Behind a Discovery: Deciphering a Significant Manuscript of Western European History

How We at Raab Investigate Objects Whose Stories Have Otherwise Been Lost to History


Some documents have historical value because of the person who signed them; some for what they represent. These manuscripts give power to a moment in history of great significance to the men and women who lived it and to us today.

Some of the direct descendants of Georges Mouton, one of Napoleon‘s military advisors, moved to the United States a long time ago. The family had retained some of his archive, correspondence to and from the General, the vast majority during the Napoleonic wars, when Mouton was a trusted aide to Napoleon, who took central roles in planning the invasion of both Russia and Portugal. The archive included some great letters of Napoleon, which we also acquired.

But perhaps the most surprising and intriguing gem was an early 19th-century piece that appeared at first to be a chart of distances and a travel log. It mentioned a Capt. Trezel and was assumed in his hand. It was titled simply “Notes on the Route from Warsaw to Moscow.” And it was entirely in French.

So how did we at Raab go about proving the significance of this historical manuscript? Here is a brief overview. It is not inclusive of everything but gives a sense of the many steps required to understand historical objects whose stories have otherwise been lost or obscured.

This section at the start of the manuscript contains clues about the date and text.

1) Who was Camille Alphonse Trezel and did he pen this piece? We learned that Trezel was in fact sent east to Russia, Iran, and Turkey by Napoleon on a mission to explore and negotiate. His notes on Turkey survive, though we did not find his notes on Russia outside this piece. However, we quickly ruled out Trezel as the man whose pen met this paper. This is not his handwriting. As you will see, the author is one of Napoleon’s scribes.

2) When was it written? There is a clue in the piece itself, even though it is undated. The manuscript notes the position of Trezel as Captain and aide to camp for Major General Armand Charles Guilleminot, a position Trezel effectively occupied between 1811 and 1812. “Extracts from a voyage made in July 1809 by Captain Trezel, aid de camp of General Guilleminot.” Therefore, since we know from the above that this was not a copied manuscript, and Trezel only occupied the stated position for a short period of time, we could date it to effectively within 6 months.

This final section lists not only the geography around Moscow but the ease with which an invading army could capture the city.

3) What is the content and why was it prepared? Our knowledge of the French language came to good use. And in reading this document, we quickly determined that this was prepared for a military purpose. it notes positions of forces, bridges, the ability of large forces of soldiers to move in various locations, and ends with a remarkable description of how to storm the Kremlin.

4) What could we learn from the paper and format? The large format of the paper is consistent with other official documents from the period. The handwriting points to a professional scribe, like those employed by Napoleon’s intelligence offices during this period. And the paper and watermark match the period of the Napoleonic conflicts.

5) Napoleon’s own words: Could another source, perhaps Napoleon’s letters, help complete this picture? Napoleon’s correspondence in early to mid 1812 is full of complaints of the lack of information on routes into Russia. Indeed, he is complaining up to the moment of entry.

6) What would the experts say? The Fondation Napoleon had no record of this manuscript but noted that this was clearly prepared by Napoleon’s intelligence apparatus during the war period, placing this firmly in our expected range of early 1812.

7) Common sense? Why would one of the men, Mouton, charged with planning the invasion of Russia, receive, in early 1812, an obscure manuscript giving advice on how to invade Russia? The only answer is this: to use in the planning itself.

This may be the only surviving example of this incredible text connected to this great moment in history, perhaps the most famous invasion of the modern area: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

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