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to with impatience. Napoleon, obstinate and imperative, despised
counsel ; and on this, as on many other occasions, carried his point,
or silenced his advisers, by bombast and charlatanry. ' Don't
disquiet yourself,' said he in reply to Fouche' ; ' but consider the
Russian war as a wise measure, demanded by the true interests of
France and the general security. Am I to blame because the great
degree of power I have already attained forces me to assume the
dictatorship of the world ? My destiny is not yet accomplished my
present situation is but a sketch of a picture which I must finish.
There must be one universal European code one court of appeal.
The same money, the same weights and measures, the same laws
must have currency through Europe. I must make one nation out
of all the European states, and Paris must be the capital of the world
it is I who assure you of it.'

Advices from other counsellors were equally in vain. With the
army he should be able to raise, nothing could be more easy than to
bring Russia to terms. Alarmed for the consequences of plunging
into so distant a war, his uncle, Cardinal Fesch, remonstrated with
him on the undertaking. He conjured his kinsman to abstain from


tempting Providence ; he entreated him not to defy heaven and earth
the wrath of man and the fury of the elements at the same time ;
and expressed his apprehension that he must sink under the weight
of the enmity which he daily incurred. The only answer which
Bonaparte vouchsafed was in keeping with his character. He led
the cardinal to a window, and opening the casement, and pointing
upwards, asked him 'if he saw yonder star.' 'No, sire,' answered
the astonished cardinal. ' But / see it,' answered Bonaparte ; and
turned from his relative, as if he had fully confuted his arguments.*

Thus, refusing all counsel, Napoleon may be said to have rushed
on his fate. At this period he was engaged in a war with Spain ;
yet such was his power, that he found little difficulty in raising fresh
armies ; and in 1812, just before the campaign of Russia, he is
understood to have had altogether in France, Spain, Italy, and
elsewhere eight hundred thousand men in arms, independently of
allies. To raise so many soldiers in France, he made forcible
draughts on the whole male population between eighteen and sixty
years of age. Men were everywhere torn from their families to serve
in the army ; leaving mothers, wives, and children in distress and
destitution, and causing a large part of the common business of the
country to be conducted by women. To aggravate the exhaustion
of the nation, there was at this time a dearth of food, which caused
a widespread suffering through the country. Everything tended to
prove the madness of the Russian expedition, yet nothing occasioned
its interruption. Accustomed to submit, and to believe in the con-
tinued good-fortune of their emperor, deranged also on the subject of
military ' glory,' the French generally entered into this new war with
high hopes, or at least offered no obstacle to its commencement and

Reckless as he was, Napoleon was by no means blind to the diffi-
culties of his project. Before his armies could reach the interior of
Russia, where battles were likely to be fought, they would require to
march eighteen hundred miles, through different states, and across
large tracts of country, possessing little or no food for men or horses.
As he had gained, by open force or secret intimidation, the aid of
Bavaria, Saxony, Prussia, and Austria, over which his forces would
necessarily advance, he had nothing to fear from any attack by the
way. His chief difficulty lay in procuring and transporting supplies
of provisions for his army over such a wide and almost unknown
territory. Another serious obstacle to his progress was the number
of rivers. Between Paris and Moscow there are various large rivers
issuing into the Baltic or Mediterranean seas, and therefore flowing
at right angles with the proposed line of march of the French army.
The Rhine, the Elbe^the Oder, and the Vistula could be crossed by
bridges ; but the Niemen, the Beresina, the Dnieper, and some others,

* Scott's Lift of Napoleon,


would require to be forded by men, horses, and wagons, and probably
under the fire of an ever-vigilant and indignant enemy. Altogether,
the enterprise was gigantic and hazardous. There had been nothing
like it in modern history.

