Russian flag from Russian flag from
Cossacks of the Napoleonic Wars
1805 - 1815
"If Napoleon had had Cossacks in his army
he'd have been Emperor of China long ago."
- Cossack officer to Caulaincourt in 1812
"Cossacks are the best light troops among all that exist.
If I had then in my army, I would go through all the world with them."
- Napoleon
"These organised bandits are wily. They do not like infantry fire very much
they detest artillery, but when they are three to one they become impudent."
- Schwarzenberg, Austrian commander

1. Introduction.

  • History >>
  • Generals >>
  • Deployment >>
  • Weapons >>
    2. Cossacks Campaigning in Western Europe.
    3. Cossacks' Tactics and Battles.
    4. Organization.
  • Regiments and sotnias. >>
  • Brigades and corps. >>

    Picture: Cossacks in early spring 1813, by Wojciech Kossak. On the ground are corpses of French soldiers and horses.


    "The Cossack fears horsemen of no nation, except the Turks.
    For the Polish lancers he has admiration, because these
    were capable to fight in closed, as well as in open order,
    and because he had to cope with them almost all the time
    during the latest war.
    The French, as long as they possessed cavalry, held back
    their own in closed order and sent forward the Polish for
    light duties. The German and French light cavalry are not
    feared by the Cossack. He will not stand and oppose their
    formed attacks, and in open order he will surpass them in
    - Austrian officer A. Prokesch
    ‘Ueber den Kosaken, und dessen Brauchbarkeit im Felde’

    Introduction: History, Weapons, Deployment.
    In 1648 the Russian Cossack Simeon Dezhnev
    opened a passage between America and Asia.

    Picture: Cossacks writing incredibly insulting reply to Turkish Sultan's demand for surrender (1675). They laugh their socks off over each word. Picture by Repin.
    "Thou Turkish Satan, ...
    Greetings !
    What the hell kind of noble knight art thou ? ...
    Thou beer-brewer of Jerusalem, thou goat-flayer of Alexandria,
    thou swineherd of Egypt, both the Greater and the Lesser,
    thou sow of Armenia, thou goat of Tartary ...
    a blockhead, a swine's snout, a mare's ___, a butcher's cur, an unbaptized brow, May the Devil take thee! That is what the Cossacks have to say to thee, thou basest-born of runts ! Unfit art thou to lord it over true Christians !
    The date we write not for no calendar have we got; the moon is in the sky, the year is in a book, and the day is the same with us here as with thee over there, and thou canst kiss us thou knowest where !

    The name Cossack is derived from the Turkic word quzzaq and mean simply "adventurer" and "freeman". This name has been shared by several groups throughout the history of Europe and Asia. The most prominent and numerous are the Russian Cossacks of the Don, Ural and Siberia regions. Also famous were the Ukrainian Cossacks who lived on the southern steppes of modern Ukraine. They grew astronomically during the 15th-17th centuries due to numerous runway peasants from Russia and Poland respectively. Cossacks paid no taxes and enjoyed a large measure of autonomy in the management of their communal affairs.

    Janet Hartley writes: "Cossacks are not a separate ethnic group (although they were designated as such in the Soviet period); they comprise mainly Russian and Ukrainian peasants and fugitives who had fled to the southern borderlands. They nevertheless regarded themselves as a separate group within the Russian empire, with separate institutional and social structure, who owed a loyalty to their Cossack host as well ass to the Russian tsar. The 18th and the early 19th century saw the transformation of CCossack communities from active resistors to central tsarist authority to loyal servitors of the state, but this did not mean that they had lost their sense of separate identity or thheir distrust of Russian officials and grandees." (Charles Esdaile - "Popular Resistance in the French Wars" p186)

    Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia, the Caucasus and Asia. They also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil geographers, traders, explorers and surveyors. In 1648 the Russian Cossack Simeon Dezhnev opened a passage between America and Asia. (

    During the Napoleonic Wars the Cossacks participated in numerous campaigns and battles. In late 1790s they went with Suvorov to Italy and Switzerland. In 1805 they took part in the disastrous Austerlitz Campaign. In 1806 and 1807 the Cossacks were in Eastern Prussia in Bennigsen's army. There were several Cossack regiments fighting against the Swedes and Turks in 1808, 1809 and 1810.

    In 1812 and 1813 the Cossacks covered themselves with glory. The relentless pursuit by the light cavalry and Cossacks, the winter and the tsar's and people's determination resulted in a truly disastrous defeat on Napoleon. The Grand Army ceased to be grand, it even ceased to be an army. Fewer than 100,000 of the 500 000 that Napoleon had used for the invasion returned west.

    Cossacks in Paris In 1814 the dreaded Cossacks entered Paris. They were received with the best foods but they preferred to cook their own meals. The beautiful houses, palaces and courts, and the products of luxury which they encountered in Paris did not tempt them. In the beginning the Parisians were scared of the the unique troops. Russian and Cossack officers gathered in certain restaurannts and hammered on the tables yelling bistro ! which is Russian word for "quickly". Hence the name bistro for this type of restaurant.
    The no-nonsense tough warriors bivouacked in the square of the Carousel before his majesty's windows, and dried their shirts and trousers on the iron railings of the palace. They also camped out on the famous Champs Elysees.

    The Cossacks were again in Paris in 1815. A large group of Cossacks was despatched to find the Prussians and English armies advancing on Paris and they were the first Allies' troops who marched through Paris very shortly after Waterloo.

    Cossacks Generals.
    During Platov's visit in England he was enthusiastically
    greeted by the Londoners. He was awarded a golden sword
    and a honorary degree by the University of Oxford.

