Battle of Santiago de Cuba

The naval battle of Santiago de Cuba was the greatest naval action of the Spanish-American War, fought in 1898. Here the naval forces of the United States, under the joint command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley fought the Spanish naval forces under the command of Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete. The American victory, coupled with the victory at Manila Bay, propelled the United States Navy to worldwide prominence.

The Spanish-American War was long in the wings. Spain had once ruled the greatest colonial empire that was ever seen. By the late 19th Century most of that empire had rotted away, inspired to revolt and create nations of their own by the success of the United States. Only a few colonies remained in Spanish hands, much to the chagrin of the native populace, and the United States. Cuba and the Philippines were the most important of these colonies, and the cause of the greatest grief. In 1895, another Cuban revolt against Spanish rule gained widespread coverage in the American press. When the situation escalated due to the refusal of the Conservative controlled Spanish government to let go of even one inch of land, US President Grover Cleveland intervened politically. However, the Spanish Prime Minister, Antonio Canovas del Castillo, refused to listen at all. Instead, he sent General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau to assume the captaincy general of Cuba. Weyler’s brutal methods (among them relocating entire towns of people by force), born more of frustration than cruelty, made him despised by the American press.

In 1897, William McKinley succeeded Cleveland as President, and he brought more pressure to bear on Spain. To make matters worse a rebellion broke out in the Philippines and in June Prime Minister Canovas was assassinated by an anarchist. His successor, the Progressive Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, took a different stance to the situation. He offered the rebels autonomy and self-governance, a wildly unpopular move in Spain. It was for moot for the rebels felt that only bloodshed would earn their independence. Meanwhile the American press, outright lying about the situation in Cuba to sell newspapers, had only inflamed the national sentiment against Spain. Cries for intervention soon began to drown out all attempts at moderation in the crises and President McKinley, by nature a peaceful man, was besieged on all sides by the jingoists in Congress and the greater public. In February 1898, the Spanish Ambassador, Enrique Dupuy de Lome, wrote a critical letter about the President, which the Cubans leaked. Public outcry resulted in Prime Minister Sagasta sacking de Lome, hoping to calm American ire. Then on February 15th the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor. Why the Maine blew up remains a mystery, but to the press it was clear who was responsible. Headlines across the nation blared the news that the Maine had struck a Spanish mine and sunk. Demand for a war against Spain now reached a fever pitch with the cry of “Remember the Maine!” President McKinley tried his best to calm things down by ordering an investigation into the matter. Prime Minister Sagasta and his Progressive government were anxious to avoid war, making vague promises to help the Cubans.

No one in the United States believed these promises, and the climate within Congress grew increasing hostile. By early April McKinley knew he could no longer stem the tide of public opinion away from war. On April 11th, he asked Congress for authorization to send the Army in to enforce a peace settlement in Cuba. He received this on April 19th and a Three-Point Resolution detailing the following: That Cuba was now a free and independent nation, that America had no designs on Cuba, and that all Spanish forces must withdraw. A fourth resolution was added later giving the President the authority to use as much force as necessary to aid the freedom fighters in Cuba. Spain then cut off all diplomatic ties with the United States. On April 25th, Congress retaliated with a formal Declaration of War. The Spanish-American War had begun.

With the beginning of hostilities, the navies of both nations started to prepare for a great clash. In the United States, the Navy Department had been planning for a war since 1897, specifically for a war in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, while he was still Under-Secretary of the Navy had been the most vocal proponent of the need for the Navy to prove itself. When the age of the steel battleship had begun, the United States Navy was forced to undergo a transformation. The so-called ‘New Navy’ was untried and unsure of itself. There was also a great deal of mistrust over the need to even have battleships, many believing that the United States had little need for such status symbols. The Navy Department knew the ‘New Navy’ needed to prove itself not only to the American people but the world at large.

In Spain, they had also been preparing for war. Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, world renowned and a legend even then, was Spain’s greatest naval leader and had seen that a war with the United States was inevitable. At the urging of Maria Christina, Queen Regent of Spain, he had returned from self-imposed exile to prepare the Spanish Navy for war. Unfortunately the Ministerio de Marina, the Spanish Admiralty, was hostile to Cervera’s ideas due to political differences. For this reason, the well-prepared plan to fight the naval war from the Canary Islands was brushed aside. Many within the Ministerio felt that the United States Navy did not pose a threat to Spain’s naval forces. On April 30th, Cervera’s squadron left the port of Cape Verde with orders to proceed west to protect Cuba.