Napoleon's tactics as a general consisted in effecting sudden and
overpowering movements ; an enormous force being brought to bear
on a centre of operations. On this principle he now acted. Gathering
together that part of the army which France was to furnish, it was
despatched in an easterly direction into Germany, where it was to
unite with the levies drawn from Spain, Italy, Austria, Prussia,
Saxony, Bavaria, Poland, and the other countries over which he
exerted a control. From different directions, this immense force,
under able generals, drew towards a central point on the Oder,
whence all were to combine in a united attack on the Russian


On the pth of May 1812, Napoleon departed from Paris, to super-
intend the war in person. His march through France and part of
Germany to Dresden was a continued triumph. Whole nations
quitted their homes to throng his path ; rich and poor, nobles and
plebeians, friends and enemies, all hurried to have a passing view
of the great man, almost looked upon by them as a supernatural
being. Kings and princes forsook their capitals to do him homage.
The adulation was universal. On the 2c>th he departed from Dresden,
taking his route through Poland ; and from this time he acted as a
presiding genius over the various divisions of his army, which was
now hurrying on to the Vistula.

The scarcity in France, and the length of the way, caused much
reliance for provisions on the countries in this quarter. But great
as was Napoleon's power, he failed in his calculations in this
respect. Many of his arrangements for provisioning the army fell
short of what was necessary; and the subsistence of his forces
man and beast was made to depend in a great measure on
plunder. If he did not sanction robbery as a principle, he winked
at it as a practice. He felt that a compromise was necessary, in
order to maintain his position. 'Ever since 1805,' observes Segur,
' there was a sort of mutual understanding on his part, to wink at
the plundering practices of his soldiers ; on theirs, to suffer his
ambition.' In one sense, therefore, Bonaparte, in all his pomp and
pride, was but the chief of a band of robbers. Like all robberies,
however, this toleration of rapine recoiled on its author. The
injustice and inhumanity of indiscriminate theft, accompanied as it
often was by the murder of the unhappy victims, was a short-
sighted policy. Aware of the merciless disposition of the French
army, every one fled at its approach, with all they could carry along



with them ; and frequently what could not be transported to a
place of security was destroyed. It was only by making a sudden
onslaught, that the marauding soldiery had any chance of securing
a prey.

Between the Oder and the Vistula, the army began operations,
laying hold of everything useful that fell in their way : wagons,
cattle, and provisions of all sorts were swept off; everything was
taken even to such of the inhabitants as were necessary to conduct
these convoys. There was everywhere, however, a great want of
forage. The crops of rye, yet green, were cut to feed the horses ;
and so insufficient was this resource, that often the thatch was
stripped from the houses. Laying the country thus wasie before
them, the army reached the banks of the Niemen, on the verge of
the Russian empire. Let us here take a glance at the composition
of this mighty force.

The army consisted of several divisions which generally moved
at one or two days' distance from each other, on different points.
On the extreme right were 34,000 Austrians, commanded by Prince
Schwarzenberg ; on the left was Jerome Bonaparte, king of West-
phalia, at the head of 75,200 Westphalians, Saxons, and Poles ; by
the side of these was Eugene de Beauharnais (viceroy of Italy, and
stepson of Napoleon), with 75,000 Bavarians, Italians, and French ;
next, the emperor, with 220,000 men, commanded by Murat, king
of Naples, and Marshals Davout, Oudinot, and Ney ; and, finally,
in front of Tilsit, was Marshal Macdonald, with 32,500 Prussians,
Bavarians, and Poles. These, with some others not enumerated,
amounted to 480,000 men actually present ; besides which, many
thousands were collected and kept in reserve. Of this large force,
400,000 were infantry, or soldiers on foot, and 80,000 cavalry.
Along with this enormous force, there were thousands of wagons
carrying provisions, thousands laden with gunpowder, shot, and
shells, and thousands designed to accommodate the sick and
wounded. The artillery consisted of 1372 pieces of cannon. For
drawing the wagons of various kinds and the cannon, about 100,000
horses were employed ; and to supply food for these poor animals,
thus brought into a service of danger and fatigue, independently of
those used by the 80,000 cavalry, a most extensive system of foraging
was required.