    Ataman Matvei Platov The most famous Cossack commander was Platov. Ataman Matvei Platov (1757-1818) was a seasoned commander, already in 1774 he fought against the Crimean Tatars. Upon Alexander I's ascension to the throne, he was appointed Ataman (Headman) of the Don Cossacks. In 1805, Platov ordered the Cossack capital to be moved from Starocherkassk to a new location, known as Novocherkassk. He distinguished himself in 1806-7, 1812 and 1813 against the French. Platov scourged the French during their retreat from Moscow in 1812, and again after their defeat at Leipzig. During his visit in England he was enthusiastically greeted by the Londoners. Platov was awarded a golden sword and a honorary degree by the University of Oxford. (

    General Chernyshev General-Major Alexandr Ivanovich Chernyshev (1785-1857) was a famous Cossack raider. In 1812 Chernyshev was promoted to general-major, and in 1814 to general-lieutenant. Chernyshev was not well-known in Europe but in Russia in that time he was very popular. In 1812 Chernyshev's aggressive pursuit and hit and run tactics demoralised the French. In 1813 and 1814 his raids deep into enemy territory were quite spectacular. Chernyshev's Cossacks raided Kassel, the capital of Westphaly. After being driven out of Kassel, King Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, managed to return on the 16th of October, before deciding to seek refuge in France on learning of the result of the battle of Leipzig. (In 1815 at Waterloo, Jerome's division attacked Hougoumont.)

    Nikolai Vasilievich Illovaiski ( 1772 - 1828 ) was another talented Cossack commander. Nikolai Mozhak writes: "He was enlisted to the military service in the age of 6 as a private cossack. In the age of 8 he took part in his first military expedition to the Crimea for suppressing the Crimea Tatars that supported Turks." Illovaiski participated in campaigns against the Turks, Poles and the French. In 1813 after the Battle of Bautzen he left the army, his health was failing, and went back to the Don.

    Deployment of Cossacks.
    Cossack regiments were deployed
    along Russia's long borders.

    In 1811 the assignment of Cossack regiments was as follow:
    - in Finland: 3 regiments
    - along the border from Poland to the Dniester: 13 regiments
    - with the Army of Moldavia: 29 regiments
    - in the Don: 12 regiments
    - in Georgia: 8 regiments
    - in Orenbourg (eastern Russia): 4 regiments and 1 Kalmuck Regiment
    - in the Caucasus: 6 so-called 'Colonial Regiments' and 3 of so-called 'Voisko'
    In 1811 there were 2 Cossack batteries. In 1812 a half-battery was formed from captured Turkish cannon barrels.
    In summer 1812 from natives of two provinces, Kiev and Kamieniec Podolski, ( were established: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Ukrainian Cossack Regiments; each of 8 squadrons.
    In 1812 the Cossack regiments were assigned as follow:

  • 88 regiments of Don Cossacks
    - - - - - - - - - - - - Lifeguard Regiment (542 + 43 noncombatants) guard unit for the Tzar, counted as regular cavalry
    - - - - - - - - - - - - Ataman Regiment (877 + 2 noncomb., in 5 sotnia) guard unit for the Ataman of the Don Cossacks
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 60 regiments (590 + 1 noncombatant each. In the field however, they averaged 360-450 men.)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - In 1812 further 26 regiments were raised. The 86 regiments were assigned as follow:
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 64 were stationed along the western broder, 10 stationed in Caucasus, 8 in Georgia, 2 in Crimea,
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 in Moldavia, and 1 in Finland
  • 10 [20] regiments of Black Sea Cossacks, former famous Zaporozhians.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - Lifeguard Black Sea Sotnia - a guard unit for the Tzar, counted as regular cavalry
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 regiments (5 sotnia each) on the Kuban River, in 1813 1 regiment fought with the napol. troops
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 druzhina (5 sotnia each) - Cossacks on foot and 9 of them were stationed in Caucasus
  • 10 regiments of Ural Cossacks
    - - - - - - - - - - - - Lifeguard Sotnia (125 + 6 noncomb.) a guard unit for the Tzar, counted as regular cav.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 regiments (3 faced the napoleonic troops, and 7 stationed in Ural facing the Kirgiz)
  • 10 regiments of West Siberia Cossacks
    - - - - - - - - - - - - Ataman Regiment (5 sotnia)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 9 regiments (5 sotnia each)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 town commands (total of approx. 1000 foot Cossacks)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 2 horse batteries
  • 4 [8+4] regiments of Orenburg Cossacks (Orenburg, Stavropol, Ufa districts)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - Orenburg Ataman Regiment (1177 + 1 noncombatant in 10 sotnia)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 3 regiments (5 sotnia each), they were moved against the napoleonic troops.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 4 detachments (500 mounted and 500 foot soldiers each) in Orenburg frontier facing the Kirgiz
  • 3 regiments of Bug Cossacks (5 sotnia each), in fall 1812 the 4th was raised. Three faced the napoleonic troops
  • 1 'regiment' (?) of Danube-Mouth Cossacks (5 sotnia) for occupation duties in Moldavia
  • 3 regiments of Astrahan Cossacks (5 sotnia each) stationed in their home territory
  • Cossacks in East Siberia
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 border settlement detachments (total 800 horsemen)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 12 trans-Baikal border settlement detachments (total 900 horsemen)
    - - - - - - - - - - - - 8 town commands incl. Kamchatka and Yakutzk (total 1850 horsemen)
  • 1 regiment (1178 men in 10 sotnia) of Stavropol Kalmucks, from the middle Volga River. They in the field since the beginning of the war against Napoleon.
  • 2 regiments (5 sotnia each) of Kalmucks of the lower Volga. Both regiments were in the field since the outbreak of the war against Napoleon.
  • 4 regiments (5 sotnia each) of Crimean Tatars. They were named after the towns of their districts: Perekop, Eupatoria, Simferopol, Feodosia. Each regiment had five flags. The first three regiments listed took part in the campaign against Napoleon.
  • 2 regiments (622 men in 5 sotnia each) of Teptyars from the Ural Mountains. They were uniformed like the Orenburg cossacks. Both regiments were in the field since the beginning of the war against Napoleon.
  • 2 regiments (579 men in 5 sotnia each) of Meshcheryaks from the Ural Mountains. By 1 November the 1st regiment was at Nizhnii-Novgorod while the 2nd was still on the march.
  • 4 regiments (600 men in 5 sotnia each) of Buryats from the Trans-Baikal. Weapons were sabers and bows and presumably also lances. No flags. They saw service on the East-Siberian Line.
  • 1 regiment (515 men in 5 sotnia) of Tungus in the Trans-Baikal.
  • 2 regiments (5 sotnia each) of Bashkirs from the Ural Mountains. They were in the field since the beginning of the war. In 1812 a further 18 regiments (579 men each) were levied. In Fall they left the home territory for Nizhnii-Novgorod, which they reached in December. Weapons consisted only of lance, saber, and bow. No flags.

