The Night Attack of Târgovişte: Vlad Ţepeş Fails to Kill Ottoman Sultan

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The Night Attack of Târgovişte: Vlad Ţepeş Fails to Kill Ottoman Sultan

"The Battle With Torches" by Romanian painter Theodor Aman (1831-1891)
(Unless otherwise stated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 17, 1462

Today's journey back in military history involves two of the most fascinating characters of 15th century eastern Europe; one man brought about the end of the Byzantine Empire, the other a bloodthirsty, paranoid prince known principally from an 1897 horror novel and a long string of gothic horror movies dating back to a


'Mehmed II, Entering Constantinople' Painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)
"Mehmed II, Entering Constantinople"
Painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)

On May 29, 1453 the city of Constantinople was finally captured by the forces of the Ottoman Empire, finally ending the last vestige of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The victorious Turks were led by their 21 year-old sultan, Mehmed II. Shortly afterwards, he acquired the nom de guerre of "the Conqueror." After seeing the splendor of the "city of Constantine," Mehmed moved his capital to the newly-acquired city.

Afterwards, Sultan Mehmed launched several campaigns into other nearby areas to add to his empire. For several years he concentrated on solidifying Anatolia (modern-day central Turkey), an area that had once been the source of most of the Byzantine recruitment during its heyday. Later, various Turkish groups established semi-independent lords called beyliks, which Mehmed sought consolidate and bring into a tighter rule. He then turned his attention to Europe.

Map of Ottoman Empire, c. 1460 (note Wallachia is only a tributary) (Map courtesy of
Map of Ottoman Empire, c. 1460 (note Wallachia is only a tributary)
(Map courtesy of

There were still a few holdout Albanian, Bosnian, Greek, and Serbian territories, which Mehmed soon overcame. Then he directed his attention north of Danube River, to the principality of Wallachia, which had been a tributary of the Ottomans since 1418. The native princes were mostly left to exercise their authority, so long as they paid the annual jizya (the tax on non-Muslims). However, the Turks soon found themselves dealing with a formidable ruler, Prince Vlad III, later called "Vlad Ţepeş" meaning "Vlad the Impaler." He was also known as Vlad Dracula.

Vlad III Dracula, "The Impaler"

Vlad Ţepeş, oil painting from 16th century, believed to be a copy of an original work painted in his lifetime (1431-1476) Currently at Ambras Castle, Innsbruck, Austria
Vlad Ţepeş, oil painting from 16th century, believed to be
a copy of an original work painted in his lifetime (1431-1476)
Currently at Ambras Castle, Innsbruck, Austria

Vlad Ţepeş was born in the town of Sighişoara, then ruled by the Kingdom of Hungary. His father, Vlad II Dracul, was a Wallachian boyar (nobleman) who would twice rule the country for brief periods. In 1442, when Vlad Ţepeş was about 11 years old, his father lost the throne of Wallachia and was replaced by a rival. Hoping to receive help from the Ottomans, Vlad Dracul sent his two sons – Vlad Dracula and Radu – to the Ottoman royal court as hostages. Radu converted to Islam and eventually became commander of the janissaries, the Ottoman elite household troops and bodyguard of the sultan. On the other hand, Vlad Dracula was imprisoned, whipped and beaten by the Turks for several years. These years formed the basis for his life-long hatred of the Turks. At some point, Vlad Dracula was released from prison and schooled in logic, literature, the Koran, and the Turkish language. He returned to Wallachia in 1448, and with the military support of the Turks took the throne from his father's usurper.

In 1459 Vlad was on the Wallachian throne for a second time. By this time, he had established the bona fides that earned him the cognomen "Vlad the Impaler." Shortly after assuming the throne, Vlad launched a series of ventures to strengthen his realm. This included a virtual vendetta against the Wallachian boyar class, who he suspected of complicity in his father's assassination in 1447. His bloodthirsty revenge took many forms, but his "favorite" method of execution was impaling.

Criminal, rivals, and others fell victim to Vlad Dracula. He even slaughtered Easter celebrants after he forced them to build him a castle, giving them no food or water, and finally impaling the survivors. Once, when his mistress tried to cheer him up, she said she had a "bun in the oven," Vlad unsheathed his sword and cut her open, and as she lay dying he said, "I don't see anything."