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Rear Admiral Cervera. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the United States, a plan had been laid for the naval war in the Caribbean. US naval planners realized early that Key West, part of an island chain within the area between Florida and Cuba, would make the perfect place for a base of operations in that theater. The first force sent there, the Atlantic Squadron, was placed under the command of Acting Rear Admiral William T. Sampson. Sampson was subsequently chosen to be overall commander for Navy affairs in the area. During this time the battleship, USS Oregon proceeded to make an incredible journey to join Sampson’s squadron at Key West from Puget Sound, Washington. The 67-day voyage of the Oregon was a major morale lifter for the sailors of the ‘New Navy’ and also the public. While the Oregon was making her journey, more news arrived. A group of mysterious ships had been spotted off the Eastern Seaboard. These strange ships were none other then the Flota del Ultramar, the squadron under Cervera’s command. A public panic ensued as the people wondered as Cervera’s intention. Would he shell the coast? Would he burn Washington D.C. as the British had done in 1812? Would he prey on the merchants? No one knew and Congress, to assuage the public, ordered the formation of a ‘Flying Squadron’ to be based at Hampton Roads, Virginia. This squadron was put under the command of Winfield Scott Schley, and ordered to protect the East Coast from enemy attack.

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Rear Admiral Sampson (top) and Commodore Schley (bottom). Sampson: By http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Curps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Schley: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the offices of the Navy Department, there was some concern that Cervera would attack the Oregon, which had no escort and would be vulnerable. The knowledge that Spanish destroyers Pluton and Furor carried torpedos, the most feared weapon of the day, only increased those concerns.  So on May 4th the Navy sent out Sampson with a mission to intercept Cervera at Puerto Rico. The Navy guessed that Cervera would need to make a stop at Puerto Rico to re-coal. On May 11th, Sampson arrived at the island and shelled the harbor of San Juan. After two hours, Sampson realized that Cervera was not there and returned to Key West. On May 15th, Sampson received word that Cervera was at the French island of Martinique. By the time he got there, the Flota del Ultramar had already vanished. Sampson then followed Cervera to the Dutch island of Curacao, but once again the wily Spaniard had escaped. Sampson returned to Key West once again. The Navy Department, frustrated by the lack of progress ordered all major warships, save those serving with Rear Admiral George Dewey in the Pacific, to converge on Cuba.

On May 18th, Sampson met with Schley, commander of the ‘Flying Squadron’ and now his second in command to discuss how to handle the situation. Unfortunately, the Navy could not have picked a worse pair of men to put together. Schley was brash and took unnecessary risks. Sampson was reserved and taciturn. It was exactly the kind of thing Cervera could take advantage of, and he did. On the 22nd Schley and his ‘Flying Squadron’ blockaded the port of Cienfuegos near Havana, sure that Cervera was there. Over the course of the next several weeks, Schley would disobey several direct orders from Sampson to move out from Cienfuegos. Finally, he left the port, but instead of proceeding to Santiago de Cuba to investigate a sighting there Schley made for Key West. To this day, no one knows why Schley decided just to get up and leave the area against orders to stay in Cuban waters. After many arguments, some of which with the Secretary of the Navy himself, Schley finally made for Santiago de Cuba. On the morning of May 29th, they found the Cristobal Colon, a key vessel in the Flota del Ultramar, lying moored in the harbor. Finally, after weeks of playing cat-and-mouse they had found Cervera.

The two United States Navy squadrons may have been slow, but they were powerful. Of the ships present in the combined fleet at Santiago de Cuba there was: five battleships, (USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, USS Oregon, USS Iowa, and the USS Texas). They were accompanied by two armored cruisers, (USS Brooklyn and the USS New York) several armed yachts that carried about the pestering newspapermen, the coal ship Merrimac and with other supply vessels. Finally was the mine layer Resolute.

The Spanish Flota del Ultramar was smaller than the American ships but faster. The ships that were with Cervera at Santiago de Cuba were not the full number of vessels in the Flota del Ultramar. Most notably missing was the battleship Pelayo, which was, along with the armored cruisers Princesa de Asturias and Emperador Carlos V, left behind to join the Home Squadron to defend Spain itself. Because of this Cervera only brought four armored cruisers (Almirante Oquendo, Viscaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, and the Cristobal Colon) and two destroyers (Pluton and the Furor) with him to Cuba.

  On May 31st, ecstatic over finally cornering Cervera, Rear Admiral Sampson arrived with the Atlantic Squadron to join Commodore Schley’s ‘Flying Squadron’ in the blockade of Santiago Bay. A new problem soon presented itself. As long as Cervera remained in the bay the American ships could not touch him. The entire harbor area was covered by Spanish coastal batteries that could tear Sampson and Schley’s ships to shreds. Unsurprisingly Cervera had no intention of coming out. Besides that, a variety of technical problems plagued his command. The breech-loading mechanisms were faulty, the boilers were in bad need of repair. Additionally, Viscaya‘s keel in severe need of a scrubbing, and on the Cristobal Colon the ship had been rushed out of the docks before its main gun could even be installed. Complicating matters further, the gunnery crews had little experience in firing live ammunition. Most of those problems could have been fixed within the harbor, but for some reason never explained the Captain-General of Cuba, Ramon Blanco y Erenas, refused to be of help. So with both fleets not moving the situation turned into a stalemate.

