By Alex Richards
While the battle of Wittstock had ensured that Sweden would retain a significant foothold in Germany, the wider strategic situation remained precarious for Oxenstierna without her former allies in the Empire. Despite the death of Ferdinand II, the entry of the French into the war and a decline in relations between Spain and Vienna, it would remain several years until Sweden finally convinced all her enemies that she remained a significant enough force to deal with in equal manner to the French.
The Imperial Advance
Having ruled Hungary since 1625 and commanded the Imperial troops at the battle of Nördlingen, Ferdinand III had proven himself as both an administrator and a military leader. While a committed Catholic, and committed patron of the Counter-Reformation in the Habsburg Crownlands, he was significantly more pragmatic than his father- being willing to consider concessions on confessional practice in the wider Empire if it ensured his constitutional rights were upheld. In addition to this, the death of Peter Heinrich von Stralendorf in October of 1637 allowed the new Emperor to appoint the similarly minded Kurz von Senffenau as Imperial vice-Chancellor, ensuring a unified approach towards the conduct of both the war and any potential peace negotiations.
But though the Emperor might have been willing to agree a separate peace with Sweden for reasonable terms, the two sides still disagreed drastically on what ‘reasonable’ actually meant in this context. The Swedes remained confined to the northern periphery, Imperial troops were defending the Lower Rhine from French incursions, and a truce with Hessen-Kassel was agreed in March 1638. His confidence could only have been improved by the complete failure of a last ditch effort by Charles I and Karl Ludwig- son and heir of the deceased Frederick V of the Palatinate- to reclaim the latter’s homeland. Despite 41 barrels of English gold, they were only able to secure 4,000 troops, and even with the reduction in Imperial garrisons in the area, Hatzfeldt managed to take their main base of operations in Meppen by surprise, then pursued and steadily dismantled the Palatinate army before inflicting a final defeat at the battle of the Vlotho Bridge. Karl Ludwig narrowly avoided drowning in the Wesser in his escape, his brother Ruprecht- the famed Prince Rupert of the Rhine of the War of the Three Kingdoms- was captured attempting to relieve him, and the Scottish veteran James King who had supplied a quarter of the troops was left with only 5 retainers. Hartzfeldt on the other hand suffered only 79 casualties, while the Swedes were so unimpressed with Charles I’s lack of support for his own nephew and the Protestant Cause in general that they ended up supplying arms to the Scottish Covenanters, contributing to the start of the Civil War there.
Ferdinand decided for the first time to focus Imperial troops on the northern front, recalling Matthias Gallas and 20,000 men from the Rhine to join the 10,000-odd Imperial and Saxon troops surrounding Banér’s 14,000 at Torgau. It was only Banér’s blend of ruthless pragmatism and agile thinking managed to salvage the majority of the Swedish army- burning his baggage train for quicker movement, taking a less direct route north to avoid the new army Brandenburg was building, and at one point avoiding the advance columns Gallas had sent to cut him off by having the Officer’s wives and their baggage carry on towards the frontier while doubling back with the army itself.
There was no getting around the wider problems for the Swedish army however. Her troops were demoralised and underpaid, scattered across a number of garrisons and with war in their homeland the Scottish mercenaries essentially stopped coming. Gallas thus picked off the smaller Swedish garrisons one-by-one – until they were left with nothing more than a string of 8 ports focussed on Stettin, spanning from Wismar in the west to Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg in Poland) in the east. Oxenstierna opened negotiations- asking merely for amnesties for those Swedish allies not covered by the Peace of Prague, money to pay off the army and a 15 year lease ownership of several Baltic ports. Such an agreement at this point would have freed up troops to use against France, and likely would have led to Sweden abandoning further efforts at a North German foothold.
A Renewed Swedish Advance
However, just as the underlying strategic situation created problems that Banérs skill could not hope to overcome, so the underlying diplomatic situation created problems that neither Gallas nor Ferdinand III could fight at this time. Oxenstierna stalled for time while negotiating with the French, and faced with the exit of Swedish forces and the collapse of the northern front at a time when she was static in her own advance, Richelieu agreed to extend the subsidies to Sweden, accepting that Sweden was not involved in the war with Spain in the process.
Gallas had thus far been unable to take the last outposts due to their ability to be resupplied by sea, but held the upper hand in terms of both morale and men. With the new funds however, Oxenstierna was able to bring in 14,000 new conscripted recruits, along with three ship-loads of new uniforms and 180,000 thalers in cash to pay the troops. While Gallas had 14,000 men himself- supported by 8,500 less well-trained or commanded Brandenburgers- the larger part of their available troops- they had a much larger area to cover than the Swedes and the military reorganisation of Brandenburg’s Count Schwarzenburg led to two colonels and their regiments defecting in protest, effectively confining them to defensive actions only.
Banér was swift to take advantage of the situation. While the new treaty with France had been signed in March 1638, the reinforcements and new supplies did not arrive until July of that year. Come October he had made a new advance, successfully retaking Mecklenburg from the Imperial forces. The sheer devastation that the last few years of warfare had wrought on the area now worked against Gallas- having already been unable to gather the men needed to take the last Swedish outposts, he now had insufficient supplies to hold the Swedish advance in place. Thus Imperial forces retreated across the Elbe, pillaging Brandenburg in the process and sending forces to Bohemia and Silesia to ensure supplies could be sourced from there.
The wider financial system was also proving difficult for the Imperial side. While the agreements of the Peace of Prague had established a new basis for maintenance payments for the Imperial army, the non-payment from those areas occupied by Sweden, Hessen-Kassel and the Guelph Duchies of Lower Saxony who opposed the Emperor, and states such as Bavaria which viewed themselves as close allies and expected exemptions meant that this system essentially broke down- regional payments from the Empire’s various kreise were assigned to individual armies, effectively merging the war taxes from the various payments and supply demands ordered from individual army commanders. By 1639 troop losses and the inability to fund new recruits meant the Imperial army was at half its 1635 strength. While Ferdinand now started increasingly moderating his position in an attempt to find a pathway to peace, for the moment this remained hampered by the unresolved issues of both Hessen-Kassel and the Wölfenbuttel garrison.
Banér, while already confined to a coach by what would turn out to be terminal liver cirrhosis, went on the advance once again. After an initial attempt at invading Lüneburg in January 1639 failed due to the refusal of the Guelph duchies to join him, he turned to Saxony instead. Invading with 18,000 men in mid-March, and with the 1638 Rhine campaign having sapped the Imperial forces of men to defend the north, his advance was rapid; taking Magdeburg, Zwickau and Chemnitz before easily routing the main Saxon army under Rodolfo Marazzino- numbering only 5,000 even with reinforcements from Gallas- on April 14th 1639. It was the effective end of Saxony’s military capability for separate military action during the war, and the fact that Banér faced greater difficulty from the silver miners of Freiberg is symptomatic of the way how, after 20 years of near-continuous warfare, many states were seeing a breakdown in administrative capabilities. For Sweden however, the road was open for a renewed assault on the Habsburg Crownlands.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP