The Battle of Lützen

With faith in the Protestant Cause of the Thirty Years War faltering, the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus
desperately needed a victory. Was the Count von Wallenstein about to hand it to him?



The sun rose cold and obscured on a chilled November morning in 1632. King Gustavus II Adolphus Vasa of Sweden and his Protestant allies had deployed their troops, ready to cross the shallow Flossgraben river where Imperial soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, concealed by the damp fog, had entrenched along the Leipzig road. Time was of the essence, and Gustavus Adolphus had little to spare. He dared not move for the near impenetrable fog had kept maneuver to a minimum, hazarded by the obscurity. The Imperial Generalissimo Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius, Count von Wallenstein and Duke of Friedland had but to wait, for with each passing second, desperately needed reinforcements under Field Marshall Gottfried Heinrich, the Count von Pappenheim drew ever closer...

The road to Lützen had been a long and arduous one, beginning two years before with Swedish forces landing in Pomerania in July of 1630. King Gustavus Adolphus, who had fought so well against the Poles throughout the 1620’s, had brought his army to aid the Protestant Cause in Germany. Together with mercenary regiments from other Protestant countries, the Swedes hoped that victory in Germany would prevent a Catholic assault of their own homeland.

But the troubles that had plagued them from the beginning continued to do so. The vast majority of Protestant Princes remained staunchly neutral, and were determined to do so as long as they themselves were not directly threatened. Supply lines from Pomerania, already stretched thin over poor roads, were forced to detour around neutral duchies, their Princes fearful of invasion from a vengeful Catholic Empire. Gustavus Adolphus, embarrassed after his withdrawal at the Alte Veste at Fürth, desperately needed a victory.

Wallenstein knew that Adolphus was slowly losing what few allies he had. Long supply lines and and the fluctuating loyalty of Johann Georg, the Elector of Saxony, made Adolphus’s current position in Bavaria less than tenable.

Much to the consternation of the Imperial Court in Vienna, Wallenstein decided to gamble. He marched north into Saxony to join General Count Heinrich Holk. Together with Pappenheim, who was encamped on the Weser River, he hoped to attack Johann Georg and remove one of the largest Protestant duchies from Adolphus’s fold. He was betting that Adolphus would move north to stop him rather than march upon an undefended Vienna and risk starving in the Austrian winter.

As expected, Gustavus Adolphus marched north to Arnstadt where he joined Bernard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar. They paralleled Wallenstein’s advance, but were powerless to prevent him from joining Pappenheim and Holk at Leipzig.

Winter was soon approaching and with little forage available to keep an army in the field, Wallenstein, convinced that Adolphus would not attack before spring, sent his army into winter quarters. He and Holk camped at Lützen and sent Pappenheim’s forces north to Halle, some 35 miles away.

Gustavus Adolphus was preparing to winter in Naumburg, but changed his plans upon hearing the news. Pappenheim had left with one-third of the Imperial Army, and if Wallenstein could be met and defeated before Pappenheim returned, Gustavus would both dislodge the Imperialists from Saxony and prove to the remaining Protestant Princes that their Cause was a viable one.

Gustavus and Bernard rushed through Weissenfells to Rippach, arriving there at midday, November 15. Unbeknownst to the them, Wallenstein had sent Colonel Rudolf von Colloredo to strengthen the Weissenfells garrison, who arrived at about the same time. Amazed to face the entire Swedish army, Colloredo fired three cannon to warn Wallenstein. Together with a narrow bridge, Colloredo’s defense only slowed the Swedish advance, but the damage had been done; the element of surprise was lost.

Gustavus Adolphus moved swiftly, but his hopes of forcing a battle with Wallenstein before dark were gone. His only wish now was that Pappenheim would be slow to respond.

Wallenstein quickly sent riders “ all the severall Dorps and Quarters, even from Lutzen unto Hall and Leipsich. Order upon paine of death was given, for every man with all speed possible; to repaire towards Lutzen, to their Generalissimo.”

Wallenstein took the terrain of the flood plain about Lützen into consideration and ordered the raised road to Leipzig reinforced such that musketeers could garrison the ditches to either side. Immediately behind them, he placed seven pieces of heavy ordinance, huge field artillery that once aligned, could only with great difficulty be moved.

