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for which Napoleon was totally unprepared, the burning of the city,
we may well conceive, was a still greater astonishment to him.
Here he was in the centre of Russia, in the city of Moscow, in the
palace of the czars : this had long been the goal of his hopes ; and


yet all his anticipations of the consequences of such an event were
disappointed. He was still as far as ever from the conquest of
Russia ; and should the inhabitants continue to manifest the same
spirit of resistance which had prompted them to set fire to their
capital rather than submit, he might march from town to town, and
yet approach no nearer the end of his expedition. Besides, a
Russian winter was coming on ; and how would he be able to make
good his quarters in the midst of an inhospitable population, willing
to destroy their stores of provisions, rather than contribute them to
the support of the invader? Perplexed with these anxieties, Napoleon
still cherished the hope that the czar would submit and come to
terms : accordingly, he waited at Moscow in expectation of Alex-
ander's reply to the letter which he had despatched on the I5th. The
French emperor, however, had miscalculated the firmness of his
rival ; had, like the rest of Europe up to this moment, given him
credit for less strength of character than he possessed. ' No pusil-
lanimous dejection !' was Alexander's address to his subjects when
he learned the destruction of Moscow ; ' let us vow redoubled
courage and perseverance ! The enemy is in deserted Moscow as
in a tomb, without means of domination, or even of existence. He
entered Russia with 300,000 men, of all countries, without union, or
any national or religious bond : he has lost half of them by the
sword, famine, and desertion. He has but the wreck of this army
in Moscow. He is in the heart of Russia, and not a single Russian
at his feet. Meanwhile, our forces are increasing, and enclosing
him. He is in the midst of a mighty population encompassed by
armies which are waiting for and keeping him in check. To escape
famine, he will soon be obliged to direct his flight through the close
ranks of our brave soldiers. Shall we then recede when all Europe
is looking on and encouraging us ?'

In the meantime, while Napoleon was waiting in Moscow, Murat
and part of his army were in pursuit of the Russian general Kutusoff.
Several engagements took place between the wary Russian and the
chivalrous king of Naples; decisive, however, of nothing, except
the obstinacy of the Russians. Napoleon became daily more weary
of this protracted warfare, more sensible of the dangers of his
position, more anxious to bring the czar to sue for peace. His plans
were undecided. At one time it seemed to be his intention to
remain at Moscow through the winter; and, in conformity with this
design, or possibly merely as a feint to deceive the Russians, an
intendant and municipal magistracy were appointed for the city; a
theatre was erected amid the ruins; first-rate actors were sent for
from Paris ; and an Italian singer commenced giving entertainments
in the Kremlin. At another time, Napoleon would, in one of his
vaunting moods, propose to his assembled generals to march to
St Petersburg a project which a few words of common sense from
any of their number were sufficient to put aside. The only other


course which could be adopted in the circumstances, was one
from which Napoleon revolted, and which no one durst yet openly
propose to him it was to retreat. The necessity of deciding upon
something became more and more evident. What quantity of pro-
visions had been saved from the pillage of Moscow was soon
exhausted; and the army, quartered through the city, was dependent
on the success of parties of cavalry sent to procure forage in the
district around. Soon all the stock in the neighbourhood of the city
was eaten up, and it became necessary for these parties to extend
their foraging expeditions to a greater distance, where, in addition
to other difficulties, they had to contend, while pursuing their labour
of pillage, with the enraged peasantry and with bands of roving
Cossacks. ' Our cattle,' says Labaume, ' perished for want of forage.
Our real miseries were disguised by an apparent abundance. We
had neither bread nor meat ; yet our tables were covered with sweet-
meats, syrups, and dainties. Coffee, and every kind of wine, served
in crystal or china vases, convinced us that luxury might be nearly
allied to poverty. The extent and the nature of our wants rendered
money of little value to us, and this gave rise to an exchange, rather
than a sale of commodities. Those who had cloth offered it for
wine ; and he who had a pelisse could procure plenty of sugar and
coffee.' In addition to their present sufferings, the French were
haunted by the dread of the Russian winter, of whose horrors they
had heard, but could as yet form only a vague and undefined concep-
tion. In the meetings between Murat's soldiers and the Russians,
during occasional moments of truce, the latter would tell them that
the winter was at hand ; that indeed it should have, in the natural
course of things, already commenced : that within a fortnight their
nails would drop off, and their arms fall out of their benumbed and
half-dead fingers ; that their graves would be the snows of Russia.

