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Chambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) online

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bodies, and the wounded, left on the ground for want of hospitals,
presented the most harrowing spectacle.

The destruction of Smolensk by the Russians dismayed and
perplexed Napoleon. He had confidently expected that this fine
large city would have afforded quarters and provisions to his troops,


on which he could have fallen back, if necessary, from Moscow. Her
now perceived the enormous magnitude of his enterprise. It was
not alone a war against the emperor of Russia; it was a war against
the whole nation a complication of wars. He had not only to
fight against soldiers, but against the people ; and, what was worse,
a wilderness, remote, barren, infinite. To aggravate his difficulties,
Murat, Ney, and other generals, on whom were his main dependence,,
loudly murmured against the undertaking. He overruled their
objections, and, pointing to Moscow as the goal of peace and
security, issued orders to proceed still onward on the march.

The army accordingly, after a stay of only four days at Smolensk,
set out for Moscow, a distance of 279 miles, which was expected to
be traversed in fifteen days. Difficulties of an appalling kind now
presented themselves at every step. Much of the way lay through
marshes and forests ; and almost every day there was an obscure
battle, which thinned the ranks and dispirited the soldiers. Not
all the blandishments of Napoleon, nor a profuse distribution of
decorations small bits of ribbon, usually much prized by the French
could compensate the privations which were endured.

No engagement of any moment took place till the yth of Sep-
tember, when was fought the battle of the Borodino, or Moskwa, as
it was indifferently called. In this famous encounter, in which the
Russians were commanded by Kutusoff, the French were the victors,
and had the way cleared for them to Moscow. It was, however, a
dear-bought triumph. The slaughter had been immense. The loss
of the French amounted to 12,000 killed and 38,000 wounded ; that
of the Russians was 15,000 killed and 32,000 wounded. The French,
it is said, fired on this occasion 90,000 cannon, and each soldier
used 100 cartridges. ' As we passed over the ground which the
Russians had occupied,' says Labaume in his account of the cam-
paign, 'we were able to judge of the immense loss that they had
sustained. On many places the bursting of the shells had promis-
cuously heaped together men and horses. The fire of our howitzers
had been so destructive, that mountains of dead bodies were
scattered over the plain ; and the few places that were not encum-
bered with the slain, were covered with broken lances, muskets,
helmets, and cuirasses, or with grape-shot and bullets, as numerous
as hailstones after a violent storm. The most horrid spectacle,
however, was the interior of the ravines : almost all the wounded
who were able to drag themselves along, had taken refuge in these-
hollows to avoid the shot. These miserable wretches heaped one
upon another, and almost suffocated with blood, uttering the most
dreadful groans, and invoking death with piercing cries eagerly
besought us to put an end to their torments. We had no means of
relieving them, and could only deplore the calamities inseparable
from a war so atrocious.' Segur heightens this melancholy picture.
In speaking of the sufferings of the Russians, he mentions 'that



one of these poor fellows lived for several days in the carcass of a
horse, which had been gutted by a shell, and the inside of which
he gnawed. Some were seen straightening a broken leg, by tying
a branch of a tree tightly against it, then supporting themselves
with another branch, and walking in this manner to the next

The town of Mojaisk was next captured ; but, like all the other
towns, it contained neither inhabitants nor provisions, and being of
wood, it was left in flames, amidst which hundreds of the wounded,
and those too feeble to fly, were consumed. Mental torture, with
bodily infirmity, now almost drove Napoleon to despair ; and in
this state of inquietude he took the road to Moscow with the
collected wreck of his army.