    Cossacks' weapons: lance, saber, pistol.
    "He knows how to use this weapon [lance]
    with great skill and security,
    nevertheless the fact that it is 1.5 foot
    longer as the Polish lance." - Prokesch

    Don Cossack 1801-1809 All rank-and-file Cossacks of the Napoleonic Wars carried 8-foot long lance with a steel spearhead surmounting a steel ball to secure easy withdrawal of the point. Some Cossacks were also armed with curved sabers and 1-8 (!) pistols. Some carried carbines or muskets or other firearms. Each sotnia (squadron) had muskets for 11 Cossacks trained as marksmen.

    The officers were armed with sabers, but they have never mastered this weapon. "... in 1812 ... a Prussian uhlan major fought a man-to-man duel with a Cossack officer (armed with saber) between their two regiments and captured him ..." ( - John Elting)

    Prokesch writes: "... the lance is their main weapon. He knows how to use this weapon with great skill and security, nevertheless the fact that it is one and a half foot longer as the Polish lance. He knows how to use his sabre just as well; officers and NCO’s practice them for use against the Turks. The pistol is of less value to him. He considers it not really as a weapon, but only as a tool to scare the enemy. He fires only to fire, not to hit anything, and in common there are few Cossacks which use their pistols... Tettenborn armed his Cossacks completely with French muskets... The Cossack loves the use of a firearm, because of the reason that he fears the one of the enemy. He wants to take artillery with him, and the name Poushki (cannon) is for him a word of joy, as well as of fear...A tenth of every squadron consists of marksmen; Strelki. Rifle and pistols are mostly Turkish or Persian booty." (Prokesch - "Ueber den Kosaken, und dessen Brauchbarkeit im Felde")

  • ~

    There were cases in Italy and Germany when townspeople came out
    to greet them as liberators, only to be quickly despoiled
    of clothes, watches and money. The naked men and women
    fled in horror. The Germans used new words in their prayer,
    "Save us Lord, from Cossacks".

    Cossacks Campaigning in Western Europe
    The bearded warriors "with six looted watches in each pocket"
    frightened the westerners. The 'Jackass Cavalry' spread terror
    wherever they went.

    The Cossacks, according to August von Haxthausen ("Studies on the interior of Russia" 1843), were "The liveliest and boldest of all the Russians ..." The horsemanship of Cossacks was second to none in Europe. They could pick up a small coin from the ground during full gallop or fire from pistols from under horse's belly. The Cossacks, portrayed by some as Satan’s bastard offspring, were constant menace for the Frenchmen, Germans, Poles and Italians.

    Cossacks' horses were not large and they appeared as if they should crumble under the sheer weight of their diverse loads. The bearded warriors "with six looted watches in each pocket" frightened the westerners. There were cases in Italy and Germany when townspeaople came out to greet them as liberators, only to be quickly despoiled of clothes, watches and all cash. The naked men and women fled in horror.

    Sir Wilson campaigned with the Russians in 1813 in Germany and wrote: "The country through which we are passing is in great distress. The Cossacks have devoured or destroyed the little that the stagnation of commerce had enabled the inhabitants to provide. ... In many parts of Germany it is said that the cossack terror is so great that prayers are put up: "De Cossaquibus, Domine, libere nos !" In other churches they have added the term Cossack to the original Devil as more expressive of his mischievous proceedings. It is a great pity that they should be so lawless, for they counterbalance the service which they render."

    Reverend Schlosser, vicar of Gross-Zschocher writes: "A swarm of about 20 to 30 Cossacks had broken into my house the day before, each with an empty bottle which they wanted to have filled with brandy. As we could only give them a little each they became angry, grabbed me, pushed me up against the wall and threathened me with pistols and sabres, shouting furiously. My good wife fell about the dirty neck of the most furious one and my little daughter clung about her knees and wept loudly, crying for mercy. But I would have been done for had not an Austrian NCO come in just in time. He saved my life by explaining the situation to the Cossacks and protecting me." (Digby-Smith - "1813: Leipzig" p 137)

    Cossacks and their prisoners in 1812. The idea of being captured by the Cossacks was a nightmare for the western troops. One of Napoleonic officers described what happened when he was taken prisoner in 1806-7 campaign. "One [dragoon squadron] charged right into and through us. I fell between two horses, struck in the throat. I lost consciousness, and don't know how long I lay there, nor did I know who stripped my uniform off me. When I came to, I was lying on the ground surrounded by a group of Cossacks. .... A Cossack officer ordered me to stand, but I could not raise myself as my neck and shoulder were stiff. He gave me his hand and helped me up, ordered one of his Cossacks to dismount and put me on his horse. ... I sat with my teeth rattling from the cold, as I was undressed. A Cossack colonel rode up ... and gave me a nip of vodka. ... My headwear had gone missing ... We joined some other prisoners who had already been brought in ... We were led to some kind of a stone building in the city [Danzig, Gdansk] and after 2 days to Farwasser where we were put up on a Swedish ship ... " (Chlapowski/Simmons - "Memoirs of a Polish Lancer" p 27)