Here, then, were nearly half a million of men, accoutred with
every appliance of war, and elated with hopes of victory, plunder,
and triumph. The idea of defeat was never for an instant enter-
tained. The army of Napoleon believed itself to be invincible. It is
lamentable to think, that of the half-million thus brought together
to do the work of one man, none as yet knew what was the real
cause of the war. It was only understood generally that the attack
was to be on Russia ; but of the grounds of dispute with that nation
none knew or cared. The emperor had no doubt his own reasons



for what he did. It is important, therefore, to observe, that the
Russian campaign was a thing entirely of Napoleon's contrivance,
with a view to his own selfish purposes. Satisfied with his pre-
parations, and ready, as he believed, to stoop on' his prey, he at
length deigned to declare himself. On the 22d of June he issued
the following proclamation :

' Soldiers The second Polish war has begun. The first terminated
at Friedland and at Tilsit. At Tilsit, Russia vowed an eternal
alliance with France, and war with England. She now breaks her
vows, and refuses to give any explanation of her strange conduct,
until the French eagles have repassed the Rhine, and left our allies
at her mercy.

' Russia is hurried away by a fatality ! Her destinies will be
fulfilled. Does she think us degenerated? Are we no more the
soldiers who fought at Austerlitz ? She places us between dishonour
and war. Our choice cannot be difficult. Let us, then, march
forward. Let us cross the Niemen, and carry the war into her
country. The second Polish war will be as glorious to the French
arms as the first has been ; but the peace we shall conclude will
carry its own guarantee, and will terminate the fatal influence which
Russia has, for fifty years past, exercised in Europe.'

This bombastic proclamation was quite satisfactory to a body of
men who wanted no substantial reason for fighting. Every one
pronounced it a miracle of eloquence, and proudly contemplated the
' glory' they were to achieve. Such glory! The glory of murdering,
despoiling, and, if possible, enslaving a people who had done them
no harm, and wanted only to be let alone.

By means of pontoons a kind of floating platforms placed on the
river the Niemen was passed by the foremost divisions of the
French army; and no sooner did the Emperor Alexander learn that
this act of aggression had been committed, than he issued the fol-
lowing proclamation, breathing, it will be observed, a very different
spirit from that of his boastful antagonist :

' Vilno, June 25, 1812. We had long observed, on the part of
the emperor of the French, the most hostile proceedings towards
Russia, but we had always hoped to avert them by conciliatory and
pacific measures. At length, experiencing a continued renewal of
direct and evident aggression, notwithstanding our earnest desire to
maintain tranquillity, we were compelled to complete and assemble
our armies. But even then we flattered ourselves that a reconcilia-
tion might be produced while we remained on the frontiers of our
empire ; and without violating our principle of peace, we prepared
to act only in our own defence. All these conciliatory and pacific
measures could not preserve the tranquillity which we desired. The
emperor of the French, by suddenly attacking our army at Kovno,
has been the first to declare war. As nothing, therefore, could
inspire him with those friendly sentiments which possessed our



bosom, we have no choice but to oppose our force to those of the
enemy, invoking the aid of the Almighty, the witness and defender
of the truth. It is unnecessary for me to recall to the minds of the
generals, the officers, or the soldiers, their duty and their bravery.
The blood of the valiant Slavonians flows in their veins. Warriors !
you defend your religion, your country, and your liberty ! I am
with you. God is against the aggressor. ALEXANDER.'

The war had now commenced ; but strangely enough, except at
the outset at Kovno, no army appeared to fight against. As division
after division entered Russia, and pressed forward, nearly on the
same line of march, the Russians fell back, giving no decided
interruption to their progress. The French could not restrain their
astonishment at the rapidity with which they were allowed to pro-
ceed. The season being the middle of summer, there was no inter-
ruption from the weather ; and the only thing that incommoded the
men was the excessive heat, with the great clouds of dust which
filled the atmosphere.

