John S. C. (John Stevens Cabot) Abbott.

History of Frederick the Second online

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every probability of his incurring disgrace instead of gaining honor,
must have been dreadful. There was no sleep for him that night. The
Prussians were almost surrounded by the Austrians, and it was quite
certain that the morrow would usher in a battle. Oppressed by the peril
of his position, the king, during the night, wrote to his brother
Augustus William, who was at Breslau, as follows. The letter was dated
at the little village of Pogerell, where the king had taken shelter.

“MY DEAREST BROTHER, - The enemy has just got into Silesia. We
are not more than a mile from them. To-morrow must decide our
fortune. If I die, do not forget a brother who has always loved
you most tenderly. I recommend to you my most dear mother, my
domestics, and my first battalion. Eichel and Schuhmacher are
informed of all my testamentary wishes.

“Remember me always, but console yourself for my death. The glory
of the Prussian arms and the honor of the house have set me in
action, and will guide me to my last moment. You are my sole
heir. I recommend to you, in dying, those whom I have the most
loved during my life - Keyserling, Jordan, Wartensleben, Hacke,
who is a very honest man, Fredersdorf, and Eichel, in whom you
may place entire confidence.

“I bequeath eight thousand crowns ($6000) to my domestics. All
that I have elsewhere depends on you. To each of my brothers
and sisters make a present in my name; a thousand affectionate
regards to my sister at Baireuth. You know what I think on their
score; and you know, better than I can tell you, the tenderness
and all the sentiments of most inviolable friendship with which I
am, dearest brother, your faithful brother and servant till death,


To his friend Jordan, who was also in Breslau, he wrote:

“MY DEAR JORDAN, - We are going to fight to-morrow. Thou knowest
the chances of war. The life of kings is not more regarded than
that of private people. I know not what will happen to me.

“If my destiny is finished, remember a friend who loves thee
always tenderly. If Heaven prolong my days, I will write to thee
after to-morrow, and thou shalt hear of our victory. Adieu, dear
friend; I shall love thee till death.


It is worthy of notice that there is no indication that the king sent
any word of affectionate remembrance to his neglected wife. It is a
remarkable feature in the character of the Emperor Napoleon I. that in
his busiest campaigns rarely did a day pass in which he did not write
to Josephine. He often wrote to her twice a day.

Sunday morning, the 9th, dawned luridly. The storm raged unabated. The
air was so filled with the falling snow that one could not see the
distance of twenty paces, and the gale was piling up large drifts on
the frozen plains. Neither army could move. Neipperg was in advance
of Frederick, and had established his head-quarters at the village
of Mollwitz, a few miles northwest of Pogerell. He had therefore got
fairly between the Prussians and Ohlau. But Frederick knew not where
the Austrian army was. For six-and-thirty hours the wild storm drove
both Prussians and Austrians to such shelter as could be obtained in
the several hamlets which were scattered over the extended plain.

Frederick dispatched messengers to Ohlau to summon the force there to
his aid; the messengers were all captured. The Prussians were now in
a deplorable condition. The roads were encumbered and rendered almost
impassable by the drifted snow. The army was cut off from its supplies,
and had provisions on hand but for a single day. Both parties alike
plundered the poor inhabitants of their cattle, sheep, and grain. Every
thing that could burn was seized for their camp-fires. We speak of
the carnage of the battle-field, and often forget the misery which is
almost invariably brought upon the helpless inhabitants of the region
through which the armies move. The schoolmaster of Mollwitz, a kind,
simple-hearted, accurate old gentleman, wrote an account of the scenes
he witnessed. Under date of Mollwitz, Sunday, April 9, he writes:

“Country, for two days back, was in new alarm by the Austrian garrison
of Brieg, now left at liberty, who sallied out upon the villages about,
and plundered black cattle, sheep, grain, and whatever they could come
at. But this day in Mollwitz the whole Austrian army was upon us. First
there went three hundred hussars through the village to Grüningen, who
quartered themselves there, and rushed hither and thither into houses,
robbing and plundering. From one they took his best horses; from
another they took linen, clothes, and other furnitures and victual.

