Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Fall of Sebastopol

The history of Russia has been largely a history of wars,—which indeed might be said with equal justice of most of the nations of Europe. In truth, history as written gives such prominence to warlike deeds, and glosses over so hastily the events of peace, that we seem to hear the roll of the drum rising from the written page itself, and to see the hue of blood crimsoning the printed sheets. This dominance of war in history is a striking instance of false perspective. Nations have not spent all or most of their lives in fighting, but the clash of the sword rings so loudly through the historic atmosphere that we scarcely hear the milder sounds of peace.

So far as Russia is concerned, the torrent of war has rolled mainly towards the south. From those early days in which the Scythians drove back the Persian host and the early Varangians fiercely assailed the Greek empire, the relations of the north and the south have been strained, and a rapid succession of wars has been waged between the Russians and their varying foes, the Greeks, the Tartars, and the Turks. For ten centuries these wars have continued, with Constantinople for their ultimate goal, yet in all these ten centuries of conflict no Russian foot has ever been set in hostility within that ancient city's walls.

Of these many wars, that which looms largest on the historic page is the fierce conflict of 1854-55, in which England and France came to Turkey's aid and Russia met with defeat on the soil of the Crimea. We have already given the most striking and dramatic incident of this famous Crimean war. It may be aptly followed by the final scene of all, the assault upon and capture of Sebastopol.

The city of this name (Russian Sevastopol) is a seaport and fortress on the site of an old Tartar village near the southwest extremity of the Crimea, built by Russia as her naval station on the Black Sea. It possesses one of the finest natural harbors of the world, and formed the central scene of the Crimean War, the English and French armies besieging it with all the resources at their command. For nearly a year this stronghold of Russia was subjected to bombardment. Battles were fought in front of it, vigorous efforts for its capture and its relief were made, but in early September, 1855, it still remained in Russian hands, though frightfully torn and rent by the torrent of iron balls which had been poured into it with little cessation. But now the climax of the struggle was at hand, and all Europe stood in breathless anxiety awaiting the result.

On September 5 the fiercest cannonade the city had yet felt was begun by the French, the English batteries quickly joining in. All that night and during the night of the 6th the bombardment was unceasingly continued, and during the 7th the cannons still belched their fiery hail upon the town. Everywhere the streets showed the terrible effect of this vigorous assault. Nearly every house in sight was rent asunder by the balls. Towards evening the great dock-yard shears caught fire, and burned fiercely in the high wind then prevailing. A large vessel in the harbor was next seen in flames, and burned to the water's edge. This bombardment was preliminary to a general assault, fixed for the 8th, and on the morning of that day it was resumed, as a mask to the coming charge upon the works.

The Malakoff fort, the key to the Russian position, was to be assaulted by the French, who gathered in great force in its front during the night. The Redan, another strong fortification, was reserved for the British attack. In the trenches, facing the works, men were gathered as closely as they could be packed, with their nerves strung to an intense pitch as they awaited the decisive word. The hour of noon was fixed for the French assault, and as it approached a lull in the cannonade told that the critical moment was at hand.

At five minutes to twelve the word was given, and like a swarm of angry bees the French sprang from their trenches and rushed in mad haste across the narrow space dividing them from the Malakoff. The place, a moment before quiet and apparently deserted, seemed suddenly alive. A few bounds took the active line of stormers across the perilous interval, and within a minute's time they were scrambling up the face and slipping through the embrasures of the long-defiant fort. On they came, stream after stream, battalion succeeding battalion, each dashing for the embrasures, and before the last of the stormers had left the trenches the flag of the foremost was waving in triumph above a bastion of the fort.

The Russians had been taken by surprise. Very few of them were in the fort. The destructive cannonade had driven them to shelter. It was in the hands of the French by the time their foes were fully aware of what had occurred. Then a determined attempt was made to recapture it, and the Russian general hurled his men in successive storming columns upon the work, vainly endeavoring to drive out its captors. From noon until seven in the evening these furious efforts continued, thousands of the Russians falling in the attempt. In the end the exhausted legions were withdrawn, the French being left in possession of the work they had so ably won and so valiantly held.

Meanwhile the British were engaged in their share of the assault. The moment the French tricolor was seen waving from the parapet of the Malakoff four signal rockets were sent up, and the dash on the Redan began. It was made in less force than the French had used, and with a very different result. The Russians were better prepared, and the space to be crossed was wider, the assaulting column being rent with musketry as it dashed over the interval between the trenches and the fort. On dashed the assailants, through the abatis, which had been torn to fragments by the artillery fire, into the ditch, and up the face of the work. The parapet was scaled almost without opposition, the few Russians there taking shelter behind their breastworks in the rear, whence they opened fire on the assailing force.

