The Fall of Magdeburg

While the convention at Leipsic was making boastful speeches, the decision was made by the Catholic League to take possession of Magdeburg. Magdeburg was an ancient and wealthy city on the bank of the Elbe. Rivaled by few cities in Germany for its wealth and freedom, it was coveted by both sides.


All during the winter of 1630-31, Magdeburg was under siege. Preoccupied with other things, Tilly and Pappenheim, the two great leaders in the papal army, had left the matter of managing the siege to men of inferior skill. By March, they were able to give it their full attention. Within the first few days, the outposts and suburbs were abandoned and had been reduced to ashes by the imperial forces. During the month of April, the storm of assault and resistance raged fiercely around the fortification. The citizens, knowing that Gustavus Adolphus, the king of Sweden, was in the vicinity, determined to resist to the last.

The approach of the Swedish hero was as greatly feared in the camp of Tilly as it was longed for by the city of Magdeburg. It was known that by a march of but three days, Gustavus could be standing before the walls, placing the imperial forces in the undesirable situation of finding themselves between two fighting forces. As the assault was making no progress, Tilly called a council of war to determine whether or not the siege should be lifted, as no breach had yet been made in the walls. It was resolved to storm the city before Gustavus should arrive. On May 9, Tilly’s cannon ceased firing and the besiegers removed a few of the guns. The citizens of Magdeburg, believing that they were about to be rescued by the Swedes, were beside themselves with joy. All that night the cannons of the besiegers were silent, confirming them in their belief that the enemy was in the process of withdrawing. The danger that had so long hung over them being removed, the strain of the previous weeks began to overpower them with exhaustion and weariness. One half of the garrison was withdrawn from the walls while the weary citizens indulged themselves in much needed sleep. At seven the following morning, the storm broke with all its fury over the unprepared city.

Count Tilly

The roar of the cannon and the shouts of the assailants awoke the stunned and terrified citizens. Seizing their arms they rushed into the streets only to find the enemy already pouring over the ramparts and through the two gates of which they were now in possession. The carnage that followed was indescribable. Neither the innocence of childhood or the helplessness of old age could disarm the rage that overwhelmed the citizens of Magdeburg.

The city was set on fire in several places and a strong wind spread the fury of the conflagration. By nightfall, one of the finest cities in Germany had ceased to exist. It is generally believed that 40,000 perished in the slaughter.

Now, the same German party that had despised the aid of Gustavus Adolphus was ready to blame him for failing to come to the aid of the besieged city, making it necessary for the king to explain publicly why he had not done so. He had resolved, he said, the moment that danger threatened Magdeburg, to march to its relief, but first the Elector of Saxony had refused him passage through his dominions, and second, the Elector of Brandenburg had shown himself equally unwilling to guarantee him passage for retreat, should this become necessary. Thus the fate of Magdeburg was the responsibility of these two Electors whose vacillating and cowardly policy had refused to make plain to Gustavus whether they were his friends or enemies and whether they would abide with the Catholic League or join their arms with his in defense of Protestantism.

In the end, the fall of Magdeburg turned out to be to the advantage of the Protestant cause. It helped the Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony to see that their attempt at neutrality could only end in their being devoured by the imperial arms. The first to form a firm compact with Gustavus Adolphus was the Landgrave of Hesse. He ever after remained a close friend of the Swedish monarch. A raid that Tilly made into his territory after leaving Magdeburg had helped to strengthen his resolve in the matter. The next to ally himself with Gustavus was the Elector of Brandenburg. His belated decision came only when it was forced from him by the Swedish cannons pointed at his palace and the demand that he should say with which side he wished to be counted.

Last of all, the Elector of Saxony, who had now been raided by Tilly’s marauders, made the decision to join arms with those of Gustavus. This opened the way for the crowning victory of the campaign, which established the preeminence of Gustavus and broke in pieces the army of the emperor.

Crossing the Elbe River, Gustavus was joined by a 35,000 man Saxon army. At that point a decision had to be made as to whether the combined forces were of sufficient strength to risk a battle or the war should be allowed to drag on. The decision was made in favor of a battle. The die was cast, and Gustavus put his army in motion to meet Tilly, who lay encamped in a strong position near Leipsic. The evening of September 6 brought Gustavus within a dozen miles of the imperialist forces.

The next morning, Gustavus watched the dawn with deep anxiety. For the first time he was about to meet the presence of the whole imperial army under the command of a hitherto unconquered leader. The outcome of the day’s battle would determine whether his crossing the Baltic to break the chains of Germany’s enslavement would be crowned with success or whether, in his defeat, political and religious bondage would carry the day. With anxiety, all Christendom awaited the outcome of the day’s events.

The battle was joined at noon. It began with a cannonading that lasted two hours. Pappenhiem began the attack at two o’clock by throwing his cavalry at the Swedish right wing under the command of the Swedish king. Pappenheim was driven from the field with the loss of his artillery and other ordnance. Tilly descended on the left wing of the Swedish forces. To avoid the punishing fire with which the Swedes received him, he turned to attack the Saxons, who were mostly raw recruits. Under the onslaught, the
majority of the Saxons gave way and fled, leaving only one of their divisions on the field of battle to maintain Saxon honor.

Deeming the victory won, the imperial forces raised the cry of pursuit and some 8,000 or 9,000 left the field to follow the fleeing Saxons. Recognizing the opportunity, Gustavus seized the moment to flank the imperial center and soon had effectively routed it with the exception of two regiments that were concealed by the dust and smoke.

The sun was now sinking low, and its lingering rays cast a soft light across the quiet dead scattered across the field. The mass in the center kept surging but was growing perceptibly smaller as horses and riders fell together. Tilly and his imperialists were fighting with desperate valor to retain the legend of invincibility that had been gained on a hundred fields of battle but which was now rapidly fading.

In other parts of the field the conflict had nearly ended when the imperial troops returned from chasing the fleeing Saxons and desperately attacked the Swedish left wing. The most obstinate valor, however, could not hold out long against the overwhelming odds of the Swedish warriors; and in the rapidly gathering dusk, the remnant of those battalions which had wrecked such devastation on Germany fled from the conflict.

Now, when Gustavus Adolphus rode from the field, he was no longer the “little Gothic king” but a powerful conqueror; the terror of the popish powers, and the hope of all Protestantism. The butchers of Magdeburg had been trampled into the bloody dust of Breitenfeld. With the annihilation of the imperial army, the glory of their leader having been left on the field from which he fled, the road to central Germany lay open before the triumphant Swedes. The master plan of the Jesuits for European domination was imperiled, and the throne of the emperor began to totter.