By Henry L. Gaidis
ALTHOUGH MOST LITHUANIAN Americans are aware of the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Lithuania during World War II and the subsequent heroic partisan struggle, few are aware of the heroic struggle fought by Lithuanian partisans during the 1831 and 1863-1864 insurrections. On three occasions, the Lithuanian people rose up against the Russian government that had been imposed upon them after the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian 1795 partition, which eradicated the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the map of Europe. Immediately following the partition, Lithuanian and Polish military officers who refused to accept Russian occupation fled to France and continued their struggle against the hated Russians in the ranks of Napoleon’s Imperial French Army. As Napoleon marched through Lithuania during his 1812 Russian Campaign, thousands of Lithuanians joined his army, and many continued to fight for him until his final defeat at Waterloo. They rose up again in bloody insurrections in 1831 and 1863-1864 in vain attempts to restore freedom and liberty to Lithuania.
The 1863-1864 Polish-Lithuanian insurrection began with young Polish and Lithuanian students in Warsaw talking of rekindling the failed 1831 uprising. This student movement soon spread to the countryside as peasant farmers suffering under oppressive taxation and military induction reached their saturation point. At first, the Czarist police had no problem dealing with isolated student demonstrations or farmers destroying property; but as the number of confrontations escalated, the police were increasingly forced to call upon the Russian military to help. On January 22, 1863, the dissidents in Warsaw formed a secret Polish National Central Committee to provide some type of coordination to the growing insurrection. Eventually, this committee proclaimed itself to be a Provisional National Government of Poles and Lithuanians and issued appeals to their Lithuanian brothers to take up arms. Their call was quickly answered by Lithuanian students and farmers, who quickly formed their own revolutionary bodies all across Lithuania.
At first, these formations consisted of only two or three likeminded students or peasant farmers talking among themselves about what could be done about some local irritant. As their numbers grew, these small groups expanded and began to unite with other likeminded individuals in surrounding communities that grew to hate all things Russian. During the early days of the Czarist occupation, many Lithuanian nobles readily accepted Russian rule as a way to preserve their privileged status, frequently leading to their alienation from the local ethnic population. As a result, the people turned away from their traditional leaders and sought guidance from local petty nobles and priests working among them.
One of the least likely leaders of the Lithuanian insurrection movement was a Roman Catholic priest from a small rural parish. Antanas Mackevičius was born into a family of petty Samogitian nobleman farmers, on June 14, 1828, in Morkiai, a rural community located in Raseiniai County. We do not know when Antanas developed his ardent love of country or first began to dream of helping to liberate Lithuania from Russian occupation. Surely as a youth, he heard tales of Lithuania’s ancient heroes and the brave struggle waged by his countrymen during the 1831 insurrection in their futile struggle to liberate the nation from Russian rule. While that crushing defeat put an end to the dream of reestablishing the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the minds of many nobles, the dream was kept alive in the heart of the nation’s youth.
After receiving an elementary education in Morkiai, Antanas reportedly walked to Vilnius to attend high school, earning his board and lodging by performing menial service in a local monastery. Upon graduating in 1848, Antanas went to Kiev, where he enrolled at the university to study science. Antanas’s love for his country was only matched by his love for Jesus his Savior and the Lithuanian peasants who toiled daily across the country under oppressive foreign and native masters. Eventually, his love of God won out, and Antanas left his university studies in 1850 and returned to Lithuania, where he entered the Varniai Catholic Seminary to study for the priesthood. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1853, served as an assistant parish priest in Krekenava from 1853 to 1855, and was then assigned pastor of his own church in Paberžė. For the next eight years, he performed the traditional duties of a parish priest: celebrating Sunday mass, preaching, and officiating at baptismals, weddings, and funerals. While performing such services, Antanas saw firsthand the plight of the peasants and how they were exploited by both their local lords and the Russian government.
As early as 1861, Revered Mackevičius began to preach the idea of democracy and social reform from his pulpit and criticized the Polish, Polonized Lithuanian, and Russian landlords who suppressed them. During the summer of 1862, Mackevičius travelled to the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland and, while attending a local wedding, reportedly met the future revolutionary leaders, Zigmantas Sierakauskas, Konstantinas Kalinauskas, and Boleslas Kolyszko. While there, Boleslas, a graduate of an Italian military officer’s school, taught the future guerrilla leader the rudimentary tactics of warfare.