On June 2nd, Admiral Sampson decided to make a move to break the impasse by blocking the harbor mouth. For this purpose, he decided to scuttle the troublesome coal ship Merrimac. The attempt failed, and the Spaniards were able to capture the Merrimac‘s crew. Nevertheless the American press made a great deal of fanfare about the whole event, blowing everything out of proportion. Meanwhile, the 5th Corps of the United States Army commanded by Major General William Shafter had begun an overland campaign against Santiago de Cuba. On July 1st, the Americans won a great victory over the Spanish defending the San Juan Heights overlooking the city. Later in the day Captain-General Blanco ordered Cervera to get underway and to leave the harbor as soon as possible.

Spain could not afford to let the Flota del Ultramar fall into enemy hands while in port. Cervera knew he could not just steam straight out of the harbor in broad daylight (his ships would get blasted to bits). Nor could he do it at night (there was a danger of collision). Instead, the crafty admiral cooked up a plan. July 3rd fell on a Sunday, and the United States Navy held mandatory church services at 9:00 in the morning. Therefore, the Flota del Ultramar could make a breakout while the Americans went to church. To prepare for this Cervera ordered all his ships to begin storing up a full head of steam (steam power took quite a while to build up) on the morning of July 2nd. By noon lookouts onboard the USS Brooklyn, Commodore Schley’s flagship, noticed increased steam smoke rising from Santiago Bay. Schley immediately knew something up and had the armed yacht Vixen send word of what was happening up and down the blockade. Sampson, onboard the USS New York, ordered the blockade tightened on Schley’s advice. However despite the order the blockade was in some disarray the following morning Sunday, July 3rd, 1898. At 8:45 the New York suddenly began to move off from the line. It had raised the signal flag meaning ‘Disregard the movements of the Commander-in-Chief’ and steamed out of view. As it turned out, Rear Admiral Sampson was due to meet Major General Shafter for a strategic conference. Meanwhile, Admiral Cervera noticed the sudden gap in the western portion of the blockade line. Knowing he would not have a second opportunity like this again he prepared to move out at 9:00 as planned. At the appointed time, the Flota del Ultramar, already in position from the previous day, begun moving. At 9:35 the navigator of the Brooklyn spotted the Spanish flagship, Infanta Maria Teresa, exit the harbor. He immediately sounded the alarm with the signal ‘The Enemy is coming out!’ The Battle of Santiago de Cuba had begun.

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By U.S. Naval Historical Center photo.Mdnavman at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Cervera’s plan for the battle was to steam out as fast as possible through the gap created by the absence of the New York. Schley noticed immediately and knew he had to cut off the Flota del Ultramar by cutting in front of them. Taking quick action Schley signaled for the closest ships, the battleships Texas, Oregon, Iowa, and Indiana as well as the yachts Vixen and Gloucester. The firing commenced when the Teresa opened fire with her forward guns, sounding a response the Iowa returned fire and it was soon joined by the rest of the fleet. Soon a dark fog of thick smoke covered the whole area, and no one was quite aware of what was going on.

Meanwhile Rear Admiral Sampson, having just disembarked from the New York, noticed the smoke from the battle. Quickly realizing what was happening Sampson got back on board and ordered the crew to take him back to the Bay as quick as they could. However, the New York would not arrive until the battle was over. On the Spanish side, Cervera had signaled his ships to begin to make the turn to the southwest, to the gap. Schley noticed this and made a move that to this day bewilders naval historians. Instead of keeping on the intercept course he had started Schley had the Brooklyn make a sudden, unwarned of, turn to the northeast. This threw the American fleet into confusion as suddenly the crew of the USS Texas noticed the flagship seemed to be steaming toward them on a ramming course. On the Brooklyn, the navigator tried to warn Schley that he was about to hit the Texas. Schley did not heed the warning, and the crew of the Texas had to back the engines into reverse, just barely missing what would have been a disaster. However crazy and dangerous the move had been Schley had accomplished something. He had cut off Cervera and the Infanta Maria Teresa from the rest of the Flota del Ultramar. However, it was in the end a hollow victory for Schley.

Cervera had noticed the move as his American opponent had made it and knew that if the rest of the squadron was to survive he would have to sacrifice himself. So he ordered the Teresa to steam straight ahead into the trap while signaling for the rest of ships to continue steaming along the preplanned course, which was now almost open. When the Teresa steamed into Schley’s trap, nearly all of the American ships had arranged themselves in a semicircle. The Spanish flagship was hit on all sides by withering fire and soon the ship was alight. Admiral Cervera, unwilling to doom his men to die a grisly death ordered the vessel to be beached, which signaled that the ship was surrendering. Meanwhile the remaining vessels of the Flota del Ultramar, now led by the Almirante Oquendo were beginning to get out of range. Schley now realized that it was he that had been tricked, not Cervera. However, there was a problem. To get going a ship needed a full head of steam, and only the USS Oregon had built one up.