As the French approached the capital of the Russian empire, the
inhabitants in this part of the country, as elsewhere, fled before
them, leaving nothing but a desert of scorched fields and smoking
houses. The determined resolution with which this devastation con-
tinued to be effected greatly appalled Bonaparte ; but he still consoled
himself with the reflection that Moscow would offer a compensation
for all privations. On reaching Moscow, as he believed, the whole
object of the expedition would be accomplished : the Russian citizens
would submit to the French emperor ; he would dictate to them his
laws, and offer them his protection ; after the first shock of the
entrance of the foreign army into the city, trade and commerce
would assume their accustomed routine ; the inhabitants would walk
in the streets peacefully ; the merchants would re-open their shops,
and, except that Moscow would be in the possession of the French
instead of the Russian emperor, all would be as it was. Such were
the hopes of Napoleon ; hopes doomed, however, to be miserably

It was two o'clock on the afternoon of the I4th of September
when the advanced guards of the French army, reaching the top of
the last eminence which lay between them and Moscow, caught
their first glimpse of the famous city, termed by native poets
' Moscow with the golden cupolas.' The picture was one of
enchantment. There, in the midst of a fertile plain, through which
the waters of the Moskwa were seen meandering, rose a thousand
towers and steeples crowned with golden balls a thousand domes
flashing and blazing in the light of the sun. Ravished by these
glistening colours, the eye, on looking at the city more narrowly,
discerned its myriads of houses of all materials wood, brick, stone ;
of all styles of architecture Gothic, modern, and nondescript ; and
of all proportions from the mansion of the grandee to the hut of
the artisan. It was the boasted capital of a barbarous empire ;
luxury and -wretchedness, gold and filth, quaint magnificence and
miry poverty, all huddled together, with the brilliant points exposed
to the sun's rays. As the French soldiers gazed on the spectacle,


their hearts swelled proudly, and as the cry of ' Moscow ! Moscow ! '
rolled along the ranks, many were already anticipating the time
when, in their old age, they would look back upon the present as the
most honourable moment in their lives, and be able to say to a new
generation : ' I was also in the army of Moscow.' Napoleon himself
partook of the general enthusiasm. Surveying the scene beneath
him, he exclaimed : 'There at last is the famous city!' His next
exclamation, however, betrayed the anxiety under which he had
been labouring : ' It was high time ! '

As is usual on such occasions, Napoleon expected the arrival of
a deputation of the principal men of the city, to surrender it into his
hands. He waited till evening, the whole of his forces in the mean-
time coming up, and the scouts of Murat advancing to the suburbs
of the city, and even mingling with the Cossacks in the rear of the
retreating Russian army. Still no deputation arrived, and Napoleon
now became anxious. Was it that the inhabitants of Moscow were
ignorant of the formality which it was necessary for a capital to
go through when it surrendered ? Or was it that the nobles were
removing with their effects ? Rumours began to reach him that the
city was deserted. Some of the scouts had penetrated into the
streets, and found all silent, as if the population were either gone
or asleep. Several Frenchmen too, who had been resident in
Moscow, came out of their hiding-places, and, joining their country-
men, made the same report. Napoleon could scarcely at first credit
it : it was so contrary to all his experience of war or human nature,
that an entire city should be abandoned by its population, because
it was about to fall into the hands of an enemy. That a few of the
most influential inhabitants should do so, was nothing wonderful ;
but that all merchants, tradesmen, artificers, who had little to lose
by the change of masters should voluntarily incur ruin by leaving
their habitations, and fleeing into the country beyond, was a circum-
stance utterly unprecedented. The disagreeable truth, however,
soon became too plain to be longer disbelieved. The city had been
deserted : none were left in it except a few thousands of prowling
vagabonds, the refuse of the population, who remained behind to
plunder, along with a few French and foreign residents, whom the
retreating Russians could not carry away.

To understand how this had been brought about, it is necessary
to look back a little. The Emperor Alexander, on being forced to
retreat before the French, had retired into the heart of his empire,
to superintend in person the preparations which it was necessary to
make there, leaving, as we have seen, his generals to oppose the
French on their march. He proceeded to Moscow, a city rarely
visited by the Russian czars, and, in consequence of its wealth, and
the number of nobles who resided in it, somewhat jealous of the
consequences which might result from such visits of an autocratic
master. The excess of the danger, however, removed every feeling


of mutual suspicion between the emperor and his subjects ; and
when Alexander reached the ancient city, he was received with
bursts of enthusiasm, and with offers of money and other supplies,
such as he could not have expected. One merchant alone put down
his name for 50,000 roubles, which was equal to two-thirds of his
fortune, and paid the sum next day. A fever of patriotism seized all
ranks ; and before Alexander left Moscow, he was convinced that its
population would do their duty.

