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Charles XII. Of Sweden

      Charles XII., against whom it has been made a fault that he carried virtues to extremes, was born at Stockholm, on June 27, 1682, during a storm that

      "Rived the mighty oak, and made
      The ambitious ocean swell, and rage, and foam,
      To be exalted with the threatening clouds."

      Astrologers observed that the star called the "Lion's Heart" predominated at his nativity, and that the "Fox" was on the decline--omens and prodigies well suited to announce the birth of a prince who was himself a living tempest. Charles's infancy has nothing very remarkable. His education was strictly attended to, and he proved an attentive scholar. He acquired considerable knowledge of history, geography, mathematics, and the military sciences, and became perfectly familiar with several languages, though he never, after his accession to the throne, spoke any but Latin, Swedish, or German. The gallant Charles Stewart, the same who afterward led the king across the Duna, was his instructor in the art of war, and is said to have communicated to the young prince much of the fiery spirit for which he was himself distinguished. In his fifteenth year Charles ascended the throne, and, contrary to usual assertion, already evinced considerable ability and application to business, though no particular predilection for military affairs, unless his bear-hunting expeditions may be so considered, for they were more than "faint images of war," being attended with great danger. No arms were used in these encounters; the sportsman was provided only with a single doubly-pointed stick and a cast-net, like the one perhaps, used by the ancient gladiators. The object of these fierce combats was to capture and bind the bear, and to carry him in triumph from the scene of action! Charles was, it seems, a great proficient in this dangerous sport.

      At the age of eighteen Charles was obliged to take the field against the four greatest powers of the North. Forced to contend with small means against vastly superior foes, he made genius and courage supply the place of numbers. Heroism was never more nobly displayed than by this gallant monarch and his followers. What men could do was done. For nine years he triumphed over constantly augmenting enemies. And when the "unconquered lord of pleasure and of pain" fell at last, crushed by the weight of masses, fortune more than shared with his innumerable adversaries the honor of his overthrow.

      It was during the Polish campaign of 1703 that Max Emanuel of Wirtemberg, then only fourteen years of age, joined Charles. When introduced, the king asked him whether he wished to go to Stockholm for a time, or to remain with the army. The prince, of course, preferred the latter. "Well, then," said Charles, "I will bring you up in my own way," and immediately placed the boy, tired as he was from his journey, on horseback, and led him a long and fatiguing ride. From this period to the battle of Pultowa, Max continued to be his constant companion, shared his dangers, and attended him in all his adventures, many of which border almost on the fabulous. The affectionate kindness evinced by Charles toward his pupil could not be surpassed. When the boy, as sometimes happened, was worn down by sickness and fatigue, the monarch attended him with parental care; and when on one occasion he fell speechless from his horse, and his recovery was despaired of, the king never left his couch till he was pronounced out of danger.

      The adventures they encountered together were endless. On inspecting the regiments before the opening of the campaign of 1706, they rode five hundred miles in six days, were never in bed, and hardly ever out of the saddle, and frequently reduced to milk and water as their only nourishment--

      "Alike to Charles was tide or time,
      Moonless midnight or matin prime."

      Having on another occasion lost their road and escort during a stormy night, they arrived in the midst of a tempest before the town of Tousha. Neither calling nor firing brought any one to the gates. The king at last dismounted and sought for an entrance, while the prince held the horses in the pelting rain. An entrance having at last been discovered, they took possession of a hut in which was a fire. The king threw himself, booted and spurred, on a bundle of straw, and fell fast asleep. The prince, less hardy, took off his boots, filled them with straw, and placed them by the fire. While sleeping, the flame caught and consumed the valuable gambodoes. The prince was next day obliged to get a pair of peasant's boots, in which he rode about for eight days; a proof that the princely wardrobe was but slenderly furnished.

Charles XII. and an unwilling recruit.

      And yet the camp was not without its gayeties either; for while the head-quarters were wintering at Rawitcz, the town became the scene of great festivities; balls and parties succeeding each other as rapidly as battles had done before. Charles was usually present, was always very polite, but made only a short stay, and retired as soon as he could.

      During the stay of the army in this place, a fire broke out and consumed several houses. The king flew to aid in extinguishing the flames. He ascended to the top of a house that was already on fire, and continued working till the building was sinking under him. He escaped with difficulty, was thrown down by one of the beams, and for a moment believed to be dead. "It was discovered two years afterward," says Bardili, "that the place was set on fire by an incendiary bribed by Augustus II. to slay the king of Sweden in the confusion;" and a man actually came forward and denounced himself as the intended assassin, declaring that some unknown power had prevented him from stabbing the king when he got near his person. Charles said the man was mad, and sent him about his business. Napoleon would have sent him before a military commission and had him shot, as he caused the student at Schoenbrunn to be shot.

