New England Ablaze: King Philips' War, 1675-1676

King Philips' War, fought from 1675-1676 in the region known as New England in the Northeastern United States, predominately in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, was one of the most devastating and bloody wars in America's early colonial history. Named for the powerful and greatly revered chief Metacomet (b.1676), the conflict precipitated the virtual extinction of New England's greatly varied and long established Native American tribes in favor of the rapidly growing American colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Color etching depicting sachem Metacomet, the "King of Mount Hope", engraved by Paul Revere 1772

Two great figures dominate the military study of King Philips' War in New England, colonial officer and the "First American Ranger" Captain Benjamin Church (b.1639-1718) of the Plymouth Colony, what is today South Shore and Cape Cod of the state of Massachusetts, and the engimatic and greatly respected Wampanoag sachem (chief) Metacomet (d.1676) known to the colonists of the time as King Philip (Metacom), the most revered leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy. Son of sachem Massasoit, Metacomet was the paramount leader of the Wampanoag people who stretched throughout southern New England from Western Massachusetts into Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southern Massachusetts on the Atlantic Ocean. From Mount Hope Bay on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Metacomet ruled over a dwindling but still powerful nation of differing native tribes and bands.


Plymouth was apart of a loose confederation (United Colonies) of New England territories and colonies which included Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut Colony, and the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, all of whom had banded together to protect New England territory after war broke out with the powerful Wampanoag Confederacy. The native tribes of New England before King Philips' War consisted of the Narragansetts in Rhode Island and parts of southern Connecticut, the Wampanoag of Massachusetts, the Pocumtucs in western Massachusetts, the Nipmuc in what is today mostly Worcester county (central Massachusetts), amongst several other smaller tribal bands. In Connecticut the Pequot and Mohegan had assimilated following the Pequot War and become allies of the colonial government

Plymouth born Rhode Island officer Capt. Benjamin Church

The Native populace of New England had suffered continually both due to the indirect and direct actions of the English colonists throughout the region from 1630-1675. Diseases brought by the large Pilgrim and Puritan emigrations to the Massachusetts colonies killed tens of thousands in less than a decade. Culturally their vast differences between the white men and the Native American tribes of New England were exacerbated out of indifference, ignorance, and at times pure malice and greed on the part of the New Englanders. The first major conflict between the two sides took place in 1636-1638 during the Pequot War. 

Fought predominately in Rhode Island and Connecticut, this conflict saw the near complete eradication of the Pequots following the Mystic massacre of 1637 in which 400-700 Pequot men, women, and children were killed by a force of New England militia and Narragansett indians. Pequot resistance ended when their chief Sassacus who escaped the massacre was murdered by Mohawk indians and the last Pequot warriors in arms were defeated in Fairfield, Connecticut in the Great Swamp Fight of 1637. A year later the Treaty of Hartford ended inter Colonial-Indian warfare for nearly forty years.

Battle between colonial militia and Pequot Indians during the Pequot War, 1646-1648

Following the dreadful conclusion to the Pequot War, relations between the Native tribes and New Englanders did not improve. Native males were underemployed and slowly loosing their warrior identities in the lead-up to conflict; something King Philip and his more hawkish chieftains tried to exploit. Both hunting lands and agricultural lands were being lost continuously as the land approved for use by the tribes of New England shrunk further into the west and north. Many living in the immediate vicinity of New England towns and cities detested being subjected to the strict and utterly confusing Puritan law system which could fine and in some cases imprison them for endless trivial offenses. New England natives could not legally own or purchase firearms until 1665-a "privilege" frequently taken away when the colonials became nervous about their "red skinned" neighbors intentions. All of these facts betrayed the relative trust and friendship between many New England colonials and Indians before King Philips' War began. In fact  inter-European/Native trade was common and was indeed a staple of colonial economics during this period. Metacomet himself owned tribal and "English" lands in Massachusetts and enjoyed trading and hoarding a variety of finely made English goods including steel knifes, buttons, and cloth jackets.

New England tribal distributions during the time of King Philips War

Act I

King Philip’s War came about after further English colonial encroachment on tribal lands in New England. Another major factor was the belief that Metacomet’s brother, Wamsutta, had been killed perhaps by poison after meeting with colonial representatives in 1662. Sometime in the winter of 1675, one of Metacomet's interpreters John Sassamon went missing and was later found murdered. It was known by few among the colonials, Benjamin Church among them, that the Wampanoags and their allies were clandestinely preparing for total war with the English. Evidently when Sassamon learned of this he went to Massachusetts authorities to tell them of the news.

 By the time Sassamon's murderers were arrested and later executed, the tribal confederacy of Wampanoag and Nipmuc amongst others had already begun attacking settlements and killing colonial homesteaders from June-November 1675. Frequent raids were carried out throughout MassachusettsRhode Island, and Connecticut with several cities burned and put under siege as a result of the conflict. Captain Benjamin Church left his quiet coastal home at Little Compton, Rhode Island in June of 1675 with the area's militia to search for Metacomet and hostile native tribes throughout Rhode Island and parts of southern Massachusetts.

Attack on Church's company at Tiverton during the Battle of Peas Field 8 July 1675

The first major engagement of King Philip's War was fought at Fogland Point nearby the Almy's Peas Field, known colloquially as the Battle of Peas Field as a result. Captain Benjamin Church and a company of 30 soldiers stumbled upon a large war party near the Fogland Point in what is today Tiverton, Rhode Island. They fought desperately against nearly 300 Indians for two hours, nearly overtaken several times until rescued by a vessel commanded by Captain Roger Goulding, only sustaining minor casualties in the heated attack on the beach.

In early August of 1675 the town of Brookfield, Massachusetts was put under siege by Nipmuck natives led by the warriors Muttaump and Matoonas. Known also as Wheeler's Surprise or Wheeler Ambush, the town was raided and then the Nipmuck attempted to burn the 75 inhabitants and a Massachusetts Bay platoon of 40 men led by Capt. Thomas Wheeler alive in the town's fortified manor house. For three days and two nights the Nipmuck continually attempted to immolate the blockhouse and/or drive the colonials from the safety of the manor. Wheeler's men killed half a dozen or more of the Nipmuck by the time Major Simon Willard and 48 Massachusetts Bay troopers came to their rescue and chased the Nipmuck band off.

On the first day of September, Nipmuck warriors attacked again in north-central Massachusetts, killing and scalping a man in Deerfield and then slaying eight more homesteaders fifteen miles north in Northfield. Three days later a mounted detachment of 36 Massachusetts cavalry led by Capt. Richard Beers was ambushed outside Northfield and massacred. Capt. Beers and four of his men made a last stand atop what later came to be known as Beers Mountain before they were killed by native musket balls. The slain Massachusetts troopers were beheaded by the Nipmucks who had become drunk on pilfered rum. Several survivors of the doomed columns' supply train made it back to the settlement of Hadley to report the bloody massacre. Connecticut Major Robert Treat evacuated the Northfield settlers the next day. As his mounted column and the refugees of Northfield rode down the trail they noticed and despaired over the grotesque heads of their slain countrymen atop pikes lining the trail south.

