In 1462, the prince of a small area called Wallachia went to war with arguably the most powerful military force on the planet at the time, led by one of the greatest military minds of the time. The one thing that the prince knew for certain was he would need an extraordinary plan to stay alive and keep his principality from being conquered.
That prince was Vlad III, the Impaler and he was going up against Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, fresh from his resounding victory over the Byzantines, relegating the once-great Roman Empire to the history books, once and for all.
In just 53 days, Mehmed II earned the title “Fatih” – or Conqueror – by doing what no Ottoman Sultan before him could: bringing down the vaunted walls of Constantinople and an end to the Byzantine Empire. Now all of Europe was open to the Ottoman Turks, and one of the closest principalities to the new Ottoman Empire was Romania and its small provincial fiefdoms. The Turks would exert their influence by first charging the un-Islamic a jizya, the tax for not being a follower of Mohammed. When Prince Vlad III of Wallachia refused to pay, Mehmed set out to teach him a lesson.
But Vlad Tepes wasn’t about to sit around and wait for the Ottoman Sultan’s tens of thousands of men to come lay waste to his small lands.
After a long cat and mouse game, the sultan decided to send an envoy as bait for an ambush. But Vlad got wind of the plot and ambushed the ambush in one of the first European uses of handguns. He took the Turkish uniforms, disguised himself, and moved to the nearest Turkish fortress and simply ordered them to open the gates in Turkish. When they did, Vlad slaughtered the defenders and destroyed the fortress. Then he went on a rampage.
Vlad invaded neighboring Bulgaria and began to split his army up to cover more ground. They systematically rounded up Turkish sympathizers and captured troops in a 500-mile area and slaughtered them. Vlad reckoned killing more than 23,000, not counting those he burned in their own homes. He then routed an Ottoman invasion force 18,000 strong under Mehmed’s Grand Vizier. Only 8,000 walked away from the battle. Mehmed was pissed and decided to go take care of Vlad personally.
The sultan assembled an army so large, historians repeatedly lost count trying to keep it all together. Mehmed requested an army of at least 150,000 men but what he got was anywhere between 300,000 to 400,000 and a naval force to sail up the Danube with them. With this force arrayed against him, Vlad freaked out. He asked the King of Hungary for help, and when none came, he conscripted women and children to fight for him. In the end, he amassed an army about one-tenth the size of the Ottoman invaders. Vlad needed some way to level the playing field and scare the sultan back to Constantinople. When the Ottoman Army closed in on him, he got his chance.
The Impaler poisoned wells and destroyed anything of use that Mehmed might capture. He also sent men infected with the plague and other diseases into the Ottoman ranks to infect as many as possible. But still, the enemy made their way to Târgoviște, where their first night in camp turned out to be an unforgettable one. Vlad and his men infiltrated the camp and wreaked havoc on its sleeping men. As the Wallachians slaughtered the now-confused Turks, Vlad attempted to assassinate the sultan in his tent, missing and hitting the tents of his viziers instead.
But that’s not what drove the sultan out of Wallachia.
Sultan Mehmed’s elite Janissaries pursued the Wallachians and managed to inflict casualties numbering in the thousands. The rest of the army pressed on the Wallachia’s capital, prepared to lay siege to the city and destroy it. But instead of a fortified citadel, the Turks found the gates of the city wide open. Inside, as they rode around, they were treated to a “forest of the impaled” along the roadside. Vlad impaled some 20,000 more enemy soldiers and sympathizers. Historical accounts aren’t clear on the sultan’s reaction, if he was horrified or impressed, but they do agree Mehmed decided to leave Wallachia the very next day.