“General Neipperg halted here at Mollwitz with the whole army before
the village, in mind to quarter. And quarter was settled, so that a
plow-farmer got four to five companies to lodge, and a spade-farmer two
or three hundred cavalry. The houses were full of officers, and the
fields full of horsemen and baggage; and all around you saw nothing
but fires burning. The wooden railings were instantly torn down for
firewood. The hay, straw, barley were eaten away, and brought to
nothing. Every thing from the barns was carried out. As the whole army
could not lodge itself with us, eleven hundred infantry quartered at
Laugwitz. Bärzdorf got four hundred cavalry; and this day nobody knew
what would come of it.”



Preparing for the Battle. - The Surprise. - The Snow-encumbered
Plain. - Horror of the Scene. - Flight of Frederick. - His Shame
and Despair. - Unexpected Victory of the Prussians. - Letters of
Frederick. - Adventures of Maupertuis.

Monday morning the storm ceased. There was a perfect calm. For leagues
the spotless snow, nearly two feet deep, covered all the extended
plains. The anxiety of Frederick had been so great that for two nights
he had not been able to get any sleep. He had plunged into this war
with the full assurance that he was to gain victory and glory. It now
seemed inevitable that he was to encounter but defeat and shame.

At the earliest dawn the whole army was in motion. Ranked in four
columns, they cautiously advanced toward Ohlau, ready to deploy
instantly into line of battle should the enemy appear. Scouts were sent
out in all directions. But, toiling painfully through the drifts, they
could obtain no reliable information. The spy-glass revealed nothing
but the winding-sheet of crisp and sparkling snow, with scarcely a
shrub or a tree to break the dreary view. There were no fences to be
seen - nothing but a smooth, white plain, spreading for miles around.
The hamlet of Mollwitz, where General Neipperg had established his
head-quarters, was about seven miles north from Pogerell, from which
point Frederick was marching. At the distance of a few miles from each
other there were several wretched little hamlets, consisting of a few
low, thatched, clay farm-houses clustered together.

General Neipperg was not attempting to move in the deep snow. He,
however, sent out a reconnoitring party of mounted hussars under
General Rothenburg. About two miles from Mollwitz this party
encountered the advance-guard of the Prussians. The hussars, after
a momentary conflict, in which several fell, retreated and gave the
alarm. General Neipperg was just sitting down to dinner. The Prussian
advance waited for the rear columns to come up, and then deployed into
line. As the Austrian hussars dashed into the village of Mollwitz with
the announcement that the Prussians were on the march, had attacked
them, and killed forty of their number, General Neipperg dropped
knife and fork, sprang from the table, and dispatched couriers in all
directions, galloping for life, to concentrate his troops. His force
was mainly distributed about in three villages, two or three miles
apart. The clangor of trumpets and drums resounded; and by the greatest
exertions the Austrian troops were collected from their scattered
encampments, and formed in two parallel lines, about two miles in
length, facing the Prussians, who were slowly advancing in the same
order, wading through the snow. Each army was formed with the infantry
in the centre and the cavalry on the wings. Frederick was then but an
inexperienced soldier. He subsequently condemned the want of military
ability which he displayed upon this occasion.

“We approached,” he writes, “Marshal Neipperg’s army without being
discovered by any one man living. His troops were then cantoned in
three villages. But at that time I had not sufficient experience to
know how to avail myself of such an opportunity. I ought immediately to
have ordered two of my columns to surround the village of Mollwitz, and
then to have attacked it. I ought at the same instant to have detached
my dragoons with orders to have attacked the other two villages,
which contained the Austrian cavalry. The infantry, which should have
followed, would have prevented them from mounting. If I had proceeded
in this way I am convinced that I should have totally destroyed the
Austrian army.”[52]

It was now about noon. The sun shone brightly on the glistening snow.
There was no wind. Twenty thousand peasants, armed and drilled as
soldiers, were facing each other upon either side, to engage in mutual
slaughter, with no animosity between them - no cause of quarrel. It is
one of the unrevealed mysteries of Providence that any one man should
thus have it in his power to create such wide-spread death and misery.
The Austrians had a splendid body of cavalry, eight thousand six
hundred in number. Frederick had but about half as many horsemen. The
Prussians had sixty pieces of artillery, the Austrians but eighteen.

The battle soon began, with its tumult, its thunder-roar of artillery
and musketry, its gushing blood, its cries of agony, its death
convulsions. Both parties fought with the reckless courage, the
desperation with which trained soldiers, of whatever nationality,
almost always fight.