King Philips War Campaign Map, 1675-1676

Hadley to the south became a military garrison and headquarters as well as a safe haven for the wars' refugees. Northwestern Massachusetts remained under siege throughout the harvest threatening the food supply of the swollen Hadley garrison. A Massachusetts Bay colony militia column of 80 men led by Capt. Thomas Lathrop was sent in late September to retrieve grain, corn, and wheat from  Deerfield's harvest. The militia set forth at a slow pace north in a long running wagon train, some men having placed their weapons in the carts meant to transport the grain back to Hadley. Forgetting even rudimentary lessons about how their native opponents liked to fight-no scouts rode ahead nor were pickets posted on their flanks, the Lathrop column was massacred in the ensuing rout. Some were filled with arrows or clubbed and then scalped following their retreat into the forest after the ambush. A small piddling stream running through a swampy area known as the Muddy Brook soon became choked with dead bodies, blood, and gore-hence, the Bloody Brook Ambush. Only five or so men lived to tell the tale of the massacre.

The Ambush at Bloody Brook, South Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 1675

In October the Pocumtuc launched a brazen attack on their literal neighbors in Springfield when they poured out of their fort on Long Hill in what is today Springfield's south end neighborhood and burnt the town down. They killed two Massachusetts Bay colony officers before sacking the town and scattering its inhabitants. Many were wounded and thousands of dollars in property lost as a result of the Springfield attack. Dozens more would have been slain or taken captive had not Toto, known to history as Toto the Windsor Indian, ran nearly twenty miles from Windsor, Connecticut to Springfield in order to warm them of the impending attack. The burning of Springfield had been particularly shocking because the Pocumtuc people had been at peace with the settler of Western Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley for many years beforehand and had essentially no provocation to attack Springfield.

Act II

The tide of war turned in the colonists favor following the Great Swamp Fight (or Great Swamp Massacre) of over 300 Narragansett at their winter lodgings in December 1675. Governor of the Plymouth colony and General of the United New England militia Josiah Winslow (b.1628-1680), led the New England army of around 1000 Englishmen and another 150-200 allied natives in person along with a slew of officers from all the colonies. Their target was the winter redoubt of sachem Canonchet in what is today South Kingstown, Rhode Island.

Canonchet had created a veritable refuge camp and colony in the middle of the frozen swamp. In this winter fort, 2,000-3,000 mostly women and children including 800-1,000 warriors kept bundled and hidden from the snowy and cold New England winter. The assault began on the morning of 19 December when Massachusetts men stormed across the frozen swamp and amazingly penetrated the large but lightly defended fort in their first attempt.

Colonial militia attack a native fort during King Philips' War

Massachusetts militia captains Isaac Johnson, Davenport, and Joseph Gardiner were all slain by indian sharpshooters in the first assault. Further Plymouth and Connecticut reinforcements were quickly shot down as well, killed or mortally wounded in the snow where they fell. Many militia members froze or attempted to retreat when there officers had been mortally wounded or slain until Major Appleton of Massachusetts rallied them to continue the assault through the breach in the fort.

The Great Swamp Fight, December 1675

The Great Swamp Fight was to be the largest battle of the conflict and the most significant colonial victory as well. Benjamin Church was given permission by Governor Winslow to reconnoiter the fight for the fort with a handful of men, his rangers killed several Wampanoag before charging into the fort to take part in the prodigious slaughter now ensuing from within. Warriors and non-combatants were being cut down and shot, some burned alive in their wigwams as dozens of warriors fled the flort. The cost of the battle was staggering for both sides, no less than 400 Wampanaog were killed and at least that number were captured or later killed. The New Englanders lost 70 killed and 150 wounded of which 50 or more later died from their wounds.

Raid on Lancaster 10 February 1676

For many months after the bitter deafeat in the Great Swamp Fight, the war entered a steady cycle of raids and counter-raids. Philip's tribes raided New England settlements in small raiding parties or in larger groups of 20-40 warriors. In some cases a small band of three of four natives would attack a home. They might kill one or two colonists and then escape into the nearby forest or countryside to terrify the white man again. In other instances horses or property were stolen. As the conflict continued, food became a scarcity and many native warriors were forced to steal provisions from farms and homesteads across the New England frontier. This type of guerrilla warfare continued whilst the United Colonies militias' searched for and killed "bad indians" in the hunt for Metacomet.

Once bustling towns and productive frontier settlements fell under a shadow of war for well over a year as the brutal guerrilla war on the frontier continued. The native and colonial populations suffered dearly as a result in both Rhode Island and in Massachusetts. In February of 1676, the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts was raided and the Rowlandson's fortified house was burned to the ground. Twelve were killed and twenty-four taken captive by the Nipmucks, including Pastor Rowlandson's wife Mary and several of his children (b.1637-1711) who remained a captive of the Wampanaog for more than four months thereafter. In late February attacks and large movements of warriors were seen less than ten miles outside the city of Boston.

Weeks later, Metacomet's warriors attacked their furthest south in the war when they burned down the settlement of Simsbury on the Farmington River in Connecticut just fourteen miles northwest of the colonies capital at Hartford. Local legend maintains that Metacomet watched the burning of Simsbury and parts of what is Farmington from atop what is now known today as Metacomet Ridge. Longmeadow, Marlborough, and Rehoboth in the Plymouth colony were all attacked in the same week with great loss of life and property. Led by the colonies aged patriarch Roger Williams, Providence was abandoned by its inhabitants (b.1603-1683) and later burned down on 29 March by the Narragansett. The town of Warwick in Rhode Island save for one house was completely destroyed and raised to the ground as well.

An English captain scouts for Wampanoag with two native allies c.1676

In April of 1676 the sachem of the Narragansett tribe Canonchet was captured by a group of Connecticut and Pequot Indians led by Capt. George Dennison in a raid of Narragansett tribal land in Eastern Connecticut. After he was ambushed Canochet escaped to the woods however he was run down by a young Pequot warrior and then detained by the Connecticut militia.

Taken in chains to Stonington, Connecitcut, Canonchet was offered generous peace terms if he surrendered the Narragansett to colonial authorities and gave up the hiding place of his chief Metacomet. Canonchet replied "I will not surrender a Wampanoag nor the paring of a Wampanoag's nail." When the brave chieftain was told he'd be shot the following morning by the Pequot he replied, "I would rather die than remain prisoner-I shall die before my heart is soft, or I have said anything unworthy of Canonchet." After his execution his head was sent to Hartford where it was displayed publicly for weeks.


Battles and massacres continued on however without the capture or death of the paramount leader of Wampanoag, Metacomet. On 20 April, 500 warriors came down from Mount Wachusett in Worcester county and attacked the important hub settlement of Sudbury. Upon hearing of the attack on Sudbury, the Captain of the Milton militia, Samuel Wadsworth an experienced soldier by all accounts, took 50 Massachusetts Bay colony militia on a march from Marlborough to relieve Sudbury.

