Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER III: The Polish Insurrection


AS soon as Möllendorff’s army had taken possession of Poland, to which country Prussia   had so lately promised her protection, I went to Posen, to see what was farther going forward.  I here saw the Polish nobility, hitherto so free and uncontrolled, offer their oaths of allegiance with groans and execrations.  Mr. Voss, the Civil Magistrate, sent to receive their homage—to sooth their distress, assured them, that his Majesty by no means meant to infringe on their liberties or their laws.  ‘Then why disturb us at all?’ justly observed an old Waywode :―‘The very occupation of our country contradicts your assurances!’

Voss, who was not very conciliating in his manners, took notice of this, and soon proceeded farther with indiscreet severity.  You know that this country has only two classes of inhabitants–the Lord and the vassal.  The former having been accustomed, for ages to the most unrestrained liberty and local authority:  the other   was lost to all ideas of political existence, and merely an instrument for cultivating the soil.  Though naturally of a very cheerful disposition, and capable of improvement in time, yet, at present, the mental powers of the peasant are little above the other animals of the glebe:  add to this, that the whole country is almost totally under the influence of the Romish priests.  Their language—their national dress—their character—in short, every thing was opposite to that of the Prussians as possible:  yet the man who ought to have alleviated their situation, and gradually obtained their confidence, had the indiscretion immediately to introduce the harsh Prussian discipline into their police, and their whole government; to force the Prussian language upon them; and to increase their assessments and imposts, even upon the pipers of their village alehouses.  Those persons in office, who had even purchased their employments, were turned out; and, as if this new acquisition was to become another Botany Bay, their places were filled up with the vilest vagabonds which Prussia could collect from it’s other offices:  at the same time, the upper departments were occupied by a set of pedants, who had no ideas beyond the mere letter of the law.

Such a government was by no means calculated for a free country in such a situation, particularly as Möllendorff’s army having left Poland, they had no military force to support  their measures.  Under these aggravations, it was therefore very natural, that the fire which had been long smouldering under the ashes should break out into flame.  What else could be expected from a nation whose leading member had for ages known no other law than their    free will?—a nation endowed by nature with every physical advantage she can bestow—by  habits, with every enjoyment their ideas of   splendor and comfort could procure—could it  be expected that such a nation would at once tamely submit to the same galling yoke, to   which for above two centuries the Prussians had been inured?—Impossible!  The mode of proceding must have therefore been wrong.  Had Frederick William, like a man, acted up to his  first royal promise to protection to that constitution, which the Poles themselves had sanctioned, under date of the 2d May 1792, he then, with as much dignity as policy, might have added, “That under existing circumstances he was unable to resist the plans of their two powerful neighbours; that he therefore, for his own safety, was compelled to take a share in the general partition, but that he should make their situation so satisfactory, that they should bless the chance which had placed them under his scepter; that they should establish their own departments to conduct their adopted government; that they should retain and endeavour to improve their own language; that they should levy their own troops, and employ those regiments, now in their service, under whatever national uniform they chose; in short, that he should look upon them more as allies than subjects, and ever deem himself happy in making them so.”

By some such address he probably might have somewhat reconciled the Poles to their fate, and have thus prevented that serious insurrection which broke out in the spring of 1794, under the gallant Kosciusco, Madalinsky, and Dombrowsky.  The apprehensions of their energy induced Frederick William to march against them at the head of fifty thousand men.

If the retreat of the Prussian troops from France was grievous blot upon their military fame, the campaign in Poland was attended with still more mortifying circumstances.

Five generals, namely, the two Schwerins, Favrat, Elsner, and Manstein, under the command of his Majesty, entered the field, and marched on Cracow.  Kosciusco was there collecting peasants, armed with scythes and pitch-forks, supported by only a very small body of regular troops.  He was proceeding with them to Warsaw, when they were met by the Prussians; and, to their shame, the scythes and pitch-forks put the Pomeranian regiments, deemed the flower of the Prussian army, to flight.

Kosiusco continued his route, and the King, after rallying his troops, followed, to commence   the famous siege of Warsaw.  On their arrival   there, it was found that they had no heavy artillery.  This they were obliged to bring from Silesia; and when it came, it was discovered that they had no proper ammunition.  This was ordered from Graudenz; and on it’s return through Plotz, it was seised by the insurgents.  Besides these inattentions, there were only four battalions at Posen and Frankfort, and no other troops between Warsaw and Berlin, which is a distance of nearly three hundred English miles.  So open a field encouraged a second insurrection to break out in the rear of the army at Gnesen.  Against these were dispatched from two to three thousand men under Zekuli, Manstein, and Schwerin.  At Bromberg Zekuli was totally defeated.  Manstein was surprised at Keslon, and escaped in an empty sugar cask; Schwerin remained very quietly at Posen where he every night regularly attended the theatre.

Alarmed at this progress of the insurgents, the King found it necessary to retire from the siege of Warsaw, and apparently his whole army would have been destroyed, had not the Russians, at his juncture, wounded and taken Kosciusco prisoner.  With him the spirit of  Polish patriotism was also led into captivity, never to be released.

Schwerin was now ordered to pursue and surround Madalinsky and Dombrowsky; but he, good easy man, let them go their way in peace, without interrupting their passage.

The confederacy being thus at length quelled, without adding a single laurel to the Prussian crown, this degrading period was ended by the peace of Basle, where Prussia was obliged to  make considerable sacrifice, on the slender hope of some future compensation elsewhere.

Thus ended a war which was entered into with as little judgement as it was closed; which cost millions of money, the life of Louis XVI., together with those of thousands of other innocent victims.


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