    In 1813 at the Battle of Kulm the Cossacks captured French generals Haxo and Vandamme. Dominique-Joseph Vandamme was captured when while in the middle of a column of retreating French infantry a small band of Cossacks rode up seized him and his aide General Haxo and rode off before the surprised infantry could open fire.
    While a prisoner, Vandamme was accused of looting by Tsar Alexander. The general quickly replied: "At least I have never been accused of killing my father." (Tsar Alexander was implicated in the assasination of his father, Tsar Paul.)
    Another version of his reply: "I am neither a plunderer nor a brigand but in any case, my contemporaries and history will not reproach me for having soaked my hands in the blood of my father." In 1815 Vandamme joined Napoleon and fought at the battle of Ligny.

    Circassian Kalmuk The Bashkirs, Tartars and Kalmuks were even worse than Cossacks. The Cossacks kept their eye on the Kalmuks and Bashkirs to prevent any unchaperoned "field trips" into town. There were reported cases of women raped on horseback and other artocities committed by the Asian warriors.

    In 1802 in the Black Sea area were formed 10 regiments (and 10 foot cossack regiments); each of 5 sotnias.

    In 1811 from the Kalmucks living in Astrakhan, Saratov, and Caucasus provinces and in the Don area were formed: 1st and 2nd Kalmuck Regiment, 1st and 2nd Stavropol Kalmuck Regiment, and 1st and 2nd Bashkir Regiment. Each regiment had 5 sotnias.

    The Kalmucks and Tartars were also accepted into the regiments of the Don Cossacks. In their ranks served approx. 8% Kalmucks and 1 % Tatars.

    According to Richard Riehn, in 1812 there were 4 Tatar, 2 Kalmuk, 1 Chechen, and 2 Bashkir regiments. Later were formed 2 Kalmuk and 18 Bashkir regiments.

      Only three commanders were able to win Cossacks' esteem:
      - Russian General Alexander Suvorow.
      For the Cossacks he was through and through soldier.
      Simple manners, brave and so successful.
      - Prussian General Blucher.
      The Cossacks pondered at his combative character
      and thought that he must have had Cossack grandparents !
      - French Marshal Joachim Murat.
      Marinated in perfumes and flamboyantly dressed,
      he led the cavalry in such a way that the Cossacks
      wished to have him as their king. On several occassions
      they surrounded him expressing their admiration ...
      and received money and watches.


    In 1813 after the battle of Dennewitz Marshal Ney wrote:
    "The XII Corps which yesterday was marching on Domitsch,
    ran into a few Cossacks; the troops gave into such a panic-stricken
    terror that it was very difficult to rally them." He also informed
    Berthier about 6.000 deserters who threw away their muskets
    in order to run faster.

    Cossacks' Tactics and Battles.
    "The Cossacks Watched
    While the Russians Slept"

    Cossacks at Borodino, 1812 According to Austrian officer A. Prokesch "A characteristic which makes the Cossacks especially useful for the ‘light war’, is their total indifference for a thousand things, which are called ‘obstacles’ in the military sense ... During the attack on Holland the adroitness with which six Cossack regiments under Narischkin and Stael operated between hundreds of waterways and many fortified places astonished all experienced military buffs....
    In October 1813 near Kassel, three Cossack regiments destroyed the Hussar Regiment ‘Jerôme’ in such a way, that no man or horse managed to escape; a young guard detachment of 3,500 men strong, at Langengebode on the road to Hanau, was attacked by 800 Cossacks. They were pinned down until daybreak, when three Bavarian battalions arrived, taking prisoner the whole detachment; the elimination of the noble Polish Lancer Regiment under General Kanopka at Slonim (in 1812), and many other surprise-attacks executed by Cossacks are well-known.
    The most famous are without doubt the failed but brilliant undertaking by Czernitschev and Tettenborn on Berlin, and the capture of Bremen by the latter. Both events illustrate and prove the statements that were made; as such, a short and reliable description of these will be beneficial...
    The statement that these troops cannot be used in regular formations is fairly common, and much speak for this. The way of doing battle is for the Cossacks the dispersed formation; the close formation is less natural to him. But one makes a mistake if he concludes from this that there are no cases in which they would have to be used in closed column, in which role it will serve well...
    Examples of how the Cossack can be used against foot and guns there are many. To these belong the combats which Tettenborn fought against General Morand during March 1813. ... All Frenchmen admit that it was the irregular cavalry which formed the biggest problem for their own horse. “What should one do with these horse?”, they say: “If one wants to capture them, they escape; if one wants some rest, one is not able to drive them away; if one forms a close formation, it is being surrounded; if one extends its own line to the same length of theirs, they concentrate before one realises it, and break through; if one throws them back a hundred times, they still will return, and our horses will be destroyed by this”." ... The ease with which the Cossack is able to feed himself and his horse are very important assets for use in the field. His small needs are a complete miracle to foreigners." (Prokesch - "Ueber den Kosaken, und dessen Brauchbarkeit im Felde")

    Although the Cossacks were one of the finest light cavalry in the world, they war from perfection. In 1799 in Italy, "The allied chief of staff Major-General Chasteler was the single person who was willing to take proper account of the Cossacks' limitations and potentials. Denisov had to explain to him that the

  • - Cossack officers were unable to read maps, and that most of them were too poor to own watches."
    (Duffy - "Eagles over the Alps" pp 30-31)
  • - Cossacks sometimes failed to inform the headquarters of the movements of the enemy.
  • - During pursuit they could be easily sidetracked upon encountering a baggage train :-)

    Cossacks in small warfare.
    The Cossack jumped from his horse and cried;
    'Now you can catch me !'