The majority of his artillery, he placed atop a small rise just north of Lützen itself among four windmills. Numerous low-walled gardens surrounded the hill, which Wallenstein festooned with musketeers reinforced by Colloredo’s combined cavalry and infantry forces, using the terrain’s sole natural stronghold as an anchor for the right side of the Imperial line.

The Imperial center was formed throughout the night as regiment after regiment came in from the surrounding villages to form massive infantry Battailles, squares of pikemen with musketeers arranged in a human star-fort around them. By doing this, Wallenstein placed his strength at the center of the line, for he expected Gustavus Adolphus to attack there as he had done so uneventfully at Fürth.

But the Imperial forces were falling short. A full three-quarters of a mile away lay the Flossgraben, the shallow river which ran parallel to the Leipzig road, then turned north to intersect it. The river formed a natural lateral limit to the battle and Wallenstein desperately needed an anchor to the left side of his line, for if he were forced to quit the field, a strong left flank could cover his withdrawal to Leipzig.

In order to make up in mobility for what he lacked in numbers, Wallenstein placed the majority of his cavalry, fierce Croats under the command of Holk and General Ottavio Piccolomini-Pieri, Duke D’Amalfi. But still, his forces there were thin.

In an attempt to mask his weakness, Wallenstein sought the Imperial baggage train, inducting peddlers and women into the ranks of the Croatian horsemen. Still, his forces numbered only twenty thousand. An Imperial victory now depended on delaying the battle until Pappenheim could arrive.

That evening, Gustavus Adolphus marched the Swedes south of the Flossgraben. He watched as the Imperialists anchored themselves at Lützen, then built their way down across his right and immediately noticed that the Imperial line was weakest precisely where it needed to be strongest.

In previous battles, Imperial troops had always retreated to their left, using that flank to cover their withdrawal. If the Swedes could turn that flank, they would cut Wallenstein’s line of retreat, prevent him from joining the garrison at Leipzig, and trap him in Saxony over the winter. Furthermore, should Adolphus himself have to retreat, he could march past Leipzig to Johann Georg, whose 16,000 man Saxon army was encamped beyond Leipzig at Torgau.

Gustavus Adolphus made his plan; to advance as one line, then rush forward from the right and turn the Imperial left flank. He deployed his forces as he had at Breitenfeld (See Military History, Feb. 1996); namely infantry in the center with musketeer supported cavalry at each flank. He placed his elite cavalry regiments under his own command on the right, with combined German and Swedish cavalry under Duke Bernard on the left. A total of forty regimental field pieces called falconnets, were placed amongst the cavalry to augment their meager firepower.

Four infantry brigades under General of the Infantry Count Nils Brahe formed the Swedish center to face that of Wallenstein. Twenty heavy cannon in four batteries were moved into place ahead of them. Count Brahe’s sole task would be to engage the Imperial center and contain them while the Imperial left was turned.

Behind this was a second reserve line which mirrored the first; four infantry brigades flanked by cavalry and under the overall command of General Dodo von Inn und Knyphausen. Behind them was a third line; a cavalry reserve under the command of German Colonel Johan Bernhard von Öhm.

Gustavus Adolphus tallied his forces at 12,500 infantry and just over 6,000 horse. Wallenstein’s men numbered somewhere around 20,000; if Pappenheim joined the fray, close to 30,000, but the Swedes held an advantage.

Although they were outnumbered, the Swedish infantry fought in files six deep, rather than twelve like the Imperialists. Moreover, musketeers would deploy to each side of the pikemen, from there to fire in ranks only three deep, a maneuver that Gustavus had borrowed from the Poles and greatly improved on. As a result, the firepower that could be brought to bear in a single volley was equal to that of an Imperial unit twice their size. Gustavus Adolphus was confident that he could carry the day, provided the battle could be joined early.

At 4:30 am, the Swedish drummers beat loud and strong to rouse the sleeping soldiers. The King himself readied for battle; donned his buffcoat of heavy leather and his steel gorget, but deigned to put on his Corselet which irritated an old shoulder wound from the Polish campaigns. His Generals begged him to wear the armor.

“The Lord God is my Armour,” he said, much to their dismay.

The Swedish line formed as Gustavus Adolphus had planned, but a damp mist fell across the field; “ thicke and darke a mist arose, that it confin’d the eye to a small distance, and rendered any enterprise not onely difficult, but dangerous...”

