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Under Many Flags
Chapter III. Sir John Hepburn


AMONG the many gallant Scots who won distinction under “the Invincible Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion of the North, and Bulwark of the Protestant Religion,” the most eminent was, undoubtedly, the renowned captain, Sir John Hepburn. We may not all of us agree with his biographer that, in the age of the Thirty Years’ War—an age illustrated by the military genius of Tilly, Mansfeldt, Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, Pappenheim, and Wallenstein—he, as a commander, ranked next to Gustavus; but we will not refuse the tribute of admiration that is due to his courage and capacity. He was of the stuff of which great generals are made; and under different conditions, and on a wider field, might have risen to a foremost position.

Sir John came of the Hepburns of Athelstaneford, in Haddingtonshire—the quiet secluded village associated with the memory of Home, the author of Douglas—where he was born in the year 1598 or 1600, in his father’s house, which, I believe, is still in existence. A tall, active, handsome, and high-spirited young fellow, he seems from his earliest 39 years to have displayed a spirit of adventure—a restless temper that nothing but action could satisfy. He rode with skill, grace, and boldness, was famous among his comrades as nn beau sabreur, and in all athletic exercises easily gained distinction. His great friend and class-fellow was Robert Monro, who afterwards shared with him in the campaigns of Gustavus Adolphus; and in the latter months of 1618 the two travelled on the Continent, visiting Paris and Poitiers, picking up a colloquial knowledge of French and German, and gaining some insight into Continental methods of warfare. They heard, too, much talk of the genius of the great King of Sweden, and the reports of his achievements kindled in the breast of young Hepburn “a spark of military ardour which was never extinguished till his death.”

The young gentlemen of Scotland were necessarily attracted to the field of war in Bohemia ; for the cause that struggled there against the House of Austria was one that commended itself alike to their religious, chivalrous, and loyal sympathies. The Elector Frederick, who had been raised to the throne of Bohemia,1 represented the Calvinism of Germany; his wife was Elizabeth Stuart, the fair and accomplished daughter of James VI., on behalf of whose beauty and misfortunes a thousand swords leaped from their scabbards. When the drums of Sir Andrew Gray, a gallant soldier of fortune, beat up for volunteers in East Lothian to serve under her standard, we need not wonder, therefore, that one of the first to ride into his camp was young Hepburn of Athelstancford. Having raised a force of one thousand five hundred men, Sir Andrew, in May 1620, embarked at Leith, and crossed over to Holland, whence by way of Frankfort he proceeded to join the Bohemian army. Young Hepburn was then promoted to the command of a company of pikes, which was selected for the honour of guarding King Frederick’s person ; but the disastrous battle under the walls of Prague, on November I, ruined the Protestant cause in Bohemia. The defeated sovereign fled from the field like a craven, seeking safety first in Denmark, then in Holland, in England, and finally in France. Thus suddenly deserted, Sir Andrew’s Scottish companies rallied to the flag of the Count of Mansfeldt, and smelt the smoke of battle in Germany and Alsace. In 1622, they proved their constancy in the defence of Bergen-op-Zoom against the Spanish army under the famous Marquis de Spinola; and side by side fought “ old Morgan with his English brigade. Scotchmen and Englishmen being no longer divided by the old national enmities. The garrison fired “two hundred thousand cannon-shot” on the besiegers, who on the approach of Prince Maurice with an army of relief, suddenly struck their tents and retired, leaving twelve thousand dead in their abandoned trenches.

The German princes making peace with the Emperor, Mansfeldt and his fighting-men found themselves without employment, and, what was now more irksome, without pay. To keep his followers in heart, Mansfeldt led them into Lorraine, where they pillaged and burnt and ravaged without stint, until the Dutch, who were hard pressed by the Spaniards, agreed to hire their services, whereupon, with blare of trumpets and roll of drums, they marched, horse and foot, twelve thousand veteran soldiers, into the fertile plains of the Netherlands. Spinola dispatched a powerful force to intercept them, and a desperate engagement took place near Namur, on August 30, 1622. Mansfeldt and the Bishop of Halberstadt charged at the head of their condottieri with singular resolution, and succeeded in breaking through the Spanish steel-clad lines, although not without heavy loss. “Many gentlemen, both English and Scots,” says Wilson, “out of love to the Queen of Bohemia, behaved themselves gallantly, and let the Spaniard know it was more than an ordinary shock they encountered; among whom Sir Charles Rich, brother to the Earl of Warwick, was a principal person; Sir James Hayes, Knevet, Hume, Hepburn, and other commanders, all striving for co-rivalship in bravery."

