The Battle of Poltava (or Pultowa) on 28 June 1709 (8 July, N.S.)[3] was the decisive victory of Peter I of Russia over Charles XII of Sweden in the most famous of the battles of the Great Northern War. It is said to have started the end of Sweden's role as a Great Power and the Russians took their place as the leading nation of northern Europe. This also meant the rise of Imperial Russia.

Prelude

Early Swedish victories at Copenhagen and at the Battle of Narva in 1700 knocked both Denmark and Russia temporarily out of the war. However, Charles was unable to bring the war to a conclusion, and it would take six years before he had dealt with the remaining combatant Charles Augustus of Saxony-Poland. During this time Peter rebuilt his army into modern form, basing it primarily on infantry trained to properly use linear tactics and modern firearms. He then achieved a stunning propaganda victory when he established the city of Saint Petersburg on Swedish territory, not Livonia. To end the war, Charles ordered a final attack on the Russian heartland with an assault on Moscow from his campaign base in Poland.

Charles marched along the main route between Poland and Moscow and waited as long as he could for General Lewenhaupt to arrive. At one point they were only 130 kilometres apart, but Charles gave up because he needed supplies, and turned south into Ukraine in search of grain and better weather. The Ukrainian forces, under the command of the Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa, had been in discussions with Charles for some time, and at this point officially allied himself to the Swedes in order to gain independence from Russia.

Lewenhaupt followed south and was attacked while crossing a river near a small village that gave name to the Battle of Lesnaya. His forces met the Russian attack, but they were amazed to find that the new Russian army gave them a serious fight. Lewenhaupt, seeing that he was about to lose, decided to rejoin Charles with all speed, so he abandoned the cannon, the cattle and most of the food, driving the soldiers to mutiny. Stealing all of the alcohol, the soldiers became drunk, and Lewenhaupt was forced to leave about 1,000 men drunk in the woods. By the time they finally reached Charles and the main force in the winter, no supplies and only 6,000 men remained.

In the spring Charles resumed his advance, but his army had been reduced by about one-third due to starvation, frostbite and other effects of the weather. The wet weather had also seriously depleted the army's supplies of gunpowder; the cannon were also essentially out of action, due to a lack of usable ammunition. Charles's first action was to lay siege to the fort of Poltava on the Vorskla River in the Ukraine. Peter had already organized a huge force to protect it, and he quickly arrived. On 27 June, Charles received information that large Kalmyk forces were going to join Peter and to cut off all supplies of Swedish Army.

Battle

When the battle opened, Charles had about 14,000 men, while Peter commanded about 45,000. To make matters worse for the Swedes, Charles was wounded during the siege on June 17, when he was hit in the foot while taking part in a small engagement during an inspection of the Swedish outposts on the banks of the Vorskla. He had to turn over command to Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld and General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt. This was made all the more unfortunate by the divergent personalities of the two generals. The change in command was not communicated to the subordinate commanders when the battle was planned. Also the Russians managed to weaken the Cossacks who decided to join Swedes against them. The Russian army deceitfully occupied and destroyed the Zaporozhian Host with the help of Galagan, a former Cossack officer. The rest of the Cossacks moved their Host down the Dnipro river for the next 19 years.

The battle began before dawn at 3:45 a.m. on June 28, with the Swedes advancing boldly against the Russian fortified lines. At first, the battle started off in a traditional fashion, with the better trained Swedes pressing in on the Russians' redoubts, overrunning a few Russian defensive redoubts. The Swedish seemed to possess an advantage, but this was quickly nullified. By dawn, the weather was already very hot and humid with the rising sun obscured by smoke from cannon and musket fire. The Swedish infantry, commanded by General Lewenhaupt, attempted to attack the Russians. But the Swedish advance soon faltered, partly because the infantry had been ordered to withdraw and reorganise. To make matters worse, one Swedish detachment, commanded by General Roos, hadn't been told about the overall plan and became isolated in the Russian defensive redoubts when a column of about 4,000 Russian reinforcements reoccupied the fortified positions, trapping Roos and his 2,600-man force. With over 1,000 casualties and ammunition running low, Roos was forced to surrender his command.

The Swedes waited for Roos to return. As time went by, the Russians infantry moved out of its fortified camp. Around 9:00 am, the Swedish line started to move forward; 4,000 Swedish infantry against 20,000 Russian infantry. They advanced and the Russians opened fire on them with their guns creating a firestorm of shells. When the Swedes were 100 meters from the Russian line, the Russians aimed and fired their muskets. When they were 30 meters from the Russian line, the Swedes fired one volley and charged. They were on the verge of a breakthrough and needed the cavalry; unfortunately it was disorganised. The Russian line was longer than the Swedish line, and the Russian right soon flanked the Swedish infantry. Several regiments were surrounded in a classic Cannae-style battle. The cavalry tried to buy the infantry time to get away; several units attacked the Russians head on despite them forming into squares. Seeing the defeat of his army from a stretcher in the rear, Charles ordered the army to retreat at 11:00 a.m. By noon, the battle was over as Russian cavalry had mopped up the stragglers on the battlefield and returned to their own lines. Charles then gathered the remainder of his troops and baggage train, and retreated to the south later that same day, abandoning the siege of Poltava. Rehnskiöld was captured. Lewenhaupt led the surviving Swedish and some of the Cossacks forces to the Dnieper River, but was doggedly pursued by the Russian regular cavalry and 3,000 Kalmyks and forced to surrender three days later at Perevolochna, on July 1. Many of Mazepa's Cossacks changed sides joining the Russian army right after the battle.

Aftermath

Several thousand prisoners were taken, many of whom were put to work building the new city of Saint Petersburg. Charles managed to escape with about 1,500 men to Bendery, Moldavia, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and spent five years in exile there before he was able to return to Sweden. Poltava can be considered as one of the most disastrous defeats ever, when looking at casualties in percentage of the armies size, and is seen as the most disastrous defeat in Swedish history.