Life Of Napoleon Bonaparte With A Sketch Of Josephine
Book: Life Of Napoleon
Author: Tarbell, Ida
The Russian Campaign - The Burning Of Moscow - A New Army
If one draws a triangle, its base stretching along the Nieman from
Tilsit to Grodno, its apex on the Elbe, he will have a rough outline of
the "army of twenty nations" as it lay in June, 1812. Napoleon, some two
hundred and twenty-five thousand men around him, was at Kowno, hesitating
to advance, reluctant to believe that Alexander would not make peace.
When he finally moved, it was not with the precision and swiftness
which had characterized his former campaigns. When he began to fight, it
was against new odds. He found that his enemies had been studying the
Spanish campaigns, and that they had adopted the tactics which had so
nearly ruined his armies in the Peninsula: they refused to give him a
general battle retreating constantly before him; they harassed his
separate corps with indecisive contests; they wasted the country as they
went. The people aided their soldiers as the Spaniards had done. "Tell
us only the moment, and we will set fire to our buildings," said the
By the 12th of August, Napoleon was at Smolensk, the key of Moscow.
At a cost of twelve thousand men killed and wounded, he took the town,
only to find, instead of the well-victualled shelter he hoped, a smoking
ruin. The French army had suffered frightfully from sickness, from
scarcity of supplies, and from useless fighting on the march from the
Nieman to Smolensk. They had not had the stimulus of a great victory;
they began to feel that this steady retreat of the enemy was only a fatal
trap into which they were falling. Every consideration forbade them to
march into Russia so late in the year, yet on they went towards Moscow,
over ruined fields and through empty villages. This terrible pursuit
lasted until September 7th, when the Russians, to content their soldiers,
who were complaining loudly because they were not allowed to engage the
French, gave battle at Borodino, the battle of the Moskova, as the French
At two o'clock in the morning of this engagement, Napoleon issued one
of his stirring bulletins:
"Soldiers! Here is the battle which you have so long desired!
Henceforth the victory depends upon you; it is necessary for us. It will
give you abundance, good winter quarters, and a speedy return to your
country! Behave as you did at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at
Smolensk, and the most remote posterity will quote with pride your conduct
on this day; let it say of you: he was at the great battle under the walls
The French gained the battle at Borodino, at a cost of some thirty
thousand men, but they did not destroy the Russian army. Although the
Russians lost fifty thousand men, they retreated in good order. Under the
circumstances, a victory which allowed the enemy to retire in order was of
little use. It was Napoleon's fault, the critics said; he was inactive.
But it was not sluggishness which troubled Napoleon at Borodino. He had a
new enemy - a headache. On the day of the battle he suffered so that he
was obliged to retire to a ravine to escape the icy wind. In this
sheltered spot he paced up and down all day, giving his orders from the
reports brought him.
Moscow was entered on the 15th of September. Here the French found
at last food and shelter, but only for a few hours. That night Moscow
burst into flames, set on fire by the authorities, by whom it had been
abandoned. It was three days before the fire was arrested. It would cost
Russia two hundred years of time, two hundred millions of money, to repair
the loss which she had sustained, Napoleon wrote to France.
Suffering, disorganization, pillage, followed the disaster. But
Napoleon would not retreat. He hoped to make peace. Moscow was still
smoking when he wrote a long description of the conflagration to
Alexander. The closing paragraph ran:
"I wage war against your Majesty without animosity; a note from you
before or after the last battle would have stopped my march, and I should
even have liked to sacrifice the advantage of entering Moscow. If your
Majesty retains some remains of your former sentiments, you will take this
letter in good part. At all events, you will thank me for giving you an
account of what is passing at Moscow."
"I will never sign a peace as long as a single foe remains on Russian
ground," the Emperor Alexander had said when he heard that Napoleon had
crossed the Nieman. He kept his word in spite of all Napoleon's
overtures. The French position grew worse from day to day. No food, no
fresh supplies, the cold increasing, the army disheartened, the number of
Russians around Moscow growing larger. Nothing but a retreat could save
the remnant of the French. It began on October 19th, one hundred and
fifteen thousand men leaving Moscow. They were followed by forty thousand
vehicles loaded with the sick and with what supplies they could get hold
of. The route was over the fields devastated a month before. The
Cossacks harassed them night and day, and the cruel Russian cold dropped
from the skies, cutting them down like a storm of scythes. Before
Smolensk was reached, thousands of the retreating army were dead.
Napoleon had ordered that provisions and clothing should be collected
at Smolensk. When he reached the city he found that his directions had
not been obeyed. The army, exasperated beyond endurance by this
disappointment, fell into complete and frightful disorganization, and the
rest of the retreat was like the falling back of a conquered mob.
There is no space here for the details of this terrible march and of
the frightful passage of the Beresina. The terror of the cold and
starvation wrung cries from Napoleon himself.
"Provisions, provisions, provisions," he wrote on November 29th from
the right bank of the Beresina. "Without them there is no knowing to what
horrors this undisciplined mass will proceed."
And again: "The army is at its last extremity. It is impossible for
it to do anything, even if it were a question of defending Paris."
The army finally reached the Nieman. The last man over was Marshal
Ney. "Who are you?" he was asked. "The rear guard of the Grand Army,"
was the sombre reply of the noble old soldier.
Some forty thousand men crossed the river, but of these there were
many who could do nothing but crawl to the hospitals, asking for "the
rooms where people die." It was true, as Desprez said, the Grand Army was
It was on this horrible retreat that Napoleon received word that a
curious thing had happened in Paris. A general and an abbe, both
political prisoners, had escaped, and actually had succeeded in the
preliminaries of a coup d'etat overturning the empire, and substituting a
They had carried out their scheme simply by announcing that Napoleon
was dead, and by reading a forged proclamation from the senate to the
effect that the imperial government was at an end and a new one begun.