Entering Holland, Mansfeldt compelled Spinola to raise for the second time the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom; and then cantoned his battle-weary troops among the well-to-do towns and fat villages of East Friesland as long as the Dutch would provide them with free quarters. Then he harried the valley of the Lower Rhine, until his army gradually disbanded itself in the summer of 1623 for want of a common cause and a good paymaster. Thereupon Sir Andrew Gray returned to Scotland, while the remains of the Scottish companies found a new and more active leader in Captain Hepburn, and under his command, offered their swords to the great King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, for whose genius Hepburn had long cherished a fervent admiration. Gustavus had a keen eye for capable soldiers, and at once appointed Hepburn colonel of a Scottish regiment, composed of his old Bohemian comrades—of which regiment the First Foot, or Loyal Scots Regiment of the British line, is now, it is said, the direct representative. In this important command his high soldierly qualities were brilliantly tested, and secured for him the esteem and confidence of his royal master. Defoe, in his Memoirs of a Cavalier (which, if partly fictitious, would seem to have been based on an authentic narrative), says—“He was a complete soldier indeed, and so well-beloved by the gallant king that he hardly knew how to go about any great action without him.”

Some of the best families of Scotland had their representatives in the Swedish army: Hamiltons, Seatons, Ruthvens, Mackays, Leslies, Monros, Sinclairs, Drummonds, Campbells, Montgomeries, Gordons, Duffs, Douglasses—we meet with all these historic names. In the Atlas GeograpJms (London, 1711) we read that in 1633, two Scottish regiments were employed to guard the Swede King’s person, though at that time he had both Swedes and Dutch in camp. In the conquered provinces of Germany he gave the command of sixty towns, castles, and forts to Scottish soldiers. Another authority states that at one time Gustavus had in his service no fewer than four field-marshals, three generals, one lieutenant-general, thirteen major-generals, three brigadier-generals, twenty-seven colonels, fifty-one lieutenant-colonels, and fourteen majors, “with an unknown number of captains and subalterns ; besides seven regiments of Scots that lay in Sweden and Livonia (and six elsewhere). The Dutch in Gustavus’s service were many times glad to beat ‘the old Scots march' when they designed to frighten or alarm the enemy; and ’tis observed that Sir John Hamilton abandoned the army, though earnestly pressed by Gustavus to stay, only because the Swedes and the Dutch were ordered to storm the enemy's works before him at Wurtzburg, after he and his men had boldly hewn out the way for them." In such repute were these brave Scotchmen held, and such was the proud temper in which they did their service.

As a colonel of infantry, Hepburn’s yearly pay was £380—which, of course, would now-a-days be represented by a much larger sum. He was also entitled to a coach as part of his equipage; but though he had one “for form’s sake, or the convenience of a wounded comrade,” he himself always rode at the head of his Scottish musketeers. A lieutenant-colonel received £1000 per annum; a captain, £128; a musketeer or pikeman, 6d. per diem; and a cuirassier, 11d. Under Gustavus Adolphus, a regiment consisted of eight companies, and each company of seventy-two musketeers and fifty-four pikemen, or a total of one thousand and eight men, exclusive of officers.

In 1625, Hepburn served in the Swede King’s campaign against Sigismund, King of Poland, his regiment forming part of the army which broke into Courland and Livonia, captured the strong places in both provinces, and totally defeated the Polish generals, Sapieha and Gosieowski, at Wallhof, on January 6, 1626. Hepburn specially distinguished himself at the relief of Mewe, a fortified town, situated on the river Vistula, which King Sigismund had blockaded with three thousand Foies, entrenching them on a steep green hill, so as to cut off communication between the town and the surrounding country, and command all the approaches. He strengthened the post with a couple of heavy batteries ; while the whole line of his entrenched infantry, with their bows and matchlocks, swept the rugged slopes which lay below their earthen parapets.