They waited for the mists to clear. Gustavus hoped to join the battle quickly, for he knew that Pappenheim must surely be on his way. 6:00 am came and the dampness showed little sign of breaking; 7:00 am, and still the fog persisted.

Gustavus Adolphus dared not move for fear of misaligning his entire line in the mists, but the longer he waited, the more perilous the outcome of the battle became. Although the obscurity would not clear, Gustavus Adolphus’s thoughts did. The cause he fought for was God’s; God alone could give him counsel now.

He called for his chaplain Doctor Jakob Fabricius, knelt, and called upon the Lord for inspiration and guidance; “...and where there were Ministers at hand, the same was done thorow every Regiment of the Army.”

Wallenstein sat and waited, confident in the obscuring fog. He realized that with every passing second his assurance of victory grew greater. Before him, the Imperial troops stood; remaining just as they had throughout the night. Two hours before dawn they could hear the Swedish drums sounding off, rousing the Protestant foes, but none of them had yet appeared.

Finally, at 8:00 am, the mist began to lift. Gustavus Adolphus gazed up and beheld bright blue sky above the thinning haze, then, like all true leaders of his time, led his troops by spirited oratory:

“My dear brethren; carry yourselues bravely this day: fight valiantly, a God’s name, for your Religion, and for your King. This if you doe, God’s blessing, and the peoples praises, shall be your guerdon: and you for ever shall even be laden, with an honourable and a glorius memoriall: nor will I forget to reward you nobly. If you play the Pultrons, I here call God to witnesse, that not a bone of you shall ever returne again into Sweden!”

Drums sounded and the Swedish advance began. The twenty massive artillery pieces were wheeled before the line of infantry along with over fifty falconnets; moved into place, loaded, and their linstocks lit and vents primed.

Imperial cannon thundered from across the plain, sending round shot one after the other towards the Swedes. Count Brahe gave the command to return fire. The artillery duel lasted for two hours with each side bent on destroying the cannon of the other. Gustavus Adolphus halted the Swedish barrage and ordered the line forward.

But just as the battle was joined, a heavy mist began to settle in around them; the fog had returned. The mist held the guns’ smoke to the ground, such that the morning’s obscurity had all but completely returned. To make matters worse, Colloredo had set the town of Lützen on fire as Duke Bernard’s men approached, which added to the haze and choked them as they advanced.

The Imperial musketeers held their fire, and as the Swedes closed, loosed a volley at near point blank range. The entire Swedish line rushed forward, clearing the ditches to either side of the Leipzig road in a brief but bitter conflict. The heavy Imperial cannon were readied, but before they could be fired, the Swedish infantry captured them and wheeled them about, firing upon the four infantry Battailles which quickly began to fold.

Duke Bernard’s men attacked the rise behind Lützen, but well placed musketeers under Colloredo kept their uphill advance to a crawl, using the low stone walls of the many gardens to great effect. Behind them, the guns amongst the windmills slung massive shot which opened holes in the ranks of the Swedish and German cavalry.

Gustavus Adolphus led the right wing through the scattering Imperial musketeers and bolted into Holk’s and Piccolomini’s cavalry. The many conscripts, women and peddlers from the baggage train, saw the enemy cavalry and immediately took to their heels.

Wallenstein’s ruse, in an attempt to mask his pale numbers, had been the undoing of the Imperial left, for experienced troops, demoralized by the conscript’s abandonment, quickly joined them. The Swedish cavalry rode on, but an Imperial Gefreyter pointed Gustavus out to a musketeer. He noticed the number of horsemen clearing a way for him and said, “Fire at him yonder, That must be a man of consequence!” The musketeer fired, hitting Gustavus’s arm and breaking it.

The King’s staff gathered around him and pleaded that he leave the field, but Gustavus would have nothing of it. Numbed by the impact, he decided that the wound was slight, and that with victory so close at hand and the fighting around him growing fierce, he could not afford to leave.

Only one of the four Battailles at the center of the Imperial line were holding their ground. The Swedish infantry were in hot pursuit of the demoralized Imperialists and now turning the flank of the Imperial center. Wallenstein, who had been forced by gout to survey the battlefield from his coach, rode to rally the Battailles. He had to act quickly, or else Pappenheim’s arrival would be met by a complete rout.

