While researching material for a historical novel about a Cossack family of the Ukraine and Crimea, I found a remarkable amount of provocative and fascinating material. For instance, the Ukraine and Crimea has been both a fulcrum point and thoroughfare throughout history, but one of the most intriguing aspects of this region is that the cossacks embraced freedom, while the rest of the world was locked in slavery and imperialism. Their idea of freedom was similar to the feeling of galloping a horse over the seemingly endless steppe; they were often illiterate and their concept of freedom might be considered primitive, but their idea of freedom was a beacon to enslaved people from all over the known world.
Now, some white Europeans and Black Americans will be insulted at the idea of referring to the feudalism of Europe, North Africa, Eurasia, and Russia as slavery, but it was slavery. When you own the land and the people on the land, we can call it slavery. The cossacks or more specifically the Zaporizhzha Cossacks (since cossacks included horse cultures of the steppe from Poland to Siberia and there was considerable variation of culture and lifestyle) offered freedom to any escaped slaves from the Islamic Middle East, Europe, Eurasia, or Russia. To be accepted by these cossacks, a runaway slave only needed to accept the Ukrainian Orthodox faith and volunteer for either the cossack cavalry or the infantry.
These egalitarian nomads didn’t look at race or ethnicity, they judged men on whether they were willing to fight to preserve their freedom and whether they were willing to accept the Ukrainian Orthodox faith. Consequently, their numbers grew until Russia under Catherine II felt threatened.
It’s true, they were mercenaries who fought for whomever was willing to pay the most, but they preferred fighting for Christians. These early horse men lived the concept of freedom, when most of the rest of the world lived in the shackles of slavery
Originally, my project was to focus on the Cossacks, but the geographical area played a major role in producing and nurturing this culture of horse warriors for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. It is part of the Great Steppe, an area stretching from Poland to
The Ukraine and Crimea have been considered the breadbasket of Europe, but it also offers a natural gateway for travel from Europe to Asia and from Russia to the Middle East. Mounted armies could conduct raids and feed horses and men during long marches and through the winter months while staging for invasions. The Huns of Attila and the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan found the Ukraine to have excellent pastures and staging areas for conquest.
It is the nature of armies, DNA traces are invariably left behind and sometimes men are left behind as well. This cultural and genetic infusion of different groups surely built a dynamic gene pool, since they have been influential in much of the world’s history. The Huns, Celts, Mongols, Russians, Turks, Germanic tribes, and French all left their mark in the Ukraine; however, one of the more unique and noble aspects of the area and its people were the Zaporizhzhya (translation below or downstream of the rapids) Cossacks of the Dnieper River.
These cossacks were mercenaries; they would prefer to fight for a Christian benefactor, but if the Muslims offered more gold, they would fight for Islam. It was probably this quirk that irritated Catherine the Great; it was simple economics to want these Cossacks under her control as part of her own military. They were expensive, well-trained experienced cavalry who might turn their lances toward Moscow.
In the spring of 1775, a month after a victorious campaign against the Muslims, Catherine ordered her troops and artillery to surround the Zaporizhaha Sich (headquarters and main village) during the night. The cossacks thought the Russians were their friends and were lax with security, they failed to post security. That morning, they were given two hours to surrender, disband, and join the Russian cavalry or the Zaporizhzha Sich would be destroyed with artillery.
The cossack leader asked for time to consider the request and later asked permission for fifty cossacks to go fishing. Since the Cossack Sich numbered over 50,000 warriors, the fifty were allowed to go fishing. However, 5,000 Cossacks picked up their fly rods and left with their families for the lower Danube, where they set up a new sich under the protection of a Muslim Sultan.
The Russian general was enraged upon hearing of the trick and moved to disarm the remaining 45,000 cossacks. The cossack leader was imprisoned and the lesser leaders were banished from the Russian territory and the sich was burned.
Most of these cossacks were incorporated into the regular cavalry and many were instrumental in defeating Napoleon’s Army during the invasion of 1812. Using a scorched earth strategy, they burned everything in front of the French advance. They also attacked the supply trains trying to reach the French soldiers, and lanced the foragers sent out to find food for the horses and men.
Napoleon expected a quick campaign, with a major battle and a victorious march back to France in a month or two. He left Prussia with over 650,000 men, the largest army ever assembled up to that time, with 250,000 horses.
He lost 10,000 horses the first week to lush spring grass and immature rye in cultivated fields. It was a wet spring and every horseman knows the wet lush grasses of spring are dangerous for horses and spring rains turn dirt roads into quagmires that bog down men, horses and wagons, and the roads become worse with more traffic.
Each man carried 4 days rations in Napoleon’s invention, the rucksack, but by the end of the first week, they were hungry and soon they began to starve. Six months later, only 43,000 soldiers were still alive.
The cossacks waged a continuous guerrilla warfare and the French cavalry was ill-equipped to deal with these marauders and ghosts of the steppe. The cossacks knew the country well and had horses that were used to the countryside. In fact, the only troops who could stand up to the cossack raiders were the Mamelukes. Imported from Egypt, as Napoleon’s personal bodyguards; ironically, they were of the same genetic stock as the cossacks of Ukraine.
It was from the dynamic ethnic groups like the Zaporozhians that the Egyptians secured recruits for the Mameluke cavalry and Barbary Pirates, Abducted as small boys, these kids trained as warriors their whole life. The boys were converted to Islam and in the beginning, the purity of the blood was so revered, no son of a Mameluke could be a Mameluke, only abducted Christian boys from Southern Russia could become Mamelukes. Eventually, the slave warriors revolted and gained control of Egypt for 400 years with a strict military society. The Egyptians served as slaves and servants during those 400 years. Even today, blue eyed, blonde haired people can be seen in Egypt’s elite classes.
Napoleon was so impressed with the Mameluke Cavalry, during his invasion of Egypt, he recruited and kept a cavalry company of Mamelukes; wearing their colorful native garb, they served as his personal bodyguards. They were with him until Waterloo; where the last surviving forty Mamelukes staged a suicidal charge against Wellington’s infantry and artillery rectangles as a sign of loyalty to their emperor.
These are the same Mamelukes the Marines have been singing about when they refer to the Shores of Tripoli and it is the origin of their officers’ ceremonial sword, The Mameluke Sword. It was these warriors, who made the leather collar or stock worn by Thomas Jefferson’s Marines a functional part of the uniform; since the leather collar protected the carotid artery from the Mameluke Sword. The leather collars are gone, but the Marines are still proud to be called Leathernecks.