Gustavus Adolphus threw forward three Scottish regiments of foot under Hepburn, and five hundred horse under Count Thurn, with instructions to force the passage of this fortified hill, and cut their way into the town. It was dusk when Hepburn, who had marched by a secret road, in perfect silence, came in view of it. Finding that his advance had not been discovered, he swept round on the Polish flank, and climbed the steep acclivity, through trees and bushes and rocks, with incredible patience, the soldiers helping themselves upward by clinging to the overhanging branches, like sailors climbing the shrouds of a ship. The Poles had never dreamed of an attack from this side, which seemed accessible only to goats, and were taken by surprise when the Scots, with a loud shout, fell upon them. The trenches were stormed at push of pike; but then the Poles recovered themselves, and opened such a terrible fire of musketry, mingled with showers of arrows, stones, and other missiles, that the Scots were forced to fall back; whereupon squadrons of Cossacks and Heyducks, clad in mail shirts and steel caps, dashed headlong upon them, with levelled lances and waving scimitars. Hepburn slowly and steadily withdrew his men to an ascent that seemed defensible, beating back the charges of these wild horsemen, who yelled, “These curs shall feel the bite of the Polish wolves!”

On this rocky eminence the brave Scottish pike-men stood shoulder to shoulder, “immovable as a wall of brass,” placing in their front the sharpened stakes, or chevanx-de-frise, which they always carried with them—the “Swedish feathers” of Captain Dalgetty. Here, for two whole days, Hepburn resisted the attack of the Polish army, while Gustavus succeeded in relieving the town by throwing into it supplies of men and ammunition. Thus baffled in their aim, the Poles slowly retreated, leaving all the honours of war with Hepburn and his gallant Scots.

“The Swedish feathers, whilk your honour must conceive to be double-pointed stakes, shod with iron at each end, and planted before the squad of pikes to prevent an outfall of the cavalry. The whilk Swedish feathers, although they look gay to the eye, resembling the shrubs or lesser trees of ane forest, as the puissant pikes, arranged in battalia behind them, correspond to the tall pines thereof.

I have not the space for a detailed narrative of the campaigns in which Hepburn bore a part, nor would such a narrative now-a-days tend to the reader’s entertainment. Most of the battle-fields which witnessed his victorious charges are now forgotten; their names suggest no associations of interest to the minds of men. Let us pass on to the stirring events which are still full of vitality, because their issues affected the course of history, and determined the fortunes of Europe even to our own time—of the Thirty Years’ War—a war which saved Protestantism in Germany, and with it the cause of religious tolerance and intellectual development ; a war which by its far-reaching consequences rendered German unity possible when the opportunity came, as we have seen it come.

Supported by France for political reasons with some cordiality, but with more or less coldness by the Protestant States of North Germany, and by England and Holland, who ought to have been his strongest allies, Gustavus Adolphus, in 1630, appeared as the champion of Protestantism against the great Catholic league, of which the Emperor are not altogether so soft to encounter as the plumage of a goose.”

Ferdinand II. was the head. I believe that he undertook the task in a nobly unselfish spirit—not, perhaps, without some design to strengthen the European position of his own kingdom, but mainly in defence of the persecuted Gospel in which he was a devout believer. “To extend the power of Sweden, to support the princes of Germany against the Emperor’s encroachments, to give a firm and unassailable standing-ground to German Protestantism, were all to him,” says Gardiner, " parts of one great work, scarcely ever in thought to be separated from one another.”

Gustavus had at this time in his service upwards of a thousand officers and twelve thousand men— all Scots—men inured to danger, experienced in arms, and faithful to one another and their leaders. They formed the heart and brain of his army; and upon these choice soldiers he devolved the most serious duties and desperate enterprises. “Amongst these forces,” says the historian of the British Army, “Colonel Hepburn’s Scots regiment appears to have held a distinguished character for gallantry on all occasions; and no troops appear to have been found better qualified for this important enterprise than the Scots, who proved brave, hardy, patient of fatigue and privation, frugal, obedient, and sober soldiers.”