The rest of the US fleet was running only on half power, and by the time the boilers had been brought back up it would be too late. So Schley ordered the fleet to pursue the best they could, guns blazing. The first Spanish ship to go down would be the new leader, Almirante Oquendo. Damaged badly by a combination of enemy fire and its own guns’ bursting that the vessel broke in two shortly after beaching. The feared destroyers Pluton and Furor went next, with the Pluton beaching itself after suffering a direct hit from a battleship and the Furor blowing up before reaching shore, the only Spanish ship not to do so. Despite all of these victories that the US fleet was making against the Spaniards, Schley was convinced that his casualties would run so high that it would be a Pyrrhic victory. In fact despite the heavy amount of fire that the Flota del Ultramar had been putting out much of it was useless, and the Americans suffered only two dead.

As all of this was happening the remaining two Spanish ships, Viscaya and Cristobal Colon, were steaming ahead. Schley decided to take off after the Viscaya with his ship the Brooklyn as well the battleships Texas and Oregon. The rest of the fleet was ordered to stay behind and help any Spanish survivors to best of their ability, as according to the Rules of Engagement of the time. Quickly it became apparent that only the Brooklyn was going to be able to keep up with the Viscaya. For over an hour, the two ships blasted away at one another, due to both the heavy armor of the Viscaya and the ineffectiveness of the Spanish shells. According to later reports, the running duel between the Viscaya and the USS Brooklyn was the most savage of the entire battle. The contest ended when a shell fired from the Oregon took off the bow of the Viscaya. The ship then ran aground, and Commodore Schley ordered a cease-fire. The Texas then moved in to help survivors. Pulling in close the captain of the Texas noticed how bad the fires aboard the Viscaya were and ordered his crew to stop cheering. A little later the Iowa pulled up to aid in the rescue effort. When the captain of that ship noticed that the Cuban rebels were taking pot-shots at the Spanish wounded he turned his guns on the rebels and told them to stand down.

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USS Brooklyn in 1898. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The last remaining Spanish vessel, the Cristobal Colon, continued to make good her escape. For two hours the Brooklyn, Oregon, and Texas tried in vain to catch up to the Cristobal Colon, but the Spanish cruiser had a six mile lead on them and faster besides. Schley knew he could not let the Colon go, but neither could he catch it. So instead Schley decided to try to catch the ship when she made a turn to the south to follow the Cuban coastline. However, as it turns out Schley would not have to spring his trap. At about 12:15 the Cristobal Colon had run out of good coal and was forced to switch to inferior Santiago coal. This switch allowed for the USS Oregon to finally catch up with the Spanish ship. The Oregon fired seven times at the Colon, but only the last two shots hit. In any case the crew of the Spanish ship knew the jig was up and struck her colors, signifying surrender, much to Schley’s surprise. At this point, as the battleships closed in to claim the Cristobal Colon as a prize Rear Admiral Sampson and the New York finally arrived.

Sampson was furious that the battle had already been fought and won without him; he blamed Schley for this loss of martial glory. With the surrender of the Cristobal Colon, the battle of Santiago de Cuba was over, and the United States’ ‘New Navy’ had admirably proved herself in battle beyond all doubt. However, no account of the battle can be complete without the mention of this one last bizarre incident. As the Iowa steamed about the area rescuing survivors they came across the captain of the Viscaya. After his wounds were treated, the captain turned to the flaming hulk of what was once his ship and tearfully saluted it farewell. Almost as in reply the Viscaya suddenly blew up, the explosion noticeable for miles.

In conclusion, the naval battle of Santiago de Cuba was one of the most decisive battles of the war. With the destruction of the Flota del Ultramar Spanish naval power ceased to exist, the only other squadron of importance having been destroyed by Commodore George Dewey and the Asiatic Squadron at Manila Bay. The Spanish-American War ended not long afterward on August 12th, 1898, having not even lasted a year. In the aftermath of the war the United States annexed what remained of Spain’s colonial empire, and became a world power.

The Nicopolis Crusade

In 1389, the Ottoman Sultan Murad, I led his army into Serbia following a defeat at the hands of a Serb-led coalition at Plocnik some years previous. In the battle that followed at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds, the Ottomans won a great victory and Serbia became a vassal of the young Ottoman Empire. However, it came at a high price. In the course of the battle, Murad was assassinated by a Serbian knight making a false surrender. While this is the common belief, the circumstances of Murad’s death remain unclear. His oldest son, Bayazid, quickly took control after executing his younger brother Yakub. After marrying the Serbian princess Olivera Despoina and setting her brother Stefan Lazarevic on the Serbian throne, Bayazid made his way back into Anatolia. However, the Ottoman state had no peace, and the new Sultan was forced to move at a pace most would find unbelievable, earning him the nickname, Yildirim, the Thunderbolt.

