THE COSSACK MILITARY SYSTEM AS
BY THE SIEUR DE BEAUPLAN
Free, O God, a poor slave;
Permit him to land on the shores of
That beautiful country--
Among Christian people!
The Zaporozhian Cossacks answered this prayer of the Ukrainian
Kolzars.(1) Evolving in response to the Tatar threat, these Cossacks provided
an alternative political, social, and economic model for the oppressed
Ukrainians of the 17th century. The growth of the Cossack military system
ultimately provided the means for the overthrow of the Ukraine's Polish
overlords. The development of this system into the Hetmanate further ensured
the preservation of this early institution of the Ukrainian people.
Accordingly, the study of the Cossack military system prior to the Khmelnytsky
Wars is important for an understanding both of those wars and of the subsequent
flowering of the Hetmanate.
A Description of the Ukraine by Guillame Le Vasseur de Beauplan
provides a valuable source for the Cossack military system prior to the
Khmelnytsky Wars. A French military engineer in the Polish army, the Sieur de
Beauplan soldiered in the Ukraine for 17 years, from 1630 to 1647. Despite
participation in battles against Cossacks, he remained impartial in his study
of the Ukraine and the Cossacks. His account, first published in 1650, told of
the Cossacks as they existed just before 1648. Beauplan's presence on campaign
and experience as an engineer and commander of troops made him a most
authoritative commentator on the Cossack military system. Moreover, his West
European outlook on the Cossacks greatly influenced Europe's view of the
Ukraine, being translated into French, Latin, English, German, Polish, and
Russian. A Description of the Ukraine thus presents a view of the Cossack
military system full of the author's military insights, and was influential in
As a Polish officer, Beauplan maintained an interest primarily in
the fighting ability of the Cossacks, not in their institutions. Accordingly,
he limited his comments on the military organization of the Cossacks to
describing the locations of a few registered Cossack regiments. However, he did
make extensive observations on the Cossack hetman, an elective post of the
colonels and elders. The winner dared not refuse on pain of death. On the other
hand, "The general may fall into disgrace, if he have not such conduct
when he leads them out to war that no disaster befall them, and if he does not
appear brave and politic...for if he commits any act of cowardice they kill him
as a traitor."3 Beauplan, unimpressed with this elective process, further
stated that the hetman was only rewarded with trouble and probable death. He
observed that a council, the Rada (ruds) elected a different hetman for sea
expeditions, who "generally has the van."4 From this, the hetmans of
1647 seem to have retained more of the character of the warrior-leader than of
the wise statesman, to have been leading charges, not directing them. During a
military campaign, he was almost a dictator, but on returning the cossacks
could depose him.
Inspiration and discipline charcterized Cossacks in the pages of
Beauplan. On the one hand, a number of motives inspired the Cossacks. At first,
the slave-raiding of the Muslim Tatars encouraged the Cossacks to "go to
fight the infidel for the Christian Faith...(and) to set the prisoner
free..."5 Later, economic exploitation and religious tension combined with
a specifically Ukrainian folk consciousness to produce the great hatred between
oppressed, Orthodox, Ukrainian peasants and the oppressing, Roman Catholic,
Polish overlords. Beauplan wrote of the peasants, "This slavery makes many
of them runaway and the boldest of them fly to the Zaporouys."6 These
motives mixed with desire for revenge, plunder, and adventure to create
highly-motivated soldiers. On the other hand, such motivation sparked an
ability to acknowledge discipline as maintained by the hetman. "They are
very obedient to him...His power is absolute..."7 Inflamed by their
passion for freedom but strictly disciplined, the Cossacks proved courageous in
battle and "great lovers of their liberty."8
Cossack weapons received considerable attention from Beauplan. He
wrote, "They are very expert at their fire arms, their usual
weapons..."9 On land, Cossacks carried "firelocks (mostly 'Dutch'
muskets, with a few arquebuses), and half-pikes and scythes upon long
poles..."10 At sea, a Cossack brought "two firelocks and a
scymitar."11 Additionally, the Cossacks possessed large numbers of cannon,
usually captured brass pieces stored in the marshes.12 Each Cossack boat
carried "four or five falconets."13 Basically a river craft adapted
for the Black Sea, these cholna14 were, "sixty feet long, ten or twelve
foot wide, and twelve foot deep...," 15 constructed without a keel on
willow bottoms raised with pitched planking on a wooden frame. They mounted two
rudders, ten or fifteen oars to a side, and a mast with crude lanteen rigging.