The authorities to whom these conspirators had gone had with but little
hesitation accepted their orders. They had secured twelve hundred
soldiers, had locked up the prefect of police, and had taken possession of
the Hotel de Ville.
The foolhardy enterprise went, it is true, only a little way, but far
enough to show Paris that the day of easy revolution had not passed, and
that an announcement of the death of Napoleon did not bring at once a cry
of "Long live the King of Rome!" The news of the Malet conspiracy was an
astonishing revelation to Napoleon himself of the instability of French
public sentiment. He saw that the support on which he had depended most
to insure his institutions, that is, an heir to his throne, was set aside
at the word of a worthless agitator. The impression made on his generals
by the news was one of consternation and despair. The emperor read in
their faces that they believed his good fortune was waning. He decided to
go to Paris as soon as possible.
On December 5th he left the army, and after a perilous journey of
twelve days reached the French capital. It took as great courage to face
France now as it had taken audacity to attempt the invasion of Russia.
The grandest army the nation had ever sent out was lying behind him dead.
His throne had tottered for an instant in sight of all France. Hereafter
he could not believe himself invincible. Already his enemies were
suggesting that since his good genius had failed him once, it might again.
No one realized the gravity of the position as Napoleon himself, but
he met his household, his ministers, the Council of State, the Senate,
with an imperial self-confidence and a sang froid which are awe-inspiring
under the circumstances. The horror of the situation of the army was not
known in Paris on his arrival, but reports came in daily until the truth
was clear to everybody. But Napoleon never lost countenance. The
explanations necessary for him to give to the Senate, to his allies, and
to his friends, had all the serenity and the plausibility of a victor - a
victor who had suffered, to be sure, but not through his own rashness or
mismanagement. The following quotation from a letter to the King of
Denmark illustrates well his public attitude towards the invasion and the
retreat from Moscow:
"The enemy were always beaten, and captured neither an eagle nor a
gun from my army. On the 7th of November the cold became intense; all the
roads were found impracticable; thirty thousand horses perished between
the 7th and the 16th. A portion of our baggage and artillery wagons was
broken and abandoned; our soldiers, little accustomed to such weather,
could not endure the cold. They wandered from the ranks in quest of
shelter for the night, and, having no cavalry to protect them, several
thousands fell into the hands of the enemy's light troops. General
Sanson, chief of the topographic corps, was captured by some Cossacks
while he was engaged in sketching a position. Other isolated officers
shared the same fate. My losses are severe, but the enemy cannot
attribute to themselves the honor of having inflicted them. My army has
suffered greatly, and suffers still, but this calamity will cease with the
To every one he declared that it was the Russians, not he, who had
suffered. It was their great city, not his, which was burnt; their
fields, not his, which were devastated. They did not take an eagle, did
not win a battle. It was the cold, the Cossacks, which had done the
mischief to the Grand Army; and that mischief? Why, it would be soon
repaired. "I shall be back on the Nieman in the spring."
But the very man who in public and private calmed and reassured the
nation, was sometimes himself so overwhelmed at the thought of the
disaster which he had just witnessed, that he let escape a cry which
showed that it was only his indomitable will which was carrying him
through; that his heart was bleeding. In the midst of a glowing account
to the legislative body of his success during the invasion, he suddenly
stopped. "In a few nights everything changed. I have suffered great
losses. They would have broken my heart if I had been accessible to any
other feelings than the interest, the glory, and the future of my people."
In the teeth of the terrible news coming daily to Paris, Napoleon
began preparations for another campaign. To every one he talked of
victory as certain. Those who argued against the enterprise he silenced
temporarily. "You should say," he wrote Eugene, "and yourself believe,
that in the next campaign I shall drive the Russians back across the
Nieman." With the first news of the passage of the Beresina chilling them,
the Senate voted an army of three hundred and fifty thousand men; the
allies were called upon; even the marine was obliged to turn men over to
the land force.
But something besides men was necessary. An army means muskets and
powder and sabres, clothes and boots and headgear, wagons and cannon and
caisson; and all these it was necessary to manufacture afresh. The task
was gigantic; but before the middle of April it was completed, and the
emperor was ready to join his army.
The force against which Napoleon went in 1813 was the most
formidable, in many respects, he had ever encountered. Its strength was
greater. It included Russia, England, Spain, Prussia, and Sweden, and the
allies believed Austria would soon join them. An element of this force
more powerful than its numbers was its spirit. The allied armies fought
Napoleon in 1813 as they would fight an enemy of freedom. Central Europe
had come to feel that further French interference was intolerable. The
war had become a crusade. The extent of this feeling is illustrated by an
incident in the Prussian army. In the war of 1812 Prussia was an ally of
the French, but at the end of the year General Yorck, who commanded a
Prussian division, went over to the enemy. It was a dishonorable action
from a military point of view, but his explanation that he deserted as "a
patriot acting for the welfare of his country" touched Prussia; and though
the king disavowed the act, the people applauded it.
Thoughout the German states the feeling against Napoleon was bitter.
A veritable crusade had been undertaken against him by such men as Stein,
and most of the youth of the country were united in the Tagendbund, or
League of Virtue, which had sworn to take arms for German freedom.
When Alexander followed the French across the Nieman, announcing that
he came bringing "deliverance to Europe," and calling on the people to
unite against the "common enemy," he found them quick to understand and
Thus, in 1813 Napoleon did not go against kings and armies, but
against peoples. No one understood this better than he did himself, and
he counselled his allies that it was not against the foreign enemy alone
that they had to protect themselves. "There is one more dangerous to be
feared - the spirit of revolt and anarchy."