In 1651 Ukrainian Cossacks battled Polish troops for self-determination, but as the rebels learned the hard way, unreliable allies can be one’s worst enemy.

By the middle of 1651 the Khmelnytsky Uprising was in its third year. What had started in January 1648 as a relatively local Cossack uprising against Polish rule had evolved into a wider war against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Leading the rebels was Bohdan Khmel-nytsky, a minor Ukrainian noble and Cossack officer who at the outset of the revolt had been elected hetman, the senior military rank in the commonwealth.

Almost concurrent with the start of the rebellion was the death of Poland’s King Wladyslaw IV Vasa, who had no legitimate male heir, leaving the commonwealth without a rallying figure. By the time the Polish parliament put the king’s half-brother, John II Casimir Vasa, on the throne in November 1648, Khmelnytsky’s forces had won significant victories. After defeating the Polish army at the Battle of Zboriv in August 1649, Khmelnytsky wrested a number of treaty concessions from the government. In accordance with these concessions, Poland withdrew its troops and administration from eastern Ukrainian districts, in effect ceding almost half of Ukrainian territory to Khmelnytsky. The hetman set about establishing a native Ukrainian administrative infrastructure and at same time entered negotiations with Russia—which he hoped would allow Ukraine to become an independent protectorate—as well establishing relations with the Crimean Tatars, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Ottoman empire and its vassals.

While the apparent victory buoyed Ukrainian hopes for autonomy, the Poles—smarting from their humiliating defeats—were merely biding their time.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky led the Cossack rebellion as the elected hetman.

In Warsaw, King John Casimir and the Polish nobles loyal to him were itching for a rematch with the Ukrainians. In preparation for a renewed conflict the royal standing army was expanded to 30,000 men, increasing numbers of whom were trained in the Western European manner. Sporadic Cossack raids resumed in Ukraine, however, even as the Poles rebuilt their military. In the spring of 1651 Poland took the initiative and sent troops to sack the small town of Krasne and massacre its Cossack garrison and civilian population. The death toll approached 10,000. As he sent his army into the field, John Casimir also called out the noble levy, a legacy of feudalism in which the nobles of each district were obligated to equip and field their household troops and retainers.

In late May 1651 the king arrived at the small town of Sokal, on the banks of the Bug River in western Ukraine. A onetime Jesuit cardinal and avid collector of Dutch paintings, John Casimir was ill suited to command men in the field. Under his uninspiring leadership, Polish forces remained passively in camp with little intelligence on the whereabouts of Khmelnytsky’s rebels.

The hesitant, indecisive king had great difficulty exerting his authority. In accordance with Polish tradition, the nobility, or szlachta, acted as a counterweight to the power of the central government, jealously guarding against any infringements of their rights and privileges. A popular noble dictum summed up their attitude: “The king reigns but does not govern.” Polish kings did not rule by hereditary authority but were elected by the nobles, who accounted for perhaps 10 percent of the population. Only a small number of them were great magnates or lords of enormous estates, but even the poorest members of the szlachta considered themselves equals. The great nobles arrived with large contingents of private forces, complete with heavy cavalry and even artillery.

The Polish army at Sokal totaled perhaps 120,000 men. However, the number of actual combatants was far smaller, with roughly 30,000 troops under the king’s direct command, a further 30,000 noble levies and some 15,000 German mercenaries. The balance comprised armed retainers, who were of little military value but consumed vast quantities of supplies. Less than 20 percent of the king’s army was infantry, organized on the Swedish model, with two-thirds being musketeers and one-third pikemen.

Khmelnytsky fielded roughly 150,000 men. The core of his force comprised 15,000 regular, or “registered,” Cossacks and 25,000 semi-independent Zaporizhian Cossacks. Throwing in with them were some 10,000 unaffiliated Cossacks and minor Ukrainian and Polish szlachta, as well as a token detachment of several hundred Russian Don Cossacks, sent as a show of support to Ukraine.