Hepburn, who by this time had been knighted for his services, embarked (June 6, 1630) with the Swedish main army at Elfsknaben, where he was detained for nearly three weeks, until the wind veered round and enabled the fleet to creep across the Baltic. On the evening of the 26th they dropped anchor off the point of Usedom, on the coast of Pomerania. The King, on stepping ashore, knelt down and prayed aloud for a blessing on his arms; and then, before his troops, took in hand a spade and began to work at the entrenchments of the first camp on German soil. During the night nearly all the troops were landed, and mustering these in regular array, Gustavus addressed them, telling them that the enemy were largely the same men whom they had beaten in Prussia; that he would share with them all their dangers and privations, and that they should share with him all luxuries, comforts, and booty. “For booty,” said he, “you must not look to the land or people. The enemy hold it all in their own hands, and it is for you to take it from them.” The next day he began his march, and in less than eight months overran Pomerania and Mecklenburg, capturing as many as eighty strong places in those two duchies. In March 1631, Colberg was blockaded; and one of the first important services rendered by Sir John Hepburn in this war, was in preventing its relief by the Imperialists. The garrison then surrendered. Shortly afterwards he was promoted to the command of a brigade of four chosen Scottish regiments—Mackay's Highlanders, Sir James Lumsden’s musketeers, Stargate’s corps, and his own, which came to be known as Hepburns Scots Brigade, or The Green Brigade, from the colour of the doublets, scarves, plumes, and standards of its soldiers.

Into the mouth of Rittmaster Dugald Dalgetty, Scott puts the words of an old soldier’s lied—

“When cannons are roaring and colours are flying,
The lads that seek honour must never fear dying;
Then, stout cavaliers, let us toil our brave trade in,
And fight for the Gospel and bold King of Sweden."

It was no doubt in the spirit of this admirable song, even if they chanced not to know the words, that Sir John’s brigade—with carried pikes, matches lighted, half-a-dozen standards displayed, and drums and fifes beating and whistling “the old Scots March”—led the van of the great Protestant army, under the Lion of the North, on its march for Frankfort-on-the-Oder. They were thirsting to revenge six hundred of their countrymen, who had been slain at New Brandenburg by an overwhelming Imperialist force, all mercy and quarter being denied them; and there was no action, however desperate, which they were not prepared to undertake. In the storm of Frankfort they bore the chief part of the peril and won the chief part of the honour. Hepburn, as at their head he pushed through a great sallying port (the Guben gate), was hit in the knee, “which, dazzling his senses with great pain, forced him to retire, who said to me, ‘bully Monro, I am shot, whereat I was wondrous sorry.’ His Major was next shot dead, and the pikemen halted for a moment. Then up came the impetuous Baner, and urged them to go forward: “whereat Colonel Lumsden and I,” says Monro, “being both alike at the head of our own colours, he having a partisan in his hand, and I a half-pike, with a head-piece that covered my head, commanding our pikes to advance, we led on shoulder to shoulder/’ and carried the gate. The enemy fell back in great confusion, never pausing to lower the portcullis ; and after them, in hot pursuit, went the Scots, entering the street at their heels, and making a stand till their body of pikes were drawn up orderly and flanked with musketeers; then they again advanced. “Quarter! quarter!” cried the Imperialists. “New Brandenburg! New Brandenburg!” was the ominous reply. With such fury did the Scots avenge their slaughtered countrymen, that a pikeman with his own hand slew eighteen of the enemy; and Lumsden’s regiment captured no fewer than nine pairs of colours—so much to the liking of Gustavus Adolphus that he bade this brave Fifeshire cavalier ask whatever he wished that a king could bestow, and he should have it. Fort by fort the brigade won its way into the town, pushing forward in close column of regiments, shoulder to shoulder, with long pikes levelled in front like a moving wall of steel, and the musketeers in the rear ranks firing over their heads.

Nobody could resist these stern, inflexible Scots— not even Tilly’s veterans. The Imperialist generals, with a few cuirassiers, made for the bridge across the Oder, and rode full speed to Glogau, leaving four colonels, thirty-six junior officers, and three thousand soldiers dead in the blood-red streets. So headlong was their flight that their caissons blocked up the approach to the bridge, which was further obstructed by cannon, tumbrils, ammunition-chests, battered coats of mail, and dead bodies. Three hours were allowed by the King for plunder; but the troops got out of hand, and when the time was up, he was compelled in person to rush in among some of the companies, with his drawn sword, before he could restore discipline.

