Siege of Sevastopol Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the Crimean War, a struggle for territorial dominance and against Russian expansionism in the Danubian regions of the waning Ottoman Empire, allied armies from four nations lay siege to the important Russian naval base of Sevastopol on the shores of the Black Sea. This campaign, the most important of the entire war, inflicted major casualties on both sides and continued for nearly one year before the city finally fell to the attacking forces.

Summary of Event

On October 4, 1853, the Turkish Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia, and Great Britain and France followed suit in the spring of 1854. The Black Sea area was the main theater of the conflict, with the naval base and fortress at Sevastopol as the primary target of the allies. The British government, in June of 1854, instructed First Baron Raglan, the British commander, to capture the city. In the instructions written by the duke of Newcastle, Raglan is told, “ there is no prospect of a safe and honourable peace until the fortress is reduced and the fleet taken or destroyed . . .” Sevastopol, Siege of (1854-1855) Crimean War (1853-1856);Siege of Sevastopol Black Sea;and Crimean War[Crimean War] Russia;Sevastopol Raglan, First Baron [kw]Siege of Sevastopol (Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855) [kw]Sevastopol, Siege of (Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855) Sevastopol, Siege of (1854-1855) Crimean War (1853-1856);Siege of Sevastopol Black Sea;and Crimean War[Crimean War] Russia;Sevastopol Raglan, First Baron [g]Ukraine;Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855: Siege of Sevastopol[3010] [g]Russia;Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855: Siege of Sevastopol[3010] [g]Ottoman Empire;Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855: Siege of Sevastopol[3010] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855: Siege of Sevastopol[3010] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 17, 1854-Sept. 11, 1855: Siege of Sevastopol[3010] Totleben, Eduard Nakhimov, Pavel Menshikov, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Gorchakov, Mikhail Saint-Arnaud, Armand-Jacques Leroy de Canrobert, Certain

The three allies gathered troops and supplies and then moved by ship across the Black Sea in early September, landing on the Crimea on September 14, 1854, about thirty miles north of Sevastopol. The army of approximately sixty thousand had its first serious engagement at the Battle of the Alma on September 20. Russian forces, under Prince Aleksandr Sergeyevich Menshikov, Menshikov, Aleksandr Sergeyevich delayed but did not defeat the allied forces, and so Menshikov retreated to Sevastopol with his remaining troops. The town had a population of approximately forty-five thousand, including sailors assigned to naval units or serving on warships in the area. Adding Menshikov’s soldiers increased the strength of the garrison. Commanders on the scene, however, predicted the city could not survive an early allied assault without the arrival of reinforcements, a situation also compounded by the lack of crucial defensive positions around the city.

The allied high command discussed strategies to attack the city, quickly revealing disagreement among British and French generals where and when to begin offensive operation. While Raglan initially favored an assault from the north side of the city, other British generals and the French favored a delay until more forces could be put in position. They also pointed out the difficulties of an attack from the north, for a lengthy and wide harbor on the north side of the city and naval base would make an attack extremely difficult. After further deliberations, British forces bypassed the city to the east and then moved west to prepare to attack Sevastopol from the south. The French held the left side of the allied position.

A lack of extensive defensive fortifications to the south and southeast had two immediate and critical consequences. The first was that the Russians began round-the-clock construction of a series of integrated defenses, comprising earthworks, trenches, protected gun positions, and several key forts. A great deal was achieved in a relatively short time, with the credit for this remarkable achievement going to a talented Russian engineering officer, Eduard Totleben, Totleben, Eduard who oversaw the effort. Directing the defense of the city, Admiral Pavel Nakhimov Nakhimov, Pavel earned a high reputation for his able leadership during the siege before he was killed in 1855.

Once in position to the south of the city, the allied commanders disagreed about when to attack the Russian positions. Raglan initially favored an immediate assault before the Russian defenses were improved, but French commanders and some of Raglan’s generals favored a more cautious strategy. The change of the French commander at that time from General Armand-Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud Saint-Arnaud, Armand-Jacques Leroy de to General Certain Canrobert, Canrobert, Certain because of Saint-Arnaud’s fatal illness, further disrupted joint military planning at this crucial time.

Another argument that favored a delay was the need for additional time to bring more troops, supplies, and siege artillery for a full assault against the city and its defenses. Raglan eventually changed his mind and agreed to postpone an offensive. One of his generals, upset at Ragan’s vacillation, argued in vain that his troops could have virtually walked into the Russian lines with minimal casualties. Disagreements at the highest military levels continued among leaders on both sides throughout the early period of the siege.