While the registered Cossacks were mostly mounted, the Zaporizhian Cossacks were overwhelmingly afoot. Well aware of the superiority of Poland’s mounted troops, Khmelnytsky had negotiated with Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV to permit his vassal Crimean Tatars to join the Ukrainian side. Accordingly, Khan Islam III Giray brought 30,000 Tatar riders, plus 5,000 of the sultan’s own cavalry. The balance of Khmelnytsky’s rebel army consisted of rural and town peasants armed with modified farm implements or even clubs. While swelling the numbers of Khmelnytsky’s force, they added little to its fighting capability.

The Polish army initially fielded slightly more than 20 artillery pieces. While the Cossacks possessed 48 heavier guns, they served purely as defensive weapons. The lighter Polish guns, on the other hand, were more efficiently crewed and commanded and used in both offense and defense. During the latter stages of the campaign, as the Poles brought up heavier guns, the artillery advantage swung even further in their favor.

The Polish troops gathering at Sokal faced several challenges, most stemming from the fact their camp was ringed by swamps and hemmed in by forest. As more and more troops arrived, they soon stripped the immediate vicinity of food and forage, and woefully inadequate field sanitation spread dysentery and other illnesses among the ranks. Still, the king remained stationary, awaiting the arrival of the slowly gathering noble levy from the western provinces. Finally, faced with rapidly diminishing supplies and an incipient epidemic, John Casimir on June 14 gave the order to advance east. A number of independent-minded nobles disobeyed the order and remained in camp to await the rest of the levy, ultimately catching up to the main army after it crossed the Styr River on June 20.

Once across the river the Poles began constructing an extensive camp on the east bank, opposite the small town of Berestechko. The arrangements there soon became as disorderly as those at Sokal had been, as the nobles disregarded the camp marshal’s instructions and set up their retinues wherever they pleased. As might be expected, sanitary conditions rapidly deteriorated.

On the morning of June 28 a formation of Cossacks and Tatars probed the king’s camp, engaging the Poles in minor clashes. The second day brought a large cavalry melee involving up to 10,000 riders and inflicting heavy casualties on both sides.

On June 30 both armies took the field in heavy fog that cut visibility to arm’s length. The area they chose for their decisive battle was hemmed in by the Styr and Pliashivka rivers to the northwest and northeast, heavy woods to the southwest and open ground to the southeast. Khmelnytsky, at the head of his rebel Cossacks and peasants, occupied a series of low hills on the west bank of the Pliashivka. The Tatars and Turks deployed on his left, centered on a hill where Khan Islam Giray set up his large tent. Through the fog the Poles could hear the muffled sounds of Cossacks setting up their gulyai-gorod (Russian for “traveling town”), a mobile fortification comprising wagons lashed together in lines several deep.

As he led his forces onto the field, John Casimir ordered the bridges over the Styr burned to deny his enemy any possibility of retreat, then deployed his army in three sections. The northern force, under Polish magnate Jeremi Wi´sniowiecki and facing northeast, included the king’s and szlachta cavalry, reinforced by a regiment of German infantry. Behind them were the regiments of noble levy. The southern force, led by magnate Stanislaw Lanckoronski and facing southeast, comprised the private forces of the great magnates and part of the noble levy. John Casimir himself commanded the center at the head of foreign infantry, mercenary German cavalrymen, his personal cavalry regiment and the bulk of artillery commander Zygmunt Przyjemski’s guns. The infantry was deployed in the German manner, with musketeers and pikemen in checkerboard formation and cavalry filling the gaps between them. Still unable to see one another, both armies remained immobile until the fog burned off several hours later.

Once the fog cleared, the king allowed Wi´sniowiecki to launch a determined attack against the Cossack wagon camp. The Cossacks responded with withering musket fire, but the heavy Polish cavalry—supported by infantry and artillery—managed to break into the camp. Before the Poles could exploit their success, however, the Tatars arrived in support of the Cossacks.

The battle ebbed to and fro as Wi´sniowiecki’s force was pushed away from the Cossack camp and, supported by German infantry, in turn threw the Tatars back. The Tatar Khan several times sent his riders against both flanks of the king’s position but was unable to resist the steady press of Polish and German infantry.