As they neared the township a band of indians made themselves visible then quickly disappeared into woods. Wadsworth ordered his men in pursuit and right into the clutches of a rather obvious ambush. His men fought bravely from underneath the rocky cover at Green Hill until the native warriors set their defenses on fire forcing Wadsworth men's out into open where they were shot down to a man. Wadsworth and his second-in-command Capt. Brocklebank were later found with thirty or so of their militiamen; all had been scalped, stripped, and left to rot atop Green Hill.

King Philips's War spread to other parts of New England and French North America when the
Wabanaki Confederacy, inspired by Wampanoag rebellion in southern New England and with taciturn French support, Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy, and Mi'kmaq natives attacked English forts and settlements in what is today Maine and Northeastern Canada throughout 1675-1677. Many of Maine's scattered settlements and homesteads were later laid to waste by the Abenaki in retaliation. Eventually agents acting on behalf of James the Duke of York, future King of England as James II, brought an end to conflict by 1677. They allegedly threatened the Wabankai peoples with Mohawk intervention if they did not cease their campaign of violence. In late June, Connecticut Major Talcott with 250 mounted troopers and 200 Pequots launched a punitive expedition towards Providence burning Narragansett settlements and killing or capturing 238 on the Connecticut-Rhode Island border, many in the former category. Capt. Church's rangers took to the forests outside Middlebourough in mid July, an area Church had known since he was boy, scouring the forests of the peninsula for traces of the elusive King Philip.

Assassination of King Philip outside Mount Hope August 1676

On 1 August, a large band of natives was spotted outside Bridgewater in the Plymouth colony. Church's rangers and some Bridgewater militiamen gave chase and soon routed the Wampanaog near Monponsett Pond. Capt. Church was nearly killed in the skirmish before his men killed, captured, or scattered this mysterious rogue Wampanoag band. Among the few who escaped this raid was sachem Metacomet who fled with nothing but the clothes on his back and his rifle into the woods. His wife and son were left behind and captured by Benjamin Church. One of Metacomets captured braves when questioned by Church told him frankly, "You have now made Philip ready to die. For you have made made him as poor and miserable as he used to make the English. You have killed or taken all his relatives. You will soon have his head, for you have broken his heart."

Metacomet met his end on 12 August 1676, assassinated near Mount Hope in what is today BristolRhode Island. Church and his friendly indians ever on the trail of the "doomed sachem" was tracked down and shot by a 'Praying Indian', a native who had converted to Christianity and taken up the "white man's ways" named John Alderman. Metacomet's assassin had been working for Capt. Church since he had a chance meeting with him following the Plymouth colony militias' return from the wars first' campaign after the Battle of Peas Field. Metacomet was beheaded and quartered as a traitor to colonies though he had sworn no allegiance.

The brave and regal chieftains skull was placed  on a pike outside Plymouth for over twenty years until it turned bleached and began to crack. Alderman supposedly took one of the revered sachems hands as a war trophy; making a small amount of coin the rest of his life showing it to curiosity seekers. Despite Metacomet's death the war would continue on until the final pitched battle of the war was fought at Turner's Falls outside Springfirled in May of 1676. In this battle the last remnants of Nipmuck warriors were finally defeated and driven from the northern reaches of the colony. In June the last organized band of Wampanaog natives was defeated and killed or captured outside of Marlborough and thus King Philips' War came to an end.

Opposing Forces: Colonial Militia and Native Warfare, 1637-1675

New England's militias were the only military force in the colonies since England had no standing army in American at this time. Male colonists were required by law to remain armed, supplied, and ready to muster out with their units whenever called upon, though one could buy one’s way out (few did) or could give a younger son or two, permission to join, as was customary at the time. In fact very few volunteered especially early on in the conflict; many had to be pressed into service with the threat of fines or jail time creating a rag-tag, poorly trained and disciplined force led by inept officers who had been appointed because of political and social connections. Following the Bloody Brook Massacre in September of 1675, New England Confederation commissioners proscribed added quotas of 158 men for Plymouth, 315 for Connecticut, and 527 for Massachusetts Bay. In theory, New England had an "English" army of well over 1000 soldiers plus an additional 500-750 friendly Indian allies amongst the Pequot, Mohegan, Tunxis, and Sakonnet tribes.

"First Muster of Massachusetts Bay Militia in Salem 1637" by Don Troiani

Several units were what would be considered “elite”, known as "brisk blades"; such as Benjamin Church’s Rangers, a force of less than 200 Plymouth militia and Praying Indians. Though very few groups of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth infantry and cavalry companies were well regarded, some led by a handful of officers who were veterans of the English Civil War 1642-1651, the average militia unit from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth, Connecticut, or Rhode Island was made up of men who did not know how to soldier and who did not care to know how.

For many militia captains it was agonizingly laborious to get these men to march quickly, to get into battle formation, and to attack or retreat as a unit with a modicum of discipline and order. Armaments and weaponry were fairly standardized across most of the New England army. Smoothbore matchlock muskets were used by the average militia soldier. These were heavy and cumbersome .75 caliber "shoulder breakers" which were horribly inaccurate even at close ranges and which took nearly a minute to reload. Swords were commonly in use by the gentry and cavalry troopers. Pikes were also popular throughout the New England militia system during this period.

Wampanoag attacking English colonists 1675-1676

The native tribes of New England fought similarly across the frontier theaters of King Philips' War. The element of surprise was always paramount. The ambuscade and raid were prized above all methods of warfare though Metacomet's warriors fighting in large numbers were also high effective against the untrained rabbles of New England militia. Long and short spears were used for medium ranged combat while bows and arrows and an increasing number of muskets were also used at long range by the Wampanoag indians and their allies. For close quarters combat they used the ever-famous tomahawk, war clubs, and steel hunting knifes sold to them by French and British traders. During King Philip's War the Wampanaog fought to the death. Though civilian prisoners (often women and young girls) were taken to be ransomed later, any man or boy in arms was almost always slain.


Around 600-800 New England soldiers and militia were killed during King Philips' War. Close to 2,000 homes or properties were burnt or destroyed in addition to 300-500 English colonials who were killed, wounded, or otherwise displaced. At least 3,000- 4,000 indians if not more died during the conflict. Kyle F. Zelnor remarks, unequivocally, in A Rabble in Arms (NYU, 2009) that “King Philips' War was the most deadly and important conflict in the history of colonial New England.” 

