Imperiia: a spatial history of the Russian Empire
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The Siege of Sevastopol: Outside the Walls
On 5 June 1855, I arrived in Constantinople – that bustling metropolis through which so many men were flowing to and from the trenches at Sevastopol. After about an hour of fighting my way through the throng, I managed to reach my hotel and shortly thereafter met up with some of my fellow newspapermen over tea and biscuits. There was an air of great joviality about the place, and it seemed to me that the confidence which derives itself from near-certain victory pervaded the hearts and minds of all those I encountered. My colleagues were in agreement, particularly those who had been covering the siege since its inception. The Russian defenders were veritably trapped between our lines and the sea and it seemed only a matter of time before the tired fortress would fall to the combined might of three empires. I took my dinner in the hotel restaurant with William Russell of The Times and, after cigars and cognac in the ornate Ottoman lounge, I withdrew to my chamber for the night.
The next morning, I awoke to the somewhat startling sound of a foghorn. Not a little peeved, I went to my window and tossed open the shutters, whereupon I made out a line of troop ships churning their way through the deep cerulean waters of the Bosphorus. They were apparently coming back from Sevastopol. The sun had hardly risen but I was determined to be on my way. I ate a quick breakfast of fruit and toast in the hotel, before heading to the docks to try to negotiate a means of transportation to the front. I spoke with several ship captains (some more good-humored than others) but it was exceedingly difficult to obtain straight answers with regard to departure times. Finally I found myself aboard a rusty old steamer bearing supplies to the front line. While at first I questioned the seaworthiness of the vessel, I found that she made decent enough time and the captain soon announced that we should reach the British port at Balaklava in just under two days’ time (this being the primary port of resupply for the allied armies besieging Sevastopol). I spent those days napping among the crates, sunbathing, and talking to my fellow passengers, one a loudmouth newspaperman from New York and the other a fine-spirited Ottoman journalist.
At long last we reached Balaklava, a secluded port surrounded on all sides by steep hills. Almost as soon as we had docked we were beset by hordes of soldiers seeking to purchase what supplies we carried on board. India rubber boots and rain jackets were in particular demand, as were foodstuffs from Constantinople. To this day I have never seen a port so lively in spite of its small size. There were vessels of all sorts thronging the harbor, and smaller craft darted to-and-fro between the larger ships and the shore carrying both men and goods. I found accommodation in Balaklava and stayed there for some time.
The town at Balaklava was about seven or eight miles from the front, and surrounded by entrenchments and fortifications. Over the following weeks I rode to the front several times, where I observed from afar not only the steely gray stone walls of the city under siege, but also the great numbers of troops and impressive gun batteries of the allied forces. The organization of these soldiers was a mystery to me as it seemed that French, English, and Ottoman units were interspersed willy-nilly. The trenches were of quite formidable construction, yet they still devolved into muddy pits after any significant rainfall. It was around August that, while on one of these forays to the front, I happened to bump into Will Russell, that jocund English reporter with whom I had dined in Constantinople some months prior. He relayed some interesting knowledge regarding the population of the city which he had recently acquired through his regular reportorial inquiries. He informed me that the town’s populace was comprised of some 43,550 individuals, not including the fourteen regiments of sailors and four regiments of soldiers stationed there - which could add as many as 30,000 to the aforementioned figure.
The resolve among the Russian defenders remained strong despite the allied bombardments, but the allies became increasingly hopeful of victory with each passing day. For my part I must say that the atmosphere in the trenches, while hopeful and, indeed, even confident, was markedly different from that in Constantinople. In the Ottoman capital, men in crisp new uniforms smiled and made jokes and the citizens rejoiced. There was a clear sense that victory was inevitable. War was an idea, a glorious muse of the patriotic mind, a brilliant image, yet one unsubstantiated by physical manifestations of violence, unbaptized by blood. Just the other day I was riding through the trenches when, all of a sudden, a deafening crash rent the air and a battery not twenty yards away exploded as a Russian shell found its target. I saw men, and parts of men, flying through the air and when the smoke cleared I made my way to the crater which was some six feet in depth and twice that measure in width. I stood in awe of the destructive power of modern artillery and wondered, no doubt like so many others gathered at Sevastopol, both within the city and without, “when will it end?”
Fictional narrative based on the chronology and experiences given by Richard McCormick.
McCormick, Richard C. A Visit to the Camp before Sevastopol. 212 p. New York: D. Appleton and company, 1855. //catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001602521.