Today in European history: the Night Attack at Târgovişte (1462)

The historic Dracula wins a dramatic nighttime victory against a much larger Ottoman army, though the spoils of his success were short-lived.

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Being the Voivode of Wallachia in the 15th century couldn’t have been an easy gig. The principality was strategically located on both the shore of the Black Sea and the northern bank of the Danube, and also happened to sit on the frontier between Hungarian Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire. Successive Wallachian rulers tried to manage these two much larger neighbors, with varying degrees of success. Generally this consisted of the occasional temporary victory in a sea of larger strategic defeats. The Wallachian ruler Mircea I (d. 1418), for example, fought a number of successful engagements against the Ottomans, but ultimately was forced in 1417 to become an Ottoman vassal because the alternative was a more complete subjugation.

Aside from their neighbors, Wallachian rulers also had to deal with their nobles, the boyars, who frequently resisted the voivode and backed usurpers. This could create intense rivalries between Wallachian royal houses, like the one between the Dănești and Drăculești that gripped the principality in the mid-15th century. These internal challenges often interacted with the external ones. One forced Voivode Vlad II of the Drăculești house, or Vlad Dracul, to seek Ottoman backing against the boyars and at times the Hungarians—even though Vlad II belonged to a military order, the Order of the Dragon, whose main principle was resisting Ottoman control. On top of monetary tribute, Vlad II was obliged to send two sons, Radu and the future Vlad III or Vlad Țepeș (AKA Vlad the Impaler and the main inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula), to the Ottomans as hostages.

Vlad III spent part of his youth in the Ottoman Empire, which is the kind of thing that can either create a strong affinity for one’s host empire or, you know, the opposite. In Vlad’s case he seems to have grown up with a genuine distaste for the Ottomans. Nevertheless, he was in Ottoman possession and thus under their control, and when Vlad II was killed in 1447—with the approval if not outright connivance of the boyars—the Ottomans sponsored Vlad III in his first attempt to gain the Wallachian throne. That attempt failed, and the Dănești claimant, Vladislav II—who may have been responsible for Vlad II’s assassination and may have had Hungarian help in doing it—took the throne instead.

If Vladislav II had Hungarian help in gaining the Wallachian throne, their mutual good feelings didn’t last very long. After a stint in exile living once more under the Ottomans, Vlad III found himself in Hungary in 1456, being put at the head of an army by Hungarian strongman John Hunyadi and sent to topple Vladislav. Which he did. Vlad III’s first order of business was a purge of his rival’s loyalists, and it’s here that he probably began to earn his nickname as “the Impaler,” for reasons probably best left to the imagination. Between his purge of the boyars and a conflict with the Transylvanian Saxons, Vlad had occasion to see a lot of people off into the afterlife in some of the most painful ways possible. And once he’d consolidated his power, his attentions turned toward the Ottomans.

As the son of a reluctant Ottoman vassal who’d apparently worked up a fair amount of hatred for the Ottomans during his captivity in the empire, and as someone who had just been helped to the Wallachian throne by the Hungarians, Vlad had plenty of reason to resist Ottoman rule. But as David to the empire’s Goliath, he wasn’t in a position to provoke a full-on war, at least not at first. Instead, Vlad’s resistance took the form of withholding tribute, both monetary (he insisted that he just couldn’t afford to pay it) and in the form of conscripted boys, and negotiating with Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus about possibly changing Wallachia’s allegiances.

In 1460, things reached a boiling point. Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II sent an envoy to, let’s say, strenuously encourage Vlad to pay his back tribute. He also sent a company of soldiers into Wallachia to recruit conscripts themselves since Vlad wouldn’t send any. Vlad had them arrested and impaled. Meanwhile, the voivode began sending diplomatic feelers west, to the Transylvanian Saxons and to Hungary, asking for help against an imminent Ottoman invasion.

Mehmed summoned his Wallachian vassal to Constantinople, but Vlad insisted that he simply couldn’t leave Wallachia at such a critical time. His war against the Saxons was still up in the air, you see, and anyway he just couldn’t afford his tribute at the moment but would totally make good on it as soon as he could. Unfortunately for him, Mehmed already knew that Vlad was negotiating with Matthias Corvinus, and so the Ottoman sultan sent a cavalry force into Wallachia to compel him to come to Constantinople. Vlad got wind of this incursion, and his army ambushed the Ottoman force and massacred it.

