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1634: The Wars for the Rhine: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, November 4, 2016 20:08 EDT



Rhine Valley, southern side, between Koblenz and Bonn
September 1, 1634

    It was pitch-black and pouring rain by the time Melchior reached the Inn of the Black Goat just outside Godesberg. He had planned to spend the night in Bonn before continuing to Cologne in the morning, but the clouds had gathered on the long desolate stretch of cliffs between Uberwinter and Godesberg, and the resulting darkness had forced him to slow down. By now everybody would be asleep, but Andrew the Scott, the innkeeper, had made enough money out of the four Hatzfeldt brothers over the years that he would not mind Melchior stabling his horse and dossing down in the hay himself. No chance of the mountain bacon and the hot whiskey posset that were the Goat’s specialties, but — as any old campaigner — Melchior kept a bit of food in his saddlebags. That would have to do for tonight.

    “Wen d’you tink di cannens gonna get hir?” The singing Swedish accent of the question made Melchior freeze just before turning into the cobbled stable yard.

    “No idea. Faster than if we’d tried to lug them over those damned mountains.”

    “Those wiren’t mountains,” the Swedish voice chuckled, “just little hills with a few little hillsides. Berg is so much easier to move in than Sweden. River valleys everywhere. Up the Eder and down the Sieg. And once you’re all the way up, it’s easy downhill all the way. Just as with a woman.”

    Letting the laughter cover any noise he and the horse made on the wet gravel, Melchior backed away and turned the horse. Eder and Sieg? Those rivers led northeast to Kassel, the capital of Hesse-Kassel. Duke Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel had been moving his armies around in the mountains of Berg all summer, obviously trying to grab as much as he could, while the problems left by Duke Wolfgang’s death were still unsolved. But when Melchior had left for Vienna, the man had been safely stuck at Remscheid up near Düsseldorf. So what would soldiers coming from Kassel be doing this far south and on this side of the Rhine? And were they Hessians or the main USE army?

    As far as Melchior knew, those regiments of the main USE army not in the east at Ingolstadt were far north near the Baltic. Of course a single Swede didn’t mean that it was the USE army — Melchior knew quite well that he had a few Swedes in his own regiments — and it could just be that Hesse had hired a few extra regiments to break the deadlock at Remscheid by attacking the Jülich-Berg army from the south. On the other hand Archbishop Ferdinand of Cologne had been trying to stir up something in Fulda, which was inside the area occupied by the USE. Twenty years of campaigning made it perfectly clear to Melchior that he needed more information before proceeding with his journey.

    Andrew the Scot had acquired the Black Goat by marrying the daughter of the old owner, Nicholaus, and old Nic had now retired to a one-room stone cottage a bit down the road from the inn. A major reason for the Goat’s popularity had always been the cheap-for-the-quality of their spirits, and the old man’s contacts with smugglers — and heaven knows what else — had always ensured that he knew everybody and everything that went on along the Rhine. Old Nic would not take kindly to being woken, but if an army came to Bonn, it was almost certain that Cologne was their ultimate target, and with Melchior’s family living there, he’d brave the old reprobate to get that information right now.



    As Melchior approached the cottage he saw squat, old Nic taking a leak from the doorway. He didn’t seem overly surprised to have Melchior pop out of the rain, just told him to take the horse to the empty wood-shed and throw the blanket there over it.

    Inside the cottage the toothless old man kept the lamps out, but stirred the coals in the fireplace, making his shadow dance weirdly on the rough wall. “Sit down, boy. On y’way t’Bonn or from’t?”

    “I’m on my way to Bonn, Nic, but just what has happened?” Melchior folded his long legs to sit on the low stool beside the fireplace.

    “Hessian cavalry. Surprise attack at dawn this morning. Came down Sieg and went through them archbishop’s mercenaries at Beuel like a knife through hot butter. Got some men across t’Rhine on t’ferry and took that old toll-tower.” Nic spat into the fire. “Them ropes on this side’s cut, and t’ferry sunk. They’ll come across sooner or later, never-you-fear, but it’s not that easy without t’ropes to guide.”

    The four mercenary regiments Archbishop Ferdinand had hired as part of his plans were led by the Irish colonel Butler and three of his friends. Although their equipment had looked good, Melchior had no confidence in their ability to fight as a unit. He knew all four men from Wallenstein’s army where they had been his peers and colleagues; neither of the four was incompetent, but they also had no sense of responsibility towards their men. Even Melchior’s usually very easygoing cousin, Wolf, loathed their carelessness with the lives of their own men. Melchior had always tried to make his men as good a fighting unit as possible, not just to win but also to survive and become even better and more efficient fighters in the next battle. Butler and those like him believed that they could always hire new men to fill out the ranks, and make the princes pay for their hire. That veterans fought better than novices was of much less importance, especially since those who didn’t survive the battle couldn’t claim a share in the loot.

    Aside from the two thousand or so cavalry the archbishop had only his personal guard, but in Melchior’s estimate that should be enough to stop anything the Hessians could ferry across the Rhine #8212; providing of course that the troops were properly lead and nobody lost their head and panicked. However, if the Hessians managed to gain a beachhead, and hold it for long enough to land cannons, then the situation would be entirely different.

    The “normal” method of conquering a fortified town was to send cavalry to stop all traffic in and out, while the artillery slowly moved into position to shoot holes in the walls. Then infantry would attack through the holes to open the gates for the cavalry, and finally there would be fighting in the streets until the town surrendered. If the walls were very thick or the town’s population big compared to the attacking army, a prolonged siege might weaken the town by starvation.