      We regret that we cannot give a sufficient account of the Duke of Marlborough's visit to Charles's head-quarters at Altranstadt; for what Voltaire says on the subject is but an idle fable. That the English general should easily have penetrated the views of the Swedish conqueror, which the latter took no pains to conceal, is sufficiently probable; but that the conversation between two such men should have turned principally on the king's large boots, which, as Voltaire says, Charles told Marlborough "he had not quitted for seven years," is of course a mere puerility. Besides, we find from Max's "Memoirs," that Charles was not so coarse in his dress as is usually represented, for his clothes were made of fine materials. He always wore a plain blue coat with gilt buttons, buff waistcoat and breeches, a black crape cravat, and a cocked hat; a waist-belt, and a long cut-and-thrust sword. He never disfigured himself by the full-bottomed wig of the period, but always wore his own brown hair, combed back from his forehead. His camp-bed consisted of a blue silk mattress, pillow and coverlid; materials that would have suited even a dandy guardsman.

      The invasion of Saxony occasioned great uneasiness at Vienna, Charles's arrival being considered alike dangerous to the Catholic states of the Empire and to the success of the Grand Alliance. It happened, under these unpleasant feelings, that at a party the Swedish Minister, Count Stralenghielm, proposed his master's health as a toast. An imperial chamberlain, a Count Zabor, a magnate of Hungary, refused to drink it, declaring that "no honest man ought to drink the health of the Turk, the devil, and of a third person." The Swede struck the offender, and swords were drawn; but the adversaries were of course separated. The ambassador demanded satisfaction for the insult; and Zabor was arrested, and sent in irons to Stettin, and delivered up to the Swedes. Charles instantly set him at liberty, simply desiring him to "be more guarded in his speeches for the future."

      The Saxon nobility (Ritterschaft, chivalry) having been taxed to aid in defraying the Swedish contributions, applied to Charles, claiming their privilege of exemption from all taxation, except that of furnishing horses for the chivalry engaged in defence of the country. "Had the Saxon chivalry," said Charles, "acted up to the duties to which they owe their privilege, I should not have been here."

      The King of Sweden left Saxony, and set out on his Russian expedition at the head of 43,000 men. Of these 8,000 remained in Poland; so that he undertook the march to Moscow with only 35,000--a force amounting to about one-fifteenth part of the army with which Napoleon set out on a similar expedition. The Russians followed the same system they afterward employed against the French, retiring and laving waste the country. The difficulties the Swedes had to encounter, in consequence of bad roads and want of provisions, are almost incredible. The soldiers were forced to contend, not only against the enemy, but against the localities also; roads for the advance of the army had to be opened through forests and morasses before the least progress could be made; and it often happened that a league a day was the greatest extent of march gained after immense toil. But nothing checked the ardor of these gallant soldiers. The Russians attempted to defend the passage of rivers and swamps that impeded the march of the foe. Their efforts were vain; no superiority of numbers, no strength of position, could arrest the indomitable valor of Charles and his troops. And the actions performed during this march would be deemed absolutely fabulous, were they not recorded on authority which cannot be doubted.

      During the severe winter of 1709, the army suffered dreadfully from want and cold. When, early in spring, the thaw set in, the whole of those flat countries were overflowed, and long marches had to be made through complete inundations, by which quantities of stores were lost, and the powder greatly damaged. It was, as we now find, in consequence of the losses thus sustained that Charles accepted Mazeppa's proposal of marching into the Ukraine. Finding his army too much weakened to penetrate further into Russia, and not wishing to fall back upon Livonia, which he thought would look like a retreat and encourage his enemies, he determined to march to the south, and there await the supplies and reinforcements which his generals were to bring up.

      The loss of the convoy which General Lewenhaupt was conducting to the army rendered further delay necessary, and obliged the king to undertake the siege of Pultowa, in order to gain a firm footing in the country, and to secure the supplies which the place contained. The Swedish battering-train was weak, the powder not only bad from having been frequently injured by the wet and dried again, but very scarce besides. Still, courage and energy were making progress, when, June 27th, on his very birthday, Charles, in repulsing a sally, was struck by a musket-ball that entered his left foot, above the root of the toes, and went out at the heel. The king continued in the field for an hour afterward, giving his orders as usual; but when he retired to his quarters, the leg was so much swelled that the boot had to be cut off, and the wound had so unfavorable an appearance as greatly to alarm the attendants.

      Charles behaved heroically, as usual. He held his leg to the surgeon with his own hands, nor did a single groan escape him during the terrible operation which the cutting away of some of the fractured bones rendered necessary. At one time his life was despaired of, and a general panic seized the army, but though the wound proved decisive of his fate, the unhappy monarch had what may well be termed the misfortune to recover.

      The foe drew near. The Czar, well aware of the importance of Pultowa, advanced to its relief with an army of 80,000 men, besides 40,000 irregulars, Kalmucks and Tartars. He brought 150 pieces of artillery along with him. Even with this vast superiority, and after the training of a nine years' war, the Russians did not venture to attack the Swedes, but drew closer and closer around them, till they began at last to intrench themselves within a league of the king's camp. Charles's illness gave them but too much leisure.

