Lisowczycy (also known as "Straceńcy" ('lost men' or '
forlorn hope') or " chorągiewelearska" (company of elears); or in singular form: Lisowczyk or elear) - the name of an early 17th century irregular unit of light cavalry, mostly form Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as their leader Aleksander Józef Lisowskiwas. The Lisowczycy took part in many battles across Europe and the historical accounts of the period characterized them as extremely agile, warlike, and bloodthirsty. Their numbers varied with time, from a few hundreds to several thousands.
The origin of the group can be traced to
konfederacja(a form of semi-legal mutiny of royal forces, practiced in the Kingdom of Poland and then in Commonwealth), organized around 1604 by Aleksander Józef Lisowski. They began to grow in strength and fame a few years later, when Lisowski's irregulars were incorporated into the forces fighting in Muscovy. The Lisowczycy unit of Polish cavalry( chorągiew) received no formal wages; instead, they were allowed to loot and plunder as they pleased. They relied on their speed and fought without tabors, foraging supplies from lands they moved through. The Lisowczycy were feared and despised by civilians wherever they passed and they gained dubious fame for the scores of atrocities they carried out (pillage, rape, murder and other outrages). However, they were also grudgingly respected by their opponents for their military skills. They did not hesitate to plunder even their homeland, where they sacked the " Akademia Rakowska" university of the Polish brethren. Such actions were among of the reasons Polish king Sigismund III Vasatried to keep them away from the Commonwealth as for as long as possible.
The Lisowczycy took part in many conflicts, including the Dymitriads (where their actions help explain the text of the infamous placard in
Zagorsk: "three plagues: typhus, Tatars, and Poles") and in the Battle of White Mountain(where they were essential in lifting the Transylvanian siege of Viennaand Bohemia's defeat). They were eventually disbanded in 1635.
An account of Lisowczycy's exploits was written by their
chaplain, Wojciech Dembołęcki(or Wojciech Debolecki), in "Przewagi Elearów polskich co ich niegdy Lisowczykami zwano (1619-1623)" ("Deeds of Polish Elears once known as Lisowczycy (1619-1623)").
Prologue: the konfederacja
In 1604, during the early stages of the
Polish-Swedish War, the Sejmof the Commonwealth failed to gather the money to pay its soldiers fighting in Livoniaagainst the Swedes. Aleksander Józef Lisowskibecame one of the leaders of the resulting konfederacja- a section of the army that mutinied and decided to gather its outstanding wages by pillaging local civilians, not caring whether these owed their allegiance to Poland or to Sweden. Although this annoyed the Polish commander, Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, and resulted in Lisowski being banished from Poland, little was done to stop the mutineers. Soon after, Lisowski with his followers joined the Sandomierz rebellion or rokosz of Zebrzydowski, a revolt against the absolutisttendencies of the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa.
Trial of Blood: the Dymitriad
Eventually, after the rebel forces were defeated at the
Battle of Guzow, Lisowski's fortunes turned for the worse and he became " persona non grata" in most of the Commonwealth, and was forced to seek refuge with the powerful Radziwillfamily. In the meantime, Muscovy's Time of Troubleswere brewing, and Lisowski did not pass over the opportunity of profiting from this, as many other local magnates and noblemen already had, by meddling in Russian affairs. He soon decided he could profit best by lending his support to the Muscovite pretender, False Dmitry II.
In 1608, together with
Aleksander Kleczkowski, leading his forces - a band of few hundred ragtag soldiers of fortune, mainly Poles, Lithuanians, Don Cossacks, Ruthenians, Tatars, Germans, Swedes - he defeated the armies of tsar Vasili Shuisky, led by Zakhary Lyapunovand Ivan Khovansky, near Zarayskand captured Mikhailovand Kolomna, moving on to blockade Moscow. However, he was soon to be defeated at Niedźwiedzi Bród, losing most of his loot. He reorganized the army and joined with Jan Piotr Sapieha, but they failed to capture the Troitse-Sergieva Lavrafortress and were forced to retreat to near Rakhmantsevo. Then came successful pillages at Kostroma, Soligalich, and some other cities (those battles took place around 1608-1609). He took Pskovin 1610 and clashed with Swedes operating in Muscovy during the Ingrian War. The Lisowczycy proved essential in the defence of Smolenskin 1612, when most of Polish regular army, the ("wojsko kwarciane"), mutined and joined the Rohatyn Confederation. For the next three years Lisowski's forces were of importance in the guarding of the Polish border against Muscovyincursions. In 1615, Lisowski gathered many outlaws and invaded Muscovy with 6 companies of cavalry. He besieged Bryanskand defeated the Muscovite relief force of a few thousand soldiers under Kniaz Yuri Shakhovskoynear Karachev. Lisowski moved on to defeat the Muscovite advance guard of a force (several times larger than his) under the command of Kniaz Dmitry Pozharsky, who decided to not to attack and fortified his forces inside a camp. Lisowski's men broke contact with other forces, burned Belyov and Likhvin, took Peremyshl, turned north, defeated a Muscovite army at Rzhev, turned towards the Kara Seacoast, then to Kashin, burned Torzhok, returned to Poland without any further contact with Muscovy forces. Until the autumn of 1616, Lisowski and his forces remained on the Polish-Muscovy border, when Lisowski suddenly fell ill and died on October 11.