Many thousands of New England's native peoples, both enemy combatants, loyalists, and Praying Indians, had been systematically slaughtered, imprisoned, enslaved, relocated, or exiled following King Philips' War. After the conflict had concluded, enslaved Wampanoags and Narragansetts were sent by the hundreds from New England to the Caribbean and West Indies including King Philip's wife and young son. Today the legacy of the colonial wars against the New England Native American peoples is both a deeply shameful but celebrated episode of the collective history of New England

Suggested Further Reading
A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen During King Philip's War Kyle F. Zelnor (NYU, 2009)

Flames over New England: The Story of King Philip's War 1675-1676 By Olga Hall-Quest (Dutton, NY, 1969)

Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philips' War D.E. Leach (1958-2009)


Odd Fighting Units: The Zouaves of Death in Poland's January Uprising of 1863

The Zouaves of Death (in Polish Żuawi Death) are perhaps one of the most ghoulishly named fighting units of the 19th century conflicts which were fought in the buildup of empires, republican states, and commonwealths in the wake of the previous Napoleonic Age (c.1803-1815). Created by a former French army officer, François Rochebrune (b.1830-1870), the Zouaves of Death fought in the January Uprising of 1863-1864 against the Russian Empire who had dominated (along with Austria & Prussia) much of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since the Great Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795.

The Zouaves of Death and Polish scythmen brace for a charge of Russian cavalry during the January Uprising in this dramatic and patriotic painting from the early 20th century

Formed in Ojców in Febuary of 1863, Rochebrunes volunteer and free lance militia was styled in the debonair attire of the French Algerian Zouave, a popular style of dress for infantrymen from the 1850’s until the end of World War I in 1918. They fought in many of the major battles of the Uprising in what was then known as the Congress of Poland, ruled by Tsar Alexander II of Russia (b.1818-1881). The Zouaves of Death fought attached to the peasant armies and cadres of Polish patriots led by a number of revolutionary leaders throughout the conflict.

François Rochebrune (b. 1830-1870) 
French army officer, Polish rebel, and Commander of the Zouaves of Death

A style of uniform as well as a French designation for their colonial light infantry of the same period, the term Zouave originated from the infantry regiments first raised from the Algerian Berber populace following the French invasions of Algeria in 1830-1831. The attire of the Zouave became known in Europe after the 1850’s when Zouave regiments fought bravely in the Crimean War. In later wars Zouave infantry fought and died for France in the Italian War of 1859, the Mexican “Intervention” of 1864-1866, and in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In the American Civil War both commissioned and private officers as well as amateur generals on both sides commanded Zouave units in the battles fought from 1861-1865.

Rochebrune and his volunteer Zouaves

Rising from a poor background, Rochebrune eventually became a sergeant in the French army, earning his first taste of battle serving with the Zouave 17th line infantry regiment in the Crimean War. He was made an officer either before or whilst on campaign in the 1857-1858 Anglo-Franco expedition to China during the Opium Wars sagas. Eventually he left the French army in 1862, whereupon Rochebrune moved to Poland, spending time in both Warsaw and Krakow teaching French to Polish pupils as well as offering fencing lessons.

Rochebrune as he may have looked preparing the Zouaves of Death for a bayonet charge in February 1863

Rochebrune was a man of great enthusiasm and charisma, most certainly an expert swordsman he was a man of iron will and a master of discipline who demanded that his men stand & fight, and die if need, to charge with cold steel and fury when he gave the order to do so. One great hindrance to him as an officer throughout the January Uprising was that he did not speak Polish at all nor did he attempt to learn it during his time in Poland in 1862-1863. He could often be heard yelling the same phrase over-and-over again in broken Polish as he urged his men forward in battle, shooting his Colt Navy pistol and brandishing his officers’ sword aloft.

He most certainly began developing the framework and formation of the Zouaves of Death before the general uprisings in PolandLithuania, and Latvia in January of 1863. Recruiting amongst his former students and university students in Warsaw, Rochebrune based his regiment and its discipline on his own experience in the French army. Maybe he was inspired by the Foreign Legionnaires and German Hussars as well, who's regiments often used death (or the deaths head) as a badge, motif, or common rallying cry in the face of battle. His Zouaves of Death certainly borrowing their attitude, style, and élan from the French Zouaves whom he had fought for in the trenches and fields of the Crimea peninsula in 1853-1855.

Period depiction of the Zouaves of Death, Rochebrune stands in the center

Several other foreigners and Polish officers filed out the upper ranks of the Zoauves of Death, who before the Battle of Miechów numbered some 500-600 men and officers in total. His immediate officer corps included Emanuel Moszyński, his lieutenant of staff, and John Serafin Tomkowicz, one of his former students. They dressed in all black save for the white cross adorning their cloth undershirt and the white tassel dangling from their iconic red fez hats. The Zouaves of death armed themselves with a (by that eras standards) modern percussion rifle, the standard infantry bayonet of around twenty inches in length, and a large hunting knife for close quarters combat. Most officers carried a six shot pistol, the models made by Colt a favorite, and an infantry officers sword.

Baptism by Fire, the Zouaves of Death in the assault on Miechów

Rochebrune’s Zouaves received their “baptism by the fire” at the bloody Battle of Miechów in Febuary of 1863, attached to a Polish insurgent army commanded by Apollinaris Kurowski, which attacked the town of Miechów in the southern Congress of Poland. The assault on the Russian held town went poorly from the start and hundreds were killed, wounded, or fled due to the staunch defense put up by the Imperial army.

The Zouaves of Death made their presence known when Rochebrune personally led a bayonet charge into a cemetery located outside the town in an attempt to silence the Russian guns. The charge was fierce and many of the Zouaves did indeed meet their death fighting hand to hand with their Russian enemies. At least 150 were killed or seriously wounded and a dozen or more officers perished in the successful attempt to take the cemetery.

Period battle scene from the January Uprising in 1863

By the end of the battle the Russians had retired their guns and had withdrawn from the cemetery positions however the Polish rebels had been defeated outright. Over 200 Poles lost their lives in the fight for the town, many others of who were most likely wounded were executed following the conclusion of the battle. The Russians suffered fewer than 75 casualties defending the town from 2500 Polish infantry, cavalry, and the Zouaves of Death attachment. The regiment had been severely maimed in the assault and Rochebrune injured as well in the charge on the cemetery. Both his top officers Moszyński and Serafin Tomkowicz were slain also. Angered by the Polish rebels attack on Miechów the Russians later set the town ablaze after having defended it earlier in the day. 

Zouaves of Death from insurrection to extinction

Bloodied after their personal victory but after an overall strategic defeat at Miechów, the Zouaves of Death regrouped and reformed. Rochebrune now calling himself de Rochebrune, recruited more men to replace those fallen in battle, drilling and instilling discipline in them awaiting their next campaign. Word of their unique dress and brave exploits in battle traveled fast and soon other units sprung up, clamoring to join the regiment and to fight the Russians. Some of these new recruits included entire cadres of scythemen, Polish farmers turned insurgents who were armed with scythes and the farm tools of their profession along with muskets as well.

Polish scythemen photographed during the January Uprising

With maybe more than 400 men in the regiment, the Zouaves fought under the dictator and revolutionary officer Marian Langiewicz (b.1827-1887) in a defeat of Col. Xavier Czengiery at the Battle of Chrobrzem. They would fight again a day later at one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Polish theater of the January Uprising at the Battle of Grochowiska. Combined with the losses they suffered the day before, Russian losses totaled more than 300 killed or missing in the bloody skirmishing that took place in the forests around the field of battle outside Pińczów.

