Tirolese wooden artillery… and the lead up to the (2nd) Battle of Berg Isel

The weaknesses of the Tirolese Rebels included their lack of Cavalry and Artillery; the later they made up to a small degree with some wooden cannon!

I found yet another romanticized account of the 1809 rebellion on line, this one quite lengthy, “The Tyrolese Patriots of 1809”, by Harriet D. Thompson, published in London in 1859. The following chapter sets the stage for the (2nd) Battle of Berg Isel.


    CHASTELER having given orders for the evacuation of the Tyrol, had himself proceeded to Bruneck on his way to join the Archduke John. A subsequent message, how ever, from that prince acquainted him with a change of plan. The line of communication with Villach was now interrupted; moreover, it had been decided that Tyrol was too important a position to be abandoned, if it could possibly be maintained, a fact which ought to have had greater weight from the beginning. so solemnly made to its generous peasantry, they seem to have entered little into the account. From first to last Tyrol was regarded simply as a position to defend, and the faithful loyalty of its inhabitants but a convenient assistance towards that object. Chasteler’s irresolutions were far from being terminated by the revocation of the late order, and his hesitation was increased by the existence of two parties around him, the one in favor of retreat, the other of prolonged defense. His adjutant Veider and Hormayr belonged to the latter class; while General Marschall, and others of his stain , had nothing so much at heart as to leave “this accursed land and the companionship of peasants.” Such was the miserable pride which infected more or less most of the superior officers, men chiefly of aristocratic rank and prejudices. Chasteler was also discouraged b the consciousness of having lost the confidence of the Tyrolese, and by the mortifications he had experienced; while at this very juncture he was unfortunately cast down, to a degree scarcely conceivable, by the sight of Napoleon’s proclamation against himself. Chasteler’s valor in the field was unquestionable, whatever might be his deficiency of rapidity in movement and energy in counsel; but so inexplicable is the heart of man, that a spirit which would: have risen in the hour of battle, and before the face of the enemy, quailed at the perusal of the piece of paper which Teimer handed over to him in the place of the expected agreement.

    While the Austrian general was still in this state of painful indecision, Hofer had hastened to Brixen; and learning of the general retreat which had begun, repaired to Bruneck to join his entreaties and representations to those of the defense party. Chasteler was moved, and returning as far as Muehlback, sent orders in various directions for a renewal of active operations. Buol, who within the space of a few days received no less than fifteen conflicting orders from his commander-in-chief, was remanded to the entrenchments of the Brenner; a position of so much importance, that its non-occupation by the Bavarians, while they had a favorable opportunity, would be quite unintelligible, did we not call to mind how thoroughly they were satisfied that all opposition had been put down by the terror of their arms an the merciless chastisement they had inflicted. Hofer, who on this occasion received from Chasteler a sword of honor and a beautiful pair of Turkish pistols taken from the Bavarians, summoned once more the peasantry of the Passe r. Burggrafenamt and Vintschgau rose at his call, and the concourse of armed peasantry towards the Brenner swelled every hour. The men of Passeyr, as usual, were forward in zeal and daring. “ No worse than death can befall us,” they exclaimed, “ and what other prospect have we any way? Better meet it with arms in our hands, fighting against the enemy, than be abandoned, with all we have, a sacrifice to their fury.” The enthusiasm was shared by noble as well as by peasant. Count von Stachelburg, the last of his name and race, tore himself from the arms of his family to die a hero’s death but a few days later at the Berg Isel. The Baroness Sternbach gave up her jewels ans sold her cattle to advance the patriotic cause; she herself even made her appearance armed and on horseback, and inflamed the courage of the patriots. These, however, are but specimens of the many acts of self-devotion, in that most heroic episode of modern times, the Tyrolese war, which have passed unrecorded for want of a pen to chronicle them, and the very memory of which will perish with the present generation.

Picture of a wooden gun in a museum in Salzburg, era uncertain.

    Chasteler’s resolution did not endure long. He suddenly recalled his dispositions, and countermarched his troops to the frontier at Lienz, with the view of effecting a junction with the Archduke. News which he had received of the advance eastward of the army of the Viceroy of Italy was, it appears, the ostensible reason for this change. When Buol showed Hofer at Sterzing, on the 22d [of May, 1809], his commander’s written order in justification of his withdrawal from the asses of the Brenner, it is said that the patriot. leader rushed home, and casting himself on his bed, wept like a child. They were no ignoble tears, however, which fell from Hofer’s eyes; they were the tears of a generous and devoted spirit, wounded to the quick at the requital which the fidelity and self-sacrifice his country had met at the hands of those upon whose grateful consideration it had so strong a claim. They were tears of disappointment at seeing Tyrol forsaken at the most critical moment by a force quite sufficient, in combination with its own population, to have freed the land from its invaders. They were the last, perhaps, that be shed for this cause; for from this time we may date the prominent part which, as general leader, Hofer took in the liberation of his country. To this post he was entitled by the letters of the Archduke, appointing him commander-in-chief of all the Tyrolese forces, both in the north and in the south; and in this capacity he now came forward with decision and authority. 