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Sultan Bayazid the Thunderbolt from an Ottoman family tree. By Ottoman miniature painter (Badisches Landesmuseum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1391, Bayazid had won control of all of Western Anatolia, bringing the Ottoman Empire to direct borders with the Emirate of Karaman, ruled by his troublesome brother-in-law Ala ud-Din Beg. To celebrate his conquests, Bayazid called for a conference at Edirne (formerly Adrianopolis, conquered by Murad), the Ottoman capital in Europe. This conference highlighted a rising tension between Bayazid and the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, Manouel II. Earlier in life Manouel had been an enemy of the Ottomans, and the passage of time had done nothing to smooth his hostility. Bayazid for his part had already begun to cast his eyes on Constantinople, the Queen of Cities and capital of the Roman Empire. Other matters in the Balkans soon drew Bayazid’s attention.

In 1393, Bayazid moved into the remnants of the Second Bulgarian Empire, having heard of Bulgarian negotiations with Ottoman enemies. With the fall of Tarnovo in the summer, he had nipped this threat in the bud and Ivan Shishman, the former Tsar, was kept under close watch at Nicopolis. Bayazid continued to move, dealing with border skirmishes with the Sultan of Sivas, Qadi Burhan al-Din in Anatolia. By winter he was back in the Balkans, and called for another conference, this time in Serres, a Roman princedom in Macedonia. News that Manouel II was plotting to reconcile with his nephew and rival for the throne, Ioannes, was a cause for concern. So Bayazid called Manouel, all of the Roman princelings, and Stefan Lazarevic, to report to him. Strangely enough Bayazid did nothing more than berate the assembly for not governing their lands well and sent them on their way.

In the spring of 1394 his intentions became clear: Ottoman forces began to move into Thrace and construct a series of castles to encircle Constantinople. Bayazid was going to lay siege to the city. However when the Roman and Latin princes of Greece decided to move toward independence Bayazid left his preparations and struck west. Macedonia and Thessaly were both annexed outright, and the Latin Duchy of Athens forced into vassalage.

In 1395, Bayazid seemed intent on reducing the Despotate of Morea when news from the north called him back. Mircea cel Batran, or Mircea the Old, was Voivode of Wallachia and self-proclaimed champion of Balkan Christianity. He was also allied to the powerful Sigismund I of Luxembourg, the king of Hungary. Taking advantage of the Ottoman focus on Greece, Mircea had launched an invasion. Bayazid replied in kind, living up to his nickname by striking like a thunderbolt into Wallachia. While ultimately ending in a stalemate the invasion had the aftereffect of destabilizing Wallachia and sending Mircea straight into the arms of Sigismund.

  Ottoman success had finally caught Western Christendom’s attention. The rapid rise of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans since they first entered the area under Murad I had been a cause of concern in Europe. By 1395, Bayazid was almost in complete control of the Balkans. Bulgaria was dying a slow death, the Roman Empire’s authority extended little beyond Constantinople’s famed triple walls, and now with Mircea the Old pleading in Buda for aid the situation had reached a critical stage.  However, Western Christendom had problems of its own.

The Western Schism, which had begun in 1378 when two popes, both elected by the Curia following Gregory XI’s death, had split Europe in two. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France had also flared up again, creating further chaos. With the threat of the Ottomans looming over them though, a strange thing began to happen. Richard II of England and Charles VI of France agreed to a cease-fire in 1384 and started to plan for a joint Crusade to end the Hundred Years’ War permanently and heal the Western Schism.

A desire for a real chivalric culture of peace, love, and understanding had become popular in both England and France and the two kings realized that all this energy needed a powerful outlet. Richard and Charles reaffirmed the peace in 1389 and headed by Charles’ tutor Philip of Mezieres preparation and organization for a Crusade was underway.

  In 1392, Charles VI laid down the first concrete plans for what was to become the Nicopolis Crusade with his uncle, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund had already started calling for aid by this time, and the first joint Anglo-French army arrived in Hungary. In 1394, Richard II, Philip II, and the French king’s brother Louis I, Duke of Orleans organized a joint planning session with Sigismund. A massive Anglo-French army would be gathered to wage a Crusade for the salvation of Constantinople.

Philip II, Louis I, and the English king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster were appointed to hold joint command of the Crusade. The following year was set as the departure date. Crusade taxes were levied in Burgundy, France, and England. By the end of the year, Philip II had the money needed to fund the Crusade and John of Gaunt had gathered 1,500 men-at-arms. Contracts with Venice to provide naval support were agreed on. Finally in June and again in October that year the Roman Pope Boniface IX issued a papal bull for the Crusade, preaching it to the masses. The Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII, did not like being left out and copied him, preaching the Crusade to his flock as well.