The Prussians advanced in their long double line, trampling the deep
snow beneath their feet. All their banners were waving. All their
bands of music were pealing forth their most martial airs. Their sixty
pieces of artillery, well in front, opened a rapid and deadly fire.
The thoroughly-drilled Prussian artillerymen discharged their guns
with unerring aim, breaking gaps in the Austrian ranks, and with such
wonderful rapidity that the unintermitted roar of the cannons drowned
the sound of drums and trumpets.

The Austrian cavalry made an impetuous charge upon the weaker Prussian
cavalry on the right of the Prussian line. Frederick commanded here in
person. The Prussian right wing was speedily routed, and driven in wild
retreat over the plain. The king lost his presence of mind and fled
ingloriously with the fugitives. General Schulenberg endeavored, in
vain, to rally the disordered masses. He received a sabre slash across
his face. Drenched in blood, he still struggled, unavailingly, to
arrest the torrent, when a bullet struck him dead. The battle was now
raging fiercely all along the lines.

General Römer, in command of the Austrian cavalry, had crushed the
right wing of the Prussians. Resolutely he followed up his victory,
hotly chasing the fugitives in the wildest disorder far away to the
rear, capturing nine of their guns. Who can imagine the scene? There
were three or four thousand horsemen put to utter rout, clattering over
the plain, impetuously pursued by six or seven thousand of the finest
cavalry in the world, discharging pistol-shots into their flying ranks,
and raining down upon them sabre-blows.

The young king, all unaccustomed to those horrors of war which he had
evoked, was swept along with the inundation. The danger of his falling
in the midst of the general carnage, or of his capture, which was,
perhaps, still more to be dreaded, was imminent. His friends entreated
him to escape for his life. Even Marshal Schwerin, the veteran soldier,
assured him that the battle was lost, and that he probably could escape
capture only by a precipitate flight.

[Illustration: FLIGHT OF FREDERICK.]

Frederick, thus urged, leaving the main body of his army, as he
supposed, in utter rout, with a small escort, put spurs to his steed
in the attempt to escape. The king was well mounted on a very splendid
bay horse. A rapid ride of fifteen miles in a southerly direction
brought him to the River Neisse, which he crossed by a bridge at the
little town of Lowen. Immediately after his departure Prince Leopold
dispatched a squadron of dragoons to accompany the king as his
body-guard. But Frederick fled so rapidly that they could not overtake
him, and in the darkness, for night soon approached, they lost his
track. Even several of the few who accompanied him, not so well mounted
as the king, dropped off by the way, their horses not being able to
keep up with his swift pace.

It was Frederick’s aim to reach Oppeln, a small town upon the River
Oder, about thirty miles from the field of battle. He supposed that one
of his regiments still held that place. But this regiment had hurriedly
vacated the post, and had repaired, with all its baggage, to Pampitz,
in the vicinity of Mollwitz. Upon the retirement of this garrison a
wandering party of sixty Austrian hussars had taken possession of the

Frederick, unaware that Oppeln was in the hands of the enemy, arrived,
with the few of his suite who had been able to keep up with him,
about midnight before the closed gates of the town. “Who are you?”
the Austrian sentinels inquired. “We are Prussians,” was the reply,
“accompanying a courier from the king.” The Austrians, unconscious of
the prize within their grasp, and not knowing how numerous the Prussian
party might be, instantly opened a musketry fire upon them through the
iron gratings of the gate. Had they but thrown open the gate and thus
let the king enter the trap, the whole history of Europe might have
been changed. Upon apparently such trivial chances the destinies of
empires and of the world depend. Fortunately, in the darkness and the
confusion, none were struck by the bullets.

At Oppeln there was a bridge across the Oder by which the king hoped to
escape with his regiment to the free country beyond. There he intended
to summon to his aid the army of thirty-six thousand men which he had
sent to Götten under the “Old Dessauer.” The discharge of the musketry
of the Austrians blasted even this dismal hope. It seemed as though
Frederick were doomed to drain the cup of misery to its dregs; and
his anguish must have been intensified by the consciousness that he
deserved it all. But a few leagues behind him, the bleak, snow-clad
plains, swept by the night-winds, were strewed with the bodies of eight
or nine thousand men, the dying and the dead, innocent peasant-boys
torn from their homes, whose butchery had been caused by his own
selfish ambition.