Shifting his attention to his right flank, John Casimir directed his infantry, closely supported by artillery, against the Tatars. As the German troops steadily advanced toward the khan’s hill, the Tatars began firing their two small guns, and several cannonballs landed near John Casimir himself. One of the king’s officers spotted Islam Giray’s personal banner atop the hill, and the Polish artillery concentrated on that spot. The fire was exceptionally accurate, one of the first shots mortally wounding the khan’s brother, Amurat.

Accurate artillery wasn’t the Tatar leader’s only worry, however, for an approaching Polish cavalry squadron also peppered the hilltop with deadly musket fire, forcing the khan and his entourage to move out of range. Possibly misinterpreting their leader’s change of position as a retreat, more and more Tatars began flowing to the rear, and the withdrawal quickly turned into a general rout. Small detachments tried to make a stand but were quickly cut down by the pursuing Polish cavalry.

The Tatars continued fleeing southwest along the Pliashivka, leaving behind their camp, spare horses and cattle, as well as their dead and wounded. Had the szlachta cavalry on the right flank immediately supported the attack by the king’s cavalry, they would have trapped the bulk of the retreating Tatars. Instead, a delay by the noble cavalry allowed the Tatars to slip away, first south and then east. By the time the szlachta joined the pursuit, the Tatars had a good head start. Regardless, the Polish light cavalry continued to harry them through the night, cutting down and capturing many stragglers. After crossing the Pliashivka more than a dozen miles southwest at Kozyn, the Tatars burned the bridge behind them, then took out their rage and humiliation on the innocent town, burning it to the ground and massacring its inhabitants.

Accompanied by several bodyguards, Khmelnytsky caught up with the Tatars as they were sacking Kozyn. The hetman implored Islam Giray to return to the battlefield, but the khan—noting that Polish forces had attacked the Tatars and not the Cossacks—accused Khmelnytsky of collusion. The Tatars then disarmed the Ukrainian leader and his entourage and held them hostage as they continued their retreat.

With the Tatars fleeing the field and darkness fast descending, the Polish army halted rather than attack the fortified Cossack wagon camp in the dark. During the night the rebels managed to extricate the majority of their wagons and move closer to the river. By intent or luck they had chosen a seemingly good site, flanked by swamps with the Pliashivka at its back. The only dry land approach was from the west, directly into the heavy defensive guns. The Cossacks and peasants worked feverishly through dawn to dig a trench and erect an earthen berm around their new position.

By the morning of July 1 word had spread through the rebel camp of Khmelnytsky’s disappearance. Though they had joined forces, the Cossacks and the peasants had little regard for one another. The former typically looked down on the latter, who in turn considered the Cossacks shiftless louts. Only the force of Khmelnytsky’s personality had held the groups together. In his absence the situation in the rebel camp quickly deteriorated as blame and accu-
sations sailed back and forth.

On the other side of the battlefield John Casimir’s commanders realized they could not overcome the rebel defenses with just the light cannon at hand. Over the several days it took the Poles to bring up heavier cannon, the opposing armies settled into a siege routine of sporadic artillery exchanges and nighttime sallies.

Meanwhile, tempers flared in the rebel camp as the peasants began to reassert themselves. They demanded Cossack Colonel Filon Dzhalalii either lead them into battle or retreat and negotiate with the king. Not knowing if and when Khmelnytsky would return, Dzhalalii dithered. As the days passed without action, people began slipping away from the besieged rebel camp.

On July 6 the Cossacks sent a delegation to negotiate with the king, proposing a mutual withdrawal. John Casimir’s counterproposal—that the Cossacks surrender all weapons and banners, turn over senior colonels as hostages until Khmelnytsky himself surrendered, and drastically reduce the size of the regular Cossack force—was unacceptable. When no Cossack response came on July 8, Polish artillery opened fire on the rebel camp.