    Cossacks in 1812. Britten-Austin described Cossacks' tactics in 1812.
    "Each morning it's the light cavalry, joined by [Marshal] Joachim Murat in person, that opens the march, the hussar and chasseur regiments ... Day after day the Russian rearguard carries out the same maneuvre.
    By pretending to make a stand, it lures Murat into mounting a full scale attack - and then melts away into forests. Towards midday the heat becomes intolerable; and the chasseurs and hussars 'seeing the Russians dismount, unbridle their horses and give them something to eat.
    Yet General St. Germaine kept us standing in battle array, bridle on arm, at our horses' heads. (Britten-Austin - "1812 The March on Moscow"
    p 124

    The napoleonic cavalry struggled in the small warfare against the Cossacks, including the elite unit of light cavalry, the 2nd Lancer Regiment of the Guard [Red Lancers]. Austin writes: "Approaching stealthily, Cossacks nevertheless (again) carry off the Dutch regiment's outpost picket. And again 'only one man escaped flat out at a gallop and brought the news to our camp. Even an hour and a half's pursuit couldn't catch up with the Cossacks.' Mortified by this second surprise of the campaign, Colbert doubles the 2nd Regiment's outposts; and, to make assurance doubly sure, mingles the Dutchmen with the warier, more experienced Poles." (Britten-Austin - "1812 The March on Moscow" p 333)

    Chlapowski of Old Guard Lancers describes how they fought with the Cossacks: "News reached the headquarters at Dabrowna that a Russian force had crossed the Dnieper River ... The Emperor sent four squadrons of Polish Guards under Kozietulski to investigate. We set off after midnight, and ... arrived at a spot half mile from Katane. There we encountered our first Cossacks. Our main body halted by som ebuilding and one squadron went out to meet them. The Cossacks retreated off to our left, towards the Dnieper. At about this time the sun rose and we were able to see the country round about. To our front stood a line of cavalry on the crest of a hill, screened by a few hundred Cossacks. Kozietulski now recalled the first platoon, which had already come to grips with the Cossacks, and he formed the leading squadron into line. The regular cavalr must have been able to see our other three squadrons in support, as they did not move from their position. But the Cossacks approached with increasing boldness, firing with their ancient pistols. As we sent nobody out to skirmish with them, they came closer and closer, shouting; 'Lachy !' (slang for Poles) when they discovered we were Polish. A Cossack officer on a fine grey horse came as close as a 100 paces, perhaps less, and in good Polish challenged us to meet him in single combat. Kozietulski forbade any of us to move.
    The Cossack jumped from his horse and cried; 'Now you can catch me !' He then took off his cap and waved it in the air, then having concluded that he would not provoke us, he leapt on his horse and rejoined his men. The Cossacks must have fired a hundred shots at us, but not one hit its target. Cossack will not charge even a lone squadron if is in good order. They like best to rackle individuals, whom they taunt in order to lure them out of the way, entrap them, and take them prisoner. For that reason you should never let impetous, bold, or excitable troopers go out and skirmish with Cossacks."
    (Chlapowski - pp 111-112)

    French soldiers in Moscow. Napoleon believed that the capture and destruction of Moscow (see picture) had strengthened his own bargaining power and sent two messengers to Alexandr, asking for an end to hostilities. The tsar disappointed the French and refused to enter any talks. By this time Napoleon's communication lines became overextended and the Cossacks and hussars began their brilliant campaign of attacking enemy's transports, magazines, and convoys. During the dark and cheerless days the enemy was slowly retreating, burdened by loot and only the cries "Cossacks!" kicked them into activity.

    On 12th (24th) September there was a fight at Desna, on 17th (29th) September at Chirikovo, on 19th (Oct. 1st) September at Olshanki, on 23rd (Oct. 5th) September at Kobrin, on 26th (Oct. 8th) September at Shebrin and at Nikolske, on 4th (16th) October at Koziany, on 7th (19th) October at Slonim and at Ushachi, on 14th (26th) October at Vysokiye Steny, on 19th (31st) October at Kolotzki Monastyr, on 20th October (1st Nov.) at Gzhatzk and at Tsarevo-Zaimishche, on 3rd (15th) November at Koidanov, on 18th (30th) November at Zembin and at Pleshchinitza, on 25th November (7th Dec) at Smorgonie, on 12th (24th) December at Shavle and on 22nd (Jan. 3rd 1813) December action at Libava.
    The relentless pursuit by the light cavalry and Cossacks, the winter and the tsar's and people's determination resulted in a truly disastrous defeat on Napoleon. The Grand Army ceased to be grand, it even ceased to be an army. Fewer than 100,000 of the 500 000 that Napoleon had used for the invasion returned west.

    "Never get into a skirmish with Cossacks"
    - was the Poles' advice. However a formal charge sent them flying."

    In 1814 near St.Dizier the Mamelukes of the Guard
    "took a crack at some Cossacks whom
    'they sabered in their accustomed style."
    - General Lefebvre-Desnouettes

    Polish lancers in combat. 
Picture by Job, France. In 1812 the Cossacks were evrywhere. Henri Lachoque writes: "At Katyn the Poles had great difficulty getting rid of several hundred scouting in front of a mass of Russian cavalry. Lahy ! Lahy ! [Poles in old Russian slang] the Russians cried, firing off their carbines at some distance from the leading squadron to provoke the Guard Lancers. 'Never get into a skirmish with Cossacks' was the Poles' advice. However a formal charge sent them flying."
    When during the pursuit of Cossacks one of the Polish Guard Lancers lost his headwear, officer Jerzmanowski ordered him to go back and retrieve it to prevent the enemy from claiming any trophy taken from this regiment. It was very unusual since many troops panicked before Cossacks and abandoned not only their baggage and weapons but also their wounded comrades.