    Disappointed on the one hand in the sanguine expectations they had at first entertained of Austrian support, they must, on the other, have felt that for nearly all that had been accomplished they were indebted to themselves. Why should they, then, despair? Tyrol could and would defend herself. She could trust herself, she could trust Hofer, the simple, the genuine, the loyal, the true, the living representative and embodiment of the feelings, the principles, and the virtues of an uncorrupted, independent, and self-relying people. Hence Chasteler’s final retreat moved them comparatively little; and the absence of Hormayr, who was engaged at that time in a somewhat unsystematic and unaccountable course of wanderings up and down the country, formed rather a subject of relief and congratulation. Very unfavorable reports were, indeed, current concerning the intendant, which ascribed to him the design of providing for his safety by timely flight; and a long stay which he made in Nauders, near the borders of Switzerland, lent a color to the imputation. These calumnies, as his friends assert, originated with Reugger, the magistrate of Nauders, an uncompromising adherent of Bavaria, who would have seized both Hormayr and Teimer, had not the former been beforehand with him, and sent the major with an armed force to arrest the official himself. This individual, it is said, put about the reports in question, adding that Hormayr had collected all the remaining treasure in the land, with which he intended to make his escape. Some affirm that Hofer was so carried away by the reports current at the time, as actually to issue an order for the apprehension of Hormayr; but by the intervention of Frischmann, a firm friend of the intendant, satisfactory explanations were exchanged, the order was speedily with drawn, and an understanding reestablished. Be this as it may, Hormayr and his friends attributed his stay on the frontier to an attempt to obtain the colaboration of the Swiss cantons, to forward a rising of the Vorarlberg, and to obtain supplies of corn and ammunition. It is difficult to pronounce a fair judgement upon a man who, although undoubtedly often falsely suspected, and assuredly guiltless of any treacherous intent, is to this day no object of grateful veneration to his countrymen. He was talented, busy, wordy, and active; but it must he confessed that little in proportion seems to have resulted from his exertions, and) his name has failed of being associated in Tyrol’s recollection with the glories of her patriots of 1809.

    We must now return to Speckbacher. We left him, on the 19th, upon the heights counting the Bavarian army. Thence he returned to the Judenstein; but on the morning of the following day he must needs be astir again, and repair to Hall, that he might ascertain to what sort of conditions “those learned gentlemen of Innsbruck” had submitted. Hall was occupied by the Bavarians; but Speckbacher laughed at danger, and was a veritable knight-errant for romantic courage. Striping off his shoes and stockings, and sticking a little shabby hat upon his head, that he might pass for a beggar, he ventured into the town to learn the news. Here he was informed of the humiliating terms which had been imposed upon the men of the capital, as well as of the codifying street sermon which Wrede had addressed to them. As he was about to depart, he was observed by a Bavarian soldier whom he had made prisoner on the 13th, but who had effected his escape. Speckbacher’s noble features could not easily be either disguised or forgotten. The soldier laid hands upon him; but in an instant a heavy blow of his mighty fist and a shake of his powerful frame freed the bold Tyrolese from the gripe, and before his foe could rise from the ground, the mountaineer had cleared at a spring the adjoining wall of a churchyard, and was bounding back to his hills.

    On the night of the 21st, some of his followers had the good fortune to intercept a French dispatch at Volders, which was translated for them by a priest. From this document it appeared that Napoleon urged the immediate withdrawal of the main body of the army, as soon as the subjugation of the Tyrol was effected, as he stood in need of its cooperation at Vienna. The patriots were greatly inspirited y the certainty thus afforded them of the speedy retreat of the enemy. The bitter hatred of the country people had been aggravated by the brutal behavior of the soldiers quartered amongst them, who seized their cattle, deprived them of their arms, and even hanged and shot them without provocation. What would they profit by the Bavarian king’s declarations of clemency, supposing he should be disposed to exercise mercy towards them? His oficials were sure to render his best intentions nugatory, and they would once more be subjected to a tyranny the gelling nature of which they knew from experience. Specbacher did not fail to take advantage of this disposition to stir up the peasants to a new rising. The destroying angel Wrede (he said) was about to pass from the land; the first surprise and terror were now over; the imperialists would follow the example of the Tyrolese, for they were not really wanting either in goodwill or in courage; and thus all their losses would speedily be re pair-e . Every where his appeal met with a favorable response: the peasantry were ready to join in the enterprise, provided the Sandwirth [i.e., Hofer] were willing to act as their leader.