[However, let us return to our regularly scheduled military history lesson]

Vlad the Impaler dining in a forest of his victims German woodcut by Markus Ayrer, 1499
Vlad the Impaler dining in a forest of his victims
German woodcut by Markus Ayrer, 1499

The Road to Confrontation

In late 1459, Sultan Mehmed sent several ambassadors to Vlad Dracula to inquire when the jizya would be resumed. At first, Vlad said he had used much of the money in a recent conflict with Hungary. Then, he blatantly told the Turks that if he paid the tribute, it would signify his submission to the Ottomans, which he was working to eliminate. Then, almost as an afterthought, Vlad asked the Turkish emissaries why they did not take off their turbans when they were presented to him, as a sign of courtesy. They said it was not their custom to do so. Enraged, Vlad ordered his guards to seize the envoys, and directed his soldiers to nail the envoys' turbans to their heads. Obviously, the Turks died in agony; their bodies were returned to the sultan, with a letter from Vlad advising him never to send to the Wallachian court such untutored men.

'Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys' by Theodor Aman Oil painting in the National Art Museum, Bucharest, Romania
"Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys" by Theodor Aman
Oil painting in the National Art Museum, Bucharest, Romania

Furious at this defiance of his authority, Sultan Mehmed sent Hamza Pasha, the Bey of Nicopolis across the Danube with 10,000 cavalrymen. Hamza's mission was to either make peace with Vlad or, if necessary, eliminate him. Vlad learned of the raid, and set an ambush. As the Turks moved through a narrow pass, they were attacked and surrounded by Vlad and his soldiers. There are indications that the Wallachians used ally Transylvanian handgunners to ambush the invaders. Many Turks were killed, the unlucky ones were captured.

In the winter of 1462, Vlad led his Wallachian forces across the Danube, and ravaged wide sections of modern-day Bulgaria, between Serbia and the Black Sea. In a letter to the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus – a sometimes ally – Vlad claimed to have killed nearly 24,000 Bulgarians, "…without counting those whom we burned in [their] homes or the Turks whose heads were cut [off] by our soldiers…"

In early spring, Sultan Mehmed gathered an army to punish the recalcitrant Wallachian ruler. Contemporary historians gave wildly exaggerated figures for this army, from 150,000 to 250,000 to 300,000 to 440,000. The Venetian envoy to Hungary gave the most likely figures, saying the Ottoman army consisted of 60,000 regular troops and 30,000 irregulars. They included:

Ottoman janissary with matchlock musket - Engraving by Christoph Weigel (late 17th century)
Ottoman janissary with matchlock musket
Engraving by Christoph Weigel (late 17th century)

  • Janissaries, the elite troops, former Christians forcibly Muslimized and trained as soldiers, they were paid regular salaries and functioned as the sultan's bodyguard;
  • Sipâhis, the feudal cavalry, the European equivalent of knights, who by this time period were the sultan's mounted bodyguard;
  • Timariots, the irregular cavalry, similar to the sipâhis, but equivalent to mounted sergeants composed entirely of ethnic Turks;
  • Azabs, probably low-class men impressed into the army, sometimes used as laborers to build roads and bridge, ensure delivery of supplies, but often as cannon fodder in battle; and,
  • Saiales, sacrificial units composed of slaves who would win their freedom if they survived.

The infantry was still principally composed of javelinmen and archers. Nonetheless, the Ottoman military was one of the first armies of the era to make widespread use of new gunpowder technology, including artillery, handguns and even grenades. In fact, the janissaries were formerly renowned as archers, but had recently (1444 or thereabouts) switched to firearms. The janissaries, sipâhis, handgunners, and artillery usually composed the center, while the right and left wings were comprised of the timariots.

Wallachian boyar, 15th century (Illustration courtesy of
Wallachian boyar, 15th century
(Illustration courtesy of

Vlad's army was rather much smaller, numbering approximately 25,000 to 30,000 men. Contemporary writers say the Wallachian army had a core of mounted boyars and their retainers, while the remainder consisted of some local militiamen – some wielding handguns – and large numbers of peasants using mostly agricultural tools. A force of foreign mercenaries comprised Vlad's personal bodyguard.