Without decks, these boats required bundles of reeds to keep them afloat, yet
could "row faster than the Turkish galleys."16 Easily built, they
were just as easily discarded. Beauplan went into considerable detail
concerning these cholna, reflecting the general European interest in how the
Cossacks attacked the Porte.17
On land, the Cossacks used tabord wagons. Although Beauplan called
them carts, these wagons no longer resembled Tatar carts, their probable
antecedents. Instead, they more closely approximated Hussite war wagons, at
least in use, since they served for both fortifications and supplies. Yet
Cossack logistics remained largely improvised. On raids they brought dough and
millet in common tuns, with individuals supplying their own weapons, ball,
clothing, and six pounds of cannon powder.18 The regiment probably purchased
the food, while the Cossacks made the coarse cannon powder themselves, at times
even exporting it as far as Holland.19 Beauplan thus provided an overall
glimpse of the small arms, cannon, cholna, wagons, and crude logistics of the
Ukrainian geography largely determined the forms of Cossack
military tactics and strategy. Beuaplan noted a generally level, fertile plain
composed much of the Ukraine. Grass grew two to four feet high on the plain,
providing some cover. However, at isolated points across the steppe, hills and
marshes provided very strong, defensive positions. In addition the specific
crossings of the Dnieper channeled operations (especially Tatar raids) into
easily ambushed routes. At the same time, the Black Sea provided numerous
harbors for cholna and a fast and easy highway to prosperous Turkish provinces.
Cossack tactics and strategy naturally developed in accord with these
Cossack tactics entailed both land and sea fighting. On land
Cossack tactics remained primarily defensive. In response to the primarily
offensive tactics of Tatar hordes of highly- mobile cavalry, the Cossacks
developed the tabord, subsequently applied against the heavy lancers of the
Polish army. As few defensive positions existed on the plains of Zaporozhia,
any body of 17th century infantry remained at the mercy of the mass of mounted
Tatar archers or the shock force of Polish heavy cavalry. As a result Cossacks
quickly developed a knack for digging fieldworks. More importantly, they began
to take their defenses with them, in the form of wagons. Thus, "because of
the danger there is in crossing those plains, the Cossacks go in taborts, that
is, they travel in the middle of their carts, which march in two files on their
flanks, eight or ten of them in the front, and as many in the rear, they
themselves are in the middle...the best mounted among them about their taborts,
with a centinel posted a quarter of a league before them, another at the same
distance behind, and one upon each flank. If these discover Tartars, they make
a sign and the tabort halts. If the Tartars are discovered first, the Cossacks
beat them, and if the Tartars discover the Cossacks first, they give them a
fierce assault by way of surprise in their tabort."20
The tabord in this way provided mobile fortifications in an
environment requiring frequent movement and allowing little time for
entrenching. It was highly effective against Tatars. Beauplan related his own
experience in resisting five hundred Tatars with fifty or sixty Cossacks in
When the Cossacks came into conflict with the Poles, Cossack forces
naturally used the tabord against the Polish heavy cavalry. Despite Beauplan's
contempt for them,21 the weight and shock of a Polish lancer charge could break
any unranked troops in an open plain. Yet behind three to five rows of large
wagons, in any available advantageous position, and often applying continuous
musketry,22 Cossacks had little to fear. "They show most valour and
conduct when...covered with their carts (for they are very expert at their
fire-arms, their usual weapons) and in defending strong places." Beauplan
continued, "A hundred of these Cossacks, under the shelter of their
tabords, do not fear a thousand Polanders, nor as many Tartars."23 The
Hussites, also unable to field heavy cavalry to match their opponents,
developed similar if more sophisticated wagon tactics. Thus Doroshenko
describes the Cossack defenses at Kumeyki, "which had been fortified by