During the invasion of Russia, the Mamalukes were the only warriors who could stand up to the cossacks and fight them on even terms. (Cossacks maintained a tactic of never engaging an enemy force, unless they had a numerical advantage.)
Although there were many factors contributing to Napoleon’s defeat, including severe weather (torrential spring rains, intense summer heat, and the coldest winter in memory), and the reluctance of the Russian high-command to engage in typical Napoleonic battle tactics and risk a major defeat, but it was the cossacks with their burn everything and kill anyone who ventured beyond the main convoys that demoralized the French and defeated Napoleon’s army far beyond the typical defeat of battle.
The logistics of being left without resupply was devastating. For instance, Napoleon had to carry over a million pounds of horseshoes and nails on some of his 60,000 wagons, but they ran out of nails after turning back from Moscow and had no suitable iron to make horseshoe nails. The frosts of a devastating winter came early in 1812 and when a horse threw a shoe, it was only a matter of days before the frozen ground wore his hoof to the point that the horse was crippled and rendered useless.
The cold winter was magnified, because of Napoleon’s anticipation of a short campaign and they neglected to bring winter uniforms and cold is much worse when you are starving. The were dying of exposure and hypothermia early in the fall.
The willingness of the Russians to destroy everything and condemn their own peasants to starvation was difficult for Napoleon to accept. He wanted subjugation of his conquered states not devastation. He planned to rule the world. A country that could not produce wealth for France was of no interest to Napoleon, he was an imperialist who wanted to control the world economically. Devastation was a waste of resources and materials. He kept asking his generals why the Russians were destroying the greatest farmland of Eurasia and no one could offer an explanation.
For hundreds of years, the Cossacks of Eurasia found new recruits among serfs or slavs, (the polite name for European slaves of this era and almost everyone but gentry and monarchy was a slave) fleeing from the Polish-Lithuanian Alliance, the Turks, the Tatars, or the monarchy of Russia. The Cossacks were a military society and there were infantry units these escaped slaves could serve with, if a man lacked the qualities needed to ride and fight from the back of a horse.
Horsemen usually start riding at an early age, so joining the infantry was an opportunity for the man without prerequisite horse skills. To be accepted, a man had to be willing to serve as a warrior and he had to accept the Ukrainian Orthodox faith.
They were called upon to fight in many wars: the Great Northern War, the Seven Years War, the Crimean War, Napoleonic Wars, Caucus War, and numerous Russo-Persian Wars.
The final Tsarist regime used the Cossacks to suppress the revolutionary movements, and during the Russian Civil War, the Cossacks comprised the center of the White Army, an anti-Bolshevik movement. It was a brutal civil war between the Reds and the Whites that relied heavily on horse warfare and trains.
The Don and Kuban Cossacks were the first ”nations” to declare war on the Bolsheviks. In 1918, they declared independence from Russia and formed independent states: the Ukrainian State, the Don (River) Republic, and the Kuban People’s Republic.
The bitter victory of the Red Army led to Stalin’s Decossackization program against the Cossack nations and the man-made (Stalin) famine of 1932-33, known as the Holodomor. A tragedy that starved millions of the Cossack people.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cossacks began to return to Russia; now, the Russian census lists Cossack as an ethnicity; however, even though they have the genes of those old horsemen, the chain of horsemanship, the knowledge and culture of the horse has been broken, perhaps forever.
Their homeland is partially responsible for the tragedy of their history. The Ukraine has been considered the breadbasket of Europe and the Great Steppe would support large hordes of mounted warriors.
Throughout history, it has taken strong men to defend this rich fertile land from the greed of much larger nation states. At times, the men who held the land seemed brutal and without remorse, but the defense of their homeland and freedom required a valiant warrior and the culture produced the Zaporozhian Cossack.
My historical fiction is the story the Romanovs, a Cossack family of the original Zaporozhian sich (a cossack village serving as headquarters). The story begins in 1775 during the reign of Catherine the Great. Her fear or distrust of the Zaporozhian Cossacks led to treachery against the Zaporozhians and initiated the saga of the Romanov family within a template of historical fiction. Thirty-seven years later, the Corsican gangster and despot, Napoleon Bonaparte, created both good fortune and tragedy for the Romanov family with the French invasion of Russia in 1812.
The research into this rich area and the cossack culture with its strong belief in freedom has been overwhelming and inspiring. This small area has been a pivotal point for history and once again, Putin and the Western World seems poised for war over this little area we know so little about and many of us would be hard-pressed to find the area on an unmarked map.
My story accidentally separates the family in two groups: one lands in Argentina and one ends up on the Great Plains north of Texas in the spring of 1813. It’s a fanciful story that brings these wild-horsemen of the steppe to the great grasslands of North and South America. Hopefully your comments will aid me in whether I should stick with the original story or keep these warriors on the steppe for 200 years.
An excerpt: Nikolai was given small lariats from his father when he began to walk. The skills for throwing a loop developed until he could throw a loop around a man’s neck at thirty paces while riding a galloping horse, as calmly as a man drinking water. However, a second after the rawhide rope landed the deadly loop tightened and broke the man’s neck in the blink of an eye. The next instant would have the man bouncing wildly behind Nikolai’s horse, while Nikolai was preparing his next loop.
Nikolai became a legend at 13 years of age. During a regional dispute with the Muslim Turks, Nicolai observed twelve Turks chasing six Cossacks across the Ottoman controlled Steppe. Nikolai charged out from a stand of Poplars, behind the Turks, armed with only three lariats and a lance. Riding a large powerful horse that was barely broke to ride, Nikolai rode up behind the last Turk, threw his rawhide loop around the Turk’s neck and yanked him from his saddle, his horse tightened the loop with his speed and the Turk was dead. He killed the next two with the same tactic and rode past the rest of the Turks on the left flank and Nikolai’s green horse was running hard to outrun the dead men bouncing behind him. Nikolai kept his horse under nominal control and rode up to the left flank of the Cossacks with his semi-wild horse gaining speed with each stride.
The other Cossacks heard Nikolai singing a Cossack song and turned to see him with three Turks bouncing wildly behind a horse that was scared out of its wits. They decided the odds were improving and turned to fight.