Once again the Zouaves of Death showed great courage and determination in charging their enemy no matter the cost, loosing perhaps 100 or more of their ranks in a deadly charge. The terrain must have played a major role in Rochebrunes attack, his men most certainly taking advantage of the dense trees and shrubbery in the forest. Once again they took the Russian guns, six of them to be exact, in a bayonet charge, silencing them in yet again another sanguinary display of dash and élan. Many believed it was Rochebrune who had won the day in this battle leading the scythemen against the Russian infantry which broke the numerically and tactically superior Imperial line.

Following the Polish insurgent victory in the woods at Grochowiska, Rochebrune was promoted to General, soon after leaving Poland for France. Not long after both the Uprising and his regiment collapsed, the Polish insurgents defeated and scattered. Many of its leaders (save for Langiewicz) were later arrested, convicted of treason and hung by the Imperial army in the name of Tsar. Twenty or so Zouaves of Death veterans would continue to fight in the wars last battles or managed to escape to Austria.

A battle flag is being held by the middle soldier. The Zouave on the right is most likely an officer

Overall the regiment played a somewhat insignificant part in the January Rebellion of 1863-1864 which was fought in parts of not just modern day Poland but throughout modern Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine from 1863-1865. Still the Zouaves are remembered as a dedicated band of irregulars with a unique iconography and bloody record of service in a great national uprising which was doomed from the start. Though they do hold the distinction of being merely a curiosity among the foreign legions and mercenary armies of the mid 19th century, the Zouaves of Death did show great courage in the face of grave dangers and seemingly impossible odds. Their fleeting accomplishments deserve most certainly to be praised alongside the other glory seeking regiments and fighting units of this age who sought to charge and to fight with bayonet & sword to take the day.

The Zouaves of Death resolved and almost did fight to the death in every battle or skirmish in which they fought, loosing many of their number in the running battles fought in vain to free greater Poland from the imperialist yoke in February to May of 1863. Rochebrune would meet his death in January of 1871; killed by a Prussian bullet fighting for France in the Battle of Montretout during the Franco-Prussian War whilst serving as an officer in the Garde nationale

General Francoise de Rochebrune

Suggested Further Reading


Gempei War of 1180-1185: The Minamoto-Taira Conflict at the Dawn of the Age of the Samurai

The Gempei War of 1180-1185 was one of the longest and hotly contested civil wars fought during the historical Heian period of Japanese history c.794 AD-1185. Pitting the “overmighty” clans of Minamoto (Genji), including the rival factions sworn to Yoritomo (b.1147-1199) and his cousin Kiso Yoshinaka (b.1154-1184), against the royal daimyo ruled by the mighty Taira (Heike) clan sworn to Emperor Takakura and later his infant son, emperor Antoku (b.1178-1185), the Gempei or Genpei War was fought throughout southern and western Japan. It is well remembered today in Japan for the gallant and often violent battles between the countries emerging samurai warrior-caste and for the wars’ penultimate battle, the legendary Battle of Dan-no-aura which was fought in March of 1185.

Minamoto clan warriors and ships at the Battle of Yashima

The Heian Rebellions, 1051-1160

The emperors of Japan and their loyal Taira clan armies put down a series of attempted coups and open rebellions between 1051-1160 during the late Heian period. This era was defined by successive reigns of weak and ineffective emperors who did little to curb the political maneuverings and open revolts of the Minamoto clan led by Yoshitomo. The rival Taira clan were led before and at the very start of the Gempei War by the powerful and widely regarded samurai general and court prefect Kiyomori (b.1118-1181).

It had been Kiyomori who put down the Hogen Disturbance in 1156, just one of the several Minamoto revolts against the “cloistered” emperor Go-Shirakawa (b.1127-1192). The most significant of these rebellions was the Heiji Revolt of January-February 1160. Hoping to snuff Taira dominance at court Yoshitomo of the Minamoto clan and Nobuyori of the influential Fujiwara clan attacked Sanjō Palace in Kyoto, taking the current emperor Nijō and his father the “cloistered emperor” Go-Shirakawa hostage with a force of around 500 samurai.

'Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace during the Heiji Disturbance' from a 13th century scroll

The rebel Minamoto host stormed the palace slaughtering the emperors’ retainers and royal attendants and then set the palace ablaze. Their success was short lived however when a force of 3000 Tara cavalry attacked the burning palace, scattering the Minamoto and retaking custody of the errant emperors Nijō and Shirakawa. Yoshitomo fled only to be betrayed days later by a retainer and murdered unarmed-a great dishonor. His two eldest sons Yoshihira and Tomonaga had been slain in their father’s failed rebellion but his surviving sons were all spared and then exiled by Kiyomori.

Of Yoshitomo’s sons, three would become famous in Japanese history and play important roles in the Gempei War, Yoritomo, Yoshitsune (b.1159-1189), and Noriyori (b.1156-1193). Though he only had reigned unopposed from 1155-1158, emperor Go-Shirakawa would cast a large shadow over Japanese political affairs and military movements until his eventual death in the year 1192. Shirakawa influence is undeniable during this greater as he lived through the reigns of five different emperors; two of them, Takakura and Nijō, his sons.

Act I, 1180-1183, 1st Uji to Kurikara
The Gempei War began in March of 1180 in the aftermath of the abdication of yet another ineffective Japanese emperor, Takakura, who died in the year 1181 at the age of nineteen. The well respected and influential samurai lord Kiyomori enthroned his two year old grandson Antoku, son of Takakura, as emperor despite widespread discontent with the Tara clan’s rule. Classic sources note that Go-Shirakawa played a role as well; inciting open rebellion when he commanded his third son, Prince Mochihito to raise Minamoto banners in open rebellion. Mochihito was one of the first to declare for the Minamoto clan. Not long after, tens of thousands of men and a few women as well, levies, ashigaru (foot soldiers), warrior monks, and samurai, were in arms, declaring for either the Minamoto or Tara clans. 

Led by Prince Mochihito and Yorimasa, a samurai general and noted poet, a Minamato host attacked Uji outside Kyoto in the conflicts’ first battle in June of 1180. Yorimasa’s host of a few thousand warriors was bolstered by the famed warrior “monks of the mountains”, the naginta wielding buddhist monks of the Midera temple. These warrior monks attacked and then partially burned the city of Nara during the battle. They would sustain high casualties in the fighting with the Tara clan’s samurai in the melee.