It was from no lack of force or courage that the Russians receded,
leaving a clear entrance into their country. The army collected by
Alexander amounted to 300,000 men, divided into two corps, respect-
ively commanded by General Barclay de Tolly* and the Prince
Bagration. At first, the emperor of Russia designed to hazard a
battle with the enemy ; but those better acquainted with the French
system of war, strenuously advised him to present a passive resist-
ance, being well assured that Napoleon's ambition would lead him
into savage countries, which, during the rigour of winter, would
become the grave of his armies. Acting on this prudent advice,
Alexander risked no encounter of great moment, but kept continually
retreating, so as to leave the French entire masters of the country
through which they passed. In retiring, however, every means was
adopted to cut up and discourage the invaders. Bands of Cossacks
a wild kind of cavalry, brought from the extreme limits of the
empire hovered near the line of march, and slew all the straggling
and foraging parties they could light upon. Houses, villages, and
towns likely to afford shelter were so effectually destroyed, that
frequently it would have been difficult to say where they stood. The
crops of grain were likewise cut and carried away, or destroyed, and
the stacks of hay were universally burned. Nor were these devas-
tations committed against the will of the unhappy inhabitants. The
Russians nobles, priests, and serfs, all classes for the time laid
aside their mutual jealousies, and united in a warm attachment to
the emperor, and so bitter a hatred of the French, that they volun-
tarily ruined themselves to defeat the iniquitous invasion of their
country. By Napoleon, as well as by many others, it was believed
that the Russian serfs, in the hope of freedom, would have hailed

* General Barclay was a Scotsman by extraction, and a German by birth.

55 9


and succoured the French as liberators ; but these enslaved classes
did not, by their conduct, warrant this presumption. Brought up
with two leading ideas veneration of God and the emperor they
shrunk everywhere from the profane violators of their country, and
entertained a thorough distrust and horror of all Napoleon's

Besides setting fire to their hamlets, the peasantry, says Scott,
' proclaimed the punishment of death to all of their own order who,
from avarice or fear, should be tempted to supply the enemy with
provisions ; and they inflicted it without mercy on such as incurred
the penalty. It is an admitted fact, that when the French, in order
to induce their refractory prisoners to labour in their service, branded
some of them on the hand with the letter N, as a sign that they
were the serfs of Napoleon, one peasant laid his hand on a log of
wood, and struck it off with an axe which he held in the other, in
order to free himself from the supposed thraldom.' While such
stubborn independence from the peasantry dismayed the French
invaders, they were not less astonished with the patriotic ardour of
the nobles, who everywhere deserted their mansions, and left them a
prey to the invading army. At a village which a band of the French
one day reached, they found the seigneur, or feudal proprietor, sur-
rounded by a number of men armed with scythes, poles, and other
rude weapons, as if resolved to make a stand. A few shots from the
invading force speedily dispersed this miserable group ; the chief
alone evincing firmness on this trying occasion. Awaiting the
approach of the French soldiers, armed with a poniard, he menaced
all who summoned him to surrender. ' How can I survive the
dishonour of my country?' cried he in uncontrollable and frantic
indignation. ' Our altars are no more ! Our empire is disgraced !
Take my life; it is odious to me !' Some of the soldiers tried to
calm his fury, and endeavoured to wrench the poniard from his
hand ; but this only exasperated him the more. The result' may be

By incessant marching, the van of the army, with Bonaparte at its
head, reached and took possession of Vitebsk, on the Dwina, after a
brief engagement. This was on the 28th of July. Vitebsk, like
every other place, was deserted by nearly all the inhabitants, and
every useful article removed. Having reached this point, with only
one large town Smolensk, or Smolensko between him and Mos-
cow, Napoleon confidently believed that Alexander would send to
propose terms of peace ; but no letter arrived ; and every day added
to the difficulties of his position. Already, by desertion, fatigue,
famine, and wounds, the French army had lost nearly a third of its
numbers. In the progress of the march, the soldiers first experienced
the loss of wine, then spirits, beer, water, and bread. For several
days at a time, the only food that could be got was roots ; and on
arriving at Vitebsk, the principal fare of whole divisions of men


consisted of a nauseous kind of broth made of rye. The consequence
was, an extensive prevalence of dysentery and typhus fever; and
as there were no hospitals or comfort of any kind, thousands daily
dropped down and died. For upwards of a hundred miles the line
of march was marked not less by devastation, than by bodies of
men and horses scattered about in all directions. The sufferings
of the foot-soldiers were also undermining discipline. Many of
the less zealous in the cause had begun to grumble with the aim-
less object of the enterprise, and to desert in considerable bodies.
Instead, however, of returning, they went off on predatory excursions
on their own account, murdering and robbing all the natives who
fell into their hands, and living a life of dissipation as long as the
means of indulgence were within their reach. Ultimately, all these
marauders were cut down without mercy by the Cossacks, or by
armed bands of the enraged peasantry.