Monro was greatly vexed at this scene of disorder—

“In some regiments,” he says, “I am confident there was not one man with the colours.”

After this sharp experience, Landsberg quickly surrendered, and Gustavus then marched upon Berlin to compel the Elector of Brandenburg to join the Protestant League. In July 1631 he moved in the direction of the Elbe, striking southwards by Old Brandenburg, Barnow, and Tangermiinde. Monro describes the march with much particularity. He mentions that at Barnow he found the beer remarkably good, but not so good as that of Soest,—“a good Calvinist town, which brews liquor best for the body and clearest from all filth or barm, as their religion is best for the soul,” says the stout old Presbyterian, “and clearest from the dregs of superstition.” At Tangermtinde, Gustavus crossed the Elbe, and advanced to Werben, where “he did resolve to set down his leaguer ; and spying a parcel of ground, the most commodious that could be had for situation and air, having first the commodity of transportation by water on the river of Haggle (Havel), running into the Elbe at the leaguer, he had also the whole country on the other side of the Elbe behind him as his friends.” In his camp at Werben he was reinforced by six thousand Scots, under the Marquis of Hamilton ; whom he then dispatched on service in Silesia. The arrival of this body of auxiliaries encouraged the Elector of Saxony and the Landgrave of Hesse to join Gustavus, who, on August 23, broke up his camp, and advanced towards Wittenberg, in order to throw himself upon Tilly and the Imperialists, wherever he should find them.

Crossing the Elbe at Wittenberg he marched towards Leipzig, which had just been taken by the Imperialists. “On September 6,” says Gustavus, “we went in early twilight through Diiben, and towards evening reached the village of Wolkau, within seven miles from Leipzig, where we rested the night. On the 7th, as soon as the sky began to turn grey, I gave the order for the trumpets to blow for the advance, and, because between us and Leipzig there was no wood, but only great flat fields, I drew out my army in full battle array and marched towards the city. The march lasted a short hour and a half, when we came in sight of the advanced guard of the enemy with his artillery on a hill, and behind it the whole mass of his army.”

Thus were the two hosts brought within touch of each other on the great plain in front of Leipzig, which, about a hundred and eighty-one years later, was to be the scene of another important battle, in which Napoleon was defeated by the Allies.

The army of Gustavus was twenty-six thousand strong; that of Tilly about forty thousand ; but the Swedes were reinforced by the troops of the Elector of Saxony, who, however, if they brought numbers, brought nothing else. They had had no experience of fighting, and were wholly unfit to cope with Tilly’s seasoned veterans. Gustavus took up his position close to the village of Breiten-feld, with the Saxons on his extreme left. His own left was under Field-marshal Horn. Between each division of cavalry in its first line was posted a body of two hundred musketeers; the second line was composed wholly of cavalry. A similar formation was observed on the right wing, where Gustavus commanded in person. In the centre was posted the Swedish foot; four half battalions in the first line, a cavalry regiment, and two divisions of the Scots foot under Monro and Ramsay in reserve between the lines; in the second line, three brigades of infantry, namely, the German, the Green, and Count Thurn’s. There was also a final reserve of infantry behind the second line of the centre. The artillery, under Torstenson, lay a little to the left of the centre, with the exception of the light regimental pieces, which were stationed in front of each regiment.

I give these details because they illustrate the new system of tactics introduced by Gustavus; yet I fear they will mean little or nothing to the non-military intelligence. Nor would a minute description of the battle mean much more. Not even Kinglake or Napier succeeds in making the various movements of a battle obvious to the civilian reader, unless he keeps to the broadest lines. And, therefore, about this famous victory of Breitenfeld or Leipzig I shall be content to say that it was won by Gustavus because he was a greater general than Tilly, and because his Swedes and Scots were better soldiers than the Imperialists —better disciplined, more intelligent, and therefore steadier and more resolved. At first the Imperialists were successful; their heavy cavalry smashed in upon the poor inexperienced Saxons and sent them flying from the field. But when they swept round to attack Gustavus, he swiftly withdrew the Green and German brigades from the centre, and formed a new front to the enemy, who, assailed by these splendid soldiers in the front and by the Swedish troopers in the rear, and torn and shattered by Torstenson’s powerful artillery, gave way and fled. All was soon over. Leaving seven thousand dead on the field, and probably as many prisoners in Gustavus’s hands, Tilly sullenly retreated, some six hundred of his veterans forming round their aged chief in an iron ring, and beating off the opposition.