Battle of Uji Bridge, 23 June 1180

A fierce counter attack by a relatively small Taira force led by Tommori (b.1152-1185), a son of Kiyomori, succeeded in pushing the Minamato clan back across the broken frame of the Uji bridge where hundreds were killed in bloody hand-to-hand combat. Some were forced or would choose to jump to their deaths into the water below during the fearsome struggle. Prince Mochihito was slain in the fighting most likely and the rebel Minamoto host was broken by the Tairan army. Yorimasa’s remaining samurai and retainers including several of his sons retreated to the temple of Byodo-In seeking refuge. As the Taira samurai descended the river valley nearer to temple the ever respected Yorimasa wrote his death poem on his war fan, “Like a rotten log-half buried in the ground-my life, which has not flowered, comes to this sad end” and committed hara kiri (seppuku), the ritual belly cutting suicide of the samurai warrior, the first known historical account of this the act being committed by a samurai lord after a significant defeat in battle. His head was taken from his body and his sons fled to avoid it’s capture by the vengeful Tara enemy.

In September of 1180 at the Battle of Ishibashiyama Yoritomo and a small Minamato clan force were defeated by a large Taira clan host led by Ōba Kagechika. Yoritomo's only major independent command in battle during the Gempei War was an utter failure. He was no match for the tactical and strategic acumen of both his allies and his many enemies in his own clan and amongst the Taira; Minamoto no Yoritmo was no warlord or strategic minded samurai, he was a daimyo and clan patriarch and above-all a politician foremost. Tommori of the Taira clan later attacked and burned the Miidera temple in retaliation for the mountain monks’ support of the Minamoto clan at the Battle of Uji. 

Depiction of Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan with a retainer c.1180

Tommori won another decisive victory in the Battle of Sunomata in August 1181 against Minamoto Yukiee, an uncle of Yoritomo. After Minamato samurai attempted to cross a river at night in order to ambush Tommori’s force his Tara samurai formed battle lines and savagely defended them into the small hours of the night; cutting down hundreds of Minamoto who passed amongst their ranks, telling friend from foe by the dripping wet armor of the attacking Minamoto samurai. A second battle fought as a rearguard action was fought shortly after the Minamoto defeat at Sunomata in the spring of 1181 at the bridge near Yahagi-gawa.

The Taira clan won again by preventing Yukiee from destroying the bridge and forcing him to withdraw back into Minamoto lands. Tommori took sick during the chase and his now depleted force was forced to halt their pursuit of the Minamoto. Had this not happened Tommori might have pressed on to defeat the Minamoto, winning the war in a decisive and bloody fashion. In March of the same year Kiyomori of the Taira clan died of fever leaving his eldest surviving Munemori as his heir. As such Munemori took legal custody of the child-emperor Antoku.

Munemori of the Taira clan

After a relatively peaceful lull in the fighting from the spring 1181 until the spring of 1183, the Gempei conflict was thus renewed when the Minamato clan’s top military commander Kiso Yoshinaka called his banners and attacked north into Taira lands nearer to the Noto Peninsula. As in many of the battles of the Gempei conflict, a river would play a decisive role in the less than month long Siege of Hiuchi from April to May 1183. Here a well guarded but simple fortress and dam held by a relatively small force led by Yoshinaka held out for several weeks against a Taira clan host led by the young samurai commander Koremori.

The Minamoto might have held against the larger Taira force had not a traitor fired an arrow from the battlements with a note to the Taira commanders detailing a not-so-secret way to breach Yoshinaka’s fortress atop a craggy outcrop along a hastily built dam. Koremori took the dam with the traitors advice but Yoshinaka was able to escape along with most of his men to raid Taira territory again. Yoshinaka achieved revenge for his defeat by treachery several months later in June of 1183 when he won a truly remarkable victory over the Taira at the Battle of Kurikara Pass.

Battle of Kurikara Map

With perhaps 10,000-15,000 men facing a much larger (but most likely exaggerated) Taira clan army of between 18,000-40,000 soldiers, Yoshinaka and his uncle Yukiee won with nothing less than tactical elegance and élan. He struck thirty white Minamoto clan banners atop Kurosaka hill while the Taira clan’s massive host rested a little more than a mile away. Yoshinaka divided his forces, a mobile and partly mounted force attacked from the rear while a detachment of Minamoto samurai loosed arrows from concealed positions on the Taira frontline. The remainder of his men were held in the center. A trap was set and the Taira took the bait. The jaws of Yoshinaka’s assault hit them like bullet train. Within a span of 10-12 minutes his forces had charged the Taira from two sides and scattered them entirely almost entirely. Some were ridden down into a nearby valley and slaughtered. Others were killed under a highly effective and concealed arrow barrage. For the coup de grâce, Yoshinakas’ mounted force drove a herd of oxen with torches attached to their horns into the Taira’s rearguard column knocking some of their men off the foothills into the valley below, spreading fear and confusion everywhere in the aftermath. By any standard the Minamoto clan victory at Kurikara had been a decisive rout.

Battle of Kurikara 1184

Act II, 1183-1184-Shinowara to the Taking of Kyoto by Kiso Yoshinaka

Other great battles followed the decisive Minamoto clan victory at the Kurikara pass. These included Shinowara, a bloody battle which began as an archery duel and then rapidly descended into bloody melee between the Minamoto and Taira led by Yoshinaka and Munemori respectively. The Minamoto carried the day yet again in this battle led by the brave and bold strategic mastermind Kiso Yoshinaka. Weeks later at the Battle of Mizushima, a Minamoto host commanded by Yoshiyasu was sent to the Bitchū province to attack the Taira clan bases in the Inland Sea near Yashima and Shikoku island. Minamoto and Taira armies met in the sea off Kurashiki near the Takahashi river in a most unique naval engagement. 

Theater of War during the Gempei Conflict, 1180-1185

According to a posthumous account, Tara clan ships were fastened together with planks and made into a single standing battle platform off the coast as a sort coastal blockade. The account details , “The Heike [Tara] ships were made fast alongside each other by [rope cables] from the stem [to] stern...so that the whole became like a level surface for the fighting men. At the onset of the battle, samurai general Noto no kami Noritsune cried out in a mighty voice ‘Ho! men of Shikoku! How can you bear the shame of being taken alive by these boors of the north! Upon them and grapple!” (The Samurai Sourcebook, Stephen Turnbull).

In the refined melee on the waves that followed hundreds were killed by arrows, swords, or spears. The issue was only decided after surviving Minamoto samurai attempted to swim to shore however Noritsune rode them down in the shallows with 500 Taira cavalry capturing or killing many before they made it to the safety of shore. Yoshinaka’s milk brother and contemporary samurai commander Imai Kanehira won another minor victory against the Taira at Fukuryūji several days later; charging through muddy ricefields under an arrow storm to defeat the Taira partisan Seno Kaneyasu who was slain in the action. 

Taira clan samurai aboard their ships during the Gempei War

In 1184 the dynamic of the Gempei conflict drastically mutated into a factionalist struggle. The Taira seemed all but defeated when Yoshinaka entered Kyoto and gained custody of both the young Emperor Antoku and the cloistered instigator of the conflict in 1180, emperor Go-Shirakawa. His army committed many outrages against the populace of Kyoto, pillaging, burning, or killing perhaps hundreds of people and properties. Though he was a highly respected samurai lord, gaining de facto status as shogun because of his great victories and his custody of the emperor, Yoshinaka was eventually held accountable and veritably ostracized by most of his former Minamoto clan allies.