The king, in utter exhaustion from hunger, sleeplessness, anxiety, and
misery, for a moment lost all self-control. As with his little band of
fugitives he vanished into the gloom of the night, not knowing where to
go, he exclaimed, in the bitterness of his despair, “O my God, my God,
this is too much!”

Retracing his steps in the darkness some fifteen miles, he returned
to Lowen, where, by a bridge, a few hours before, he had crossed the
Neisse. Taught caution by the misadventure at Oppeln, he reined up
his horse, before the morning dawned, at the mill of Hilbersdorf,
about a mile and a half from the town. The king, upon his high-blooded
charger, had outridden nearly all his escort; but one or two were now
with him. One of these attendants he sent into the town to ascertain
if it were still held by the Prussians. Almost alone, he waited under
the shelter of the mill the return of his courier. It was still night,
dark and cold. The wind, sweeping over the snow-clad plains, caused the
exhausted, half-famished monarch to shiver in his saddle.

There is a gloom of the soul far deeper than any gloom with which
nature can ever be shrouded. It is not easy to conceive of a mortal
placed in circumstances of greater mental suffering than was the proud,
ambitious young monarch during the hour in which he waited, in terror
and disgrace, by the side of the mill, for the return of his courier.
At length the clatter of hoofs was heard, and the messenger came back,
accompanied by an adjutant, to announce to the king that the Prussians
still held Lowen, and that _the Prussian army had gained a signal
victory at Mollwitz_.

Who can imagine the conflicting emotions of joy and wretchedness, of
triumph and shame, of relief and chagrin, with which the heart of
Frederick must have been rent! The army of Prussia had triumphed, under
the leadership of his generals, while he, its young and ambitious
sovereign, who had unjustly provoked war that he might obtain military
glory, a fugitive from the field, was scampering like a coward over the
plains at midnight, seeking his own safety. Never, perhaps, was there
a more signal instance of a retributive providence. Frederick knew
full well that the derision of Europe would be excited by caricatures
and lampoons of the chivalric fugitive. Nor was he deceived in his
anticipations. There was no end to the ridicule which was heaped upon
Frederick, galloping, for dear life, from the battle-field in one
direction, while his solid columns were advancing to victory in the
other. His sarcastic foes were ungenerous and unjust. But when do foes,
wielding the weapons of ridicule, ever pretend even to be just and

[Illustration: FREDERICK AT THE MILL.]

The king, upon receiving these strange and unexpected tidings,
immediately rode into Lowen. It was an early hour in the morning. He
entered the place, not as a king and a conqueror, but as a starving
fugitive, exhausted with fatigue, anxiety, and sleeplessness. It is
said that his hunger was so great that he stopped at a little shop on
the corner of the market-place, where “widow Panzern” served him with
a cup of coffee and a cold roast fowl. Thus slightly refreshed, the
intensely humiliated young king galloped back to his victorious army at
Mollwitz, having been absent from it, in his terror-stricken flight,
for sixteen hours.

The chagrin of Frederick in view of this adventure may be inferred from
the fact that, during the whole remainder of his life, he was never
known to make any allusion to it whatever.

After the king, swept away in the wreck of his right wing of cavalry,
had left the field, and was spurring his horse in his impetuous flight,
his generals in the centre and on the left, in command of infantry so
highly disciplined that every man would stand at his post until he
died, resolutely maintained the battle. Frederick William had drilled
these men for twenty years as men were never drilled before or since,
converting them into mere machines. They were wielded by their officers
as they themselves handled their muskets. Five successive cavalry
charges these cast-iron men resisted. They stood like rocks dashing
aside the torrent. The assailing columns melted before their terrible
fire - they discharging five shots to the Austrians’ two.

[Illustration: BATTLE OF MOLLWITZ,

April 10, 1741.

_a._ Advance of Prussians.
_b._ Where Rothenburg met the Hussars.
_c._ Prussian Infantry.
_dd._ Prussian Cavalry.
_e._ Austrian Infantry.
_fff._ Austrian Cavalry.
_gg._ Retreat of Austrians.]