several lines of carts, in the Czech manner."24 In this way, the Cossacks
secured the key to resisting both Tatars and Poles through the tabord. Whenever
the Poles managed to break the tabord, however, they defeated the Cossacks, as
stated Beauplan, who fought at Kumeyki, in 1637.25
Conversely, Beauplan seldom mentioned the Cossacks on the tactical
offensive. They proved much less effective in this role. Since the tabord
favored the defensive, they tended to march into an exposed position and await
enemy attack. An infantry attack generally consisted of dashing at the enemy,
entrenching very quickly, and trying to outlast the ensuing musketry. On the
attack the Cossacks were as unruly as any other body of unformed,
semi-organized troops. Moreover, Cossack cavalry proved much too light to face
Polish lancers. Beauplan wrote that they "are not very good a horseback. I
remember I have seen two hundred Polish horse rout two thousand of their best
Cossacks in ambush did prove danger-ous. Due to the tall steppe
grass, whole regiments could lay hidden anywhere. Cossacks constantly ambushed
Tatars in this way, as the latter converged to ford rivers. "The Tatars
are afraid of the Cossacks, who are not generally from those parts, and lay
ambushes for them."27 In attacking castles, the Cossacks often tried to
surprise an outnumbered garrison. Beauplan observed of his own Fort Kodak:
"One Solyman, general of certain rebellious Cossacks... perceiving that
the castle obstructed his return into the country, surprised it, and cut the
garrison to pieces."28 Otherwise, the Cossacks had to wait out a long
siege, playing upon the castle with their cannon. Thus, unless the Cossacks
could outnumber and surprise their enemy, they were largely ineffectual in the
assault. Even the famed Cossack counterattack at the Battle of Khotyn in 1621
only succeeded with the achievement of tactical surprise over exhausted Turkish
Artillery occupied a special niche within the Cossack military
system for a number of reasons. First introduced to Cossack ranks in 1580,
cannon rapidly gained their favor. They captured numerous guns from both Turks
and Poles, or occasionally received them as gifts for military service.29
Cannon used the Cossacks' coarse gunpower without decreased effectiveness.
Moreover, as musketeers tended to overshoot, especially in high grass, the
cannon provided a very effective, means of covering the broad ranges of the
steppe. In any case, Cossack guns helped to reduce the numerous castles
garrisoned by Poles. Finally, cannon generally posed the main threat to the
tabord, so that Cossacks needed cannon for counter-fire. Cannon were so
important on the plains that Beauplan even took several guns on a small
reconnaissance.30 In short, cannon formed an integral part of Cossack forces,
even at this early period. United behind a tabord bristling with cannon and
muskets, Cossacks could resist both Tatar and Pole successfully.
Cossack tactics at sea were highly aggressive. The keys to the
success of the Cossacks lay in speed and numbers. In late summer the Cossacks
sent all their provisions to the Sich. According to Beauplan, the entire
raiding force moved there later, an event sure to attract Turkish agents.
"Five or six thousand Cossacks all good able men, well armed, take the
field... (who) in three weeks time make ready eighty or a hundred boats...This
is the flying army of the Cossacks..."31 The Turkish squadron stationed
off Ochakiv, alerted but not yet reinforced, usually lost the Cossacks among
the diverse channels of the Dnieper mouth. Then, "The grand seignior sends
expresses all along the coast of Anatolia, Bulgaria, and Romania...But all this
is to no purpose, for they make such use of their time that in thirty-six or
forty hours time they are in Anatolia..."32 The Cossacks thus moved in
such numbers that they annihilated any local resistance, while their speed
enabled them to strike before the Porte's own troops moved.
Before returning, the Cossacks coasted, looking for easy targets
and destroying Turkish galleys to hide their moves. At all costs they avoided
lengthy conflicts, which used up powder, men, and time. Their return needed to
be equally fast; they slipped into the Dnieper by a number of routes and
returned before the reinforced Turkish squadron at Ochakiv discovered them.