The Night Attack

After the Turks crossed the Danube, Vlad realized it was unlikely he could prevail against the Ottoman juggernaut. Therefore, he instituted a "scorched earth" policy. He ordered crops to be burned, livestock herded or slaughtered, and wells poisoned. Vlad began a guerrilla war, ambushing isolated Turkish units, and making small hit-and-run attacks, keeping the the Ottomans off balance. At one point, Dracula ordered any Wallachians suffering from bubonic plague, tuberculosis, leprosy, or syphilis to be disguised as Turks and sent into the Ottoman camp. Before long, sickness broke out among the invading army.

Despite the Wallachians best efforts, the Turks drew nearer to Dracula's capital of Târgovişte. On June 16, 1462 the Ottomans made camp several miles south of the capital, anticipating reaching the city within the next day or two. With thousands of men in the Turkish encampment, a single Wallachian disguised as a Turkish cavalryman went unnoticed, as he scouted out the location of important enemy leaders, particularly Sultan Mehmed's pavilion. Thanks to his years as a Turkish hostage – and his fluency in the Turkish language – Vlad Dracula gathered important intelligence undetected in anticipation of his next move. [One chroniclers claims Vlad obtained information from Turkish prisoners.]

Shortly after midnight, in the early morning of June 17, Vlad and his army made their move. The Wallachian ruler split his army in two, leading the larger contingent himself. The Wallachians rode quietly to the edge of the Ottoman lines, then with a blast of bugles, each man lit a torch and charged the camp. For the next four hours, the Turks desperately fought the Wallachian onslaught. Tents were set on fire, Turkish horses and pack camels were killed, and many Turks were cut down trying to leave their billets.

Dracula and his men cut their way through the tightly packed camp, intent on one objective: kill Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, in essence cutting off the head of the serpent to kill the whole body. In spite of his earlier reconnaissance, apparently Vlad confused the tents of two Turkish commanders for the sultan's quarters. Both of these men, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha, lost their lives in the battle.

Vlad led his men in several attacks on the sultan's encampment. However, the second contingent of Wallachians, under the command of a boyar named Galeş, failed to attack the Ottoman camp at the appointed time, fleeing almost without striking a blow. Finally, as more Turks began organizing a counterattack, Dracula ordered a retreat just before dawn. The Night Attack was over


According to one historian, Sultan Mehmed and his bodyguards fled the camp in terror, until he was convinced to return. Four days later, the Turkish army approached Târgovişte. The city gate was open, and no living person – citizen or soldier – challenged them. However, as the Ottomans drew closer, they were confronted by a ghoulish sight: a forest of 20,000 Turks and Muslim Bulgarians impaled in every way conceivable surrounding the city. Rising up from the middle of this gruesome field of rotting corpses, to signify his rank, Hamza Pasha was impaled on a stake taller than the others.

The sultan, upon seeing this horrifying sight, ordered an immediate retreat back across the Danube. Contemporary chronicles give varying casualty figures; one says that the Turks suffered 15,000 killed and wounded, while another claims very few Ottomans were killed. Wallachian casualties were reckoned at 5000.

Footnote #1: By July of 1462, Vlad was out of money and could not pay his mercenaries. He went to the Hungarian king to ask for assistance, and was promptly thrown into prison. His brother Radu, who commanded the sultan's janissaries, was installed as the "Bey of Wallachia."

Footnote #2: Vlad Ţepeş was killed in late 1476, assassinated by the boyars he despised. It is speculated that he was buried at the Comana monastery in southern Romania. The current monastery, however, is a rebuilt edifice, as the original was razed in 1589.

Comana monastery, Guirgui County Romania
Comana monastery, Guirgui County Romania

Footnote #3: After several years of research, British theatre manager and critic Bram Stoker published the novel Dracula in 1897. The book was turned into a stage play, and at least 14 films have been made directly from it. The 1931 film, starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, is still considered by many filmgoers as the best portrayal.

Theatrical re-release poster, 1947
Theatrical re-release poster, 1947

Footnote #4: Vlad Ţepeş acquired the nickname "Dracula" from his father. In 1431 – the year of Vlad's birth – his father traveled to Nuremberg to be invested in the Order of the Dragon. This group sought to defend Christendom from all its enemies, including the Ottoman Turks. As a result of his membership in the order, Vlad the father was known as "Vlad Dracul," or "Vlad the Dragon." As the son of Vlad Dracul, his son Vlad was known as "Vlad Dracula" or "son of the Dragon."

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