Kiso Yoshinaka

The events that followed sowed the seeds for a rather brief but violent inter-clan conflict between pro-Yoritomo loyalists and Yoshinaka rebels. Yoritomo’s fragile hold on the Minamoto’s clan hierarchy had cracked and now Minamoto clan banners were raised against him for the very first time. Kiso Yoshinaka declared  war on his cousin Yoritmo by attacking the temple of Hōjūjidono in Kyoto. On Yoshinaka’s order his samurai torched the sacred venue with fire arrows and then proceeded to mercilessly slaughter its defenders and courtly inhabitants. Yoshinaka and his rebel Minamoto clique took personal custody of emperor Go-Shirakawa before the palace was wrecked. This coup d'états results' did not last long and would quickly have a disastrous outcome for Yoshinaka and his retinue. Yoritomo soon gained the trust of the fickle cloistered emperor and made peace with him and the royal house, formally cutting Yoshinaka out of the Minamoto ascendancy entirely. It was agreed by both parties that the common enemy was still the Taira clan and Kiso Yoshinaka as well.

Act III, 1184-2nd Uji to Ichi-no-Tana
Some of the Gempei conflicts most poignant and well remembered battles were fought during the last period of the war between the two rival Minamoto factions. Following their great victory at Kurikara the Minamoto clan led by Yoritomo and his younger brothers, the great warrior and strategist Yoshitsune and the equally brave as well as industrious younger brother Noriyori, looked to press their advantage against the Taira clan and push closer towards Kyoto and the Inland Sea. But first they had to defeat the rebel Yoshinaka and his rebel host. Yoshinaka and his retainers' life were now forfeit. After the burning of Hōjūjidono, Yoshinaka and his army fled from Kyoto to the Uji River-the site of the wars’ first battle in 1180.

Yoshitsune, then known as Ushiwakamaru, defeats the bandit chief Kumasaka Chohan in c.1174

Yoritomo’s half brother Yoshitsune led the Minamoto host into battle against their cousin, now the pretender shogun, Kiso Yoshinaka, who held the the opposite end of the river which the Minamoto and Mochihito samurai had held in 1180. Though small in stature Yoshitsune was fearless warrior. An adept archer, sailor, and swordsmen, Yoshitsune first gained renown when he defeated a bandit chief by the name of Kumasaka Chohan at the age of fifteen. According to the recorded tales of his life he braved many martial adventures (both real and semi-mythical) by the time he was reunited with his brothers sometime in 1179-1180.

Yoshitsune won the day at the Second Battle of Uji however Yoshinaka was able to retreat in good order with a fair portion of his army intact. Following his flight from the capital he regrouped with his old battle companion Imai Kanehira the victor of the Battle of Fukuryūji and his concubine, Tomoe Gozen (b.1158-1247), an onna-bugeisha (women warrior), his retainer who happened to be highly skilled in the samurai’ arts of war. It was said that she was as brave and as deadly as many of her male counterparts. The Minamoto rebels fled north to Awazu (Ōtsu) following their defeat at the Second Battle of Uji but were caught by Yoshitsune and Noriyori’s host. After the trading of arrow barrages the fighting got close enough for katana and tanto (dagger), there was much blood spilt between each sides samurai and ashigaru. The traditional sources and epic poems of the later ages focus exclusively on the often bloody and at times fatal personal combat between rival samurais in many of the wars' later battles especially at Second Uji and Awazu. Perhaps the most notable personal combat fought at the Battle of Awazu in 1184 featured the female warrior-concubine Tomoe Gozen. With her lover’s army reeling; his retainers cut down and with many ashigaru fleeing, dead or dieing, Tomoe Gozen met three Minamoto samurai in single combat while attempting to flee the field.

First she killed a well known samurai named Honda no Moroshige, taking his head upon defeat, a great honor for any samurai of any generation. She then slew Minamoto samurai Uchida Ieyoshi with her katana and then defeated Hatakeyama Shigetada in single combat to make good on her escape. Yoshinaka, the great daimyo and would-be Minamoto shogun was felled by an arrow attempting to escape across a rice-likely riding towards a safe location to commit ritual suicide. Upon witnessing or being informed of his dear companions’ death, Imai Kanehira put his katana in his mouth and jumped off his horse, killing himself instantly in a last act of loyalty to his now deceased master.

Tomoe Gozen in combat with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama Shigetada

Three more battles were fought against the Taira Clan in the wars’ final stages. The first, largest, and most notable was certainly the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani which was fought on 18 March 1184. Yoshitsune led 2500-3000 Minamoto soldiers against a roughly even number of Taira ashigaru and samurai. In a dashing foray up a steep coastal cliff near Suma, Yoshitune and his men breached the Ichi-no-Tani fortress and then set it ablaze. There was a great deal of archery and melee action to take the fortress and again nearly countless personal combats, both heralded and unheralded.

The Minamoto samurai chased their Tara counterparts to the beach below Ichi-no-Tani where the fighting continued until the rest of the Taira force fled or were killed. Noriyori won another minor victory for his brother over a fleeing Taira clan army on the coast of Kojima in March of 1184. Next Yoshitsune raised a large fleet and with a 500-1000 men sailed across the Inland Sea and launched an attack against the Taira on the island of Shikoku. Upon landing on the island he personally led a night assault against the Taira clan samurai at Yashima who were led by Tommori. The Minamoto won a moderate victory though the remainder of the Taira clan ships and samurai escaped to sea yet again.

Yoshitsune and a retainer ride to the fighting at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani

Final Act, Battle of Dan-no-ura March 1185

The Battle of Dan-no-ura was fought on 24 March 1185 in the Straits of Shimonoseki-nearly at the crossroads of the Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan. Yoshitsune had a great fleet of 150-200 ships and many loyal and experienced samurai under his command when he sailed to meet the Tara clans’ fleet days before this most epic of battles. Tommori had a large fleet as well, perhaps 150 or more ships and he was also an experienced sailor who knew the waters of Shimonoseki well. In addition, Tommori's samurai were on the run, ragged and hungry for a decisive victory over their enemies. Among the ships in the Tairan fleet was a smaller inconspicuous royal junk carrying the seven year old dethroned emperor Antoku and his grandmother and guardian, Kiyomori's widowed wife Tokiko. In their possession were the royal jewels and artifacts including the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the mythical and sacred Japanese sword of state.

Action was begun with a particularly dramatic archery duel between the opposing armies their vessels. We can imagine that thousands of arrows were fired in this duel in less than one hour. The Taira had formed battle lines as three squadrons whilst the Minamoto fleet sailed in a large pack with Yoshitsune’s ships sailing abreast of one another. The battle began at Ebb tide giving a distinct advantage to Tommori who used the shallows near the coast to sail circles around Yoshitsune’s ships. By eleven in the morning the battle turned to vicious melee combat. Fighting was fierce and little or no quarter was asked for or given between the two hated factions.

