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The Great Northern War
Sunday, 22 July 2012
The Dorpat naval disaster in 1704
Topic: Source criticism

On 4 May (Swedish style) 1704 a major disaster struck the Swedish naval squadron stationed at Dorpat (Tartu). Upon leaving the town on the river Embach it encountered a large Russian force and was within a very short time totally lost. The commander Carl Gustaf von Löschern Hertzfelt was killed when he blew up his ship Carolus. The commander of the garrison in Dorpat Colonel Carl Gustaf Skytte very shortly started an investigation into the circumstances, but the records were lost when Dorpat fell to the Russians just over two months later. However, Skytte's own report about the siege of Dorpat is preserved. It was printed in 1916 and has because of this been readily available for anyone interested in this matter. Skytte's opinion is clear - the ships were lost through the stupidity and arrogance of Löschern. Löschern had spent the night before sailing from Dorpat celebrating and drinking heavily. Disregarding warnings and sound advice he had stubbornly sailed directly into the trap set up by the waiting Russians, so the responsibility for the outcome rested with Löschern only. 

I don't think it's an exaggaration to say that this is the dominant view of the matter. The Swedish writer Carl von Rosen, who in 1936 published a study about the war in the Baltic provinces 1701-1704, follows Skytte closely and so does Margus Laidre in his recent book about Dorpat during the GNW. Both authors do however mention that the local army commander Major General Wolmar Anton von Schlippenbach was of a different opinion and that he instigated a new investigation. When I some years ago went through a lot of documents from the archives of the College of the Admiralty I found quite a few references to this matter and particularly to the intense effort Löschern's widow put into exonerating her late husband. Her opinion was (if I remember correctly) that Skytte had smeared her late husband and made him a scapegoat.

It is quite clear from the letters Schlippenbach sent to Governor General Frölich in Riga that he profoundly disliked Skytte. On 22 May 1704 he replies to a suggestion by Frölich that it would under the present circumstances be best to "caress" Skytte rather than starting an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the loss of Löschern's squadron. In Frölich's opinion the aging Skytte (who probably was around 60 years old) should instead be assisted by the appointment of a deputy garrison commander. Schlippenbach stated that he had indeed "caressed" Skytte, but only "won his own contempt". If Frölich wanted to appoint a deputy - fine. However, Schlippenbach feared that this would only make Skytte suspicious and besides - why would Skytte listen to his deputy when he didn't listen to Schlippenbach who was his superior? Ten days earlier Schlippenbach had outlined his criticism of Skytte in regard to the Löschern disaster:

1. If Skytte had used his 2 000 horse for reconnaissance he would have known about the arrival of the Russians.

2. When the ships had sailed from Dorpat the previous years they had always been preceded by scouting parties on both side of the river. Why had this not been done this time?

3. Why were the ships not escorted by units from the garrison? This had been done the previous years.

4. A senior officer from the garrison had always before been present when the ships sailed in order to keep an eye on the junior officers and the soldiers from the infantry. This had not been done this time even though Skytte had received specific orders from Schlippenbach to do so. Because of this some officers had stayed behind when the ships sailed, while others had fled without offering any resistance when the fight began.

This criticism may or may not have been valid. However, it's quite obvious that the fact that Skytte's journal has been available in print since 1916 has resulted in a rather onesided interpretation of the events. If greater attention was paid to the view put forth by Schlippenbach, by Löschern's widow and by her supporters the result would probably be more knowledge of the circumstances. At the very least it would mean a greater understanding of the personal rivalry that apparently existed between some of the leading figures.

Source: Letters from Schlippenbach to Frölich 12 & 22 May 1704, Fond 7349, op. 1, vol. 282, pp 190-193 and 211-213, Latvijas valsts vestures arhivs, Riga


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 12:01 AM MEST
Updated: Sunday, 22 July 2012 6:01 PM MEST
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Tuesday, 30 October 2012 - 9:32 PM MEST

Name: "Vlad Gromoboy"

Hello Bengt! Are you sure about 2,000 of horse in Dorpat garrison in spring 1704? According to my sources Skytte had only about 200 (coys detached from Karelska Lant Dragoon Battalion & Buddenbrock's Livland Dragoon Battalion/Squadron)

Thursday, 20 November 2014 - 8:39 PM CET

Name: "Bengt Nilsson"

A very late note in regard to this question: 

Well, 200 makes a lot more sense under the circumstances, but Schlippenbach's letter definetely says "2000".

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