With the January 22, 1863 proclamation establishing a Provisional National Government in Warsaw and an appeal to their Lithuanian Brothers to take up arms to rid the nation of Russian rule, Reverend Mackevičius did not hesitate to join the liberation movement. During a Sunday mass, Mackevičius read the Provisional Government’s manifesto to his parishioners, calling for the support of the Lithuanian people in their fight for human rights and freedom. He not only called for their support, but took command of some three hundred men from his parish armed with hunting rifles, sickles, axes, and any type weapon available to a peasant farmer. They immediately started training and, as information about his unit began to spread, volunteers from the surrounding area soon joined its ranks. When his force had grown to about five hundred men, Mackevičius led them into the field with a cross in one e hand and a sword in the other.
On March 15, 1863, Mackevi- čius’s peasant partisans attacked four Russian infantry companies supported by an artillery squadron that had been sent against them at Naujaberžė and handily defeated these professionally trained soldiers. On April 9, 1863, Mackevičius’s forces again defeated another Russian force near Raguva that consisted of three infantry companies and a squadron of cavalry. In May 1863, he again defeated another enemy formation near Panevėžys and then freed the city from Russian occupation. Fighting valiantly, similar insurgent groups across Lithuania were victorious against small Russian formations as the Russians withdrew from the countryside and concentrated their forces in the main towns.
As Mackevičius’s success became widely known, many volunteered to join his insurgent band. A Polish newspaper, Niepodleglose (Independence), in its August 23, 1863, edition, published an account by an anonymous Pole about his meeting the Lithuanian rebel commander. This brief article provides a glimpse of the legendary leader and the life of a Lithuanian insurgent in the field. After an arduous process, which confirmed he was not a Russian agent sent to infiltrate the partisans, the Pole was passed along from one contact to another until he found himself seated around a campfire with an old man in a dense Lithuanian forest.
“In less than half an hour, we heard from the far side of the clearing the soft murmur of rustling branches and careful footfalls, accompanied by the characteristic hooting sound that was to serve as our password. The old man answered. Shortly thereafter, we saw several figures move into the open from behind the trees, evidently the vanguard. All the men were dressed in long grey coats reaching to the knees and tied with a leather belt. All sported four-cornered caps, carried doublebarreled shotguns in hand, and had hatchets thrust under their belts. Each man carried a fairly bulky sack of crude linen and a hunting horn.
…Finally emerged the Reverend Mackevičius, the detachment’s leader, dressed in a priest’s frock with tucked-in tails, a sword at his side and a pistol thrust under his belt. He came in a circle of young officers wearing fur caps—this was evidently his whole staff. All marched on foot. There was not one horse in the camp, no food reserve, except the foodstuff carried by each in his linen bag. …My guide spoke to the leader and introduced me, relating all of my past. During this conversation, I was able to observe closely the face of Father Mackevičius. His face was sunburned, features clear cut, a long dark beard, thick eyebrows, a wrinkled face composing one sullen whole, full of energy and power that commanded respect.
…The officer bowed and led me to my squad, already seated around a log fire… Our squad was made up of four peasants from Ignatavas, three burghers from Panevėžys, the son of a well-to-do gentleman from Šiauliai, a teacher from Kaunas, and myself… I learned that all of the attacks are executed at night, while the days are spent resting, unless the Muscovites are sitting hard on our necks. Tonight they covered more than twenty American miles and therefore intended to rest all day in the clearing.
…The sun had come up, when there was an echo of a horn and an order shouted—Prayer! It was an inspiring sight, these several hundred men, tried in battle, kneeling with bared heads. In front of us, before a Crucifix and the picture of Our Lady on the detachment’s banner, knelt Father Mackevičius and intoned… Around us was the pristine native forest—our forest. Above us was our God and future.”
Although such small Lithuanian partisan groups were initially successful, all knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Russians would send a massive army to suppress their insurrection. Only in unity could they hope to be successful, and these groups soon sought to combine their forces. Within a short period of time, Colonel Zigmantas Sierakauskas, a former Russian General Staff Officer, was given command of the combined insurgent forces in Lithuania. Legend holds that a small group of his former Lithuanian officers travelled to see Colonel Sierakauskas at his home in St. Petersburg. Upon opening the door and seeing his old comrades, Sierakauskas reportedly said, “You bring a death sentence for me.” With these words, Sierakauskas accepted the position as Supreme Commander of the Lithuanian insurgent forces. He resigned his Russian Army commission the next day and immediately left for Lithuania, where he assumed his command in the field.