The Turks were in a state of shock, upon seeing their companions bouncing wildly behind a horse that was running in stark terror with a prepubescent boy on his back. They drifted into a momentary state of shock and inaction at this strange vision on their left, and this was their undoing.
The older Cossacks turned and leveled their lances to do battle and bore down on the distracted Turks.
When Nikolai saw that his companions had turned to fight, he cut loose the three Turks and charged the Turks from the flank. He lunged his horse over the back of the nearest horse, killing its rider with the impact of his horse’s head and impaled another Turk under the armpit and through the lung and heart with his lance before his horse stopped in the mass of fighting men and swirling horses. The battle lasted less than a minute. The boy, Nikolai, had killed 5 men on a wild half-trained horse.
The six Cossacks realized they had a legend in their midst and from that day, Nikolai Romanov’s name was spoken with reverence and caution by Cossacks from Poland to Siberia.
Nikolai was a horseman, among Cossacks that was not unusual, but it was his skill with the lariat and lance that made him unique and dangerous among men who were considered to be some of the most dangerous men in the world.
Cossacks had felt a mixture of awe and fear when they saw the coiled rawhide lariats hanging from the saddles of other Cossacks, since the days of the Huns, who introduced these rawhide loops of death, in the 5th Century, but unless cossacks were personal friends of Nikolai, they liked to stay at least 60 feet away from him and his rawhide ropes.
The rawhide lariat was a weapon that had to be started and learned as a child, and mastered as an adult. The men in Nikolai’s family had used the lariat for working cattle and horses for countless generations.
The arguments of emperors mattered little to the Cossack; for him, war was a chance to live heroically and to acquire wealth. Napoleon’s march to Moscow and his retreat was going to provide the opportunity to make Nikolai’s family rich for two hundred years.
Napoleon was already committed to a peninsular war in Portugal and Spain. He was about to break one of the cardinal rules of war; don’t fight in two different theaters. However, his chief nemesis was Britain and to stop the English, he was ready to gamble everything.
Napoleon assumed he could invade Western Russia, win a decisive victory and win Russia’s compliance. To accomplish this plan based on weak logic for a dubious result, he put together a multi-national army of over 650,000 soldiers from 20 different countries. They staged for the invasion in Prussia and planned a march in the direction of Moscow. Publicly, he announced the war was to liberate Poland-Lithuania.
A Napoleonic army required many horses; the Grande Armee started with 250,000. Thirty thousand were designated for the artillery. They pulled the cannons, and the wagons with powder, and shot. Eighty thousand horses were designated for the cavalry. The remainder pulled vehicles of every type. The headquarters company had 50 wagons and carriages requiring 650 head of horses.
It took 5 days for the army to cross the Nieman River at three different locations. The army would travel in three main elements of several different corps of 20,000 to 100,000 men. Each corps would be self-sufficient with its own general. The commands were given a great deal of autonomy as long as all operations were executed toward the goals set by the emperor and a cohesion was maintained.
Supplying the 600,000-man army in the East would be expensive. The men carried four days rations on their backs, in the Napoleon’s new invention for the infantry, the backpack. Besides the four days worth of rations in each backpack, there were three weeks of rations packed in the wagons for each man.
Normally, the men were expected to forage and gather feed for themselves and their horses. The emperor planned a short campaign of a month to 6 weeks. but failed to anticipate the ruthless cossacks.
Horses need 30 pounds of forage a day to maintain vitality. Napoleon figured each horse at 20 pounds per day. This was the minimum and surely didn’t figure the added stress of mud roads and winter weather and work, conditions that require even more feed for a horse to maintain its health. Each horse could be expected to wear out a set of shoes every 4 to 8 weeks depending on the terrain. The average set of shoes with nails would weigh 2.5 to 3 pounds. If Napoleon planned on two sets of new shoes for every horse, he would have started with 1.5 million pounds of shoes and nails. When the horses left Moscow, there were no more horseshoe nails or iron to make nails.
Napoleon’s army slowed to a crawl when the heavy wagons and the artillery pieces became bogged down in the mire of dirt roads turned to mud. Wagon wheels broke and the shoes were pulled off horses in the mud and the more a mud road is used the worse it becomes.
The emperor’s plan to have his troops and horses live off the land became a sad joke; the Cossacks attacked every party that left the main column and killed or captured the soldiers.
When the spring rains quit and the land began to dry, the Cossacks implemented the Scorched Earth policy and the French were deprived of all available supplies.
These were a few of the problems Napoleon had not anticipated.
Field Marshal Barclay, a Scotsman, had fought against Napoleon and understood the weaknesses and logistical problems of a large army. He is the one who adopted the scorched earth policy and the continual tactical withdrawals and the use of Cossacks as guerrillas. He wanted to weaken Napoleon before engaging the best and largest army in the world. His plan was working flawlessly.
The peasants were ruined by the scorched earth policy and faced starvation, but the Russians didn’t seem to care.
Usually it is invaders who lay waste to the countryside, but the Russians did far more damage to the countryside than the French would have considered. Besides, they had no intention of destroying Russia; they wanted to establish dominance or a measure of control and go on back to Western Europe. They wanted prosperous countries under their influence, not burned out ruins.
The scorched earth policy had the French bewildered, but they continued their march farther east to confront the Russian army and attain the victory Napoleon wanted so desperately, but every day marching east, made the army more vulnerable. The possibility of being annihilated was now a consideration, but Napoleon had never been defeated in a major campaign. It was unthinkable for him to consider defeat by a second rate army without a major battle.
The Cossacks like Nikolai and his sons harassed stragglers, non-combatants, and the supply lines. The Russian Cossacks denied the French the feed for horses and men; they were hungry marching into Russia and it was said by Napoleon that an army marches on its stomach.
The campaign was doomed from the start, but the Russians had two more devastating strategies: they refused to stand and fight a major battle, thus denying the Russians the victory they sought, and Typhus.
The Southern half of Napoleon’s army crossed the Dnieper and advanced toward Smolensk, Nikolai’s home territory; in fact, Nikolai was tasked with burning much of the countryside he considered his home. Napoleon kept hoping to find an army to engage, but found only the irregular horsemen of the steppe who rode in quickly to deliver a bewildering attack and then disappear.
He admired them almost as much as he hated them.
