Sevastopol, Defense of 1854–55

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sevastopol’, Defense of (1854–55)


the heroic defense of Sevastopol’ from Sept. 13 (25), 1854, to Aug. 27 (Sept. 8), 1855, during the Crimean War of 1853–56.

After their defeat on the Alma River on Sept. 8 (20), 1854, the Russian Forces, commanded by A. S. Menshikov, retreated first to the south side of Sevastopol’ and then toward Bakhchisarai. On September 13 (25), Sevastopol’ was declared to be in a state of siege. The Russian Black Sea Fleet (16 sailing ships-of-the-line, four sailing and six steam frigates, and other ships, with a total of 24,500 crew members), which was assembled in the roadstead, and the city garrison of about 7,000 men were pitted against a 67,000-strong allied army (41,000 French, 20,000 British, and 6,000 Turks) and against overwhelming naval forces (34 ships-of-the-line, including four steam-powered ships, and 55 frigates, of which 50 were steam-powered). Sevastopol’ was prepared to defend itself against sea attack (eight coastal batteries with 610 guns), but it was poorly defended on land, having only old or incompleted fortifications on the south side, with 145 guns. The defense was led by the chief of staff of the fleet. Vice Admiral V. A. Kornilov, and his assistant was Vice Admiral P. S. Nakhimov.

On September 11 (23) five old ships-of-the-line and two frigates were sunk across the bay to prevent the enemy from breaking in. Some of the guns were taken from the ships for use on the land, and 22 battalions were formed from ship crews, which built the garrison up to 20,000 men. The allied command (British general Lord Raglan and French general C. Canrobert) decided not to storm Sevastopol’ immediately and, bypassing it on the south (during which time the allied forces nearly collided on the march with Menshikov’s retreating forces), launched siege operations. This allowed the forces in Sevastopol’ to set up seven bastions and other fortifications on the south side and install 341 guns, including 118 heavy guns, as opposed to the enemy’s 144. On September 18 (30), Menshikov’s forces returned to the north side, and the garrison grew to 35,000.

On October 5 (17) the allies undertook the first bombardment from land and sea, but Russian artillerymen neutralized virtually all the land batteries and damaged several ships, forcing the fleet to withdraw. The allied command put off the scheduled assault and launched a prolonged siege. On the same day Kornilov was mortally wounded, and Nakhimov assumed leadership of the defense. Menshikov tried to strike the rear of the allied siege corps, but after the battle of Balaklava of 1854 and the defeat in the battle of Inkerman of the same year, he halted aggressive actions. The allies, who had suffered large losses in manpower through illness and on ships from storms at sea, almost halted siege operations, which were already retarded by artillery fire and raids by the defenders of Sevastopol’.

By February 1855 allied forces had increased to 120,000, and they again undertook siege operations, directing their main efforts against the key position of the besieged forces, Malakhov Hill. Nakhimov and his assistants (Rear Admiral V. I. Is-tomin, military engineer E. I. Totleben, and others) organized an aggressive defense, setting up a system of forward fortifications (the Selenginskii and Volynskii redoubts, the Kamchatskii Lunette, and others), which covered the approaches to Malakhov Hill. Allied attempts to take the fortifications in February and March ended in failure.

By April the allies had 170,000 men (to the Sevastopol’ garrison’s 40,000) and 541 guns. Ammunition was delivered from Balaklava along a narrow-gauge railroad. The besieged forces had 466 guns, but they were short on ammunition because delivery by draft animals was very slow. From March 28 (April 9) to April 6 (18) the allies carried out the second bombardment, which the besieged forces survived, despite heavy losses. General M. D. Gorchakov, who had replaced Menshikov as the commander of forces in the Crimea, considered resistance useless in view of the enemy’s superiority in forces and the growing losses (approximately 9,000 men in March, more than 10,000 in April, and about 17,000 in May). He tried to get the tsar to consent to an evacuation of the south side of Sevastopol’.

French general J.-J. Pélissier, who had replaced Canrobert, received an order from Napoleon III to speed up the capture of Sevastopol’ without regard for losses. During the night of May 10 (22), two French divisions took the trenches in front of the bastions of the Gorodskaia Storona (City Side) and on May 26 (June 7), after the third bombardment, five French divisions captured the fortifications in front of the bastions of the Kora-bel’naia Storona (Ship Side). On June 6 (18), after the fourth bombardment, eight French and British divisions (44,000 men) launched an assault on the Ship Side. They were driven back by 20,000 Sevastopol’ fighters under the command of General S. A. Khrulev. However, the forces of the defenders of the city were melting away. On June 28 (July 10), Nakhimov was mortally wounded. An attempt by Gorchakov in August to attack the allied rear on the Chernaia River ended in a Russian defeat. The allies undertook the fifth bombardment, and Sevastopol’ losses exceeded 1,000 a day. Construction was begun on a floating bridge across Severnaia Bay. It was completed on August 15 (27).

The sixth bombardment, from 807 guns, began on August 24 (September 5). Firing 150,000 shells (three times as many as the Russians fired from their 540 guns), the allied artillery flattened the Russian fortifications. The defenders’ losses were 2,000–3,000 a day. On August 27 (September 8) eight French and five British divisions and one Sardinian brigade (about 60,000 men) launched an assault on Sevastopol’. The city’s garrison totaled 40,000 men, but most had been withdrawn out of the shelling zone to the second line. French forces, employing a surprise attack, took the line of bastions on the Ship Side. Launching a counterattack, the defenders were able to drive them back everywhere except on Malakhov Hill, which decided the outcome of the defense. In the evening Gorchakov ordered forces withdrawn to the north side across the bridge, and on August 28 (September 9) the allies took the heavily damaged south side.

The allies lost 71,000 men during the defense of Sevastopol’, not counting the sick and victims of disease. The Russians lost about 102,000. The stubborn, heroic defense made Sevastopol’ renowned throughout the world and also influenced the peace negotiations.

Among the many inscribed in the chronicle of glory of the Russian Army and Navy are the names Kornilov, Nakhimov, Istomin, Khrulev, and Totleben; the officers A. V. Mel’nikov, N. A. Birilev, P. Zavalishin, F. M. Novosil’skii, P. L. Zherve, and A. I. Panfilov; the sailors P. M. Koshka, I. Dimchenko, F. Zaika, and A. Rybakov; the soldiers A. Eliseev, I. Shevchenko, and Ia. Makhov; and the physician N. I. Pirogov.

The experience of a prolonged and successful defense of a naval fortress by joint naval and land forces was a valuable addition to the art of war. The defense of Sevastopol’ is depicted in a panoramic painting by F. A. Rubo called The Defense of Sevastopol’ (1902–04), which has been hung in a special hall in Sevastopol’.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.