To bring in supplies from points at a distance from the line of
march, troops scoured the country, seizing without mercy everything
which could be of use. The hearts of the more compassionate
officers were often pained with the affecting spectacle which these
incursions presented. What constituted the whole fortune of families
carts and horses, provender, clothing, and food were relentlessly
seized. In entering towns which were suddenly and unexpectedly
environed, there was a universal pillage. Describing the entrance
of a division into one of the towns, Labaume says : ' As we advanced
towards the centre of the town, we observed, in every street, crowds
of soldiers robbing the houses, altogether regardless of the cries of
the wretched inhabitants, or the tears of the mothers, who, on bended
knees, begged for their own lives and those of their children. This
insatiable rage for plunder was justified by some who, famishing,
only sought for provisions; but others, under this pretence, rifled
the dwellings of their contents, and even robbed the women and
children of the clothes with which they were covered.'

The increasing difficulties of the march induced the more cautious
advisers of Napoleon to counsel either his fortifying and remaining
in Vitebsk till the succeeding spring, or his returning to Vilno or
Warsaw. But these counsels, though often renewed and discussed,
were uniformly repelled. Haunted with the image of captive
Moscow, or at least of Smolensk, Bonaparte was determined to
proceed ; and there was the greater urgency for this movement, as
there could not, at Vitebsk, be gathered together on any occasion
more than twenty-four hours' provisions. To return to Poland would
have been a confession of defeat, and that was not for an instant to
be thought of. Impelled onward, therefore, by necessity, as well as
by restlessness of mind, it was resolved to leave Vitebsk ; and the
army, forming a junction on the loth of August, marched on



After leaving Vitebsk, the engagements were more frequent and
fierce. The Russians had partly changed their tactics. The object
was now to wear out and keep the invaders in check ; so that, by
detaining them on the way, they would find it impossible to retreat
before the approach of winter. At Smolensk, a large fortified city
on the Dnieper, a Russian army, under Barclay de Tolly, made a
stand, in order to cover the removal of the inhabitants with all
transportable stores. The prospect of fighting here a distinct battle,
on a large scale, delighted Napoleon ; for all his successes had arisen
from generalship in great battles. 'Now I have them!' said he, on
coming in sight of the Russian army. A bombardment of the city
ensued, and the Russian forces were attacked with all the usual
energy of the French commanders. After a desperate struggle
(August 1 8), Smolensk was taken, the Russians retiring, according
to their ordinary practice ; yet the victory, when achieved, proved
utterly worthless. On the evening of the day of battle, thick columns
of smoke were seen to rise from different quarters, and presently
torrents of flame were distinctly observed, spreading with incredible
rapidity in various directions. The whole city was speedily on fire,
and, in the middle of a fine summer's night, presented to the
bewildered gaze of the French army the spectacle of a vast volcano.

Next day the French entered Smolensk, everywhere marching
over scattered ruins and dead bodies. Palaces yet burning, shewed
walls half destroyed by the flames ; and strewn amidst the fallen
wreck, were the blackened carcasses of the unfortunate inhabitants
whom the fire had overtaken. The few houses that remained were
completely filled by the rapacious soldiery ; while at the door stood
the miserable proprietor, without an asylum, deploring the death of
his children and the loss of his fortune. Amidst the universal havoc,
some of the churches had escaped destruction, and in these were
crowded hundreds of unhappy victims, who had escaped the confla-
gration. In the great cathedral, venerated by the Russians, might
be seen whole families, aged men and children, prostrated before the
altars, and appealing to Heaven for the succour which man had
denied. The solemnity of these spectacles of misery was, in the
meanwhile, broken by the loud shouts of the victors and the clang-
ing sounds of military music. 'The affair of Smolensk,' as it is
called by historians, cost the Russians 12,000 soldiers, and the
French 4000. The approaches to the city were heaped with dead

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 24 of 58)