They were excellent tacticians at retreating to draw a cavalry unit away from the main column and then unleashing a devastating ambush on the flank with a numerical advantage. In fact, they never committed to battle without a numerical advantage. The cossacks were on fast horses and the they knew the countryside well, but they didn’t limit their attacks to the troops; the disruption of the supply wagons the army needed so desperately and the raids on the non-combatants began to frustrate and demoralize the French army. The scorched earth strategy began to starve the French Army and its horses. The French scouting parties often met the rawhide lariats of Nikolai and his teenaged sons and to complete the terror, French horsemen were often left hanging in trees by their necks as a warning to others who dared to venture too far from the army.
Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Russia, in 1812, had shown strategic advantage to using the Cossacks as raiders and scouts, against a modern 19th Century army, but in the past, they had often proved unreliable during engagements against traditional light or heavy cavalry. However, their abilities as raiders and scouts along with the psychological advantage their presence had on opposing forces made them valuable components of a modern army.
Napoleon pushed the French Army rapidly through Western Russia; they managed to win a few minor engagements, but the opportunity for a major battle continued to elude Napoleon, until the Russians took a stand at Smolensk, August 16-18. There was confusion and a Russian army was in the city by mistake. General Barclay de Tolly rushed in to relieve the army of General Bagration and after engaging the French in an inconclusive battle the Russians burned the city, blew up all the munitions, and made an escape deeper into Russia.
The Russians were destroying their own cities, villages, farms, and peasantry to destroy the French Army. The willingness of the Russians to inflict more damage and pain upon their own people than upon an army of invaders, defied the French sense of logic.
The Russian nobility became increasingly incensed with the loss of Russian land and the presumed French subjugation of Russian territory. They pressured Alexander I to make a stand before Napoleon walked into Moscow and they asked that Field Marshal Barclay de Tolly be relieved of his command.
Alexander I capitulated to his noblemen; perhaps to keep them from undertaking more radical measures to defend Russia, including assassinating him like they did his father. Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, an old veteran was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal. General Barclay was relieved of his command but maintained his rank as a general.
Kutuzov dug in on the hillsides, just outside of Borodino, a small town, 70 miles west of Moscow. The French arrived and prepared to engage the Russians on September 7, 1812. The battle was the biggest and bloodiest of the Napoleonic Wars. There were 250,000 troops engaged and over 70,000 casualties.
The main dynamic of the battle was the French struggle to capture a large redoubt in the center, the Raevsky Redoubt near the village of Borodino. Napoleon rejected the suggestion of Marshal Davout to flank the left of the French and concentrated his forces on the Raevsky Redoubt a massive open-backed redoubt with 19, 12-pounder cannons.
The Russian Right was the strongest, under General Barclay, with heavy artillery placements. It was never attacked and Barclay’s troops and artillery didn’t engage in the battle.
General Bagration was on the Left in an area of uneven terrain; establishing a strong defensive line or perimeter on this terrain was difficult.
Because of a lack of intelligence on the condition of the Russian army and because of the dense artillery smoke, Napoleon did not pursue the Russian army when they withdrew and he did not engage the Imperial Guard the only fresh troops he had. Consequently, Napoleon lost the chance to crush the Russian army for the decisive victory he sought.
Napoleon accepted his partial victory with 28,000 casualties, the loss of 49 generals and 1,928 officers total. To be wounded in the French army was the equivalent of a death sentence. There was no food for the healthy soldiers and there were no medicines or bandages; starvation, disease, and neglect killed the wounded by the thousands.
The Russians lost 44,000 men and 22 generals.
Historian Gwynne Dyer made the comparison of Borodino’s carnage to the equivalent of losing a 747 fully loaded every 5 minutes for 8 hours.
It took Napoleon seven days to recover and march into a deserted Moscow. At the gates to the city, Napoleon waited to be greeted and given the key to the city, while listening to the usual pleas not to destroy, plunder, and burn the city. He waited in vain; eventually, he sent in troops to find out what was going on in the city.
There was no delegation to meet him and sue for peace, but the prisons and asylums had released all their prisoners and patients to give the French the option of dealing with social misfits and miscreants.
Napoleon faced the cold days of fall and the grim reality of a starving army, an army that was slowly disintegrating into a chaotic mob. On the first night of the occupation, Moscow began to burn. Staying outside of the city, Napoleon and his staff rushed to see what was going on; they were nearly trapped and consumed by the fires.
The Russians knew the desperate plight of the French army; they used propaganda and disinformation schemes to trick Napoleon into staying as long as possible. The Emperor was told: the Russian Army was suffering from low morale and discontent; the Russian troops were said to be ready to surrender.
Napoleon waited through a month of frustration and starvation in Moscow, before deciding to leave. During the occupation, the French troops looted the city of anything of value that they could carry. There was gold and silver in the churches and hidden in homes; if it was found, it was stolen and carried away as booty. This gold and silver was eyed by Nikolai and his sons.
Kutuzov knew his army could not survive another Borodino. He left Moscow ahead of the French, and traveled southeast until he reached the Moskva River; he crossed the river and turned west, to camp at the village of Tarutina near Kaluga, close to the confluence of the Moskva and the Oka rivers, 150 kilometers from Moscow. Cossacks set up diversionary maneuvers to keep Murat and his army from finding the Russian army; eventually, the French realized the tactic and camped near Tarutino, to keep Kutuzov under observation.
On 18 October, Kutuzov ordered his generals to launch a morning attack on Murat (26,000 men) after a night march through the forest. In the morning, the only troops that were in position to attack were Cossack cavalry; the infantry was still lost in the forest. The Cossacks attacked without support and captured transport wagons and cannons.
It was in these wagons that the Romanov family found gold and silver looted from the Moscow churches. They wrapped the gold and silver in their blankets and tied them to their saddles
Murat had to retreat to keep from being surrounded; he lost 2,500 men killed and had 2,000 men captured. The Russians lost 1,200 killed.
Napoleon was furious. He felt the world would think his retreat was a result of being defeated at this minor battle; consequently, he moved the army south to engage and defeat the Russian army at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets.
The battle of Maloyaroslavets was another sharp engagement and tactical retreat, for the Russians, despite being dug in and occupying the high ground.
Napoleon’s army was facing winter without cold-weather uniforms and almost no rations for the horses and men. The exhausted troops and worn-out horses of the Grande Armée, began the brutal winter march.