After the emperor's departure, the inhabitants of Moscow watched
with intense interest the approach of the French. While Napoleon
was yet at a great distance, and long before the battle of the Moskwa
had been fought, many left the city ; the rest were encouraged and
stimulated by the proclamations of the governor-general, Count
Rostopchine, who held out hopes that the French would be defeated
ere they reached Moscow, and forced to retreat. At the same time
he made preparations for evacuating the city and leaving it a desert,
in case his predictions should fail.

Whether the still more desperate resolution to burn the city was
originated or sanctioned by Rostopchine, remains doubtful. He him-
self, while afterwards living in Paris, published a refutation of the
charge (La Verite sur Vlncendie de Moscou; Paris, 1823), in which
he affirms that the desperate deed was due in part to the fervid
patriotism of a few of the inhabitants, and in part to the violence
and negligence of the French. One thing is certain, that he had
prepared the means of destruction for his own country palace
near the city, and at the last moment applied the torch with his
own hand. This example of devotion was perhaps sufficient for the
frenzied inhabitants, without any formal order or preparation by
the governor. Be that as it may, the dreadful sacrifice was made.

About a fortnight before the arrival of the French, the general
emigration had commenced. The archives of the city and the public
treasure were removed by the orders of Rostopchine ; the merchants
next began to shift their property ; and at last the whole country for
miles round was covered by crowds of fugitives, turning to take a last
look of their beloved Moscow. The news of the battle of the Moskwa
completed the evacuation of the city. The wretched citizens who had
remained to the last in their houses, were now obliged to take to flight,
urged equally by the stern measures of Rostopchine, and their fear
of the French. A stream of fugitives men, women, and children
poured out at the gate of Kolomna, carrying with them whatever they
esteemed dearest. Men might be seen harnessed to carts, dragging
their wives, their children, their aged parents, or the little remains
of their property. None apparently remained in the city except the
foreign residents, some soldiers and officers of police, and a few
thousands of abandoned wretches, the dregs of the population, a great
proportion of whom were released from the various prisons for the
occasion. To this savage horde, rushing about the streets with



ferocious joy, and delighted with the universal turmoil, and the
prospect of pillage which it afforded them, was intrusted, it is said,
the task of setting fire to the city on the arrival of the French. Such
was the condition of Moscow when the French entered it. The
army, the nobles, and the merchants gone Rostopchine and the
whole population gone : none left to negotiate the surrender, nor to
welcome the conqueror, but a few Frenchmen in hiding, and a
squalid crew of criminals and bacchanals hallooing in the deserted
streets. To Napoleon, the disappointment must have been no doubt
severe. He concealed his feelings, however, and only shrugging his
shoulders, exclaimed : ' Ah, the Russians little know as yet the effect
which the taking of their capital will produce upon them !'

Napoleon entered the city after dark on the I4th of September ;
and stopping at one of the houses in the suburbs, took up his residence
for the night, while the army quartered all around. Rumours of the
intended conflagration reached him, and he could take no rest.
Every moment he was sending out to learn the state of things in
the city. At length, about two in the morning, he was informed that
a fire had broken out. 'A fire-balloon/ says Segur, 'had settled
in the palace of Prince Trubetskoi, and consumed it : this was the
signal. Fire had immediately been set to the Exchange ; Russian
police-officers had been seen stirring it up with tarred lances. Here,
howitzer shells, perfidiously placed, had discharged themselves in
the stoves of several houses, and wounded the military who crowded
round them. Retiring to other quarters, which were still standing,
they sought fresh retreats; but when they were on the point of
entering houses closely shut up and uninhabited, they heard faint
explosions within; these were succeeded by a light smoke, which
immediately became thick and black, then reddish, and lastly the
colour of fire, and presently the whole edifice was involved in flames.'
So it continued during the night; and at daybreak, when Napoleon
hastened into the streets, black smoke was seen issuing from under
the iron roofs of hundreds of houses in all quarters of the city.
Giving instructions to the soldiers to use their exertions to suppress
the fire, he entered the Kremlin, the central part of Moscow, and
the site of the ancient palace of the czars. Here, after inspecting
the various wonders of the place, he employed himself in writing
proposals of peace to the Emperor Alexander; thus carrying into
effect the proudest aim of a conqueror that of dictating terms to
a rival in his own capital. In this case, however, the honour was
an empty one ; the capital was deserted ; and at the moment he
was writing his letter, flames were blazing around.