    "Nearing Bouikhovo after nearly 3 hours' ride, Calkoen's squadron [of Red Lancers] were advancing a few hundred yards ahead of the Poles when Ltn. Doyen led his point troop up a hillock. They were immediately attacked from all sides by the Cossacks. Ltn. van Omphal's troops were at once sent to help them disengage, but were outflanked in their turn. The Red Lancers fell back towards the Polish squadron, who had halted and taken up battle formation. Under this cover the Dutch Lancers regrouped and charged the Cossacks again ..." (Ronald Pawly - "The Red Lancers")

    In 1812 at Famonskoie the Cossacks ambushed and captured a whole detachment of the Red Lancers. General Colbert mounted his horse and set off with 2 squadrons in pursuit, but the Cossacks made off with their prisoners so quickly that all that could be seen were their hoof prints in the mud.

    At Smolensk Chlapowski had another encounter with the Cossacks: "From the Emperor's tent we could see all of Smolensk ... There were masses of Cossacks circling in front of the city. Between the French line and the city walls was a massive gully into which the Cossacks had spilled. As I was on duty that day, I was ordered by the Emperor to take a squadron and force the Cossacks wiwthdrew. Coming up out of the ditch on the far side, I deployed the squadron in a single line, as I expected the enemy to shoot at us from the walls. Sure enough, they fired a number of howitzer shells, one of which exploded in the middle of the squadron. A few men were wounded, and some horses broke ranks in fright, so the Cossacks seized the moment to charge us. They were upon us very quickly, and I had to parry one of their lances with my saber. I damaged the lance but did not cut right through it, and it struck my horse's head, wounding it from its ears to the nostrils. Captain Skarzynski accounted for 2 or 3 Cossacks. Cossack lances are longer than ours, and in a close fight they handled less well. Our squadron repulsed this attack and sent the Cossacks back to the shelter of their walls."

    Lifeguard Cossacks in pitched battle.
    "The Lifeguard Cossacks are going into fight
    as if they were coming to a wedding." - Tzar Alexander

    Lifeguard Cossacks 
charging at Leipzig.
Picture from Zvezda, 
Russia. The Lifeguard Cossack Regiment was the creme-de-la-creme of Cossacks. They were men selected for their height and strength. Many came from regular cavalry.
    In 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig the Lifeguard Cossacks counterattacked the French and Saxon cuirassiers from the front while the Prussian Neumark dragoons and Silesian cuirassiers struck from the eastern flank. It was too much for the French, they were pushed back everywhere and pursued until the positions of Drouot's batteries. The pursuers were halted only by artillery fire and counter-attack made by the Old Guard dragoons.

    Marbot explained why this happened: "This treatment resulted in the enemy centre yielding and it was about to give way when the Tzar of Russia who had witnessed the disaster, rapidly advanced the numerous cavalry of his Guard which, encountering the squadrons of Latour-Maubourg in the state of confusion which always follows an all-out charge, repelled them in their turn and took back 24 of the guns which they had just captured." Tsar Alexander seeing the charge of the Lifeguard Cossacks, exlaimed: "They are going into fight as if they were coming to a wedding."

    Cossacks vs Regular Troops.
    Borodino, Romanov, Mir, Leipzig and others.

    Cossacks raid at Borodino. One of the most known actions of Cossacks was their raid on Napoleon's flank at Borodino. Platov's Cossacks moved without major problems, they crossed the Voina River ("War River") further north than Uvarov's cavalry, and made raid on French rear.
    Word the much feared Cossacks were to the rear had spread terror as far south as Napoleon's headquarters in Shevardino Redoubt. Napoleon sent Grouchy's III Cavalry Corps to deal with Uvarov and Platov. It allowed the Italian and Bavarian cavalry to regain composure. The Emperor also sent the infantry of Vistula Legion into Eugene's rear.
    The Young Guard had made ready to receive the enemy. Napoleon also shifted his position north, remaining there until about 3:00 p.m. These forces halted the rampaging Cossacks and threw them back. The diversion however had paralyzed the French left and part of the center from about noon to 2:00 p.m.

    In 1812 at Ostrovno the French 16th Chasseur Regiment was attacked by Cossacks. The chasseurs delivered a volley at close range (30 paces) The Cossacks however closed with them and drove them back in disorder. Some Frenchmen fled into the ravine and some behind the squares of 53rd Line Infantry Regiment.

    The Old Guard cavalry however had no fear of the Cossacks. When one of the Polish lancers lost his headwear, Officer Jerzmanowski ordered him to go back and retrieve it to prevent the enemy from claiming any trophy taken from this regiment. It was unusual since many troops panicked before Cossacks and left behind their wounded, weapons, not to mention headwears !

    "During Blücher’s retreat from Meaux to Soissons in March 1814, Colonel Nostitz attacked with 40 Cossacks a whole squadron of Vélites of the Guard on open terrain near the Bridge of Wailly. The Cossacks withstood the fire of the vélites, and then threw themselves upon them, and the whole squadron was defeated." (Prokesh - "Ueber den Kosaken ...")