The tactics of the Cossack guerrillas were a nightmare for the French army as it staggered toward the Nieman River, almost 600 miles away. For Nikolai and his sons, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. They watched for a group of soldiers guarding a wagon too closely or pulling a two wheeled cart by hand. This behavior indicated the presence of gold, since everything else but food had lost all value to these dying men of Napoleon’s army.
When the opportunity was right, Nikolai and his sons would ride down on the weakened men and kill them. Napoleon’s soldiers were so weak, from exposure and starvation, killing them with lances and sabers was easy. Some of the men still carried the stolen gold and silver looted from the homes and churches of Moscow, but dead men have no use for gold and silver.
The winter was the coldest ever recorded or remembered, but the Cossacks were in their home country. They knew how to survive and how to keep horses alive and healthy in the -20 Celsius.
Disease, starvation, and exposure were killing the French at a tremendous rate. The wounded on wagons were routinely pushed off to die on the road and lighten the load.
Two days east of the river Berezina, a tributary of the Dnieper, Napoleon ordered the 60 wagons that carried the bridge building boats, the tools for building bridges, the forges, and coal for working the iron fittings required for connecting bridge timbers, to be burned. He was trying to free up the horses that were pulling the bridge building equipment and because of the intense cold, he assumed the river would be frozen, but fast flowing rivers are not always predictable.
General Jean-Baptiste Eble, Chief of Pontonniers had the foresight to save six wagons of tools and two wagons of coal. He ordered each of his men to carry a tool and one timber clamping iron for bridge timbers. These tools and this man’s decision saved Napoleon’s Army from complete annihilation at the Berezina River.
For some bizarre reason, the ice broke away on the Berezina and it was flowing freely. The Cossacks had already burned the bridges that crossed the river, and a Russian army was camped on the other side of the 70-meter river.
A diversionary movement was executed to the south to draw the Russian army on the opposite bank to follow the fast moving army to block a possible crossing down river. The bridge builders used the time bought by the sacrificial movement of the diversionary army and jumped into the fast moving freezing cold river to build two bridges.
Their boats had been burned, and the bridge builders braved the cold water and the enemy fire to build two bridges. They all perished, including their general who died from exposure a few days later, but their brave efforts allowed the army to cross and establish a defensive position on the opposite side of the river. The crossing continued for two days and it was said that the men who made it across the river never walked on wood, they only stepped on dead men and horses. The bridges came apart at least twice and the bridge builders repaired the bridges so that the crossing could continue, by the second day the progress to get to the the bridges was so slow they were only moving a few feet an hour. The fit combatants crossed first, and after two days, before the last of the combat troops were allowed to cross, the bridges were set ablaze to keep the Russians from using the bridges. The throng continued onto the burning bridges because the troops in the rear couldn’t see the disaster ahead, the soldiers in front were pushed into the fire or into the water because of the thousands pushing from behind.
At this point, Nikolai and his son turned to the East. They had seen enough modern warfare and the utter stupidity of generals. They had enough gold and silver to last several lifetimes; it was now time to put the most daring part of Nikolai’s plan into action.
Following the crossing of the Berezina, Napoleon left the army, after much urging from his advisors and with the unanimous approval of his Marshals. He returned to Paris by carriage and sledge to protect his position as Emperor and to raise another army to resist the advancing Russians. The campaign effectively ended on 14 December 1812, not quite six months from its outset, with the last surviving French troops leaving Russian soil.
Nikolai had seen Napoleon several times, but Napoleon always had a numerical advantage, killing him was never an option, His army was destroyed and Nikolai considered the losses to be beyond comprehension. He never thought there was so much wealth in all the world; yet, Napoleon squandered everything because of poor decisions. He never wanted to subject himself or his sons to the leadership of morons, of that he was sure.
Historically, Cossack loyalties were determined by who was willing to pay the most or by who was in power. However, by incorporating the Cossacks into Russian cavalries, the Tsar was breaking down these wild tribal groups with enforced domesticity.
By 1812, Nikolai was 45 years old, had three sons, two daughters, three wives, sixty head of good horses, and over a hundred head of cows. He and his sons moved the livestock and their families to the north to be out of the path of Napoleon’s army. He gave his two younger sons three quarters of his gold and told them to continue on towards St. Petersburg and to sell the cattle and wait for his return. The men sewed gold coins into their coats so that individual coins could be retrieved, as they were needed.
He sent two young Cossacks with his family. Nikolai was a hero to them and they were proud to be on a grand adventure with this famous Cossack warrior. It would have been unthinkable for them to ask of plans. They were willing to be a part of Nikolai’s future for the adventure and the glory.
Although Nikolai was illiterate, he had heard of the vast steppe in America that was there for the taking and he wanted to take his share. He and his sons had no idea why Catherine the Great disbanded the Zaporozhian Cossacks, but he was tired of being manipulated by the whims of the Tsar and the pettiness of the modern military; he was ready to migrate to the New World.
Mexico was offering free land in Texas and he wanted to live his life as a free man without worrying about a Tsar or a tyrant like Napoleon.
When Nikolai met his family, west of St. Petersburg, they loaded provisions, tents, and blankets on packhorses and rode down to the docks. He found two British Clippers bound for Galveston, Texas. Each ship would carry twenty head of horses in standing stalls on deck and half the supplies and humans. These were cargo ships with only one cabin for passengers.
The captain told him, his crew would build standing stalls on deck and Nikolai’s crew would be responsible for taking care of the horses. A storm could sweep all the horses overboard, but if they had perfect weather, they would be lucky if ten survived the trip.
Nikolai picked four stallions and fourteen mares for each ship. He chose his youngest two sons and a Cossack to go with him. His oldest son and another Cossack would come on the other ship with the rest of the horses.
Passage to the New World was a risky gamble, but under the circumstances they had no option of they were going to keep their wealth and their lives.
The ships would stop to trade at Lisbon and along the Atlantic seaboard of Spain. They would then head down to Morocco and to the Guinea Coast of Africa
During the trades, Nikolai asked why there was a six-foot shelf extending out from the bulkhead two-feet beneath the deck. The captain looked him in the eye and told him it was for their human cargo.