During daylight of the I5th, the conflagration still continued; the
houses which had been set oh fire during the night were consumed
to ashes. It appeared, however, that the efforts made by the French
to subdue the fire were producing effect, and hopes were entertained
that the progress of the destructive element might be arrested. The


approach of night put an end to these hopes. The incendiaries, who
had concealed themselves during the day, rushed out of their hiding-
places, armed with torches, and recommenced their horrible work.
Many of them were cut down by the French, reeling in a state of
drunkenness through the streets, or in the act of setting fire to
houses. Their numbers, however, increased, and defied the vigilance
of the soldiery. Although masters of Moscow, the French troops
could not find safe quarters in it. Fearful of being burned alive in
the houses, if they remained within the city, they were obliged to
bivouac without its gates. Meanwhile, Napoleon continued in the
Kremlin, issuing his orders in quick succession. The palace had
several times been threatened with the fate of others of the great
buildings, the wind carrying the flames and showers of sparks in
that direction. Fears began to be entertained that one of the
burning brands which flew over the palace might alight on one of
the powder-wagons which stood in the courtyard, or on some secret
store of combustibles designedly concealed. One such brand,
descending with true aim, might heave emperor and his army into
the air in one murderous explosion. The noise, the heat, the glare
of the flames awoke Napoleon from a short sleep. He paced the
apartments hurriedly, ever and anon going to the windows to watch
the progress of the conflagration. ' Short and incoherent exclama-
tions,' says Segur, 'burst from his labouring bosom. "What a
tremendous spectacle ! It is their own work ! So many palaces !
What extraordinary resolution ! What men ! These are Scythians

At last the cry arose : 'The Kremlin is on fire !' The intelligence
was true. Twice the flames had reached the building, and twice
they had been extinguished ; but the third time, an incendiary had
set fire to a tower, where the labours of the soldiers were unavailing.
Napoleon was forced to flee. Leaving the Kremlin, he set out for
Peterskoe, a residence of the Russian czar, about three miles distant,
on the road to St Petersburg. It was with great difficulty that he
effected his escape. ' We were encircled,' says Segur, ' by a sea of
fire, which blocked up all the gates of the citadel, and frustrated the
first attempts that were made to depart. After some search we
discovered a postern-gate leading between the rocks to the Moskwa.
It was by this narrow passage that Napoleon, his officers, and
guard, escaped from the Kremlin. But what had they gained by
this movement ? They had approached nearer to the fire, and could
neither retreat nor remain where they were. And how were they to
advance ? How force a passage through the waves of this ocean of
flame ? There was no time to be lost. "The roaring of the flames
around us became every moment more violent. A single narrow
winding street appeared to be the only outlet. The emperor rushed
on foot, and without hesitation, into this narrow passage. He
advanced amid the crackling of the flames, the crash of floors, and



the fall of burning timbers, and of the red-hot iron roofs which
tumbled around him. The flames, which with impetuous roar
consumed the edifices between which we were proceeding, spreading
beyond the walls, were blown about by the wind, and formed an
arch over our heads. We walked on a ground of fire, beneath a
fiery sky, and between two walls of fire. The intense heat burned
our eyes, which we were nevertheless obliged to keep open, and
fixed on the danger. A consuming atmosphere, glowing ashes,
detached flames, parched our throats, and rendered our respiration
short and dry; and we were already almost suffocated with the
smoke/ At length the emperor and his attendants were extricated
from the labyrinth of burning edifices, and were able to make their
way to Peterskoe.