Colonel Sierakauskas’s strategy for victory was simple: unite the insurgent bands into one force and carry the fight to the enemy before he could build up his strength in Lithuania. Under his leadership, the partisans began attacking small Russian garrisons to draw manpower from the large nearby Russian fortress in Daugavpils, Latvia. Sierakauskas then anticipated capturing the weakened fortress and from there spreading the insurrection into Russia itself under the “Land and Liberty” banner.
Having been promised weapons and eventual English intervention by the Garibaldist revolutionaries in Western Europe, Sierakauskas quickly captured a landing place in the Palanga area and awaited their arrival before advancing on Daugavpils. While awaiting these promised firearms, Sierakauskas learned that General Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov had been appointed the new Russian Governor and was enroute to Lithuania with a large military force to suppress the insurrection. Muravyov’s first goal was to unify his forces with those Russian troops that had concentrated themselves in the major cities and to find and defeat Sierakauskas. Upon learning of the advancing Russian forces, Sierakauskas decided to start his march up the Latvian coast, hoping that the promised English weapons would reach him along the way. While on the march, Sierakauskas was intersected by the advancing Russian column and forced into an unplanned engagement. Although the insurgents fought valiantly, without the promised weapons and ammunition, they were decisively defeated on April 25-27, 1863 in a battle at Medeikiai near Biržai. Colonel Sierakauskas was wounded and captured and his surviving units scattered. He and other captured rebel leaders were then taken to Vilnius, tried and hanged. Although the promised weapons eventually arrived, most were lost during the landing attempt in a violent storm, and few if any weapons actually reached the insurgents. One can only speculate what could have happened had those weapons arrived in time for the Medeikiai battle.
Reverend Mackevičius and other surviving insurgents retreated back into the Žemaitija (Samogitia) region, where they continued a guerilla hit-and-run struggle through October 1863 against an ever increasing number of Russian units sent into the area. During November-December 1863, Mackevičius became the commander of all the Kaunas region insurgents and attacked the Russian Army wherever he could. When he was no longer able to repulse the encroaching Russian units, Mackevičius withdrew his dwindling forces toward Kaunas, hoping to build up strength over the winter and renew the struggle with promised assistance from abroad in the spring. Whereas the Russians were once content to occupy towns and villages, they now constantly hunted Mackevičius and his partisans. On November 26, 1863, near the village of Vilkija, Mackevičius was wounded and forced into hiding. On December 17, 1863, Mackevičius was captured, reportedly while he and two companions were attempting to cross the Nemunas River, and imprisoned in Kaunas. Although Mackevičius was promised that his life would be spared if he betrayed other insurgent leaders, he steadfastly refused. While in prison, Mackevičius continued to bitterly denounce injustice, the exploitation of the peasants, and the venality and greed of Russian officials in his homeland. As a result, Mackevi- čius, was tried by a Russian military tribunal on December 12, 1863 and sentenced to be publicly hanged. The execution order was twice confirmed by General Muravyov, who would forever be remembered as the “Hangman of Vilnius” of the 1863-1864 insurrection. On December 28, 1863, Mackevičius, while standing on the gallows, was again offered mercy in exchange for information regarding the insurrection. His simple reply was “I have done my work, now you do yours.”
Lithuanian partisans continued to fight after Mackevičius’s execution, but their numbers and engagements progressively dwindled. The last Lithuanian partisan attack on Russian forces, undertaken by a small band of rebels, occurred on October 12, 1864 near Panevėžys. Russian military documents record some 119 clashes with rebels in the Kaunas region, 38 in the Vilnius region and 17 in Suvalkai. It has been estimated that some thirty thousand poorly trained and armed Lithuanian insurgents engaged approximately one hundred and forty-five thousand regular Russian troops during this futile attempt to regain their freedom and independence. Thousands of rebels and their supporters were deported to Siberia.
Today, the Revered Antanas Mackevičius is an honored hero in Lithuania, where countless towns have streets named after him. In the Paberžė churchyard, where there are dozens of tombstones for the parishioners who fell fighting alongside him during the 1863- 1864 insurrection, there stands a large wooden cross in traditional Lithuanian style in memory of this country priest who gave his life for his people.