Nikolai knew Cossacks who rode and fought for the Muslims of Persia and they spoke of slaves owned by the Muslims. The idea was intriguing to Nikolai, but unless a slave could ride like a Cossack, the idea of owning a slave was hardly worth the effort. He may as well of owned the men in his command. They obeyed him like he was a god, but when they were done he would send them home and they were responsible for feeding their families and animals; there was no way in hell he wanted the fulltime responsibility of owning someone.
Britain had outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade and used her Navy to enforce the law. Of course, Nikolai had no idea of the risk or the profits involved with trading teakettles for men, but he was intrigued and yet, even though he had killed many men, the idea of selling men into bondage was against his principles and concepts of freedom, and now that he was out from under the Tsar, he expected to be free like the Cossacks of the past on the steppe of Texas.
Nikolai and his crew sailed with the high tide that first evening. The Cossacks slept below decks, but during the day they were in the fresh air doting on the horses that were standing cross-tied in tie stalls. On the deck of the ship, the horses were expected to ride the unpredictable swells for the next three months, tied in a stall with only enough room to step forward or backward one step; the cold, the rain, the heat, and the storms were to be endured.
The ship stopped to trade in Portugal and Spain. They were trading American agricultural products rum, whiskey, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, molasses, corn and cotton from the New World for European iron, industrial goods, and agricultural implements.
Tribal chieftains of Africa and Muslim slave traders wanted the industrial goods of Europe and they were willing to provide human flesh for the farms and ranches of the Caribbean and the Americas. The British Navy could only slow the trade of Black humans; the American made clippers were fast and there were huge profits to be made in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The slave traders benefitted many people. The tribal chieftains who could supply guns, mirrors, metal cooking vessels, and iron knives, to people who had just walked out of the Stone Age, were considered great leaders. Selling Africans from other tribes seemed insignificant to the treasures of industrial Europe. During the process, the chieftains would acquire a few gold coins and become men of great wealth. The Muslim traders had no people to entice with trinkets and copper kettles; they preferred gold to trade for their share of human misery and the Trans-Atlantic slavers had gold to offer as well.
The planters of the New World could pursue their dreams of empire with cheap labor. They desperately needed the blacks to work their farms and ranches. The Indians weren’t suited to the drudgery of farm life and would run away or die. The African was the answer to the labor problem; although, the African was often difficult to train or season, and they often spent time at special breaking farms in the Caribbean for training, before they were considered to be docile enough for the planters of the Americas.
The ships were expensive, but New England aristocrats who were publicly opposed to slavery, financed many of the ships. Destroying the lives and families of the Africans created vast fortunes for these wealthy families of the northeast.
Everyone seemed to profit from the slave trade, everyone except the Africans who were sold into bondage. However, the slave trade tended to destroy the very people who seemed to profit the most from this peculiar institution; for the institution of slavery is the essence of immorality.
When the ships pulled into the African port, the captains asked the Cossacks to stand on deck with their lances and sabers for a show of strength, and although they looked impressive, he told them if a fight started, to fight like their lives depended on it, because they would all die if they were overwhelmed.
Nikolai, his sons, and his Cossack warriors were more than ready for a fight and they would be intimidating to anyone, but watching the sales of human flesh was the most bizarre experience these hardened men had ever seen.
The two ships docked next to a long wooden pier, and an African tribal leader was carried aboard while sitting on a chair with a sunshade. The chair was mounted on two long rails and carried by six slaves. The chieftain had warriors and diplomats with him. Behind the chieftain was a log line of Blacks. They were tied by the neck and formed a human procession for the length of the dock and onto the shore. They had open wounds and some of them had suffered severe beatings.
The captain seemed to know the African leader and made a great show of presenting him with a fancy fired clay pipe and a small sack of Virginia tobacco as a gift. The chief seemed pleased and fired up a bowl full of the highly prized pipe tobacco. The chief laughed and his whole court laughed.
He told the captain, he wanted a pistol. The captain presented him with a black powder pistol and with the necessary powder and ball to fire the weapon.
The chief admired the primitive weapon like it was a work of art and asked that it be loaded. With apprehension but without displaying fear, Captain Miles loaded the pistol.
The chief put the loaded pistol in his lap and indicated that he was ready for the negotiations to begin.
The first black man was pulled, in front of Captain Miles, by a rope tied to his neck. The African was naked except for a loincloth and his hands were tied behind him. He was tall and muscular and close to thirty years of age. The captain examined him closely, including his teeth. The black’s face was swollen on the right side and Captain Miles made sure the eye was still good beneath the swelling and walked behind the man and poked him in the kidney area, looking for a grimace of pain.
The black glared at the captain, and said something in the African tongue. The chief said something and a warrior stepped forward to deliver a savage blow, with his lance, across the ear of the black. There was a deep gash across the ear that left the ear split in two pieces. The Black gritted his teeth, but showed no pain.
This was a prime man, probably the best of the lot, and Captain Miles knew he would be setting the price for the rest of the day with the purchase of this man.
The captain whispered to his chief mate and he disappeared to get a rifle and a knife. These were placed on the deck in front of the chief.
The chief acted unimpressed and tapped on the deck three times with his walking cane.
Captain Miles knew this was an important phase of the negotiation. He whispered to the first mate and the first mate brought out a jug of rum from the Caribbean and offered the chief a full glass.
The chief took a large drink, shook his head yes, and smiled his approval. He tapped the deck with his cane and raised his glass. A gallon jug was placed next to the rifle and a deal was struck.
These negotiations were based on approximate values of trade goods, but the captain knew he had to be careful to insure a profit. He would lose a quarter to half or more of his human cargo during the passage, and that meant he was actually paying almost double the cost on each human. The slave markets were experienced slavers who knew, to the penny or the month, how much work could be expected from a man, woman, or child before they died in the fields.
This chief was a spoiled old tyrant who was used to having things his way. He had the power of life and death over his own people, but the black captives had no value to him, except for what they were worth in trade goods and if one of his own people caused trouble, they would be sold to the next slaver captain.
The captain only wanted eighty men and thirty women on each ship. The men would be chained in pairs: ankle-to-ankle and wrist-to-wrist. Because the men’s shoulders were so wide, they had to alternate pairs so that one pair was placed with their heads to the bulkhead and their feet amidships and the next would have their feet against the bulkhead. The men were fed a palm-full of gruel and a dipper full of water twice a day. The dead would be unchained and thrown overboard in the morning, the sick and insane received the same treatment, but they met the sharks while still alive. Every few days, the men were taken up on deck and washed by throwing buckets of seawater on them. Light rain storms were also used as an opportunity to wash the blacks.