This was on the evening of the :6th. The conflagration, however,
raged till the 2oth, when it ended, having lasted in all six days.
During these six days, says Dr Lyall, in his History of Moscow,
' innumerable palaces, crowds of noble mansions, and thousands of
houses, bazaars, shops, and warehouses, containing the wealth and
luxuries of the world, the depositories of science, of literature, and
taste, the cabinets and galleries, were destroyed. The total loss
by fire and the war in the city and government of Moscow was
estimated at 321,000,000 roubles' about 50,000,000 sterling. On
the 2Oth, Napoleon returned to Moscow, and again took up his
residence in the Kremlin, which, owing to the exertions of the troops
after his departure, had escaped with little damage. The description
given by eye-witnesses of the appearance of the city and its suburbs,
now that the fire was over, is horrible in the extreme. Strict orders
had at first been issued to refrain from pillage ; but these had been
at last withdrawn, and thousands of persons of all descriptions
French and Russians, officers and privates, men of respectable
character and the lowest dregs of the population, the refuse of the
Russian jails had for several days been going about through the
streets, breaking open shops, and ransacking houses, in quest of
such goods or movables as had escaped the fire. There had been
no order or regularity ; all had been excess and brutal indulgence.
On the road from Peterskoe to Moscow, the most strange and
disgusting scenes met the eyes of the emperor large blazing
bonfires, in which the fuel consisted of mahogany furniture and
gilded doors ; around these, officers and soldiers, splashed and
bedaubed with mud and dirt, lying on silken couches, or sitting in
fine arm-chairs, their feet resting on Siberian furs, Cashmere shawls,
or Persian gold cloth ; gold and silver plates in their hands, from
which they were ravenously eating huge pieces of half-broiled horse-
flesh. Round every one of these little groups were gathered crowds
of Russian citizens, trying in some cases to recover part of their
own property, in others to pillage their neighbours, but many of
them tempted merely by the fires which the French had kindled,


and the horse-flesh which they were eating. Entering the suburbs
of the city, the scenes which offended the eye and the other senses
were still more painfully disgusting. Everywhere heaps of ashes,
and fragments of stone and iron, blocked up the path ; and the
air was filled with an indescribable stench, rising from such a
smouldering chaos of lime, bricks, wood, dead bodies, and all the
heterogeneous mass of materials which the imagination can conceive
to be lodged in a great city. In the gardens, of which there are a
great number in the suburbs of Moscow, wretched and gaunt-look-
ing Russians, of both sexes some with scarcely a rag to cover them,
others clad in furs and rich pelisses were seen scraping the soil
with their nails, in search of roots or herbs ; or fighting with each
other for the thigh-bone of a horse which had been left behind by
the French. On the banks of the river, crowds were devouring
handfuls of raw and sour corn, which they had fished up from the
water, out of a large quantity which had been sunk by the orders of
Rostopchine. Penetrating farther into the city, the spectator was
met by still more striking disorder : soldiers were seated on bales of
rich merchandise, on mountains of sugar and coffee, and surrounded
by barrels of luscious wines and costly liqueurs, which they were
dealing out in exchange for bread, meat, or gold. Round these
auctioneers reeled crowds of intoxicated purchasers ; and not far off,
half-covered by heaps of ashes, might be seen the corpses of poor
wretches, most of them Russians, who, in a similar state of intoxica-
tion, had fallen victims to the fire.

The return of Napoleon put a stop to many of these scenes of
disorder. The indiscriminate pillage was ordered to cease ; regiments
were appointed in turn to collect the property which remained ; the
churches and other public buildings were evacuated by the cavalry,
who had taken shelter in them ; the principal streets were cleared ;
and directions were issued to secure the Russian stragglers, who
still loitered in the town and its suburbs. It was too late, however,
to put this last order into execution, as most of the Russians, on
learning the emperor's return, had abandoned Moscow, and fled
into the country. Nor was it possible to repair the losses caused
by the indiscriminate pillage of the last six days. Quantities of
provisions, which, if judiciously taken care of, would have proved
a welcome addition to the army stores, had been irretrievably
squandered by the thoughtless soldiers who had obtained possession
of them. But the uproar and confusion caused by the fire were such,
that even the best-disciplined army could not have been kept in
check, or obliged to obey orders.

If the desertion of Moscow by its inhabitants was a circumstance

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 25 of 58)