoritative account of
the Cossack military system prior to the Khmelnytsky Wars. Beauplan examined
the Cossacks' hetman, their inspiration and discipline, and their weapons in
detail. His comments on Ukrainian geography served to explain partially Cossack
tactics on land and sea. On land, the Cossacks developed the defensive tabord
to resist Polish and Tatar cavalry, yet their offensive techniques remained
much less effective. At sea however, Cossack raids emphasized speed and
numbers, avoiding unprofitable naval battles. Beauplan's accounts of Cossack
battles glimpsed the strategy subsequently developed by Khmelnytsky.
Moreover, he exemplified Western Europe's view of the Cossacks as potential
allies against the Turks. Unfortunately, Beauplan gave few insights into
questions of Cossack military organization, specific applications of
discipline, or the relationship between the armed peasant and Cossack.
Nevertheless, A Description of the Ukraine remains the best source for
the Cossack military system before Khmelnytsky.
1 Michael Hrushevsky, A History of the Ukraine. Ed. O.J.
Frederiksen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941), pp. 160-1.
2 Volodymyr Sichnsky, The Ukraine in Foreign Comments and
Descriptions: From the Sixth to Twentieth Century, (New York :
Ukrainian Congress Committee of American, 1933), pp. 67-70.
3 A Collection of Voyages and Travels. 6 vols. (London: printed for
Henry Lintot and John Osborn, at the Golden Ball in Pater-noster Row, 1744),
Vol. I: A description the of Ukraine Containing Several Provinces of the
Kingdom of Poland, Lying between the Confines of Muscovy, and the Borders of
Transylvania, Together with their Customs, Manner of Life, and how they manage
their Wars, by the Sieur De Beauplan, p. 464.
4 Ibid., p. 465.
5 Dmytro Doroshenko, A Survey of Ukrainian History. Ed. Oleh W.
Gerus (Winnipeg: Trident Press Limited, p. 183.
6 Beauplan, p. 449.
7 Ibid., p. 464.
8 Ibid., p. 448.
10 Ibid., p. 461.
11 Ibid., p. 465.
12 Ibid., p. 453.
13 Ibid., p. 465.
14 Ibid., p. 448.
15 Ibid., p. 464.
16 Ibid., p. 465.
17 The only recorded use of Cossack Cholna out of the Black Sea occurred
in the Baltic Sea in 1635. The Cossacks captured a Swedish ship in the face of
a Swedish fleet.
18 Beauplan, p. 465.
19 Ibid., p. 448.
20 Ibid., p. 462.
21 Ibid., p. 478-9.
22 Ibid., p. 466.
23 Ibid., p. 448.
24 Doroshenko, p. 206.
25 Beauplan, p. 452.
26 Ibid., p. 448.
27 Ibid., p. 454.
29 I. Krypiakeyvych, "Armed Forces," The Ukraine, A
Concise Encyclopedia. Ed. Volodymyr Kubyovyc (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1963) Vol. II, p. 1055.
30 Beauplan, p. 452.
31 Ibid., p. 465.
33 The French envoy to the Porte as reported by Hrushevsky, p. 250.
34 Beauplan, p. 466.
35 Ibid., p. 453.
36 Ibid., p. 466.
37 Ibid., p. 460.
38 Ibid., p. 453.
39 M.P. Bazhan, ed. Soviet Ukraine. (Kiev: Academy of Sciences of
the Uk rainian S.S.R.) fig., p.78
40 Beauplan, p. 449.
41 Sichynsky, p. 66.
42 Beauplan, p. 448.
Beauplan, the Sieur de. A Description of the Ukraine, Containing Several
provinces of the Kingdom of Poland, Lying between the Confines of Muscovy, and
the Borders of Transylvania. A Collection of Voyages and Travels.
Vol. I. London; printed for Henry Lintcot and John Osborn, at the Golden Ball
in Pater-noster Row, 1744.
Chevalier, Pierre. A Discourse of the Orgin, Countrey, Manners,
Government, and Religion of the Cossacks, with another of the Precopian Tartars
and the History of the Wars of the Cossacks Against Poland. London: printed
for Hobart Kemp, 1672.
Clark, G.N. "Armies; Navies; Frontiers; Relations with Asia by
Land." The Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929.
Doroshenko, Dmytro. A Survey of Ukrainian History. Ed. Oleh W.
Gerus. Winnipeg: Trident Press Limited, 1975.
Hrushevsky, Michael. A History of Ukraine. Ed. O.J. Friederiksen.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941.
Krypiakevych, I. "Armed Forces." Ukraine, A Concise
Encyclopedia. Ed. Volodymyr Kubyovyc. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McGuire, Michael W. Jan Zizka and the Hussite Wars. Conflict
Historical Study No. 1. San Diego: Simulations Design Corporation, 1976.
Roberts, Michael. The Military Revolution, 1560-1660. Belfast:
Printer for the Queen's University of Belfast.
Sichynsky, Volodymyr."Description of the Ukraine by Sieur de
Beauplan." The Ukraine in Foreign Comments and Descriptions: From the
Sixth to Twentieth Century. New York: Ukrainian Congress Committee of
See the sections in Rusarmy for illustrations of cossacks during reign of
Peter I and