However in 1395 the plan began to fall apart. Negotiations to finalize the contracts with Venice dragged on for months, and it was not until May the planned summit between Sigismund, Philip II and Louis I at Lyons could take place. This ended all hopes of the Crusade getting off on schedule. Further problems resulted as France experienced internal turmoil while bickering with England over whom Richard II should marry, now that his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was dead. This moved John of Gaunt to cancel his Crusade obligations, and he delegated his responsibilities to John Beaufort, his eldest illegitimate son. However, Beaufort never went on Crusade, due to a revival in Anglo-French tensions. Philip II followed his lead and pulled out, delegating his obligations to his eldest son, Jean I, Count of Nevers. Louis I then pulled out entirely and the Crusade, which had stood as the best hope for peace in Western Europe, had become little more than a Burgundian expedition.

In April 1396, the Crusade finally left France for Hungary, under the command of Jean. By late July, the Western Crusaders had reached Buda, the capital of Hungary, and the leadership met with Sigismund and Mircea the Old to decide how to proceed.

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An older Sigismund of Hungary. Pisanello [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

From the start, the campaign was fraught with problems. Sigismund feared Bayazid and knew the Ottoman Sultan would attempt to invade Hungary. He had called the Crusade in hopes of having at his disposal the force necessary to defend his lands. However, the Crusaders had come to lift the Siege of Constantinople, not to support Hungary and overruled the angry Sigismund at the Buda conference. Instead, they opted for a massive strike into Ottoman territory, forcing Bayazid to meet them on the field of battle as soon as possible. This choice seemed to be the right one in the eyes of the Western leaders as Sigismund’s much-feared invasion never materialized. As a result, they labeled him a coward. The territory the Crusaders chose, with the aid of Mircea, was the former lands of Ivan Shishman.

Meanwhile on the other side of the line Bayazid had hardly been sitting still.  He ended the possibility of Bulgarian collaboration with Mircea by having the former tsar, still at Nicopolis, beheaded and the city invested with an Ottoman garrison. He then turned to Constantinople and with the ring of castles now complete settled in for a siege. However, the Ottoman fleet was unable to cut off the Romans by sea and even with the ring of castles cutting them off by land the Queen of Cities remained supplied. Bayazid was quickly growing impatient and attempted to assault the city, but the triple walls, which had saved Constantinople so many times before, saved the city again. News reached Bayazid relatively quickly of the Crusade, and he left only a small holding force behind while rallying an army at Edirne. In the meantime, he issued orders to his irregulars and scouts to not engage. The Crusaders were at this time advancing into former Bulgaria.

When they arrived at Vidin, the city surrendered to them. As it turned out, Vidin was ruled by Ivan Sratsimir, the younger half-brother of Ivan Shishman. While technically an Ottoman vassal, Ivan Sratsimir had claimed the title of tsar following the execution of his half-brother and had aspirations to restore the Bulgarian Empire. After negotiations with Ivan Sratsimir were concluded the Crusader-Hungarian force proceeded to the next fortress, Rahowa. Here they encountered resistance from the Ottoman garrison. Rahowa held out for five days before surrendering. When the Crusaders entered the city, they massacred the Turkish population before moving on.

On September 12th, the Crusaders and their allies arrived at Nicopolis, the last major fortress to besiege. Unfortunately the Ottoman commander, Dogan Beg, proved far more skilled then the Western leaders expected. Neither the Crusaders nor the Hungarians had brought siege weapons, probably hoping to reduce any obstacles by starvation. Alternatively the Crusaders hoped to force Bayazid to break the blockade. While the siege continued, the Ottomans made real progress and Bayazid met Stefan Lazarevic on the 22nd. That same day a Hungarian scouting party encountered the main body. The Crusader-Allied army, surprised, dispatched more scouts and located Bayazid’s newly fortified camp on the 24th, just south of Nicopolis (he had just arrived the previous day). In reaction, the Crusaders prepared to leave Nicopolis (executing their prisoners beforehand) to face Bayazid on the open field the morning of the following day, September 25. The battle of Nicopolis had begun.

The Crusader army was a diverse group of men drawn together from all walks of life. The central component of the Crusader forces at Nicopolis was the Franco-Burgundian cavalry.  Jean I, Count of Nevers and his personal household contingent and Burgundian vassals formed the core part. The other leading commanders, the epitome of French chivalry and valor, were Jean Boucicaut, the Marshal of France, Philip de Artois, the Constable of France, and Jean de Vienne, the Admiral of France. Enguerrand VII de Coucy, Henri de Bar, and James I de Bourbon were other prominent knights and lords present with the main body but had joined the Crusade after the march had begun.

Jean I, Count of Nevers

Jean I of Nevers, later duke of Burgundy. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While the Crusade was passing through Germany, it was joined by men from the Palatinate of the Rhine, the Duchy of Bavaria, and the city of Nuremberg. Many other Germans besides joined the Crusade. Also, there may have been a small English detachment serving under the Earl of Huntingdon, but this is disputed. Lastly, we know of contingents from Aragon, Poland, and many other Christian powers. Naval support was provided by the Hospitallers, Venice, and Genoa.