It has been well said that this victory marks both an epoch in war and an epoch in history ; because in it was first displayed on a large scale the superiority of disciplined intelligence over traditional routine ; an epoch in history, because it broke the force on which the revival of Catholicism had relied for the extension of its empire over Europe. It gave the Gospel and freedom to Northern Germany.

Having put down these generalities about the battle, I must say something more particularly in reference to Hepburn and his brigade’s share in it.

When Gustavus prepared to check the onset of Tilly’s soldiers, after their defeat of the Saxons, he called, as we have seen, upon the Green Brigade, which, under Sir John Hepburn, immediately advanced, and formed on the left flank. Sir John was in full armour, with laurel on his helmet and his drawn sword in his hand, a conspicuous figure as he rode his richly-caparisoned horse, and led his fighting-men against the Imperialists, amid volleys of musketry, and the roar and rattle of calivers, falcons, and culverins. It was then, says Harte, that the Scots first practised firing in platoons, “ which amazed the Imperialists to such a degree, that they hardly knew how to conduct themselves.” In dense columns, with their pikes in front, and behind them three ranks of musketeers stooping and three erect, so that six volleys crashed simultaneously from' the faces of their squares, and tore great gaps in the masses before them, they marched onward, until so close to the Imperialists that, as Gustavus had advised them, they could see the very colour of their eyes; then Hepburn shouted, in a voice that rose above all the din, “Forward, pikes!” The musketeers clubbed their muskets, the pikemen levelled their weapons, and, with that loud Scottish cheer which has rung out so often over victorious battle-fields, the regiments of Hepburn, Lumsden, and Lord Reay, each led by its colonel, broke through the columns of Tilly, and drove them back pell-mell with terrible carnage.

Lord Reay’s Highlanders—a thousand strong, and all of his own clan—formed the leading column, and had the honour of first charging the enemy’s ranks. The Imperialists regarded them with terror, and named them “the invincible old regiment.” The right wing of the brigade was under Monro; it carried the breastworks of the Walloons, captured their artillery, and turned it against the Imperialists. Great as was the slaughter, it would have been greater but for the clouds of dust which a strong west wind blew off the dry and newly-ploughed ground. “We were as in a dark cloud,” says Monro, “not seeing half our actions, much less discerning either the way of our enemies or the rest of our brigades; whereupon, having a drummer by me, I caused him beat ‘The Scots March’ [This old national air was first composed for the guard of James V. when attacking Tantallon in 1527.] till it cleared up, which re-collected our friends unto us.”

For its services on this occasion the Green Brigade was called to the front and publicly thanked by Gustavus. As Monro quaintly says —“ The battle was happily won, his Majesty did principally under God ascribe the glory of the victory to the Swedes and Fynnes horsemen, who were led by the valorous Field-marshal Gustavus Horn; for though the Dutch horsemen did behave themselves valorously divers times that day, yet it was not their fortune to put the enemy to flight; and though there were brave brigades of Swedes and Dutch in the field, yet it was the Scots brigade’s fortune to have gotten the praise for the fort service, and not without cause, having behaved themselves well, being led and conducted by an expert cavalier and fortunate, the valiant Hepburn” A few days later when, after the investment of Leipzig and capture of Merseburg, Gustavus held a general review of his troops on the plain of Halle, the King rode up to his Scotch brigade, which was posted on the right wing, with Sir John Hepburn in command; and, dismounting, made a long address, fervently commending their gallant conduct, thanking them for their share in the victory at Leipzig, and promising never to forget the debt he owed to their valour and constancy. Hepburn, Lumsden, Monro, and the other field-officers, leaped from their horses and kissed his hand, while the drums beat and the green standards were lowered, and the soldiers cried again and again and yet again, “Long live Gustavus! We hope to do your Majesty better service yet!" (September 11.)


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