Don Cossacks

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Origin and History

By 1549, Cossacks had established four fortified villages on the banks of the Don River.

As early as 1552, Cossacks from the Don River campaigned alongside Russian armies. On that year, they took part in the siege of Kazan. In 1556, they assisted a Russian army in the conquest of the Khanate of Astrakhan.

Imperial Russia created several administrative subdivisions of Cossacks called Kozache Viysko (Cossack Host). These Hosts consisted of a certain territory with Cossack settlements that had to provide military regiments for service in the Imperial Russian Army and for border patrol. The stanitsa (village) formed the primary unit of this organization.

In 1570, the Don Cossack Host was established on the Lower Don River. In exchange for the protection of the Southern borders of Russia, the Don Cossacks were exempted from taxes and benefited from a relative autonomy.

From 1582 to 1594, the Don Cossacks were the spearhead of Russia in its conquest and annexation of Siberia. In 1641, Don Cossacks played an important role in the siege of Azov.

By the time of the Seven Years' War, the Don Cossack Host could field 22 regiments (each of 5 sotnias or companies) for a total of approx. 15,700 men. They were well considered even if their leaders were often of poor quality.

During the Seven Years' War, the regiment was commanded by:

  • no information found yet

Service during the War

During the campaigns of the Seven Years' War, the Don Cossacks represented the major part of the Cossacks who accompanied the Russian Army in Eastern Europe.

Already in 1756, 8 regiments, totalling some 4,000 men, were stationed in the Governments of Moscow and Belgorod under Brigadier Krasnoshtshokov. They were designated as the "Old Command" to distinguish them from the other regiments who joined the army in 1757.

On August 30 1757, during the Russian campaign in East Prussia, 17 regiments of Don Cossacks were present at the battle of Gross-Jägersdorf where they formed part of the Russian vanguard.

In 1758, several regiments of Don Cossaks took part in the invasion of East Prussia. In April, 2,000 Don Cossacks crossed the Vistula.

Uniform

Detail of an illustration depicting a Don Cossack circa 1820

At the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, the Don Cossacks did not wear uniforms. Their clothes were strongly influence by their oriental neighbours (Turks, Kalmuks, Circassians, Tatars). They dressed in bright colours and used much velvet and silk embroidered with lace and braids.

Sukhorukov, a Russian historian, describes various Don Cossacks: one wearing an azure satin coat with several silver stripes and a pearl necklace, another wearing a damask or velvet sleeveless kaftan and a dark brown woollen coat edged blue, with brown silk stripes and a last one wearing a damask or velvet coat with gold buttons, fastened with silver clasps and azure button lacest. All of them wore Turkish style silk sashes with a damask knife in a black scabbard with silver fittings. They also wore baggy trousers, red, yellow or green Circassian boots and a fleece hat with a velvet crown. Caftan could be made of brocade, velvet, satin and damask.

George, an XVIIIth century ethnographer describes their clothing as follows:

“...Cossacks used to dress in Polish fashion with Tatar and Eastern style clothing. Various colours were in use for clothing, but caftans and short coats were often made of blue cloth. Their hair was cut in roundel. They wore a high bonnet of sheepskin. Coats of rank and file were girdled with an ordinary sabre strap or a belt of coarse fabric material. Leaders wore silken belt from Persia or Poland over the sabre belt. Sabre was worn over the short coat. Some cossacks, especially the rank and file had only a mustache, beard was less common. They wore woollen trousers, usually red, but other colours were also used. Half boots of black Morocco leather or simple leather. Leaders often dressed in red or yellow trousers and rarely wore black trousers. The Cossacks trousers were similar to the Turkish ones, but much tighter.”

The coat worn by the Don Cossack was midway between a uniform coat and the earlier cossack caftan.

During the Seven Years' War, only one regiment received uniforms. Other regiments adopted military-style uniforms inspired by the traditional Cossack style with adaptations introduced by their own commanders.

Troopers were usually armed with a lance, a sword and a pistol.

Colours

These regiments had probably no official standard even though they may had some unofficial ones.

N.B.: the Don Cossacks used a white stag on a blue field with golden hoofs and antlers, pierced by a golden arrow as an emblem and a coat of arm since the XVIth century.

References

Grosser Generalstab Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung II: Die Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, Part 3 Der siebenjährige Krieg 1756-1763, Vol. 4 Groß-Jägersdorf und Breslau, Berlin, 1902, p. 22

Konstam A. & B. Younghusband : Russian Army of the Seven Years War, Osprey, London, 1996

Loginov, A.: Turkic influence in traditional dress of a Don Cossack XVI-XVIII centuries, [1], 2008

Summerfield, Stephen: Cossack Hurrah!, Leigh-on-Sea: Partizan Press, 2005

Wikipedia - Don Cossacks

Acknowledgement

Vasiliy Levashov for the translation of some Russian sources.