    In August 1812 Chernishev with 5 Cossack regiments and 4 guns attacked the village of Weddin defended by squadron of 4th (Polish) Uhlan regiment, three (Polish) companies of infantry and 2 guns. The defenders were under Colonel Kostanecki. The ensuing battle raged for 11 hours (!) and Cossacks made 10 attempts to capture the village. Approx. 500 Cossacks dismounted to combat as skirmishers, but to no avail. (Nafziger - "Poles and Saxons of the Napoleonic Wars" p 121)

    Battle of Romanov, 1812 Map: Combat at Romanov, 1812.
    At Romanov the Poles were heavily outnumbered and soundly defeated by Platov's force. According to George Nafziger in the combat of Romanov participated several Cossack regiments:
    - Kouteinikov's Cossacks
    - Karpov's Cossacks
    - Illovaiski's Cossacks
    - Ataman Regiment
    The Cossacks were supported by regular cavalry (hussars, dragoons and uhlans), infantry and 12 pieces of artillery.

    In 1812 at Mir the Cossacks scored another victory over Polish cavalry. Platov with eight Cossack regiments and two Don batteries deployed in the woods south of Mir. One Cossack regiment (Sisoiev-III's) was posted on the southern edge of the village. In front of Mir stood Platov's advance posts. One brigade of the French [Polish] 4th Light Cavalry Division advanced on Mir with the 3rd Uhlans leading the way. Behind the 3rd were the 15th and 16th Uhlan Regiment. The 3rd Uhlans threw back Platov's advance posts and traversed the village at a gallop. The 3rd Uhlans attacked Sisoiev-III's Cossack Regiment but Platov's counterattacked with the bulk of his force. The Cossacks had struck Poles' front, flanks and rear nearly annihilating the 3rd Uhlans. General Turno brought up the 15th and 16th Uhlans and held Platov for a while before being thrown back.
    Battle of Mir 1812.
Picture by Krasovski, Russia. Nafziger writes: "Turno was the reinforced by the arrival of ... 2nd, 7th and 11th Uhlans. At the same time, Platov was reinforced by the arrival of GM Vasilchikov with the Ahtirka Hussars, the Kiev and New Russia Dragoons, the Lithuania Uhlans and the 5th Jagers. However night fell as they arrived and the battle broke off. On the 10th, Platov drew up his rearguard (Ahtirka Hussars, Kiev and New Russia Dragoons, Illovaiski #5, # 10, # 11 and # 12, and two horse batteries) along the road to Mir, and placed the rest of the Cossacks in an attempt to ambush the Polish cavalry as it resumed the advance." Kouteinikov's force (half of the Ataman Cossacks, Grekhov-VIII's Cossacks, Haritonov's Cossacks and Simferopol Tartars) moved to Simiakovo.
    The 4th Light Cavalry Division followed Platov. The 7th Uhlans took the lead while Turno's 3rd, 15th and 16th Uhlans were on the edge of Simiakovo. The 2nd and 11th Uhlans were on the northern edge of the village. Platov's regiments attacked the 7th Uhlans and threw them back. They also attacked the 3rd, 15th and 16th Uhlans. The cavalry battle raged for 6 hours ! Kouteinikov's 2,100 men arrived and charged throwing back the left wing. Platov pushed Turno back and advanced on Mir where he encountered Polish 4th Chasseurs and horse battery. Now it was Platov's turn to loose ground, he abandoned Mir and withdrew to the woods.

    Benkendorf In 1813 at Hagelberg Aleksandr Benkendorf (see picture) galloped with Cossack regiments in front of the whole French position, from the far right to the far left wing. Musketry accompanied the Cossacks and they were received by grapeshot. Nevertheless, a Cossack regiment (300-400 men) defeated squadron of cuirassiers and some light infantry, in full view of the artillery. Then they captured two cannons and several wagons which they took with them.

    In 1812 at Drouia Kulniev's force (hussars and Cossacks) crossed the bridge and began to deploy before the village. Nafziger writes: "The Cossacks continued to hold the French cavalry until four squadrons of the Grodno Hussars arrived. The hussars immediately attacked the French and pushed them back to a ravine by Litichki. Here the French reformed their cavalry into four columns. Ridiger, seeing the remaining four squadrons of his regiment closing in, moved on the French flanks and threw them in great disorder to the village Jaga. The French reformed their cavalry there. ... part of the chasseurs dismounted and formed a skirmish line. The Russian hussars charged again while the Cossacks attacked the French in the flank. The French fell back with the Russians in pursuit until they reached Tschernevo." (Nafziger - "Poles and Saxons" pp 114-115)

  • ~

    The regiments of Don Cossacks were named after their commanders.
    The Ukrainian and other Cosscaks were numbered and named
    according to their nationality or district.

    Organization of the Cossacks: Regiments and Brigades.
    "... in 1812 ... a Prussian uhlan major fought a man-to-man duel
    with a Cossack officer (armed with saber) between their two regiments
    and captured him ..." - Elting

    Uniforms of Cossacks
of the Napoleonic Wars. Picture:
    from left to right:

    - Don Cossack

    - Bug Cossack

    - Ural Cossack

    Ukraine Cossack

    Picture by Oleg Parkhaiev Russia.

    Cossack regiment had a simple organization. It had colonel, called polkovnik (from Polish pulkovnik), small staff, and 5 sotnia. On paper the strength of single regiment was more than 500 men. In the field hovewer there were only 300-450 men in the ranks.

    Regiment and sotnias
    Don Cossack regiment numbered 591 men.

    The regiments of Don Cossacks were named after their commanders. The Ukrainian and other Cosscaks were numbered and named according to their nationality or district.
    The Don Cossack regiment numbered 591 men: 18 officers, 10 uriadnik (NCOs) but in April 1812 increased to 22, 50 diesiatnik and 500 privates. There was only 1 non-combatant, the putzer (colonel's servant) ! Only the colonel had the right to bring a private wagon. For this reason each Cossack could have a second horse as a pack animal.