    When the archbishop — and Franz — had tried to talk Melchior into leading an attempt to take back Mainz, Würzburg and the other conquered bishoprics, he had repeatedly pointed out that those towns were defended by garrisons behind solid fortifications and walls, and that the archbishop had no artillery worth mentioning. Without artillery the gates would have to be opened by tricks or treason, and while the archbishop expected the populations to rise against the occupying USE garrisons, Melchior was firmly convinced that the prelate was deceiving himself. From what Father Johannes had told him about the Americans and their ways, some of the leaders of the occupied towns might prefer the return of the ruling bishops, but the main population would probably be quite satisfied with the new rules and freedoms.

    Still, with some luck — and especially if the archbishop had succeeded in talking Melchior into leading his forces — it might have been possible to regain Koblenz and Wiesbaden, and perhaps even Mainz. But the next town up the rivers was Frankfurt am Main, filled with Protestant troops and supplies, ideally posed for a quick trip down the Rhine to kick the archbishop’s regiments all the way to the Dutch border. Not a good plan. There could be situations where it made sense to conquer a town that you could hold only briefly, but as far as Melchior could see, nothing would be gained here to make it worth the cost.

    The archbishop had claimed to have some kind of secret plan involving Fulda to break up the USE and presumably make them need their troops elsewhere. But he wouldn’t give Melchior the details, and Melchior frankly didn’t trust the old man to know what he was doing. In fact, if it had not been for Melchior’s younger brother, Franz, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg — who hoped the archbishop’s plan would eventually regain him his lost bishopric — Melchior would just have washed his hands of the entire mess. Then, when the USE came in response to the archbishop’s trouble-making, the Hatzfeldt family could have concentrated on negotiating a deal with the occupying forces. The Schönstein Hatzfeldts with their long history of serving Hessen as administrators would have helped. Sometimes, with no way to win the battle, you just had to save as much as you could.

    Heinrich and Hermann, the oldest and the youngest of the four brothers, completely agreed with Melchior. Heinrich, a canon at St. Alban in Mainz, had stayed during and after the Protestant conquest, while all his superiors fled to Cologne. As a result he had spent two years dealing and negotiating on behalf of his church, first with the army, then with the American NUS administration. He had told the family that the Americans followed different rules, but once you knew those, it was entirely possible to function and even prosper.

    Hermann had recently sold his commission as a colonel to concentrate on handling the family estates on both sides of the border, and very badly wanted to join the new industries starting in Essen and around Magdeburg, so he wanted firm treaties all around.

    But Franz, Melchior’s third brother, would not accept the logic of this. He had only been bishop of Würzburg for little more than a year when he had fled from the Protestant army sweeping down from the north. Franz had made so many plans for his bishopric: new schools, agricultural improvements, helping all those Catholic refugees from the north resettle and build new lives. Now, it was breaking his heart to be reduced to a powerless refugee, forced to depend on either the support of his family or the charity of the archbishop.

    In Melchior’s opinion, Franz needed to make a deal with the USE, so he could go back to Würzburg and start working. True, a bishop under American rule had little earthly power compared to a ruler of a bishopric, but the people would be there to care for and help. And Franz had spent eight years as a diplomat in the service of the two previous prince-bishops of Bamberg. Surely he could negotiate something better for himself than Abbot Schweinsberg had in Fulda. But first of all Franz had to stop chasing the archbishop’s rainbows and settle for what was possible.

    When all else failed, Melchior had gone to Munich hoping to persuade Duke Maximilian to put an end to Archbishop Ferdinand’s wild schemes. Unfortunately Bavaria had been in total chaos after the disappearance of the duke’s fiancée, Archduchess Maria Anna, and in Melchior’s opinion the duke had been even more unbalanced than the archbishop. Melchior had done what he could, but nobody had seemed to both care about the danger to Cologne, and have the power to call the archbishop to order.

    In the end Melchior had given up in Bavaria, and instead tried to get permission from the emperor in Vienna to take his own regiments west to Cologne and take command of the area. The old Emperor Ferdinand had been too ill to make any decisions, but his heir, Archduke Ferdinand, had told Melchior to return to Cologne and try to hold things together until reinforcements could arrive. A bit vague, but then everything was quite unsettled at the moment, and the archduke had supplied Melchior with some unusually potent papers and writs.

    Old Nic had been heating a pot of water while Melchior sat musing, and now silently gave him a mug of hot brandy. “All four of the archbishop’s regiments were billeted within or around the walls of Bonn when I left,” said Melchior frowning. “Do you know how many were moved across the Rhine to the Beuel and how big the Hessian army is?”

    “Some moved to Beuel and some to that camp outside t’west gate. Them colonels had left; no discipline and rioting in town.” The old man harked and spat again. “Old Pegleg from Beuel came across today. He’d seen the attack. Looked like them Hessians have about half real cavalry and half them mounted infantry. Don’t know how many. Everybody in Bonn who can’s fled west t’Cologne or t’Aachen. There’s a few Hessians this side already. Prob’ly scouts crossing before the attack. One group’s at t’Goat.”

    “I know. Are your family well?”

    “Yeah, nobby wanna fight armed soldiers, but there’s only a handful. They can stop travelers if they want to, but they make much trouble and me girls gonna bash their balls. Big fine girls.”

    Melchior, remembering a surprising intimate encounter with one of the old man’s granddaughters some years ago, didn’t really doubt that. “Have you heard anything about my brother, Franz, or the archbishop?”

    “Nope. Somebody just mentioned them mercenary colonels not being around, and wondered where you’d gone.”

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