Cossack raids therefore entailed rapid preparation, advances, and retreats to
surprise the Porte and large numbers to overwhelm local defenses. The Cossacks
became so proficient at raiding that, "The news that there were four Kozak
boats on the Black Sea gave the Turks more alarm than the Black Death."33
Cossack Black Sea squadrons usually avoided naval engagements and
only won such battles in restricted waters or at night. Their cholna, fast but
not very seaworthy as Beauplan noted, had to fight Turkish fleets if they met
either in choppy water or with the wind for the Turks. "When the gallies
meet them at sea in the day-time, they set them hard with their guns,
scattering them...Upon these occasions (the Cossacks ) commonly lose two-thirds
of their men..." The Turks simply stood out of range and fired on the
fragile craft, which could only reply with musketry and small cannon. On the
other hand, Cossacks sighting individual Turkish ships waited until nightfall
to board them, overwhelming a surprised foe. "Those in the ship or galley
are astonished to be attacked by eighty or a hundred vessels, which fill them
full of men and in a moment bear all down..."34 Beauplan also mentioned
how the Cossacks ran Turkish galleys ashore and overwhelmed them in rivers and
marshes, especially in the Scharbniza Woyskowa. "Many Turkish galleys have
been lost there as they pursued the Cossacks returning from the Black Sea: for
being got into this labyrinth, they could not find their way back, and the
Cossacks with their boats played upon them."35 So despite their raiding
capabilities, the Cossacks remained inferior to the Turks in open water, only
fighting in restricted waters or by surprise.
In the pages of Beauplan, Cossack naval tactics appeared to be an
application of Tatar raiding to a naval environment. Cossacks remained
essentially landsmen. Only on water for a few weeks at a time, they retained
their steppe ideas. Hence they never developed seaworthy ships or even useful
sail rigging. The Cossacks could not even handle Turkish vessels, "had
they skill to manage a ship or galley, they might carry it away, but they have
not that knack."36 Accordingly, when at sea they applied the tactics of
the Tatars on the steppe. Both moved quickly in large, lightly-armed groups,
avoiding battles and seeking booty. Cossacks only fought when cornered,
retained the sun, and individually carried quadrants, just as the Tatars did.37
Both retained the same advantages, in their speed, ease of mobilization, and
ability to operate without bases of support. Although similar Tatar tactics
could have developed independently, the ever-present Tatar model probably
determined the form of Cossack naval tactics.
The military strategy glimpsed by Beauplan foreshadowed later
developments under Khmelnytsky. A secure base area, in Zaporozhia, composed a
prime element in this rudimentary strategy. The Sich was easily defended,
having immense spaces and the Dneiper around it, and the marshes of Scobnicza
Woyskowa to draw on for cannon, silver, and cholna. Revolting forces could,
advance from there, or return if necessary. The Poles crushed the 1637 uprising
through the failure of Hunia to move back on the Sich after Kumeyki. Beauplan
also said of the Tomakivka Sich, "(Khmelnytsky) had made choice of this
place for his retreat when he was threatened with siege, and it was there they
began to rendezvous when they rebell'd and took the field in May 1648."38
This strategy also required the support of the populace in the Hadyach,
Poltava, Ladizhin, Berdychiv rectangle south of Kiev to consolidate initial
Cossack gains and preserve them against the inevitable Polish reaction.39
Oppressed peasants joined the Cossacks by the tens of thousands, as Beauplan
noted.40 Other considerations played significant parts in this strategy. The
failed revolts Beauplan mentioned had little in the way of precise plans.
Ultimately, the inability of the insurgents to make castles untenable for the
Poles, by their own arms or by foreign intervention, determined the outcome.
Thus, Beauplan's account first indicated many of the elements Khmelnytsky
incorporated into his uprising.
