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Sagaydachny (Сагайдачний) Petro Kononovych
(nearly 1560—1622)

Sagaydachny (Сагайдачний) Petro Kononovych (nearly 1560—1622)

In 1595, Petro Konashevych, the son of an impoverished Ukrainian nobleman, dropped out of university, where he had been studying Latin and poetics, and headed for the Cossacks' Zaporizhzhyan Sich. He could no longer tolerate the sight of burning Ukrainian villages and lines of captives being led off to Crimean slave markets under Tatar lashes. It was also in 1595 that Bogdan Khmelnitsky, the future victor of Ukraine's bloody war against Poland (1648-1654) was born into a family of impoverished nobles. Khmelnitsky would come to be known as the great hetman and liberator of the Ukrainian people. Petro Konashevych 'Sagaydachny' would pave the way for this victory with a string of crucial military victories that molded the Cossacks into a first-class fighting force.

Fifty years ahead of European marshals

Sitting in his field tent on the island of Khortytsya behind the impregnable rocks of the Dnieper River, the 'village' general, as Sagaydachny was known, formulated a new concept of war that would be suitable for steppe combat, sea battles and sieges of fortresses. Rejecting the traditional static defense style, Sagaydachny emphasized the element of surprise, maneuvers that alternated with counterstrikes, and raids deep into the enemy's rear positions.

Khmelnitsky often applied the innovations of Sagaydachny in his battles against the Poles.
Fifty years after the death of the great commander, French Marshall Anris Turinn conceived a military doctrine that was similar to the theoretical concepts of Sagaydachny.

The fateful arrow

Still relatively young, by the spring of 1622, Sagaydachny was nevertheless dying a slow death as the result of a poisonous Turkish arrow he'd been struck with several months earlier. His strength was fading but his memory was still in tact.

The Hetman recalled the circumstances under which he had been nicknamed 'Sagaydachny' in the first place. As a young Cossack, he had always carried a sagaydak, or quiver of arrows and a bow. When Sagaydachny moved up the ranks, which happened very quickly, he ended up giving his sagaydak to a recruit, but the appellation stuck with him even after his death.

Ironically, now it was an arrow from the sagaydak of an anonymous Turkish bowman that made the French doctor fuss over the withering commander. All the potions, balsams and ointments of the Western doctor were not helping. The poison had had too much time to penetrate Sagaydachny's body.

Free the slaves!

Lying in a field tent, Sagaydachny also recalled the sea. One summer night in 1616, the hateful and impregnable Kafa, Turkey's biggest slave market in Crimea, was burning. The sky glowed above. The Cossacks were making a traditional assault upon the fortress from the sea in the dark. Observing the battle, the Hetman was pleased. He noted how his troops were implementing the tactics he had taught them. The training at the special camps had paid off. Within half an hour the Cossacks were already swarming the gun-slots of the fortress, whose dozens of cannons proved helpless - they had been pointed in the opposite direction. In hand-to-hand combat, a Turkish army of fourteen thousand was defeated.

At Sagaydachny's command, other crews scaled up the sides of tall Turkish galleys like acrobats and set the vessels on fire in their moorings. The galley slaves were freed from their manacles to jump overboard and escape in lifeboats.
Admiral of the 'Cossack Sea'

Before Sagaydachny was elected hetman, the Cossacks had been waging an undeclared sea war against the Turks for fifty years. The small steppe republic was challenging the Ottoman Empire with its population of over sixty million people. While all of Europe was intimidated by the stern glances of Turkish sultans, Black Sea fortresses like Sinop, Trapezund, Varna, Ismail and even Istanbul were being shaken by Cossack attacks.

Sagaydachny was the first to begin attacking the Turks at home. Of course, there had been gifted naval commanders before him. However, committed to his new strategy, Sagaydachny would always go on the offensive, increasingly hitting the shores of Asia Minor. Before Sagaydachny, Cossack sea raids had been sporadic. The Cossacks used low-set 22-meter galleys called chaiki (or seagulls). These vessels carried a crew of seventy plus canons. If pursued, a chaika could come around sharp and quickly tuck in its sails to go on the attack.

Sagaydachny would lead a fleet of about three hundred ships, which were broken down into detachments of thirty or forty vessels. This made it easier to direct maneuvers and carry out assaults. Essentially, the early Ukrainian armada was the prototype of the so-called mosquito fleets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Agile and relentless, Cossack naval forces would go after the much slower Turkish vessels or isolated Black Sea fortresses. The only thing they were vulnerable to was storms.
The Cossacks never tried to hold on to a defeated fortress. They did not have the military power or logistical resources for that. So they seized water. Under Sagaydachny, the Black Sea began to be referred to as the Cossack Sea.