On reaching Buda in Hungary King Sigismund joined his men, mostly light infantry, and cavalry, to the Crusader forces. The Hungarian army was remarkably varied and while centered around a superficial knightly class was made up predominantly of horse archers and mixed infantry (especially crossbowmen).

The Wallachians of Mircea the Old also joined the Crusade with what remained of his army, though he was Orthodox, not Catholic like the Crusaders. While organized along tribal lines rather than feudal the Wallachians were known as some of the best soldiers in the Balkans. The Crusader army in total then numbered somewhere in the ballpark of 16,000 men.

The Ottoman army was the living legacy to the brilliance of Murad I. Bayazid Yildirim owed much of his success to the new model army that his father devised and that he perfected. This new army was not based on tribal ties, but instead on a professional, standing, basis. The core was the Ottoman ruler’s household, divided into an inner and outer “service”. These men were called the kapikulu, or slaves though most of those in service would have long since been manumitted. This included the elite palace cavalry corps (the Six Regiments) and the Yeni Ceri (Janissary) infantry battalions.

The majority of the Ottoman troops were divided up between two large formations, the Anatolian, and Rumelian corps. Comprised of men from the eastern and western halves of the state respectively, the organization of these troops was much more streamlined than in the West. The cavalry were divided into timariots, (regulars maintained by Latin-style fiefs called timars), maasli, (regulars supported by the state) akinjis, (irregular frontier warriors) and musellems (irregular mounted pioneers). Infantry were divided up between the yayas (irregular spearmen) and the azaps (semi-regular skirmishers).

To this forces must be included the Serbian army of Stefan Lazarevic. Latin feudalism had entered the Balkans earlier in the century and had been embraced by the Serbs. Stefan Lazarevic’s army was organized into a mainly heavy cavalry force supported by mercenaries and a general levy though it appears that only the Serbian knights themselves took the field at Nicopolis. The Ottoman army in total then numbered somewhere in the ballpark of 15,000 men.

The final preparations were underway. The previous evening Sigismund had advised caution to his allies, suggesting to first of all discover whether or not the Ottomans planned to attack and second to send Mircea’s troops out in front to clear the field of akinijs ahead of the main assault by the Franco-Burgundians. This plan was met with resistance by the other leaders, angered at being denied the right to lead the charge.

Jean, I was more outraged then anyone and countered that Sigismund wanted the glory for himself. This brought to a head what had so far been the Crusade’s biggest problem: Sigismund and Mircea thought in the mold of eastern style warfare. The Hungarian king’s plan was backed by a belief that he could harass the Ottoman lines into weakening enough to collapse upon contact with the Franco-Burgundian knights. The concept of first man in combat gains the most glory, so dear in the contemporary West, was foreign in the Balkans, even with Hungary fielding knights of its own. The matter reached its height when Robert de Artois, Count d’Eu, made the following speech:

“Yes, yes, the king of Hungary wishes to gain all the honor of the day. He has given us the vanguard, and now he wishes to take it away, that he may have the first blow. Let those who will believe what he sends to us, but for my part I never will… In the name of God and Saint George, you shall see me this day prove myself a good knight.”

This brought the second problem to the fore. Western thought in general and French thought, in particular, focused on the superiority of the knight over all others on both the battlefield and in society. Even though this certainly did not hold true even in Europe itself anymore, the lesson was hard learned. Sigismund was caught in a vice, but could not risk alienating the French and Burgundians. He caved to their demands, allowing the knights to take vanguard.

The line was organized thus: The Franco-Burgundian knights all took a position out in front. King Sigismund took command in the center with the Hungarians and the German Crusaders. The Transylvanians under Stephen Laczkoivc (subject to Sigismund) took a position on the right, and the Wallachians took a position on the left.

Bayazid had none of the problems that afflicted the Crusaders and already formed his men in a classic crescent formation. He had established a fortified camp with the purpose of forcing the Crusaders to attack him, another classic move. The Rumelian regulars were deployed on the right, the Anatolians on the left. In the center, behind the stake barricade, were the azaps and Yeni Ceri. In front of the barricade were the akinjis. Behind the main lines, hidden from view, was the household division of Bayazid with his personal guard in the center and the Six Regiments divided into three each on his right and left. On the further left was the knights of Stefan Lazarevic.

Sigismund was reluctant to engage the Ottoman lines and intended to play a waiting game with Bayazid. However, the French had no such ideas. Jean had lost all patience and unable to hold it in any longer shouted the charge straight into the Ottoman light cavalry. Surging forward on their great horses the greatest warriors of Western Christendom collided head on with the akinjis. Jean himself commanded from the front, earning him the nickname ‘sans Peur’, the Fearless. The Ottoman skirmish cavalry at first appeared to have broken on impact, but it was, in fact, a clever ploy by Bayazid.

