Prince Vlad III on campaign
The real Dracula, known also by his cognomen, Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, was a vovoide (princely ruler ) of Wallachia, a once moderately influential kingdom in the Southern Balkans known archaically still today as a portion of Transylvania. Prince Vlad III, Dracula (son of the dragon) had inherited his titles from his father, Prince Vlad II Dracul who had been a member of the Order of the Dragon, a crusader-type noble order founded by the King of Hungary and king of the Holy Roman, Emperor Sigismund in the year 1408; devoted to defending the Balkan kingdoms from the Ottoman Muslims
Prince Vlad II ruled Wallachia as voivode (royal prince) before being ultimately being deposed by the armies of the Hungarian Kingdoms and the boyar (feudal aristocracy) plotters in 1447. The same anti-House Drăculești forces killed his eldest son Prince Mircea as well. Prince Vlad II's two surviving sons, Vlad III and Radu were sent into exile to live as hostages of the Turkish Sultans during the reign of Vladislav II of the House of Dănești. In the year 1456 Vlad returned to Wallachia and overthrew and killed Vladislav II in single combat, gaining the crown as prince of Wallachia.
His brother Prince Radu the Handsome (Radu cel Frumos) eventually converted to Islam and fought for the Ottomans, commanding a Janissary battalion against his countrymen as Radu Bey. As a young man Prince Vlad had gained courtly experience in Hungary and Moldavia. He grew close with his cousin Stephen III of Moldavia (b.1433-1504) and they had fought side-by-side in the Battle of Crasna against the Poles in the year 1450. When Prince Vlad was voivode of Wallachia in 1457 he sent military aid to Stephen helping him to win the Moldavian crown later in that year.
Portrait of Prince Vlad III, Dracula, State Library of Stuttgart
Battle of Breadfield 1479, Hungarian-Wallachian Wars Against the Ottoman Empire
In response to Vlad Dracula's declaration of war, Turkish soldiers landed in Romania via the Olt River in the summer of 1462. Soon after Sultan Mehmed II came ashore as well along with Prince Radu who commanded some 4,000 Turkish cavalry. This Turkish force numbered around 100,000-130,000 soldiers and noncombatants. This army was comprised of well trained and armed household janissary battalions, tens of thousands of infantry, sipahi cavalry, and artillery. Hundreds of Turkish ships were moored in the Black Sea as a result of this conflict.
Woodcut of Prince Vlad, Vovoide of Wallachia, Nuremburg 1488
Knowing that his 30,000-50,000 strong Wallachian army could not stop the vast Turkish army, Prince Vlad engaged in a sharp and bloody scorched earth and guerrilla campaign in his war against Sultan Mehmed and the Turks. Peasants and laborers fled their homes and occupations to hide in the swamps and marshes. A hot summer added to the misery of the Turkish troops who could find little food or water in a hostile and foreign territory. Thousands of Turks would die on the one week march across the Danube River and into the heart of Romania from diseases alone.
The Night Attack
"The Battle with Torches", Theodor Aman-1896
With less than 24,000 men in his overall command, Prince Vlad marched on the Turkish camp and attacked "like lightning" in a daring raid causing "great slaughter" and chaos in the Turkish camp. His soldiers carried torches whilst they stormed the tents, slaying hundreds with sword, mace, and spear before many janissaries or common soldiers could arm themselves. Another Wallachian boyar commanded troops alongside Vlad but had been unwilling to join in on the attack, diminishing the already grave Turkish casualties which were sustained in the battle. After the Night Attack, Turkish commander Ali Bey Mihaloğlu and a few thousand Turkish janissaries were tasked with pursuing a wounded Dracula and the rest of his 6,000-8,000 men whilst they attempted to flee further north, capturing or killing an additional 2,000 Wallachians in the chase.
Though the Night Attack failed in its greater objective of killing Sultan Mehmed II and neutralizing his command, Dracula's heavily outnumbered army still inflicted heavy casualties on the Turks as they retreated to the Romanian coast. One source notes that Dracula lost 5,000 men and the Turks lost 15,000 men counting the skirmishes fought in aftermath of the night attack. The remaining 70-90,000 soldiers of the Sultan's army eventually retreated east beginning in 22-23 June. Several various secondary and primary sources confer that the withdrawal from Wallachia was due to the fear instilled in the Turkish army when they witnessed perhaps as many as 20,000 Turkish captives impaled to death on wooden stakes outside the city of Tîrgoviște. Though overextended lines of supply and diseases certainly would have thinned Turkish ranks. Sultan Mehmed greatly respected (and feared) Prince Vlad; he was literally in awe of his destructive and violent capabilities and thought him a man of immense power.
Turkish Soldiers as depicted in Hungary c.1400-1500's
Prince Vlad's brother Radu the Handsome had taken control of a portion of Romanian lands until his sudden death in 1475. A power vacuum had formed very quickly and Vlad most certainly felt that the time was nearing for him to finally reclaim Wallachia. A year later an army led by Prince Vlad and Prince Stephen Bathory of Ecsed (b.1430-1493), a Transylvanian vovoide and Order of the Dragon member, entered Romania with an army. After which Vlad was made again vovoide of Wallachia for a time. However he was soon dethroned for a second time and killed in battle or assassinated by the ever plotting boyars near Bucharest in late 1476 or early 1477. According to legend and several historical chronicles; his was head was severed and then sent as proof of his demise to his old adversary, Sultan Mehmed II in Constantinople.
Suggested Further Reading
Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Time of the Historical Dracula. Kurt W. Treptow (2000).
Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times. Radu R Florescu and Raymond T. McNally (Back Bay Books, 1990). 261 pgs.