Matters came to a head on July 9. Fed up with Dzhalalii’s inaction, Cossack officers deposed him in favor of Colonel Ivan Bohun, who promptly sent another delegation to John Casimir. This time, however, the Poles turned away the envoys. Sensing that rebel resolve was on the wane and a retreat was possible, John Casimir dispatched Stanislaw Lanckoronski with 2,000 cavalrymen across the Pliashivka to circle behind the rebel camp.

The next day, July 10, on discovering the Polish troops behind them, Bohun called together a council of Cossack officers. Without consulting the peasants, Bohun proposed building three bridges across the Pliashivka and crossing enough Cossacks to chase away the Poles. That night Bohun’s men, using whatever materials were at hand, managed to complete the spans under the noses of both the enemy and the peasants in their midst. Early on July 11 Bohun’s riders began streaming from camp across the rickety bridges. The ploy worked. Believing the Cossacks to be stronger than they were, Lanckoronski pulled back from the river, though he barred the way east.

The activity alerted the peasants, who, on discovering the bridges, believed the Cossacks were abandoning them. The rumor spread, and chaos ensued as thousands of panicky peasants rushed the spans. Scores of people were trampled to death as they fought to get across. From the east bank Bohun and his men tried to stem the flood of terrified peasants but were swept aside.

As soon as commanders in the main Polish camp grasped the situation, they advanced with all available troops. Meanwhile, east of the crossing Lanckoronski initially interpreted the rush of people across the Pliashivka as a major attack and withdrew even farther. Realizing the peasants were in full flight, however, he turned his troops around and charged at the fleeing masses. Though comparatively few in number, Lanckoronski’s detachment commenced a great slaughter, cutting down hundreds of fleeing Ukrainians.

On the west bank of the river Polish troops soon broke into the rebel camp and began a systematic massacre of everyone they encountered. Despite inevitable looting, the crown’s share of plunder was significant. Among the spoils were Khmelnytsky’s personal possessions and banners, his correspondence with the Ottoman sultan and Russia’s Czar Alexis, and the Cossack treasury.

Within days of the battle, after securing a significant ransom, the Tatar khan freed Khmelnytsky and his companions. On his release the hetman set about reorganizing his army, but the defeat at Berestechko had taken all the fight out of his men. On Sept. 28, 1651, Khmelnytsky signed a peace treaty with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the Ukrainian town of Bila Tserkva. Under its terms the standing Cossack army was reduced from 40,000 to 20,000 men, and the territory under Khmelnytsky’s control was reduced by about a quarter.

It is difficult to accurately determine the casualties suffered by either side at Berestechko. Polish losses most likely stood at around 1,500 men. Some contemporary Polish sources boast of having killed up to 40,000 Cossacks, peasants and Tatars. The bulk of Ukrainian casualties certainly occurred on July 11 when Polish troops broke into the rebel camp. Most of those who died were rebel noncombatants—women, children and camp followers. Even a conservative estimate of, say, 20,000 Ukrainian dead points to a decidedly one-sided Polish victory.

Hostilities between Poland and Ukraine resumed in 1652, and in January 1654 Russia entered the war on the Ukrainian side. Neither Poland nor Russia actually wanted an active war, however, and hostilities petered out by the end of the next year. After Khmelnytsky’s death from cerebral hemorrhage on July 27, 1657, his successors were unable to resist determined Russian encroachment. A century later, in 1764, Russia’s Catherine the Great officially abolished the hetmanate and with it hopes of Ukrainian independence. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 it appeared Ukrainians had finally won their right to self-determination, but re-
cent events demonstrate Russia’s unwillingness to let the region go
without a fight. MH

Victor Kamenir is a U.S. Army veteran and a police detective who lives near Portland, Ore. He is the author of The Bloody Triangle: The Defeat of Soviet Armor in the Ukraine, June 1941, as well as numerous magazine articles on military history. For further reading he recommends The Cambridge History of Poland; History of Ukraine-Rus: The Cossack Age, 1650–1653, by Mykhailo Hrushevsky; and A History of Ukraine, by Paul Robert Magosci.