Through the fog Holk could just see what he supposed was the retreating infantry of his own center. He and one regiment left Piccolomini, who was organizing a counterattack, and rode to rally them, but found instead that he was descending upon the flank of the advancing Swedish center.

The Swedes were surprised, expecting the charging horsemen to be their own. The fog had masked their error until the last minute, and Wallenstein, who had managed to rally the Battailles, had turned his infantry back into the fray.

It was now the Swedes’ turn to flee. Brahe abandoned the seven cannon and attempted to make an orderly retreat to the road, but Holk’s cavalry had come as such a shock that there was little he could do but send word to Gustavus Adolphus himself.

The King was beginning to feel the effects of his wound when a messenger arrived from Count Brahe. The Swedish center was about to falter and his assistance was sorely needed. Gustavus Adolphus dashed off, but in his zeal to rally the men, outran all but a token few of his bodyguard.

The fog had been so thick that Gustavus Adolphus hadn’t realized how total the Swedish retreat had been; they had nearly returned to their position of 8:00 am. Adolphus was riding not towards the rear of his line, but was about to ride between the lines.

Several Imperial Cuirassiers gave chase, not aware that they were following the King of Sweden. They closed on the small party and fired at them. A lone pistol shot hit the King in the small of the back, which caused him to loose his balance and topple from his saddle. His foot became tangled in the stirrup and he was dragged behind the charger.

The King’s page, a German Colonel’s son named August von Leubelfing, rode after him while Gustavus’s bodyguard attempted to stop the Cuirassiers. The page himself was wounded, but placed the King’s safety above his own. When Gustavus Adolphus finally broke loose, Leubelfing offered the King his own horse.

Gustavus Adolphus was a big man, and Leubelfing was having difficulty helping him into the saddle when Imperial Cuirassiers rode up on them. They demanded to know who he was. Gustavus, weak from the loss of blood, admitted simply, “I am the King of Sweden.”

The Cuirassiers twice ran him through with their heavy broadswords and once he fell to the ground, shot him in the head. Leubelfing too, who had sought to spare the King’s life by sacrificing his own, joined him in death instead. The Croatian Cuirassiers began to strip the body, anxious for souvenirs and proof of the King’s demise to encourage the Imperialists.

The Swedish infantry had fallen back and assembled behind the road. As Count Brahe dressed the ranks, Gustavus Adolphus’s massive horse rode out of the fog, riderless and covered with blood.

Word of the King’s death spread quickly through the ranks. “No,” Brahe called out, “He is but wounded,” but few would believe him. Brahe was fearful that the infantry would break, but instead they became incensed. An air of rage ran through them that was as thick as the surrounding fog.

Knyphausen brought his four infantry brigades forward, mixing them with the remainder of Brahe’s command and left the entirety of the reserves under Öhm. Brahe raced to inform Duke Bernard, for if Gustavus Adolphus was dead, his leadership would be needed on the Swedish right.

The Swedish center began to advance. As if a berserker rage had filled them, the Swedes raced forward with vengeance on their hearts, charging the Battailles which had halted at the guns.
Duke Bernard rode behind them and raced towards the Swedish right. The fog had obscured the infantry’s retreat and Bernard was afraid that the elite regiments had overadvanced. Instead, he found that Piccolomini had rallied his own cavalry and counterattacked successively seven times with such ferocity that Adolphus’s cavalry had retreated themselves, taking cover behind the Leipzig road.

Bernard collected the regiments and led them onward, for if they did not charge, the flank of the advancing infantry would be left hanging and exposed. The incensed cavalrymen struck the Cuirassiers, driving them back slowly as Piccolomini, himself already wounded four times, ably contained their flight. The Swedish horsemen continued on, pushing them back and past the Imperial ammunition and baggage trains, which they plundered and set ablaze. Munitions erupted in earth-shuddering blasts as pound after pound of powder caught fire.

The Imperial center braced to receive the Swedish infantry’s assault when they heard the blasts. Afraid that the Swedes were now attacking from behind, they began to fall back, orderly this time, and abandoned once again their seven heavy cannon. But the Swedish infantry brigades were not content to merely hold the cannon, they swept past them and raced across the field at the Imperialists. One by one, the Battailles disintegrated as enraged Swedes charged. Soon, the center was once again in flight, but as the fog again began to clear, the mid-day sun heralded the arrival of Pappenheim’s cavalry.

