Battle of Lützen

Battle of Lützen

The Battle of Breitenfeld north of Leipzig on September 17, 1631, was the decisive turning point in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). There the Protestant champion, Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, achieved an overwhelming victory over the Catholic forces of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, led in the field by Johan Tserclaes, Count Tilly. Following Breitenfeld, Gustavus marched without serious opposition across Germany to the Rhine.

On December 22 Gustavus captured Mainz, where he wintered and rethought his plans. He had rescued the Protestant cause in Germany, but his rout of the imperial forces now led him to believe that he might reorganize the German states under his own control. To accomplish that, however, he would have to invade and conquer the Catholic strongholds of Bavaria and Austria. Gustavus could realistically contemplate such a step, for with his allies he now controlled 80,000 men. Faced with this imposing threat, Ferdinand II recalled his great captain, Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein. The two men had frequently quarreled, and the terms under which Wallenstein agreed to form a new army made him the virtual viceroy.

In early April 1632 Gustavus launched his campaign. Crossing the Danube at Donauwörth, he moved east into Bavaria to engage imperial forces under Tilly and Bavarian Duke Maximilian. Crossing the Lech River on a bridge of boats, Gustavus attacked Tilly’s entrenched camp. In the Battle of the Lech of April 15–17, 1632, Gustavus was victorious. Tilly was mortally wounded, and Maximilian abandoned most of the artillery and baggage and withdrew. Gustavus then occupied Augsburg, Munich, and all of southern Bavaria. On July 11 Wallenstein joined his forces to those of Maximilian at Schwabach. Wallenstein now commanded some 60,000 men. Gustavus, with only 20,000 men, sent for reinforcements that brought his strength up to 45,000.

During August 31–September 4, 1632, Gustavus repeatedly attacked Wallenstein’s entrenched camp near the Alte Veste castle. Wallenstein had chosen well, for the terrain made it impossible for Gustavus to utilize his strength in cavalry and artillery. After suffering heavy casualties, Gustavus withdrew. Both armies then ravaged the vicinity around Nuremberg for provisions.

Beginning in September 1632 Wallenstein took the offensive, invading Saxony and threatening the Swedish line of communications. Wallenstein had about 30,000 men, and Gustavus had 20,000 men. Awaiting reinforcements, Gustavus entrenched at Naumburg while Wallenstein set up his headquarters in the town of Lützen, southwest of Leipzig. On November 14 after holding his army at battle stations for two weeks, Wallenstein made the worst mistake of his military career. Believing that Gustavus had gone into winter quarters, Wallenstein ordered his own forces to disperse, sending a large detachment of men under Count Gottfried H. zu Pappenheim to Halle.

The very next day, November 15, Wallenstein learned of Gustavus’s approach. Immediately dispatching an appeal to Pappenheim to return, Wallenstein prepared to meet the Swedish attack. He threw up improvised defensive fortifications along a sunken road, with his right wing anchored on Lützen. That night both armies were drawn up in battle formation facing one another just east of Lützen.

The battle took place the next day. Each side had about 19,000 men. Gustavus positioned the bulk of his infantry in the center of the line, although the wings contained a mix of infantry and cavalry forces. Bernard of Saxe-Weimar commanded the Swedish left, while Gustavus was on the right.

The battle was prolonged, and both sides suffered heavy casualties. Fortunately for Wallenstein, heavy fog delayed the Swedish attack until about 11:00 a.m. Initially the Swedish right pushed back musketeers and cavalry under Count Heinrich Holk on the imperial left and threatened the artillery. Pappenheim’s men then arrived, just in time to stabilize that flank. Wallenstein also ordered his men to set fire to Lützen; the smoke from the fires blew into the center of the Swedish line, blinding the men. Wallenstein further confused the Swedes by launching a cavalry attack there. Gustavus responded with a cavalry charge of his own, utilizing his left wing. Riding into an enemy formation, Gustavus was surrounded, shot three times, and killed. Bernard took command.

News of the king’s death caused the Swedes to attack with a renewed fury that brought victory. That night Wallenstein decamped, with the imperial forces abandoning both their baggage and artillery, retreating to Leipzig, and then withdrawing entirely from Saxony into Bohemia. In the Battle of Lützen the Swedes suffered about 10,000 casualties, the imperial forces perhaps 12,000; Pappenheim was among those fatally wounded.

Although the Swedes had been victorious and they now carried on under Gustavus’s able lieutenant, Count Axel Oxenstierna, the Protestant cause had lost its most notable champion. The war changed into a struggle for base material advantage. Germany was apparently irretrievably divided. In these circumstances, King Gustavus’s chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, renewed the alliance with France, which ultimately entered the war openly on the Protestant side.


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