Death of Lisowski, birth of the Lisowczyks
The name of "Lisowczycy" was carried by the troops ever since Lisowski's passing. Despite his death, they remained a most significant threat: in 1616 they captured
Kurskand defeated Russian forces at Bolkhov, in 1617 relieved Smolensk from a Muscovite siege - the invading troops retreated to Białaas soon as they received news that the Lisowczycy, then under the command of Stanisław Czapiński, were in the neighbourhood. When Czapiński died at Kaluga, Lisowczycy elected Walenty Rogawskifor the new commander. They accompanied Władysław's forces in 1617, and while he retreated, they are said to have moved inland as far as the Ob River, where they were are shown to have been impressed by a giant golden statue (possibly a Buddha, but also attachable to the Zlota Babamyth).
Devils in the Holy Empire
From 1619, the Lisowczycy, then stationed near
Kowno, were sent by Sigismund III Vasa to aid Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperoragainst the Protestantsin the Thirty Years' War. Under the command of Walenty Rogowski, they defeated Transylvanian forces under George I Rákócziat the Battle of Zavadaand/or Battle of Humiennein November of that year. After the victory, they engaged in their traditional pastime, plundering nearby lands, 'killing even children and dogs', as contemporary chroniclers recorded. It was around that time that they gained their new nickane: "Riders of the Apocalypse".
Then Lisowczycy split: part of them, with Rogowski, decided to return to Poland, pillaging
Slovakiaon their way. Others, under Jarosz Kleczkowski, remained in the service of the Emperor for the next few years. After the death of Kleczkowski ( March 4 1620) at the Battle of Krems, Stanisław Rusinowskibecame the new commander of the Lisowczycy. Under Rusinowski, the Lisowczycy took part in the Battle of White Mountain ( November 8) where they captured twenty standards. On May 7 1621, the Emperor paid them their outstanding wages and released them from service, due to numerous complains about their behaviour. Some of the Lisowczycy returned to Poland, others served under Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria.
Cecora and Chocim (Khotyn)
The Lisowczycy fought in the wars between Commonwealth and the
Ottoman Empire, not least in the last phase of the Polish magnates' wars in Moldavia.
Battle of Cecora
* Battle of Chocim
After the conflict with the Ottomans was settled, many Lisowczycy, then under the command of
Stanisław Stroynowski, were taken into German employment during the mayhem of the Thirty Year's War, mostly in support of the Roman CatholicEmperor, against his Protestant enemies. Their indiscipline and pillaging became legendary, and they devastated the nearby German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, especially Silesia. The local population often believed it was being attacked by Tatarhordes or non-European barbarians. Eventually, after the French declined to employ Lisowczycy mercenaries, and other sides of the conflict turned them down as well, in 1622 Stroynowski decided to officially disband the unit and return to the Commonwealth.
However, the Lisowczycy proved to be a
pestilencewherever they went, and soon most of its members formed banditgroups, pillaging the Polish and German countryside and burning down the town of Radomsko. Condemned by the szlachtaand by many sejmiks, they were increasingly hunted down by local government forces and militias. Stroynowski's group was destroyed in 1624, and he himself was executed two years later.
The last time that companies using the Lisowczycy name took part in a major war was during the late 1620s, when they were temporarily reformed to fight in Poland's continuing conflict against the Swedes in Polish
Prussia, yet another stage of the Polish-Swedish War- the same conflict that set Aleksander Lisowski on the path to forming the unit that was to bear his name. These Lisowczycy were finally disbanded by an act of the Sejm, in 1636.
Even after the formation was disbanded, its members were respected (or at least, feared) even beyond the Polish Commonwealth. Soon, their atrocities were forgotten and their exploits as the defenders of the Commonwealth and faith against the Orthodox,
Protestantsand Muslims turned them into a legend which lives on to this day.
Offices in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
* [http://slawek-dabrowski.webpark.pl/ Strona o Lisowczykach]
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