Pappenheim had been informed of the situation at midnight. Knowing that his infantry would be slow to assemble, he left orders for his Colonels to gather and follow with all speed while he and the cavalry left that instant and rode through the night.

The Field Marshall was greeted by a distressing sight; the Imperial center was falling back in disorder and the left flank was being pushed back severely. The only place where the Imperialists were not in peril was the right, firmly anchored among the low stone walls of Lützen’s gardens, but even Colloredo was losing ground. Pappenheim rode to assist Holk, the sight of which encouraged the infantry.

Pappenheim arrived and infused Holk’s worn troops with winded but fresh riders. Together with Piccolomini, they brought the horsemen on line and charged, but just as they were doing so, Pappenheim was hit in the shoulder by the shot of a falconnet. The charge faltered, then quickly halted. The mortally wounded Pappenheim was taken to a waiting carriage and rushed to Leipzig.

On they way, the troopers told him of Gustavus’s death, to which he replied, “Tell the Duke of Friedland that I lie without hope of life, but that I die happy, since I know that the implacable enemy of my religion has fallen on the same day.” Pappenheim died on the way to Leipzig.

It was close to 3:00 pm. The Imperial infantry had heard of the death of King Gustavus and felt that in his demise lay a chance to turn the battle to their favor. Wallenstein encouraged them to attack, which they did swiftly. So swiftly, in fact, that some of the more established Swedish units could not retreat, taking upwards of 80% casualties.

The embattled Swedes withdrew to the road, once again relinquishing control of the heavy ordinance. There they held their ground while Öhm brought his troops forward to create one line, mixing his fresh troops amongst the battle weary ones.

The entire Imperial line charged but to little effect. Colloredo had lost too much ground to Brahe who was now himself using the stone walls to good effect. Wallenstein’s Battailles could not dislodge Knyphausen, strengthened as he was with fresh troops. The Cuirassiers were simply too tired to oust Gustavus’s elite cavalrymen, who immediately counterattacked and forced them back. Piccolomini, his third horse shot out from under him and suffering from a seventh wound, was finally removed from the field.

At 4:30 pm, the Swedish line advanced as a whole. Brahe finally cleared the hill and was now in control of the large cannon there, recaptured one by one for a sixth time that day. The remainder of Pappenheim’s cavalry arrived and moved immediately to assist Holk, but they were too few and far too late.

A rumor was spreading that Johann Georg was marching from Torgau. Faced with the unpleasant task of fighting a fresh army on one side and a ferocious but tired one on the other, the high ground lost, and troops giving way before him, Wallenstein had no choice but to quit the field as darkness fell. Joined as they were by Pappenheim’s road weary infantry, the Imperialists began an orderly retreat to Leipzig.

The Swedes, joyous as they were at their victory, were simply too spent to give chase. Sporadic fighting continued until well after dark but the Swedes were in firm control of the battlefield. The following day, after locating the mangled and blooded corpse of their King, they returned to Weissenfells.

Casualties on both sides had been immense; of the 18,700 men in the Swedish line, some 6,000 had been killed; nearly one-third. Imperial dead numbered 12,000. Along the hill that Colloredo had defended so tenaciously, just one of the small garden plots was said to have contained 300 bodies. As a further testament to the ferocity of the battle, there is no record of prisoners.

It is sad that while Gustavus Adolphus was not able to unite the Protestant Cause in life, he succeeded in doing so in death. Numerous Protestant Princes who had been firmly neutral before were now flocking to his banner, both in mourning and in unity. Even Ferdinand II, the Emperor himself, mourned the passing of a capable and noble foe whose word he trusted better than many of his own generals. For the first time, the Protestants stood united against the Holy Roman Empire. The war would continue.

Lützen was to be the zenith of Swedish power in Germany during the Thirty Years War. Axel Oxenstierna, the Swedish Chancellor and an able military commander himself, was quite simply not Gustavus Adolphus. Many of the innovations that the King had perfected were quickly cast aside until the ragged, undisciplined army that had once been the Champions of Protestant Europe was all but annihilated at Nördlingen in 1634.

© Matt DiPalma