After the fifth charge, the Austrians, dispirited, and leaving the snow
plain crimsoned with the blood and covered with the bodies of their
slain, withdrew out of ball range. Torn and exhausted, they could not
be driven by their officers forward to another assault. The battle had
now lasted for five hours. Night was at hand, for the sun had already
set. The repulsed Austrians were collected in scattered and confused
bands. The experienced eye of General Schwerin saw that the hour for
decisive action had come. He closed up his ranks, ordered every band to
play its most spirited air, and gave the order “Forward.” An Austrian
officer, writing the next week, describes the scene.

“I can well say,” he writes, “that I never in my life saw any thing
more beautiful. They marched with the greatest steadiness, arrow
straight and their front like a line, as if they had been upon parade.
The glitter of their clear arms shone strangely in the setting sun,
and the fire from them went on no otherwise than a continued peal of
thunder. The spirits of our army sank altogether, the foot plainly
giving way, the horse refusing to come forward - all things wavering
toward dissolution.”

The Austrians had already lost, in killed, wounded, and missing, four
thousand four hundred and ten men. And though the Prussians had lost
four thousand six hundred and thirteen, still their infantry lines had
never for a moment wavered; and now, with floating banners and peals of
music, they were advancing with the strides of conquerors.

Thus circumstanced, General Neipperg gave the order to retreat. At
the double quick, the Austrians retired back through the street of
Mollwitz, hurried across the River Laugwitz by a bridge, and, turning
short to the south, continued their retreat toward Grottkau. They
left behind them nine of their own guns, and eight of those which
they had captured from the Prussians. The Prussians, exhausted by
the long battle, their cavalry mostly dispersed and darkness already
enveloping them, did not attempt any vigorous pursuit. They bivouacked
on the grounds, or quartered themselves in the villages from which the
Austrians had fled.

On Wednesday, April 12, two days after the battle, Frederick wrote to
his sister Wilhelmina from Ohlau as follows:

“MY DEAREST SISTER, - I have the satisfaction to inform you
that we have yesterday[53] totally beaten the Austrians. They
have lost more than five thousand men in killed, wounded, and
prisoners. We have lost Prince Frederick, brother of Margraf
Karl; General Schulenberg, Wartensleben of the Carabineers, and
many other officers. Our troops did miracles, and the result
shows as much. It was one of the rudest battles fought within the
memory of man.

“I am sure you will take part in this happiness, and that you
will not doubt the tenderness with which I am, dearest sister,
yours wholly,


The king’s intimate friend, Jordan, had accompanied him as far as
Breslau. There he remained, anxiously awaiting the issue of the
conflict. On the 11th, the day succeeding the battle, he wrote from
Breslau to the king as follows:

“SIRE, - Yesterday I was in terrible alarms. The sound of the cannon
heard, the smoke of powder visible from the steeple-tops here, all led
us to suspect that there was a battle going on. Glorious confirmation
of it this morning. Nothing but rejoicing among all the Protestant
inhabitants, who had begun to be in apprehension from the rumors
which the other party took pleasure in spreading. Persons who were in
the battle can not enough celebrate the coolness and bravery of your
majesty. For myself, I am at the overflowing point. I have run about
all day announcing this glorious news to the Berliners who are here. In
my life I have never felt a more perfect satisfaction. One finds at the
corner of every street an orator of the people celebrating the warlike
feats of your majesty’s troops. I have often, in my idleness, assisted
at these discourses; not artistic eloquence, it must be owned, but
gushing full from the heart.”

Frederick immediately sent an announcement of the victory to his friend
Voltaire. It does not appear that he alluded to his own adventures.
Voltaire received the note when in the theatre at Lisle, while
listening to the first performance of his tragedy of _Mahomet_. He read
the account to the audience between the acts. It was received with
great applause. “You will see,” said Voltaire, “that this piece of
Mollwitz will secure the success of mine.” _Vous verrez que cette piece
de Mollwitz fera réussir la miene._

The distinguished philosopher Maupertuis accompanied Frederick on
this campaign. Following the king to the vicinity of the field of
battle, he took a post of observation at a safe distance, that he might
witness the spectacle. Carlyle, in his peculiar style of word-painting,
describes the issue as follows:

“The sage Maupertuis, for example, had climbed some tree, or place of

Online LibraryJohn S. C. (John Stevens Cabot) AbbottHistory of Frederick the Second → online text (page 21 of 52)