    The indefatigable Speckbacher now set out in search of Hofer. It was the evening of the 22d (Whit-Monday), when, accompanied by his two faithful servants, George Zoppel and Simon Lechner, each with his ride on his shoulder, he took his way along the Ellbogner road to wards the Brenner. They rather bounded and ran than walked, so impatient were they of delay. In all the villages they found the peasants highly incensed at the system of terrorism practised against their brethren in the Unterinnthal, and eager to renew the struggle. Two men from Ellbogen and Steinach, who, however, were unarmed, joined the little party. The five reached Mattrey after nightfall, and here they stumbled upon a Bavarian mounted patrol of near a hundred men, who had been sent out to reconnoiter the entrenchments on the Brenner. Had the Bavarians sus ected that at that very time the passes had been all abandoned by their defenders, they would hardly have neglected to send a stronger force to take possession of a post of such importance. Again, had these men pur sued their march, the fatal discovery would have been made; a discovery which must have been destructive of the present hopes of the patriots. But Providence had ordered it otherwise, and five men, or rather three, for two (as has been observed) bore no arms, were destined to chase a hundred. Favored by the darkness, Speck~bacher and his companions placed themselves in ambush close to their track, and fired upon them. Loading again. rapidly, they quickly recommenced the same maneuver from a fresh quarter; several of the cavalry fell dead or wounded, and the rest, believing that they had to deal with a strong body of riflemen, effected a hasty retreat. When all was once more quiet, and Speckbacher had made sure that his stratagem had fully succeeded, he and his com anions lost no time in pursuing their way. They ar rived a little after midnight in the village of Gries, where they found a. body of Austrians about to march, who had just withdrawn from the defenses of the Brenner, their general, Buol, having preceded them. Speckbacher at once repaired to their quarters, and waking up the officers, assailed them with urgent entreaties to return. Lefebvre was to leave Innsbruck that very day, and the Innthal was ready to rise and appear in arms the moment it should be awe of the cooperation of the Austrians. The opportunity was a golden one. The officers were not ill-inclined; but the had no orders, or rather they had orders to a contrary effect. Accordingly they gave an undecided answer, and advised Speckbacher to confer with Hofer.

    He found is brother patriot in the inn of the Brennerbad, on the Schoellberg. With him were several other leaders from the neighboring valleys, who had not acknowledged the capitulation conclude at Innsbruck. With the Sandwirth also was Eisenstecken, his adjutant and right hand man, whose zeal and activity at that juncture did opportune service. For with impassioned energy he, as well as Speckbacher, importuned the Austrians* with such success, that many were induced to sign a paper which he had prepared, in which the imperial officers were invited not to abandon the Tyrol, but to remain and serve under Hofer. Hofer and Speckbacher had soon come to an understanding, and the 25th was appointed for an attack on the Berg Isel. Speckbacher immediately hurried back to make preparations; but even his herculean strength was well nigh exhausted, for ever since the 13th of that month he had scarcely snatched a few intervals of brief slumber. He accordingly got a lift from the post-master as far as Mattray, where he was once more on foot pursuing his way.

*The stirring scene of Eisensteckcn fraternizing with the Austrian officers is represented in a picture hanging in the Innsbruck museum.

    Meanwhile Chasteler, hindered from joining the Arch duke in consequence of the actions at Tarvis and Malborghetto, sent fresh orders to Buol to re-occupy the passes of the Brenner, at the same time resigning to him his own command in the Tyrol under the plea of ill health. Speckbacher’s appeal to his countrymen on the right bank of the Inn was eminently successful. From one village to another, over hill and valley, to secluded hamlets and scattered farm-houses, the energetic leader sped unremitting during the whole of the 24th, and wherever he. came there was life and the stir of war. But how was the information to be conveyed to the inhabitants of the left bank, whose co operation was a matter of importance, and whose position would enable them to threaten Deroi’s rear? The bridges were all in the hands of the Bavarians, who, mistrustful of the peasants, strictly examined every individual who crossed to the other side. An expedient suggested itself. Speckbacher sent his trusty maid-servant, Notburga, over the Volders bridge; she was searched, and nothing suspicious being found about her, was allowed to proceed. George Zoppel followed close 11 n her heels, accompanied by his master’s house-dog, a large poodle, under whose Woolly hair the appeal to the inhabitants of the left bank was concealed. While the guard were engaged in their scrutiny of Zoppel, the maid whistled to the dog, who bounded on to join her, and was presently followed by her fellow-servant. By this means the document was safely conveyed to its destination. So wily a device deserved to have had some great result. Speckbacher had taken care to place matters in their most encouraging light, speaking confidently of the probable cooperation of the Austrians, and exaggerating their numbers and the imposing strength of their artillery, which he had seen on the Brenner, while he made slight account of the Bavarian force. His hopes of thereby exciting confidence were, however, disappointed; the appeal produced but little effect. The terrible destruction of Schwaz was yet too fresh in the minds of the peasantry, and they felt they could place but small reliance on the support of the military. The salt-workers of Hall, whom so lately we beheld tumultuously endeavoring to constrain Chasteler to lead them against the enemy, had returned to their work, and seem to have been unwilling to abandon their employment for a doubtful chance. Some little stir was made in a few places, but no result of any importance attended Speckbacher’s exertions in this quarter.