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The battle of Nicopolis. By J. Schiltberger (J. Schiltberger, Ein wunderbarliche…) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning around the skirmishers led the Crusader knights into the wall of stakes. At first they attempted ride over the wooden barricade but their horses were not bred for leaping, especially over sharpened logs. Realizing they would have to dismount, the knights began to leave their horses. On that signal, the azaps and Yeni Ceri took out their bows and opened fire. Under a hail of arrow fire, the French and Burgundians tore the stakes out of the ground and took many casualties. Finally, they managed to clear a path through the barricade but because they could not remount their horses Jean ordered his men to advance on foot. The other knights followed his lead and engaged the azaps and Yeni Ceri. Some of the akinjis and regular cavalry were also drawn into the melee. Even without horses the Western knights were still formidable opponents, and the Ottoman infantry was devastated, especially the azaps, who soon broke and fled for real. In a testament to their skills, the Yeni Ceri managed to maintain their cohesion and begun an orderly retreat, drawing the dismounted Crusaders with them.

When they reached the hills, the main body of the Ottoman regular cavalry moved to engage. However, they withdrew almost as quickly as they came. The Franco-Burgundians continued to struggle uphill only to walk into an ambush by the Ottoman household troops led by Bayazid. The regulars then rejoined, to surround the Crusaders on three sides. Within minutes, the entire body was either dead or captured. Among the first group was Jean de Vienne, who was slain defending the French banner and among the latter group Jean I, Count of Nevers.

Meanwhile on the other side of the field the horses of the French and Burgundian knights had begun to return to camp. King Sigismund, who had already ordered the center forward in an attempt to support the charging knights, now knew something was wrong. The fresh troops first encountered the reformed Ottoman infantry on the plateau before facing the mounted regulars. The resulting contest was far more equally matched, but Bayazid had one last trick up his sleeves. As the day passed into the late afternoon, the Serbian knights of Stefan Lazarevic burst from cover and hit the king of Hungary’s undefended flanks.

The Transylvanians and Wallachians had retreated during the march (neither Mircea nor Steven Lazarevic felt any great loyalty to Hungary, and were more concerned about their people), and left the center exposed. The Serbian knights threw themselves toward the main Hungarian banner and overthrew it. Seeing the lead banner fall, the Hungarian commanders prevailed on Sigismund to disengage. The King agreed, and his forces retreated in good order to the banks of the Danube, where the joint Hospitaller and allied Italian fleet was waiting. The remaining Crusader-Allied senior leadership was able to embark safely, but many others were not so fortunate as there was not enough room for everyone on the ships. As word of this spread, a panic broke out in the ranks. A few ships were sunk in the chaos by overloading. As the water was low in September, many Crusader-Allied troops were able to ford the river safely by swimming or crossing further downstream where it was broken up by islands. The Ottomans took advantage of the chaos, isolating bodies of Crusaders on hill tops (including the famous incident of the “Knight of Poland”, who sacrificed himself to keep the Ottomans from being able to fire on the fleet from the heights), or hunting them in the space between the hills. However, Bayazid was largely content to watch his enemy self-destruct. Observing this as his ship sailed for Constantinople, Sigismund famously remarked on the French:

“If only they had listened to me… We had men in the plenty to fight our enemies.”

The battle of Nicopolis, the last great battle of the Crusading Era was over. The Ottoman dominion was reaffirmed.

In the aftermath of the battle much happened. The outcome of the Nicopolis Crusade was a surprise to the powers of Western Europe. In one single horrific afternoon, the flower of the west were either struck down or captured. For those who were caught the culture shock left a profound and lasting effect. Islamic culture did not have the same codes toward the treatment of prisoners that Christian culture had.

The worst came when Bayazid, in a fit of anger over the massacres and the heavy casualties his men suffered in the first phase of the battle executed a large number of Crusaders he had taken prisoner. Only the most wealthy (Like Jean I) or young (like Johann Schiltberger) survived. The exact number is unknown (ranging from 300 to 10,000), but it seems likely that Bayazid wanted to execute even more, holding off out of awe from the peaceful way in which the executed went to their deaths. This was perhaps an even wider shock to Western Europe, and never again would a Crusade be launched against the Ottomans. Left alone the Ottoman Empire continued to expand, only to be nearly destroyed in 1402 when Bayazid was defeated and captured by the great Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur-e Lang, or Tamerlane at Ankara.

 

Sources:

Norman Housley, The Later Crusades, 1274-1580: From Lyons to Alcazar.  New York, 1992.

Aziz Atiya, The Crusades of the Later Middle Ages. New York, 1965.

Aziz Atiya, The Crusade of Nicopolis. New York, 1978.

George  Nafziger and Mark Walton, Islam at War: A History. Westport, 2003.

Buchan Telfer, trans, The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger. London, 1979.

David Nicolle, Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade, illustrations by Christa Hooks. Oxford, 1999

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York, 2005.