The final defeat of the Taira at Dan-no-aura, Tommori is center

It was in the melee where the tide of the battle finally turned, literally as well as figuratively. Though the Minamoto had fought poorly the coming of high tide renewed their effort in the Battle of Dan-no-aura. Tommori’s men held fast until treachery reared its grotesque head on the tidal waters of the battle like a monstrous sea serpent. A Taira clan commander named Miura Yoshizumi betrayed his comrades and attacked the Taira’s rear in support of the Minamoto. He also informed Yoshitsune’s commanders that the largest ship which appeared to be carrying emperor Antoku was actually a decoy vessel. The Minamoto soon found the royal ship and successfully disabled it by killing the ships oarsmen with arrows. As more and more Taira ships were cast aimlessly into the waves by the same tactic the struggle ultimately became a rout.

Hundreds of Taira samurai committed suicide by throwing themselves along with their heavy armor and weapons into the ocean. Most of the major Taira lords did just this or were slain in the confusing and bloody actions beforehand. Tommori as legend holds, wrapped himself in his ships anchor and then plummeted to the bottom of the sea to avoid dishonor at the hands of his Minamoto enemies. Emperor Antoku and his grandmother jumped from their simple junk into the sea as well along with the Japanese royal regalia and state sword. None were seen again except for the ancient royal state mirror which was eventually recovered. Yoshitsune had won a total, war-ending victory. Munemori, son and heir of the Taira clan patriarch Kiyomori was captured alive in the battle and later executed for treason in Kyoto.

Battle of Dan-no-ura by Yoshikazu c.1850's-Depicts Yoshitunes 'eight boat leap' to escape Taira samurai during the early portion of the battle.

And so the Gempei War ended in a Minamoto victory. With most of the Taira clan’s hegemony dead, missing, or scattered it was now Yoritomo’s time to build the bakufu military government, know simply as the Shogunate thereafter to history. Just four years later Yoritomo’s rule over the Minamoto clan was again challenged, this time by his then exiled brother Yoshitsune who raised an army with the support of emperor Shirakawa. Yoshitsune was soon defeated and made a marked man until his death by suicide following his defeat at the Battle of Koromo River in June of 1189.

Armies and Warfare in the Gempei War, 1180-1185

Not surprisingly, very little information can be found to accurately ascertain troop strengths, dispositions of the two major forces, and the greater strategic/tactical maneuvering of the campaigns which comprise the majority of the Gempei War, 1180-1185. Though we know a great deal about the samurai warrior caste and its military history as a whole, the political machinations of the period perhaps overshadow this muddled and little dissected conflict. It is also important to highlight the contribution of other non-samurai military forces during this conflict as well. The overwhelming majority of (common) foot soldiers (later known as the ashigaru) during the Gempei War would have fought with primarily two weapons: the long shafted naginta or kama yari, a fearsome utilitarian weapon with a razor sharp curved blade, and the bow and arrow.

Many samurai of this period were master bowmen for sure and we can imagine that many non-samurai were trained in the use of bows and arrows use whilst hunting in the lush forests and valleys of Japan. Foot soldiers used the bow and naginta/pole weapons in abundance as did the samurai. Japanese chroniclers of the later medieval and early renaissance period have tended to entirely negate the battle contributions of the ashigaru in almost every single one of the battles and skirmishes of the Gempei War and its preceding conflicts. Women fought as well in small numbers though none had the last legacy of the beautiful and heroic Tomoe Gozen. 

Mounted Gempei era samurai

Samurai of the period fought armored and armed with the traditional weapons of their class. In the Gempei Wars' era the samurai was primarily used as a mounted archer unit. They fought adequately with naginta and spear but the skills applied to archery and bow warfare were seen as essential. Though many samurai and ashigaru clashed steel and wood during the conflict, it was the bow and arrow that caused the lions share of the wounds and fatalities in many of the Gempei conflict’s battles. Mounted samurai archers were the king of battle during Heian period warfare, Well funded samurai would often fight the battle mounted in the ō-yoroi or “box armor”, a heavy, inflexible, and cumbersome full body armor designed for cavalry-archery combat exclusively. When samurai were serving as retainers or foot soldiers they wore the light and flexible dō-maru body wrap armor instead.

The standard samurai weapons were the katana and the the smaller tanto for close proximity, melee and personal combat. Nagintas and traditional spears were often used in this early period as well. It was not until the Mongol invasion of Kublai Khan (b.1215-1294) in 1274 and 1281 that samurai began to fight on foot more often than not relying less overall on mounted archery in pitched battles. Many melee combat duels during the Gempei era were concluded in hand-to-hand combat with a particular attention paid by samurais to the “grapple” style of combat. In one such instance at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani in 1184, a Minamoto samurai killed a Tara foe by “[snatching] his dagger from his side and pulling up the skirt of his [enemies] armour, stabbed him so deeply three times that the hilt went in after the blade. Having thus dispatched him he cut off his head.” (The Samurai Sourcebook, Turnbull).

Depiction of a Samurai during the Gempei War

There were distinctly three castes of the samurai military society during the greater period of conflict from 1151-1189 encompassing the Gempei War. At the top were the daimyo, the ruling class of lords of the major and minor Japanese provinces. They owed fealty to the emperor and their clan patriarch. As fuedal lords they ruled their provinces or domains as military governors, justices of the peace, sheriffs, and landlords. The mid-level samurai were the ranking soldiers who fought for clan (family) honor and/or their lord or master’s personal honor. The third class consisted of retainers and household samurai who served their respected daimyo or samurai warlord in numerous capacities. These were often third or fourth sons of samurai lords or commoners who served as armed retainers and servants (sandal-bearers).

Even in this early age the samurai lords and ranking samurai were a most fascinating breed of warriors. They lived for honor and many often died by the sword; fighting for justice and honor, some for revenge or self serving material interest, and some for the simple love of combat and battle. For most samurai personal loyalty and honor were life's only true purpose. A good death in battle or by your own hand (seppuku) was considered most noble. Though the samurai were warriors of the highest order they also enjoyed writing poems, watching or acting in plays, hunting, athletics, and courting women. Most came from large families so providing land and status for one’s sons, daughters, and grandchildren was of high importance to ranking samurai.

This fascinating but still emerging samurai warrior caste was on full display during the long and relatively bloody Gempei War from 1180-1185. Seemingly endless accounts translated to English and still many others untranslated from Japanese describe and likely embellish a great deal relating to personal combat between samurai during the battles of this great Japanese conflict. Military and civil power were greatly altered following the end of the conflict and the eventual proclamation of the samurai ruled government, the Kamakura Shogunate in the year 1192, ruled by Shogun Yoritomo with the blessing of emperor Go-Toba (b.1180-1239).

Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (b.1147-1199), who ruled as first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan, 1192-1199

Suggested Further Reading
The Samurai Sourcebook By: Stephen Turnbull (Cassell & CO. 1998-2002).

Samurai Commanders (1) 940-1576 By: Turnbull, illustrated by Richard Hook (Osprey Publishing, 2005).