At this point, instead of continuing the charge, as their officers implored them to do, the men halted and began loading and firing, a work in which they were greatly at a disadvantage, since the Russians returned the fire briskly from behind their shelters. Every moment reinforcements rushed in from the town and added to the weight of the enemy's fire. The assailants were falling rapidly, particularly the officers, who were singled out by their foes.

For an hour and a half the struggle continued. By that time the Russians had cleared the Redan, but the British still held the parapets. Then a rush from within was made, and the assailants were swept back and driven through the embrasures or down the face of the parapet into the ditch, where their foes followed them with the bayonet.

A short, sharp, and bloody struggle here took place. Step by step the band of Britons was forced back by the enemy, those who fled for the trenches having to run the gauntlet of a hot fire, those who remained having to defend themselves against four times their force. The attempt had hopelessly failed, and of those in the assailing column comparatively few escaped. The day's work had been partly a success and partly a failure. The French had succeeded in their assault. The English had failed in theirs, and lost heavily in the attempt.

What the final result was to be no one could tell. Silence followed the day's struggle, and night fell upon a comparatively quiet scene. About eleven o'clock a new act in the drama began, with a terrific explosion that shook the ground like an earthquake. By midnight several other explosions vibrated through the air. Here and there flames were seen, half hidden by the cloud of dust which rose before the strong wind. As the night waned, the fires grew and spread, while tremendous explosions from time to time told of startling events taking place in the town. What was going on under the shroud of night? The early dawn solved the mystery. The Russians were abandoning the city they had so long and so gallantly held.

The Malakoff was the key of their position. Its loss had made the city untenable. The failure of the attempt to recover it was followed by immediate preparations for evacuation. The gray light of the coming day showed a stream of soldiers marching across the bridge to the north side. The fleet had disappeared. It lay sunk in the harbor's depths.

The retreat had begun at eight o'clock of the evening before, soon after the failure to retake the Malakoff. But it was a Moscow the Russian general proposed to leave his foes. Combustibles had been stored in the principal houses. About two o'clock flames began to rise from these, and at the same hour all the vessels of the fleet except the steamers were scuttled and sunk. The steamers were retained to aid in carrying off the stores. A terrific explosion behind the Redan at four o'clock shook the whole camp. Four others equally startling followed. Battery after battery was hurled into the air by the explosion of the magazines. Before seven o'clock the last of the Russians had crossed the bridge to the north side, which was uninvested by the allies, and the hillsides opposite the city were alive with troops. Smaller explosions followed. From a steamer in the harbor clouds of dense smoke arose. Flames spread rapidly, and by ten o'clock the whole city was in a blaze, while vast columns of smoke rose far into the skies, lurid in the glare of the flames below. The sounds of battle had ceased. Those of conflagration and ruin succeeded. The final flames were those sent up from the steamers, which were set on fire when the work of transporting stores had ceased.

Great was the surprise throughout the camp that Sunday morning when the news spread that Sebastopol was on fire and the enemy in full retreat. Most of the soldiers, worn out with their desperate day's work, slept through the explosions and woke to learn that the city so long fought for was at last theirs—or so much of it as the flames were likely to leave.

About midnight, attracted by the dead silence, some volunteers had crept into an embrasure of the Redan and found the place deserted by the foe. As soon as dawn appeared, the French Zouaves began to steal from their trenches into the burning town, heedless of the flames, the explosions, and the danger of being shot by some lurking foe, the desire for plunder being stronger in their minds than dread of danger. Soon the red uniforms of these daring marauders could be seen in the streets, revealed by the flames, and the day had but fairly dawned when men came staggering back laden with spoils, Russian relics being offered for sale in the camps while the Russian columns were still marching from the deserted city. The sailors were equally alert, and could soon be seen bearing more or less worthless lumber from the streets, often useless stuff which they had risked their lives to gain.

The allies had won a city in ruins; but they had defeated the Russians at every encounter, in field and in fort, and the Muscovite resources were exhausted. The war must soon cease. What followed was to complete the destruction which the torch had began. The splendid docks which Russia had constructed at immense cost were mined and blown up. The houses which had escaped the fire were robbed of doors, windows, and furniture to add to the comfort of the huts which were built for winter quarters by the troops. As for the scene of ruin, disaster, and death within the city, it was frightful, and it was evident that the Russians had clung to it with a death-grip until it was impossible to remain. It was an absolute ruin from which the Sebastopol of to-day began its growth.