“The fire in this city begins to calm. Today I toured the main quarters. It was a spectacular city; I say ‘was’ because today more than half has been consumed by fire.”
We have found cellars full of wine and eau de vie (liquor), which will be of great need to us. I have taken up lodging in the residence of the Tsars, the Kremlin, which is a form of citadel surrounded by high walls built to a height of 15 to 1800 fathoms...
We have found cellars full of wine and eau de vie (liquor), which will be of great need to us. I have taken up lodging in the residence of the Tsars, the Kremlin, which is a form of citadel surrounded by high walls built to a height of 15 to 1800 fathoms
A scarce and important letter of Napoleon from Moscow burning in one of the modern age’s great battle campaigns
In 1812, Napoleon was still at the height of his fortunes. The Peninsular War against Britain was a thorn in the side of his great European empire, but he was confident that his generals would soon triumph in Spain. All that remained to complete his “Continental System”–a unilateral European blockade designed to economically isolate Britain and force its subjugation–was the cooperation of Russia. After earlier conflict, Napoleon and Czar Alexander I kept a tenuous peace, but the Russian czar was unwilling to submit to the Continental System, which would be ruinous to the Russian economy. To intimidate Alexander, Napoleon massed his forces in Poland in the spring of 1812, but still the czar resisted.
On June 24, Napoleon commenced his famed campaign in Russia, ordering his Grande Armée, the largest European military force ever assembled to that date, into Russia. The enormous army featured more than 500,000 soldiers and staff and included contingents from Prussia, Austria, and other countries under the sway of the French empire. The campaign would be characterized by the massive toll on human life: in less than six months Napoleon lost near half of his men because of the extreme weather conditions, battle, disease and hunger. On both sides, nearly a million soldiers and civilians died.
Napoleon’s military successes traditionally lay in his ability to move his armies rapidly and strike quickly, but in the opening months of his Russian invasion he was unable to move with speed, and was instead forced to be content with a Russian army seemingly in perpetual retreat. The fleeing Russian forces adopted a “scorched earth” strategy, seizing or burning any supplies that the French might pillage from the countryside. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s supply lines became overextended as he advanced deeper and deeper into the Russian expanse. The Battle of Smolensk was the first major battle of the French invasion. It took place on 16–18 August 1812.
Many in Russia were critical of the Russian army’s refusal to engage Napoleon in a more direct confrontation. Under public pressure, in late August Alexander named General Mikhail Kutuzov supreme commander in August, but initially the veteran of earlier defeats against Napoleon continued the retreat. Finally, Kutuzov agreed to halt at the town of Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow, and engage the French. The Russians built fortifications, and on September 7 the Grande Armée attacked. Napoleon was uncharacteristically cautious that day; he didn’t try to outflank the Russians, and he declined to send much-needed reinforcements into the fray. The result was a narrow but decisive victory. There Kutuzov decided not to defend Moscow but to launch a general withdrawal to save the Russian army.
Napoleon was sure that once Moscow was taken Alexander would be forced to capitulate. On September 14, the French entered Moscow, only to find it abandoned. All but a few thousand of the city’s 275,000 people were gone. Napoleon retired to a house on the outskirts of the city for the night, but two hours after midnight he was informed that a fire had broken out in the city. He went to the Kremlin, where he watched the flames continue to grow. Reports began to come in telling of Russians starting the fires and stoking the flames. Suddenly a fire broke out within the Kremlin, apparently set by a Russian military policeman who was immediately executed. With the firestorm spreading, Napoleon and his entourage were forced to flee down burning streets to Moscow’s outskirts and narrowly avoided being asphyxiated. When the flames died down three days later, more than two-thirds of the city was destroyed. The images of Moscow on fire are iconic; many great works of art depict the event.
After waiting a month for a surrender that never came, Napoleon was forced to lead his starving army out of the ruined city. Suddenly, Kutuzov’s army appeared and gave battle on October 19 at Maloyaroslavets. The disintegrating Grande Armée was forced to abandon the fertile, southern route by which it hoped to retreat and proceed back along the ravaged path over which it had originally advanced. During the disastrous retreat, Napoleon’s army suffered continual harassment from the merciless Russian army. Stalked by hunger, subzero temperatures, and the deadly lances of the Cossacks, the decimated army reached the Berezina River late in November, near the border with French-occupied Lithuania. However, the river was unexpectedly thawed, and the Russians had destroyed the bridges at Borisov.
Napoleon’s engineers managed to construct two makeshift bridges at Studienka, and on November 26 the bulk of his army began to cross the river. On November 29, the Russians pressed from the east, and the French were forced to burn the bridges, leaving some 10,000 stragglers on the other side. The Russians largely abandoned their pursuit after that point, but thousands of French troops continued to succumb to hunger, exhaustion, and the cold. In December, Napoleon abandoned what remained of his army and raced back to Paris. He had to travel incognito across Europe with a few cohorts and reached the capital of his empire on December 18. Six days later, the Grande Armée finally escaped Russia, having suffered a loss of more than 400,000 men during the disastrous invasion. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia became a byword for failure and in time led to his overthrow.
Letter signed, Moscow, September 18. 1812, to Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, his trusted advisor who was constantly consulted for advice. “My cousin, The last letter that I received from you is from September 2, where I see that you have news of the affair of Smolensk. You did well having Baron Dudon arrested [Dudon had returned to Spain, where he was working without authorization]. His conduct was inexplicable. The fire in this city begins to calm. Today I toured the main quarters. It was a spectacular city; I say ‘was’ because today more than half has been consumed by fire. We have found cellars full of wine and eau de vie (liquor), which will be of great need to us. I have taken up lodging in the residence of the Tsars, the Kremlin, which is a form of citadel surrounded by high walls built to a height of 15 to 1800 fathoms….”
Letters of Napoleon from Moscow are very uncommon, this being our first.
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