    The slackness of the peasantry of the left bank was, however, compensated by the eagerness displayed else where. The right bank was all alive with patriotic ardor, and Hofer’s summons was received with a like enthusiasm. The bold sons of Meran and Passeyr armed at his call; the peasants of Algund marched with their leader, Peter Tallguter, a man of few words and bold deeds; Schalders, which in April had mightily cooperated in the destruction of the enemy on the Eisack, sent her contingent; and Max’s also, where repose the relics of the apostle of the land, holy Valentine, and Schoenna and Partschins, and Schloss Tirol, the Roman Teriolio, that immemorial seat of dominion, around which lingers the veneration of the people, and which he must hold who would lay claim to their allegiance; nor were the men of the Pusterthal wanting, those assiduous rearers of cattle, who feed upon oatmeal that they may have rye to give to their oxen; nor the bold Vintschgauers; nor the dwellers in the wild secluded valley of Groden, who speak a language of their own; nor the Sarnthalers, who came with gay red cloaks flung over their shoulders, their holiday attire; the peasants of Sterzing, and the children of the ancient Brenner, brave as in the days when they checked even the legions of imperial Rome, flocked also to his standard, and, the bands of Rodeneck and Kastelruther; and finally, for an end we must make, however reluctant to omit any, the patriots of Latzfons, Villanders, Barbians, and Velthurn, the last under their gallant young leader Anton von Gasteiger. The chief leaders of the southern bands were the brothers Feller of Rodeneck; Peter Mayr, the noble inn keePer of the Mahr; the fiery Kenmater, innkeeper of Schabs; and the warlike student Ennemoser; to these Count von Stachelburg joined himself as a simple volunteer. At the head of all stood the Sandwirth, Andreas Hofer, and by him his impetuous adjutant Eisenstecken, and the Capuchin Haspinger, all on fire with the love of God and of fatherland, whom men called the “Rothbart,” from his long, flowing, red beard.

    These bands, forming the main body of the army, commanded by Hofer and suported by a column of Austrians under Ertl, were to direct their attack upon the centre of the enemy’s position on the Berg Isel; while its left wing, in which were nine companies from the Burggrafenamt, with some Jagers and Austrian cavalry, were to march against the Gallwiese. When the question was raised who was to head the attack, Flarer, the leader of the company from the village of Tirol, stepped from the ranks, and declared that this post of honor had be longed from time immemorial to the riflemen of his native lace. The earnestness with which he claimed this privilege drew tears of admiration from the eyes of many of the bystanders. The right wing consisted of above 1000 “riflemen, led by Speckbacher, and supported by a body of Austrians under the command of Reissenfels. Speckbacher extended his line from the bridge Volders to wards the Patschberg Hill, which rises below the Patscher Kofel, whose cone-like summit soars to the height of above 7000 feet, crowned with a giant tomb or altar of heathen times.

    The numbers of Tyrolese, Austrians, and Bavarians respectively, are variously stated. Some reckon the Tirolese militia under Hofer at only 6000, and the Austrian military at 800, with but five or six pieces of artillery; while they estimate the Bavarian force at 7000 or 8000 men, with the addition of 900 cavalry, and 20 or 25 pieces of cannon, which gives even numerical superiority. to the latter. Others again state the numbers of the peasant force as amounting, by the evening of the 28th, to no less than 15,000 men, with 1,200 regular troops to support them; while they will not allow that the force in Innsbruck exceeded 6000. A few facts, however, may be stated with certainty: first, that Buol, pleading the fatigue of his soldiers from marching and countermarching, only sent a small portion of his troops to the support of the peasantry; secondly, that whatever may have been the comparative numerical amount of each army, the Bavarian forces had the advantage of being composed entirely of well-disciplined troops, under experienced leaders; while their artillery was undoubtedly immensely superior to that of the Austrians, no account giving to the latter more than a few field-pieces. The real advantage which the Tyrolese possessed, and which more than compensated for every deficiency, was a moral not a physical power. It was the love of country which animated them, and above all, it was the love of God and zeal for the faith, their most precious inheritance, which, with a bond indefinitely stronger than that of discipline, united together men untrained to the tactics of warfare, and the great majority of whom had never fought side by side before that day, nay, who had never fought at all, save with the mountain-storms or the wild denizens of their native alps.

Blunders On The Danube