The crew often played music to encourage the men to exercise their stiff bodies. The motion of a sailing ship combined with the wooden deck opened raw sores on the men and they applied pine tar to these wounds to protect them the ship’s movement.
Captain Miles had made over 50 voyages and he was confident in his handling of slaves. Keeping them alive and healthy was his responsibility and he and his crew were paid a share of the profits, so it was in their best interest to treat the slaves as well as possible.
The women were left to the elements and to the depredations of the crew on the deck.
The auction proceeded with the chief getting drunk, but after several strong men were sold, a weaker specimen was led up to Captain Miles.
The man was sick with no muscle tone and it was obvious he suffered from dysentery.
Captain Miles waved off on the man and the sickly man was led by the neck to the chief, who smiled and fired the pistol at point blank range into the center of the man’s chest.
The man fell dead to the deck and was soon thrown overboard to the waiting sharks.
Captain Miles ad his first mate looked at each other and silently signaled not to stand behind cull blacks. He knew he was being coerced into buying every specimen, but the veneer of human compassion was shallow among slavers. Unfortunately, it was counter productive to bring the sick and weak aboard; they would soon die and cause disease among the healthy blacks. Besides, he only had so much room and the slaver buyers of the Caribbean were only interested in strong healthy Africans.
While sales negotiations were proceeding, an Islamic slave trader and his crew were leading freshly caught blacks from the interior into the chief’s village.
Captain Miles said, “The quality of your slaves is a poor market grade; I would like to see the new blacks.”
This posed a problem for the chief. It was true, his slaves were inferior, but this Muslim trader often brought in the best specimens. Unfortunately, the chief didn’t own them; there was also a complication, if the Muslim saw the profit he was making, he would expect more money in the future.
The chief was frustrated and mad. He sent word for the Muslim slave trader to come to the ship.
The slave trader showed up with two Arab bodyguards and began arguing with the chief.
After several minutes of spirited argument, the Arab sent one of his men to get the new slaves.
The chief smiled at Captain Miles and said, “This slavery business isn’t easy. If you think of these savages as human beings, you can’t turn a profit.”
The Arab’s slaves were emaciated, dehydrated, exhausted, and they had serious wounds that needed attention, but they would bring a good price if they survived the passage.
Captain Miles refused to bid on the ones who would not survive the trip; otherwise the bidding was brisk.
Small children had almost no value and Captain Miles offered a pittance for them to keep them from being shot and thrown to the sharks. Unfortunately, there were over thirty men and women who were shot and thrown overboard, before Captain Miles had his quota.
The two clippers sailed with the tide and left the sadistic chief and the Muslim slave hunter. Unfortunately, the chief made a mistake after drinking a little too much rum and loaded the pistol with a triple charge of black powder before seating the ball. A sober man would have realized the ball didn’t seat properly and extracted the ball and the explosive charge and tried again, but people who are spoiled expect the laws of nature and physics to cater to them like the people around them. When he placed the weapon in the chest of his next victim, the weapon exploded and the hammer and a back piece of the barrel embedded in the chief’s forehead, killing him instantly.
Nikolai guessed the licentious intentions of the crew; he and his sons protected the women and children. The cossacks slept across from the blacks on deck and they were so intimidating, the crew complained to the captain.
The captain laughed, and told his crew the cossacks were wild men and killers of the Ukrainian Orthodox faith. If they wanted to complain to the Cossacks that was their option, but their scalp might be hanging from a yardarm in the morning. He told his men, they would be smart to keep their passions in check until they landed in the Caribbean. The cossacks were not civilized, they had been fighting and killing all their life and if they wanted to protect the women and children, the men would have a better chance fighting the sharks.
The men knew Captain Miles didn’t exaggerate, and they left the women and cossacks alone.
Nikolai went down below on the hot days to give the blacks an extra swallow of water and treat the wounds of the slaves with pine tar and bacon grease. He sewed the ear of the first black to be sold. It wasn’t pretty, but at least the two pieces were together.
When he would climb over the men to do what he could for them, they would pat his body softly and say things in whispered tones. He assumed they were thanking him, but it didn’t matter, he hated seeing people chained like this.
It took three to four weeks to cross the Atlantic. Captain Miles explained to Nikolai that the ship would stay below the equator and enjoy the trade winds in the southern hemisphere, but when they turned northwest, they would be in an area with hurricanes. There were no hurricanes south of the equator, but the storms liked to start in the Caribbean and move toward the mainland. They would try to sneak in behind a storm and keep any gales off the starboard stern so that the center of the clockwise movement of the storm would always be to their right and either push them west or to the northwest and away from the eye of the storm.
The stars and the sun in the southern hemisphere were different and Nikolai learned to read them to navigate. They would be the same on land as well as the sea.
The horses began to die in the Horse Latitudes south of the equator. Captain Miles told Nikolai, “It’s normal, they have been dying here for three hundred years, only the toughest survive.” The Cossacks used the vacated stalls to build sunshades for the remaining horses, but the doldrums and the intense heat were taking a steady toll on the horses.
The Africans were suffering from the filth, heat, and foul air below deck and they were dying at an increased rate. After ten days, the water rations were decreased for the horses and men; however, if they didn’t get a wind soon, it wouldn’t matter, they would all be dead.
The two ships drifted over twenty miles apart during their stay in the doldrums, but there was nothing to do, they were both helpless orphans upon the sea.
On the twenty-first night, a slight breeze came up and the crew cheered as Captain yelled for every sail, including the scudding sails, to be unfurled. The ship was under way north by northwest and gaining speed by the hour. The captain told Nikolai, he was headed for the Caribbean; there was no way he wanted to be trapped by the doldrums again on this trip. The winds were at thirty knots and the swells were at twelve feet by midnight. By morning, the winds were at hurricane force and the crew was fighting to keep from losing the ship.
The sea was running over the decks and Nikolai watched in horror as half of the African women and children were washed overboard by one immense wave.
Nikolai gathered up his wives and daughters and the remaining African women and children, and tied them to the center mast by their wrists. He and his sons and their Cossack warrior tied themselves to the mast as well.
When the storm reached its greatest point, Nikolai climbed into the hold to look at the black cargo. Most of the men had already drowned. A few fought to breathe in an ever-decreasing pocket of air just beneath the deck were able to survive. Of course, they would need to hold their breath when the ship would roll with the swells, but the ship had taken on so much water the rocking action was reduced.
