Poland suffered long periods of occupation and subjugation at the hands of the powerful Russian Empire. In the early 19th century it formed an alliance with the rising star that was Napoleonic France, in the hope that by supporting the French militarily to the fullest measure they would, at last, secure the restoration of independence. With the fall of the French emperor those dreams were shattered. However, the flame of rebellion was inextinguishable in Poland, and in 1830 the Poles rose once again to try to shake off the shackles of Russian domination. Countess Emilia Plater was an ardent young revolutionary who was born in the partitioned Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1806. Gaining almost Joan of Arc-like status within her cause, she rose to the rank of captain in the Polish insurgency forces. Though she personally took part in the combat, her abiding value was as a figurehead for the revolt, and, as a woman committed to fighting for the national identity, as an inspiration to all Poles. Unwilling to capitulate and flee into exile even after it was clear that the November Uprising had failed, she decided to return to Warsaw to continue the struggle, where she unfortunately became ill and died before she could achieve her aim. Emilia Plater has, however, earned an iconic status among the Polish people which endures to this day. This Leonaur edition also includes a description of the Warsaw Uprising to add context to the main narrative.
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On the next day. May the 4th, Zaluski marched to Przystowiany, at which place the commander in chief, incorrectly informed with respect to the position of the enemy, as he supposed him to be far distant, proposed to grant a few days’ repose to his troops, fatigued, as they were, by three weeks’ marching and counter-marching. They arrived at Przystowiany at about eleven o’clock in the morning. Emily Plater immediately repaired to the encampment of the free chasseurs of Wilkomir, and requested that they would admit her into their ranks. This corps, who were for the most part composed of the principal citizens of the country, and who had already given many signal proofs of their devotedness and valour, proud of the choice Emily had made, received her among them with acclamation. They considered such a recruit an honour to their corps, and its commander determined to celebrate the event by a kind of military fête.
But while preparations for this fete were making, and the rest of the insurgents were resting, in all security, after the fatigues of their long march, a discharge of musketry upon their left wing, which was partly composed of the students of Wilna, gave notice, at about one o’clock, p. m., of the approach of the enemy.
Soon the Russian lancers were seen deploying on the plain, and the infantry marching in close column. This force was composed of two regiments of cavalry, one brigade of infantry, and twelve pieces of cannon, all under command of Generals Sulima and Malinowski; they were marching against us.
The insurgents, taken by surprise, seized their arms, and hastened to take position in a small wood which crowned the summit of a hill.
“These Russian gentlemen are very impolite to come to molest our fête in this manner,” observed the commander of the free chasseurs, with a smile, and who had already stood fire in the service of the French, under Napoleon.
“They come to grace it,” cried Emily, seizing her musket; “they will give me opportunity of proving to you that I am worthy of being your companion in arms.”
In an instant, everyone was at his post; the fire of the Russians was brisk, and the cannon roared.
The Russian infantry advanced to dislodge, at the point of the bayonet, the insurgents from their cover; these allowed them to advance within fifty paces. Fire! cries the commander of the chasseurs. A simultaneous discharge of musketry ensues, and the Russians are thrown into confusion by the murderous volley, and are this time repulsed with great loss.
A second attempt of the enemy in like manner failed, and the insurgents by no means despaired of maintaining their position, which had been already contested for four hours.
How painful to be forced to relinquish the victory to the enemy, in a moment when it seems to be within your grasp! How unfortunate that resources should not correspond with courage and justice! But such is the fate of battles.
“Cartridges! We want cartridges,” suddenly and almost simultaneously cried all the chasseurs.
“We have no more,” sorrowfully replied the commander. All at once the whole line of insurgents rung with a shriek of despair, for they must yield.
Regular troops, however well disciplined, rarely retreat with order; how then could it be otherwise with the insurgents, who were entirely ignorant of discipline? As long as they had ammunition, they stood their ground, but once obliged to yield, they dispersed in the greatest disorder. It was not so much a retreat as a complete helter-skelter. The confusion was, if possible, increased by the giving way of a defective bridge thrown over a small river, which they were obliged to wade, with water up to the chin. All the muskets, which remained charged, were of course wet in this passage, and all further resistance was out of question. The Russians pursued, for a long time, cutting down all whom they overtook.
This day would have been entirely fatal to the insurgents, had not Maurice Prozor heard, by good fortune, the firing, and hastened, with his command, to cover their retreat, by directing a murderous fire upon the enemy’s cavalry.
During the battle, Emily was in the front line, passing from rank to rank, braving death, without however inflicting it. At the commencement of the retreat, she found herself in a critical position. Deserted by her own people, in the midst of the general confusion, with only three men near her, she was slowly retiring, when the Russians, already in possession of the main road, endeavoured to cut off her retreat, and several advanced to lay hold on her. A dozen guns were fired close to her, which Emily did not think proper to return, and prevented her companions from firing, she cried:
“Save your powder, temerity is useless and imprudent. What could we four do against that cloud of Russians, which is pursuing us? Instead then of wasting our time on the road, let us endeavour to gain ground on them. If we are cut off from every means of retreat, then indeed will we sell our lives as dearly as we can, and prevent ourselves from being taken alive.”
The ground they were obliged to go over had been lately ploughed, and the recent rains had made it so soft as to greatly retard the progress of the cavalry, while it afforded considerable advantage to those on foot. However, Emily, much fatigued by the battle and her flight, made but slow progress. Continually exposed to the enemy’s fire, and almost within hearing of the breathing of their horses, she nevertheless gained ground on those in pursuit, and succeeded at length in reaching a forest, when she fell, overcome with fatigue.
Nothing on earth would have induced the Russians to enter a wood, which their imagination always represented to them as swarming with insurgents, placed in ambuscade; the pursuit, therefore, here ended. Towards evening, Emily crawled to the cottage of a forester, not more than five hundred yards from the Russian camp, whence the sentry’s call was plainly heard. But she was so much exhausted that she was obliged to stay all night in this insecure place, exposed every moment to being captured by the enemy.
The next day, feeling a little recovered, she resumed her retreat. The country was covered with Russians, and crossed and recrossed in every direction by their detachments. Although entirely ignorant of the place the troops of Zaluski had retired to, yet she succeeded in rejoining them on the banks of the Doubissa, leading with her a detachment of forty men, which she had rallied during her painful and dangerous retreat.