A Description of the Ukraine furthermore exemplified the Western
European view of the Cossacks. Western Europeans, including Beauplan, primarily
saw the military potential of the Cossacks against the Turks. The Porte had
seized all the Balkans except Montenegro and pushed up the Danube, spinning off
vassal states in Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia, and the Crimea. The Ottoman
garrison in Budapest threatened a future Turkish push to take Vienna and clear
the Danube Valley. This intrusion of a non-Christian, non-European power into
Europe evoked concern in the West. Erich Lassota's mission to the Tomakivka
Sich in 1594 and the subsequent Austrian-Cossack alliance first showed
Europeans the possibilities of Cossack aid in the upcoming struggle. The unique
tactics and easy access to Asia Minor of the Cossacks made them the only force
capable of a direct strike at the Porte. As the Gazette de France said,
"The position of Turkey has deteriorated because the Kozaks on their boats
entered the Black Sea, trying to reach Constantinople."41 Throughout his
book, Beauplan emphasized the fighting qualities of the Cossacks against the
Tatars and Turks. His first mention of the Cossacks stated, "(their)
number at present amounts to 120,000 disciplin'd men, and ready in less than
eight days upon the least command they receive from the king. These are the
people, who very often, and almost every year, make excursions upon the Euxine
Sea, to the great detriment of the Turks... (reaching) within three leagues of
Constantinople..."42 In this manner, Beauplan examined the Cossacks, and
their military system, with an eye toward their use against the Ottoman Empire,
just as Western Europe looked on them as possible allies against the
A Description of the Ukraine thus provides an authoritative account
of the Cossack military system prior to the Khmelnytsky Wars. Beauplan examined
the Cossacks' hetman, their inspiration and discipline, and their weapons in
detail. His comments on Ukrainian geography served to explain partially Cossack
tactics on land and sea. On land, the Cossacks developed the defensive tabord
to resist Polish and Tatar cavalry, yet their offensive techniques remained
much less effective. At sea however, Cossack raids emphasized speed and
numbers, avoiding unprofitable naval battles. Beauplan's accounts of Cossack
battles glimpsed the strategy subsequently developed by Khmelnytsky. Moreover,
he exemplified Western Europe's view of the Cossacks as potential allies
against the Turks. Unfortunately, Beauplan gave few insights into questions of
Cossack military organization, specific applications of discipline, or the
relationship between the armed peasant and Cossack. Nevertheless, A Description
of the Ukraine remains the best source for the Cossack military system before
Here are some illustrations of cossack from early 18th cedntury, but they
didn't change much from 16th century. cossack 1 -
cossack 2 - cossack 3 -
cossack 5 - cossack 6
1 Michael Hrushevsky, A History of the Ukraine. Ed. O.J.
Frederiksen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941), pp. 160- 1.
2 Volodymyr Sichnsky, The Ukraine in Foreign Comments and Descriptions: From
the Sixth to Twentieth Century, (New York : Ukrainian Congress Committee of
American, 1933), pp. 67-70.
3 A Collection of Voyages and Travels. 6 vols. (London: printed for Henry
Lintot and John Osborn, at the Golden Ball in Pater-noster Row, 1744), Vol. I:
A description the of Ukraine Containing Several Provinces of the Kingdom of
Poland, Lying between the Confines of Muscovy, and the Borders of Transylvania,
Together with their Customs, Manner of Life, and how they manage their Wars, by
the Sieur De Beauplan, p. 464.
4 Ibid., p. 465.
5 Dmytro Doroshenko, A Survey of Ukrainian History. Ed. Oleh W. Gerus
(Winnipeg: Trident Press Limited, p. 183.
6 Beauplan, p. 449.
7 Ibid., p. 464.
8 Ibid., p. 448.
10 Ibid., p. 461.
11 Ibid., p. 465.
12 Ibid., p. 453.
13 Ibid., p. 465.
14 Ibid., p. 448.
15 Ibid., p. 464.
16 Ibid., p. 465.
17 The only recorded use of Cossack Cholna out of the Black Sea occurred in the
Baltic Sea in 1635. The Cossacks captured a Swedish ship in the face of a
18 Beauplan, p. 465.
19 Ibid., p. 448.
20 Ibid., p. 462.
21 Ibid., p. 478-9.
22 Ibid., p. 466.
23 Ibid., p. 448.
24 Doroshenko, p. 206.
25 Beauplan, p. 452.
26 Ibid., p. 448.
27 Ibid., p. 454.
29 I. Krypiakeyvych, "Armed Forces," The Ukraine, A Concise
Encyclopedia. Ed. Volodymyr Kubyovyc (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1963) Vol. II, p. 1055.
30 Beauplan, p. 452.
31 Ibid., p. 465.
33 The French envoy to the Porte as reported by Hrushevsky, p. 250.
34 Beauplan, p. 466.
35 Ibid., p. 453.
36 Ibid., p. 466.
37 Ibid., p. 460.
38 Ibid., p. 453.
39 M.P. Bazhan, ed. Soviet Ukraine. (Kiev: Academy of Sciences of the Uk
rainian S.S.R.) fig., p.78
40 Beauplan, p. 449.
41 Sichynsky, p. 66.
42 Beauplan, p. 448.
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Several provinces of the Kingdom of Poland, Lying between the Confines of
Muscovy, and the Borders of Transylvania. A Collection of Voyages and Travels.
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in Pater-noster Row, 1744.
Chevalier, Pierre. A Discourse of the Orgin, Countrey, Manners,
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and the History of the Wars of the Cossacks Against Poland. London: printed for
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