The Fortress of Khotyn

In the summer 1621, brightly dressed warriors began moving into the Ukrainian steppe from Moldova. These were Turkish Janizaries, Tatar horsemen and the soldiers of subjugated peoples - Syrians, Albanians, Greeks. Their huge army of 300,000 stretched over 120 kilometers.

At the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, near the ancient fortress of Khotyn, the young Turkish sultan, Osman II, proceeded to fulfil a major goal of the Ottoman Empire. He planned to defeat the armies of Poland and cross through German territory to reach the Baltic Sea.

The Battle of Khotyn lasted almost forty days. Europe looked on anxiously. But no monarch dared to help the Poles, because Europe was just getting into its Thirty Years War. Sweden, Russia and the English remained silent. Only the Cossacks deployed their detachments near the Polish camp to prevent the subsequent downfall of the Zaporizhzhyan Sich.

The Polish commander, Jan Khodkevych, and Hetman Petro Sagaydachny met before the battle. The conclusion of their talks was not comforting: The Turks had four times more troops and five times more cannons. Khodkevych suggested resorting to his tried and true tactic - digging in and letting the enemy dig him out. Sagaydachny tried to persuade him that they should attack the enemy first and insisted on an offensive battle. As commander-in-chief, Khodkevych allowed Sagaydachny to act as he thought best.

Saving the Poles

It was on the eve of the battle that the Hetman was wounded with that stray poison arrow. The arrow was removed, the wound treated, and Sagaydachny soon returned to command.

The Hetman knew that the Cossack musketeers would be the main target of Turkish assaults. The Polish army, which consisted largely of heavily armored cavalry, was not maneuverable on the confined battlefield. So to save his infantry, the Hetman ordered moats and trenches dug.

On September 2nd, clamorous field guns heralded the beginning of the battle. Cannon balls showered the Cossack camp. But the Cossacks themselves had taken cover in their trenches. After the bombardment, thousands of Janizaries began their assault and headed toward the ramparts. The Cossacks were commanded to stand up at the last minute and start firing their muskets. More than three thousand dead Turks filled the moat.

The next assault was met by a new Cossack maneuver: Sagaydachny's forces cleared the center of the field and moved to the flanks. The Turks rushed forward to soon find themselves under fire from both sides. This tactic would be reinvented in the 20th century.

Sagaydachny was good at applying experience he had accumulated in sea battles. His major advantages were swiftness, surprise and the counterattack. During one raid by his cavalry units deep into the enemy rear, Sagaydachny almost captured the sultan. The Hetman got close enough to make out the tent of Osman II, who was only saved by the arrival of mounted Turkish swordsmen. The Turks lost a quarter of their army to such attacks, which were usually carried out at night.

Realizing that his prestige was at stake, the sultan drove and drove his soldiers to attack. In all, the Cossacks repulsed nine fierce assaults. But the Turks were unable to get past the ramparts and trenches built by the Cossacks. Such was the efficiency of the musket fire of Cossack infantry. Finally, on October 5th, 1621, the cannons went silent. The Turks signed the Khotyn Peace Treaty, thereby destroying the myth of their invincibility.

Subtle grandeur

Sagaydachny, the savior of Europe and Poland, was taken to Kyiv in a splendid carriage that belonged to the Polish King. Not long thereafter, in the spring of 1622, he died from the poison arrow. Preparing the already ill Hetman for his trip home, nobody noticed that his most precious reward had disappeared. The Polish King had presented the Ukrainian commander with a golden sword encrusted with diamonds. The Hetman appreciated this knightly symbol. It signified that Poland recognized the Zaporizhzhyan Cossacks as a legitimate military force rather than just a mob of thugs.

The Poles must have been afraid that the beautiful sword might end up in the hands of some unworthy Cossack successor to Sagaydachny. Today, there are influential forces in Ukraine that do not like Hetman Sagaydachny and degrade his significance. His equestrian statute was erected in Kyiv's Kontraktova Square. Although this place is historical, it is rather modest. The monument lacks the grandeur and location of a similar statue to Bogdan Khmelnitsky - Moscow's friend. This cool attitude by many Ukrainians toward Sagaydachny can be explained by the fact that in 1618 his Cossack cavalry almost seized Moscow, having attacked several towns and defeated the regiments of two Moscow princes on the way. He was only slowed down on account of heavy rain.

Now it looks as if Sagaydachny was punished by somebody for his historic choice of enemies. His statue holds a humble mace instead of his legendary sword, showing that he was not a gifted commander but an ordinary hetman. As for the sword, it is still in the possession of his one-time allies, exhibited at the State Art Collection in the Polish city of Krakow.

Ukraine, 1995, Petro Sahaydachny

Ukraine, 2002, Petro Sahaydachny monument

© 2003-2019 Dmitry Karasyuk. Idea, preparation, drawing up
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