Allied forces making their final assault at Sevastopol.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The first major attack of the Sevastopol campaign, which began on October 17, saw the allies periodically attempting to destroy the Russian defenses and break into the city. The artillery bombardment lasted only two days without success. A week later, Russian forces took the offensive, surprising and attacking British and Turkish positions several miles to the south at Balaklava on October 25. While having some initial tactical success in the Battle of Balaklava Balaklava, Battle of (1854) , the Russians withdrew. Soon after, on November 5, the Russians attacked British forces at the Battle of Inkerman Inkerman, Battle of (1854) to the east of Sevastopol, but the results were indecisive. It became clear that only a long siege would determine the outcome.

Harsh weather conditions during the winter of 1854-1855 reduced the intensity of military operations, aside from artillery exchanges, but the allies renewed their infantry assaults in the spring of 1855 with some success. Figures vary, but allied troops participating in the Sevastopol campaign (British, French, Turkish, and Sardinian) greatly outnumbered the defenders by a ratio of approximately three or four to one. In mid-June, several significant British and French infantry assaults on key points in the Russian lines had mixed results. These attacks caused high casualties on both sides. Raglan’s death in late June further complicated allied decisions and offensive operations. Russian forces under Prince Mikhail Gorchakov, Gorchakov, Mikhail who succeeded Menshikov Menshikov, Aleksandr Sergeyevich in 1855, tried to break the allied lines to the east of Sevastopol at the Battle of Chernaya River in mid-August, but the attempt failed. The fate of the city and its defenders could not be avoided.

The final and sustained allied assaults on the Russian defenses began in August, 1855. Efforts to destroy and overwhelm the defenses with massive artillery and advancing infantry finally succeeded, although at high cost, with French and British forces furiously fighting their way into the city on September 8. The Russians destroyed vast amounts of military supplies and equipment before they withdrew to the north and the city fell to the enemy.

Russia’s great novelist Leo Tolstoy Tolstoy, Leo was a young officer who served in the Russian army inside Sevastopol for many months during the siege. Drawing on his experiences, he wrote a series of sketches called “Sevastopol v dekabre,” “Sevastopol v maye,” and “Sevastopol v avguste” (1854-1856; collected in translation as Sebastopol, 1887), which found a receptive audience. This was the beginning of Tolstoy’s distinguished career as a renowned author.

Significance

Participants on both sides of the siege learned important and sometimes painful lessons from the Sevastopol campaign. For the allies, the high casualties resulting from frontal attacks by waves of infantry against the Russian lines was a prophetic warning that would be even more evident during World War I. The use of siege artillery against Russian positions gradually became more effective. Serious supply problems facing the allied coalition eventually created an improved system to cope with the extensive needs of large bodies of troops. Efforts to achieve better coordination between field commanders and the search for capable leaders also led to modifications in the British and French high command.

The Sevastopol campaign revealed serious weaknesses within the Russian command system, especially the need to recognize and appoint officers who could provide effective tactical and strategic leadership. Unrealistic or questionable orders from the Russian government in St. Petersburg complicated the efforts of local commanders on the scene. More broadly, the defeat at Sevastopol revealed the regime’s inability to defend its own territory from invading forces that traveled far distances. An important strategic outcome of the defeat was Russia’s decline as the leading power on the Black Sea in its competition with Turkey. Within fifteen years, however, the Russian Navy, Russian Russia;navy navy reasserted its strength at Sevastopol and moved its warships into Turkish waters. These conditions eventually led to the resumption of hostilities in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)[Russo Turkish War (1877-1878)]

An important domestic consequence of the war was the Russian government’s decision under a new monarch to undertake major changes to improve the country’s economy and modernize its military to better resist more advanced nations like France and Britain in future conflicts.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumgart, Winfried. The Crimean War, 1853-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Describes the allied siege of Sevastopol, with clear coverage of the costly infantry attacks against the city.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brighton, Terry. Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. A thorough book on the Battle of Balaklava with maps and photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ffrench Blake, R. L. V. The Crimean War. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Military, 1997. Provides helpful information on the siege, especially in describing and illustrating the techniques and topography of the Russian defenses around the city.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pemberton, W. Baring. Battles of the Crimean War. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Older account, but still a valuable source on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royle, Trevor. Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A comprehensive, 564-page study of the Crimean War. Includes maps, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seaton, Albert. The Crimean War: A Russian Chronicle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. Useful description of the Sevastopol siege and Russian leadership, troops, and defense.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Phillip. The Crimean War: A Reappraisal. New York: Taplinger, 1973. Includes extensive coverage on the Sevastopol siege, both in descriptions of military operations and in the daily lives of the troops.

Crimean War

Battle of Balaklava

Nightingale Takes Charge of Nursing in the Crimea

Bulgarian Revolt Against the Ottoman Empire

Third Russo-Turkish War

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Alexander II; John Bright; Count Cavour; Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha; Napoleon III; Nicholas I; Florence Nightingale; Lord Palmerston; Leo Tolstoy. Sevastopol, Siege of (1854-1855) Crimean War (1853-1856);Siege of Sevastopol Black Sea;and Crimean War[Crimean War] Russia;Sevastopol Raglan, First Baron

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