Johann Pleitner

Article and pictures by Jerzy Czajewski, all rights reserved.

Johann Pleitner was born in Nabburg (Bavaria-Ober Pfalz in Germany) to a well-off bourgeoise family. He studied as a young boy in a private school of mathematics and calligraphy in nearby Nuremberg run by local famous astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kurz. There he also studied land surveying. He probably studied the art of fortification and mathematics at the University in Louvain in Belgium. At the age of 32 he joined Dutch forces of the stadholder of Holland, prince Frederick Hendrick of Nassau at the siege of Maastricht against the Spaniards in 1632. There he prepared drawings and plans for big etching by Salomon Savery of the famous siege.

The following year he was recruited by the Polish army, which was relieving Smolensk from Russian siege. There he commanded a special 600-man regiment of sappers, which destroyed enemy works and built its own field fortifications. In the meantime he prepared drawings and plans for the next two big etching by Salomon Savery and Willem Hondius depicting the Smolensk relief. After those long battles, which showed his mastership in fortification and engineering, he was sent to Royal Prussia to fortify and built Wladyslawowo (Vladislausburg) and Kazimierzowo (Casimirschanz) on the Baltic coast and update older fortifications in Grudziadz (Graudenz), Tczew (Dirschau), Torun (Thorn) and Malbork (Marienburg) to prepare for expected war with Sweden.

In 1637 he was sent to the Ukraine to build the fortress of Kudak on the Dniepr river to guard against Cossack mutinies. He was one of most favourite and trusted military advisers to the king Wladyslaw IV Vasa. In 1638 he was responsible for arms purchases in Netherlands for the Polish-Lithuanian army. Pleitner was then nominated captain in the royal bodyguard foot regiment in Warsaw and Krakow (Cracau). There in Krakow he fortified in 1645 the castle hill Wawel. Nominated lieutenant-colonel of dragoons in 1647, he organised his regiment of 600 men in Royal Prussia for the expected war with Turkey. Disappointed with the Polish service after the Polish Diet abandoned that war, he left Poland the same year with his brigade, sent by Wladyslaw IV to the help of French king Louis XIII against the Spaniards in the Low Countries.

Pleitner then probably became prisoner of war or fled to Swedes. He could come to terms with them better than with the Catholic Poles, being a Protestant. For a couple of years he lived in Szczecin (Stettin) in Pomerania, then occupied by Sweden. He was there on the Swedish payroll as a valuable source of intelligence information about Poland, furnishing Swedes with maps and information about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the eve of the planned Swedish invasion. So shortly after in 1655, he was enlisted colonel in Finnish Foot Regiment and took part in Swedish aggression in Poland. In 1656 he was in Elblag (Elbing) in occupied Royal Prussia and most probably with his expertise Swedes took Malbork (Marienburg) in February 1656.

From 1656 until 1659 he was military governor of Brodnica (Strasburg) in Royal Prussia, fortified and updated obsolete town fortifications. The Swedish garrison consisted of 200 men and 10 cannons. It was an isolated but important strategic town. Many times Polish forces tried to recover the city, the attacks in April 1656 and January 1657 were most devastating but unsuccessful. At the beginning of July 1656, Swedish king Charles X Gustav paid short visit to Brodnica on his way to Warsaw and on 13th July 1657 the Hungarian prince, George Rakoczy, a Swedish ally, was hosted there. Pleitner was a determined and resourceful soldier. His swift counter attacks into the enemy territory gave him loot and prisoners to continue works on fortifications and hand milling of corn (the mills were destroyed by Poles). At the end of November 1659 Polish forces of colonel Henry Doenhoff laid siege of town. He capitulated honourably to the Poles on 10th December 1659 and left town with drums and flying colours.

Unexpectedly he was arrested on his way to Elblag (Elbing) with his soldiers by Prussians in Prabuty. Then they were sent as prisoners to Braniewo (Braunsberg) and later to Koenigsberg on command of the then Governor of Ducal Prussia, prince Boguslaw Radziwill. During the talks on Oliva treaty in 1660, the Poles demanded his liberation in February 1660, first because of broken Polish parole, second in hope of recruiting a new and prominent military engineer into king John Casimir Vasa service (the king knew him personally from the Smolensk war). Eventually, according to the Oliva Truce treaty, Pleitner with other 1800 prisoners of war left Koenigsberg on 3rd of May 1660.

The following year Pleitner left Swedish army forever, being granted with money and probably with Swedish nobility. His coat of arms, the paw of black bear with sword looks like a part of the emblem of his Finnish regiment, black crowned bear with sword in paw. In Germany he settled back in his native Nuremberg in Bavaria and was employed in the town military service. His probably last engineering feat was design of the earthwork ravelin in the south part of the fortifications of Strassburg in Alsace.(now Strasbourg in France). On the eve of the war of the German Reich with Turkey, he was nominated colonel of the Free Franconian Foot Regiment, then sent by the town of Nuremberg to Hungary. He fell in the battle with Turkish yanissers (cavalry) in St. Gothard on the river Raab at the end of July 1664.

As for his family life, Pleitner married Eva van Bancken, daughter of royal factor in Gdansk (Danzig), a Dutchman named Albrecht van Bancken in 1646. Their only known child is a daughter called Anna Rupertina born in Elblag (Elbing) in Royal Prussia in 1657. She was known as Anna Rupertina Fuchs, one of the first female lyric baroque poetesses (Daphne) in German literature.

The life of Johann Pleitner is typical of a hired professional, who could get a job in any European army, shows us the opportunities for educated people to be successful soldiers of fortune regardless of nationality, faith and conviction in early modern Europe. He was underestimated as a military engineer (with the exception of king Wladyslaw IV) so as a result he had to serve mostly as a soldier. His undoubtedly great engineering abilities were not fully exploited. Detailed study of the etchings of Savery and Hondius will probably reveal something of his mastership of his favourite disciplines, fortifications and surveying.

Article and pictures by Jerzy Czajewski, all rights reserved.

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