    The NCO was the real soul of the Cossack regiment. He owed his position from his service and his fame. If he became commander of a detachment then he changed quickly in a tyrant for his subordinates; and he used his position to accumulate trophies and loot.

    Each Don and Bug Cossacks regiment carried 5 flags in various colors painted with religious pictures or martial emblems. Sisoiev-III's Regiment carried in addition a St.George flag. If a regiment returned to its homelands without its colour, it was dishonoured. The flags for the regiments of the Ural Cossacks were not recorded.
    Each sotnia had muskets for 11 Cossacks trained as marksmen.

    1 polkovnik (colonel) and 1 putzer (colonel's servant)
    1 podpolkovnik (colonel-lieutenant) - his was present in less than half of all Don regiments
    1 voiskovoi starshina
    1 quartermaster - in the rank of sotnik (first lieutenant)
    1 polkovyi pisar also called kaznachei (regimental clerk, cashier)
    2 pisar (clerks in the rank of NCO)
    1 judge

    I Sotnia
    (Right Flank Sotnia - or - Colonel's Sotnia)

    1 yesaul (captain), 1 sotnik (lieutenant) and 1 horunzhii (ensign)
    4 uriadnik (NCOs), 10 diesiatnik, 100 privates
    ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: :::::

    II Sotnia
    1 yesaul (captain), 1 sotnik (lieutenant) and 1 horunzhii (ensign)
    4 uriadnik (NCOs), 10 diesiatnik, 100 privates
    ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: :::::

    III Sotnia
    1 yesaul (captain), 1 sotnik (lieutenant) and 1 horunzhii (ensign)
    4 uriadnik (NCOs), 10 diesiatnik, 100 privates
    ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: :::::

    IV Sotnia
    1 yesaul (captain), 1 sotnik (lieutenant) and 1 horunzhii (ensign)
    4 uriadnik (NCOs), 10 diesiatnik, 100 privates
    ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: :::::

    V Sotnia
    (Left Flank Sotnia - or - Lieutenant-Colonel's Sotnia)

    1 yesaul (captain), 1 sotnik (lieutenant) and 1 horunzhii (ensign)
    4 uriadnik (NCOs), 10 diesiatnik, 100 privates
    ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: ::::: :::::

    Brigades and corps.

    Two or three regiments (sometimes more) formed brigades. Cossack brigades were attached to regular troops. There were also two or three independent corps. The Cossacks were rarely formed in divisions.

    Below is organization of Cossacks on 10th August 1813 in Saxony. In that specific time period there were no 'divisions' of Cossacks. Several regiments were assigned as escort to army headquarters. Several brigades were attached to cavalry corps. These Cossacks made life easier for the uhlans and hussars, as they did the scouting and patroling.

  • Attached to Barclay de Tolly's army headquarters: 4 Cossack regiments
  • Attached to Wittgenstein's army headquarters: 1 Cossack regiment, Olonetz and Vologda Opolchenie
    Transporting prisoners: 2 Bashkir regiments
    COSSACK CORPS - Ataman Platov
    - - - - Brigade - GM Kudashov: 3 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - Col. Bergman: 4 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - GM Shcherbatov: 4 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - : 1 Cossack regiment, and Don Cossack Battery
    COSSACK CORPS - GM Chernyshev
    - - - - Brigade - Ltn.-Col. Lapuhin: 3 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - Illovaiski-IX: 3 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - Colonel Melnikov-V: 2 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - Colonel Benkendorf: 3 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - GM Narishkin: 2 Cossack regiments
    Cossacks in Vasilchikov's Cavalry Corps
    - - - - 'Brigade' - GM Karpov-II: 9 Cossack and 1 Kalmuck regiments
    Cossacks in Korff's Cavalry Corps
    - - - - Brigade - GM de Witte: 3 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Attached units: 5 Cossack regiments
    Cossacks in Pahlen's Cavalry Corps
    - - - - Brigade - : 4 Cossack regiments
    Cossacks in Laptiev's XII Infantry Corps
    - - - - Brigade - GM Stahl-I: 5 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - GM Prendel: 2 Cossack regiments
    - - - - Brigade - : Opolchenie

    Picture: uniforms of the famous red-clad Lifeguard Cossacks.
    Picture by P. Courcelle, France.

  • Don Cossacks were one of the main military forces resisting
    the Bolsheviks during the Russian Red Revolution in the early 20th century.
    "Cossack cultures were largely suppressed during the time of the Soviet Union
    but are now in the process of revival." (

    Sources and Links
    Recommended Reading.

    Charles Esdaile - "Popular Resistance in the French Wars" (2005)
    Chlapowski - "Memoirs of a Polish Lancer" translated by Tim Simmons
    Lachoque - "The Anatomy of Glory"
    The Cossacks: Origins, Culture, Organization, History
    Ukrainian Cossacks
    Wargame: Cossacks Heaven
    The Old Cossacks
    The sensational Russian Cossack State Dance Company
    Flags from
    Photo from Borodino reenactment, by korfilm
    Dr. Freiherr von Baumgartner - "Vollständiges Verzeichnis aller Kosaken-Formationen 1812" publ. 1943
    (transl. by Mark Conrad)

    Russian Army of the Napoleonic Wars

    Russian Infantry - - - - - Russian Cavalry and Cossacks - - - - - Russian Artillery

    Russian Imperial Guard

    Battle of Heilsberg 1807
    Bennigsen vs Napoleon
    Battle of Borodino 1812
    The bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic wars
    Battle of Dresden, 1813
    Russians, Austrians and Prussians
    crushed by Napoleon
    Battle of Leipzig, 1813
    The Battle of the Nations,
    the largest conflict until World War One.
    Battle of La Rothiere 1814
    Russians under Blucher defeated Napoleon.

    Napoleon, His Army and Enemies