In early 1462, Vlad led an army into southern Wallachia and Bulgaria, killing an estimated 23,000 Turks in a matter of weeks. In one engagement, he apparently did such a convincing impression of an Ottoman officer (his time as a hostage paying off, I suppose), that he talked the guards into letting his army into the Ottoman fortress at Giurgiu, which the Wallachians of course promptly destroyed. Mehmed sent another small army to deal with the Wallacians and once again Vlad defeated it.

With Vlad’s successes multiplying and his stature skyrocketing along with them, Mehmed finally had enough. He assembled an army that was at least as large as the one he’d led against Constantinople, so over 100,000 men and probably more like 150,000 at least, and set out in late April or early May to rid himself of Vlad Țepeș and just annex Wallachia altogether. Vlad, once he knew the invasion was coming, appealed in vain to Matthias Corvinus for aid and, when that got him nowhere, cobbled together an army of around 30,000, most of them peasant conscripts.

Obviously unable to stand toe-to-toe with the Ottomans while outnumbered at least 5 to 1, Vlad employed irregular tactics: scorched earth, traps, guerrilla hit and run raids, even the 15th century equivalent of biological warfare (which basically meant paying sick people to “wander” into the Ottoman camp). At best these tactics only slowed the Ottoman advance on Vlad’s capital, Târgovişte.

The Wallachians’ Night Attack at Târgovişte was one of those guerrilla attacks, though Vlad was hoping it would be more than that. The story goes that, prior to the attack, Vlad once again did his Turk impression and was able to enter the Ottoman camp. He scouted it out and, in particular, made note of where Mehmed’s tent was. He wanted his attack on the camp to be decisive—his David and Goliath moment, if you like. On the night of June 17, Vlad led a force generally cited at 24,000, though that may be an exaggeration, into the Ottoman camp. What followed was definitely a Wallachian victory, but it’s not clear how great a victory. The consensus seems to be that Vlad lost about 5000 men while killing around 15,000 Ottomans. Which is a lopsided result, except inasmuch as 5000 dead represented perhaps a sixth or more of Vlad’s army, while 15,000 dead represented maybe a tenth or less of the Ottoman army. And he failed to kill Mehmed, which was meant to be the critical blow that would break the Ottoman army’s back. You come at the king, etc.

Despite having shot his shot and mostly missed, things didn’t go so badly for Vlad in the short term following the battle. Mehmed, his losses in the night attack notwithstanding, resolved to keep going and besiege Târgovişte. Until, it seems, he and his men got a firsthand look at why Vlad III was called Vlad the Impaler. Vlad had lined the main road to the capital for miles with the impaled bodies of Ottoman soldiers. This was too much for Mehmed and probably for most of his soldiers, and the sultan ordered his army to turn around and head home.

Victory for the Wallachians, right? Well, not really. Despite having won multiple small engagements against the Ottomans, including the night attack, Vlad wound up agreeing to a new vassal arrangement with Mehmed that actually increased Wallachia’s tribute requirements. Then he was overthrown, with Ottoman help, by his brother Radu (known Radu the Fair because he was apparently very handsome). Radu seems to have appreciated his time in Ottoman captivity more than his brother did, and there are various stories that he became a Janissary commander, that he fought on the Ottoman side during the siege of Constantinople, and even that he converted to Islam. These are all sketchy, but the last one in particular seems to have been little more than a slanderous fabrication. Radu appealed to the Saxons, against whom his brother had been waging war, and won the fickle boyars over to his side with promises that they stood to gain more from siding with him, and therefore the Ottomans, than with the outlawed Vlad.

As for Vlad III, he eventually wound up being imprisoned by Matthias Corvinus. They later patched things up, though, and the Hungarians, at the encouragement of Stephen III of Moldavia, once again set Vlad up as Voivode of Wallachia in 1476—this time displacing another Ottoman client, Basarab Laiotă. But his return to power was very brief. The Ottomans invaded Wallachia to restore Basarab Laiotă, and Vlad died in battle against them in either late 1476 or early 1477.