      A hostile fortress on one side, a hostile army on the other, nothing but a victory could save the Swedes; and on the morning of the 8th of July, only ten days after Charles had been wounded, they marched out to battle. Their whole army did not amount to 20,000 men, 4,000 of whom were left in the trenches and with the baggage. Their artillery consisted of four field-pieces; and their powder was so bad that it did not, as Count Poniatowsky and Lewenhaupt both affirm, throw the musket-balls more than thirty yards from the muzzles of the pieces. And yet these brave soldiers balanced fortune even against such overwhelming numbers. Three out of the seven Russian redoubts were taken; on the left wing the cavalry were victorious, and it is really difficult to say what the result would have proved, had Charles been able to exert his usual energy and activity. Certain it is that errors were committed which could not have happened under his immediate command; for the cavalry of the left wing did not follow up their success, and the cavalry of the right wing lost their direction, and took no share in the action. The king, who was carried on a litter between two horses, was present in the hottest of the fire, and exerted himself as much as was possible for a man in such a situation. A shot broke the litter, and the wounded monarch was for some time left alone on the ground. A lifeguardsman brought him a horse, and he endeavored to rally the yielding troops. The steed was shot under him, and--

      "Gierta gave
      His own, and died the Russian slave."

      Having assembled and re-formed the remnants of his broken host round the forces which had been left for the protection of the baggage, the fainting monarch was placed in Count Piper's carriage, and conveyed toward the Turkish frontier. The exertions of the wounded Charles to rally his army at Pultowa contrast singularly with the total want of any such exertion displayed by the unwounded Napoleon at Waterloo. We take this want of exertion for granted, because had any been displayed, the world's echoes would have rung with praise bestowed upon the heroic effort.

      The first result of the battle of Pultowa--its ultimate results are only now becoming apparent--was the entire destruction of the Swedish army, the famished and exhausted remains of which were some days afterward obliged to lay down their arms on the banks of the Dnieper, which they had no means of crossing.

      With this battle, which opens a new era in European history, the history of Charles XII. may be said to end; for his subsequent career was only a succession of disappointments, his poor and thinly peopled country not affording him the means of recovery from a single 'defeat'.

      On his arrival at Bender, the king learned of the death of his sister, the Duchess of Holstein; and he who had calmly supported the loss of his fame and his army yielded to the most impassioned burst of sorrow, and was during four days unable to converse with his most intimate attendants--a proof how unjust are the accusations of want of feeling so often brought against him. His long stay in Turkey is certainly evidence of obstinacy, or of that pride which could not brook the thought of returning, a vanquished fugitive, to his native land, which had done so much for him, and which his best efforts had failed to protect from unjust violence. In Charles's high and noble countenance it is seen at once that he was endowed with--

      "The glance that took
      Their thoughts from others at a single look."

      He knew the worthlessness of his enemies; and it is doubly galling to the generous and the brave when fortune, in her base fancies, obliges them to succumb to mean and malicious adversaries. And such was the fate of Charles. His defeat was no sooner known than Denmark, Poland, and Saxony again flew to arms. Hanover and Prussia joined the unworthy league against the fallen monarch, who had been so dreaded, and was therefore so much hated; for Charles had injured no one--he was the aggrieved from first to last. His return to Sweden, the defence of Stralsund, the invasion of Norway, call for no particular attention. He was killed at the siege of Frederickshall, in Norway, on November 30, 1718, under circumstances that long gave currency to the belief that he had been assassinated. Schott and Bardili positively assert the fact; but we are on this point disposed to agree with Voltaire, who, to save the honor of his countrymen, as positively denies it. After evening service, the king went out as usual to visit the trenches. He was attended by two French engineers, Megret and Siquier. A heavy fire was kept up by the enemy. Near the head of the boyau, or zigzag, he kneeled down, and, leaning against the parapet, looked toward the fortress. As he remained motionless for a long time, some one approached and found him perfectly dead, a ball having entered his right temple and passed through his head. Even in death the gallant hand had grasped the hilt of his sword; and this probably gave rise to the belief in the murder, which was afterward confirmed by Siquier's own confession. But this confession was only made while the pretended criminal labored under an attack of brain fever, and was retracted as soon as he recovered.

      Thus fell, in the thirty-sixth year of his age, one of the most extraordinary men that ever acted a part on the great stage of the world. Endowed by nature with a noble person, "a frame of adamant, a soul of fire," with high intellectual powers, dauntless bravery, kingly sentiments of honor, and a lofty scorn of all that was mean and little, he became, from the very splendor of these gifts, perhaps one of the most unhappy men of his time. Less highly gifted, he would have been less hated and less envied; of humbler spirit, he would have been more pliant, and might possibly have been more successful.

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