With a sledge and cold chisel, Nikolai began cutting the chains that locked the ankle and wrist shackles. The man with the cut ear was soon beside him working with an ax to cut through the cruel chains. Nikolai and Cut Ear saved ten men before the rest of the men drowned.
Nikolai and Cut Ear climbed on deck to see that several of the women and children had drowned. Nikolai’s wives had drowned, but his sons, one daughter, and his warrior were still alive. Cut Ear’s ten year-old daughter survived and one of the other African women. Three of the horses were still on the deck, but Captain miles and his crew, except for the Portuguese cook had been lost at sea.
The ship was low in the water, and it seemed a miracle it was still afloat. They were still in a storm and being pushed steadily to the southwest, with no land in sight.
Three days later they saw land a mile to the west, it was too far to swim and they figured to stay aboard as long as possible before abandoning ship. They gathered up everything that could make a raft and waited for the best moment to abandon ship. That night they ran aground and the surf began to break apart the boat. Nikolai cut his horses free and tore apart the stalls just before the ship was driven on to it side and threw everyone and the horses into the surf.
Nikolai expected to be able to stand, but the water was deeper than he expected and his jacket with the gold coins had him walking on the bottom. He felt Cut Ear’s strong hand grab him by the jacket behind his neck and a tremendous force pulling him to the surface. Nikolai was thrown onto the raft and suddenly the surf caught the raft and pushed it toward shore at a terrifying rate of speed, before dumping everyone about thirty yards from shore.
The next thing Nikolai remembered was being turned over with a pair of bony black knees in his back, making him cough up a gallon of seawater. Later that day, Nikolai joined the other survivors as they gathered up articles washing up from the wreck.
Two of the horses were running back and forth on the beach, enjoying their newfound freedom, but one of the horses had washed up on the beach and was drowned. Cut Ear skinned the horse and the cook was barbecuing some choice pieces and jerking some thin pieces on the coastal bushes.
A profound sadness overcame Nikolai; he had lost his wives, most of his gold, his oldest son and thirty-eight good horses. He had no idea where he was or if the other ship survived the storm. He felt like ending his life, but he knew these people were depending on him to lead them, even Cut Ear, who seemed like a better man than him, looked to Nikolai for guidance.
The meal was good, but the flies soon ruined the rest of the meat. Cut Ear had done a good job of drying the horse hide and the stomach; he planned to make something, so they would sleep on the beach for at least one night and see what treasure washed up on shore during the night. And let Cut Ear make his masterpiece tomorrow.
That night, Cut Ear came up to Nikolai with a sharp knife and the hind legs from the horsehide. He controlled his panic as Cut Ear slid the legs of the horse over Nikolai’s feet, while making marks for measurements his heels were placed in the curvature for the hock and the leg above the hock was measured to fit over Nikolai’s calf and the lower portion was measured to fit over his feet.
Nikolai was impressed; Cut Ear was making a custom pair of boots for him.
A curious rider rode into their camp. Nikolai knew horsemen, this one sat on his horse like he was born in the saddle. He was a vagabond and an expert horseman that was obvious. There were traits of the Asian in his eyes, but the man was dark with black eyes and hair. The stranger was friendly. He communicated with the Portuguese cook. There were two quarters of fresh beef on a pack horse and he was offering to share.
The stranger built a fire and set up a vertical grill next to the fire instead of over the fire. The meat cooked so that the dripping grease fell to the ground and the meat wasn’t burned from the fire flaming up the grease.
The horseman offered a drink he called mate. It was like a woody coffee and Nikolai’s men were impressed with the drink and thought the man’s cooking technique and beef dinner was a tremendous improvement over cooking the beef directly on the fire with no implements.
Nikolai realized this wild horseman could be a valuable ally in this strange land. Nikolai and his tribe were about to learn the way of the gaucho.
Nikolai’s son Taduez fared much better in the storm. His ship landed in Havana and sailed to Texas a week later after the ship was repaired. Tadeuz now felt alone for the first time in his life. No one but his Cossack warrior could communicate with him. They were rich men in the far north of Mexico, but they had no idea of how to buy land, cattle or horses.
They got along with the few Mexican authorities when they showed them crucifixes. The fact that they weren’t quite Roman Catholics was lost in translation.
Slowly they began to learn the basics of Spanish and English, and before they could converse in a basic mixture of the two languages. Their horses recovered from the voyage and were appreciated and admired by the Texans.
Unfortunately, the Comanche liked the horses as well.
The three men walked out of an official Mexican office after inquiring about claiming a ranch; since, Mexico was offering free land to Catholics, to develop the country of Texas. They looked up to notice five Indians riding by on the Cossack horses they had left in a corral.
The cossacks seemed unconcerned as they picked up their lances and rode after the Indians, who had stopped at the edge of town to taunt these strange people from Europe. However, these men didn’t follow the normal procedures; they rode straight at the Comanche Indians at full speed with their lances leveled for a fight. The five Indians thought it was funny and didn’t take these horsemen seriously, until they were a few strides away.
The Cossacks brushed the flint tipped lances away like they were the toys of children and drove their lances through the chests of the Comanche Indians and threw their lariats around the necks of the other two warriors and rode through town with the two lifeless Comanche bodies dancing a bizarre dance of death behind the Cossack horses.
The town’s people stared in disbelief at these strange young men who attacked and killed the Comanches at their own game, so fast that no one was sure what had happened. The men cleaned the blood from their weapons and gathered the horses along with the Comanche horses, as calmly as if they had stopped to shoot a rabbit by the road.
Soon, the weapons would improve and these young men would adapt to the new weapons, but they were seen for years with their Cossack lances and sabers and lariats. They moved onto the Staked Plains and ranched in the middle of the Comanche’s home territory. The Comanche tribe and the Comancheros gave the Romanov family a wide berth and let them ranch on the Comancheria without problems and interference.
The Cossack warrior adopted the Romanov name, and the men took Comanche and Apache wives. The men had little use for money except to buy the few supplies they needed. Like the cossacks of an earlier era, they measured their wealth in livestock and in twenty years they were rich beyond their wildest dreams.
The proposed novel follows the two ranching families up until the mis-Twentieth Century, when they are reunited.