Still Napoleon would not decide upon a retreat ; still he hoped that
the czar would yield. His calculations were founded on the convic-
tion that the occupation of Moscow, even in its deserted state, was
too great a blow for the nation to survive. 'Millions of money,' he
said, ' have no doubt slipped through our hands in consequence of
the burning of Moscow; but how many millions is Russia losing!
Her commerce is ruined for a century to come. The nation is thrown
back fifty years : this of itself is an important result. When the first
moment of enthusiasm is past, this reflection will fill them with
consternation.' The soldiers, for the moment, caught the tone of
the emperor, and endeavoured to please him, by assuming, as well
as they could, the outward appearance of a conquering and still high-
spirited army. Poor fellows ! with hungry stomachs, with tattered
uniforms, with their toes projecting through their torn shoes they
would do their best to furbish themselves up, so as to appear clean
and smart at a review; and at the sight, in front of their ranks,
of the fat little man in obedience to whose views or whims it was


that they had left their homes eight hundred leagues away, and come
hither to live on horse-flesh, and blow their fellow-men out of the
world they would still make the air ring with cries of ' Vive
1'Empereur. 3

All Napoleon's efforts to induce the czar to sue for peace failed; a
letter which he had despatched to Kutusoff on the 6th October, had
produced no result. The alternative now pressed upon him to
retreat out of Russia, or to winter in Moscow. There were not
wanting among his officers men who advised the latter course.
Let them make themselves as comfortable as possible, they said, in
the city ; let them make every effort to procure provisions, by sweeping
the neighbouring country ; to lessen the consumption of forage, and
increase the supply of food, let all the spare horses be salted down
and barreled. With these preparations, they would be able to defy
the Russian winter, and wait patiently for the arrival of spring.
.Strange picture ! an army shut up for a winter in a ruined and
smoke-blackened city, amusing themselves with balls, operas, and
theatricals, and living meanwhile on salted horse-flesh ! Napoleon,
however, could not bring himself to entertain the idea of wintering
in Moscow; his thoughts were in Paris, from which he had, for
some time, received no communication the despatches having been
intercepted in passing through such an extent of hostile territory.
What might not happen in Europe during his absence ! Might not
some revolution occur, which would be taken advantage of for his
ruin by his foreign allies or his discontented subjects ? And on
his return to Paris might he not find himself no longer an emperor ?


With feelings of the deepest humiliation, yet maintaining his
accustomed bravado and pretension, Napoleon determined on re-
treating from Moscow ; and a battle fought between Kutusoff and
Murat in the environs of the city, shewed him that there was no
time to lose. The order to march was issued to the French troops
on the 1 8th of October a month and four days after their triumphant
entry into the capital. ' Let us march upon Kaluga,' he said ; ' and
woe be to those I meet by the way!' On the igth the army quitted
Moscow, on its way to Kaluga. It consisted of 100,000 fighting
men, with a number of sick ; for, anxious to give his retreat as little
the appearance of a confession of defeat as possible, Napoleon had
caused all the hospitals to be evacuated, and only such of the sick
as could not be shifted, amounting to about 1200 men, to be left in
Moscow. Following the army, there was a long procession of
attendants and baggage-bearers, resembling the hordes which
we read of in ancient history as accompanying barbarian armies
on their return from successful invasions. 'It consisted,' says
Segur, ' of three or four files of infinite length, in which there was


a mixture, a. confusion of chaises, ammunition-wagons, handsome
carriages, and vehicles of every kind. Here, trophies of Russian,
Turkish, and Persian colours, and the gigantic cross of Ivan the
Great ; there, long-bearded Russian peasants, carrying or driving
along our booty, of which they constituted a part ; others dragging
even wheelbarrows, filled with whatever they could remove. The
fools were not likely to proceed in this manner till the conclusion of
the first day ; but their senseless avidity made them think nothing
of battles, and a march of eight hundred leagues. Among these
army-followers were men of all nations, without uniform and without
arms, and servants swearing in every language, and urging, by-
dint of shouts and blows, the progress of elegant carriages, drawn
by pigmy horses harnessed with ropes. They were filled with pro-
visions, or with the booty saved from the flames. They carried
also Frenchwomen, with their children, formerly happy inhabitants
of Moscow, but who had now fled from the hatred of the Muscovites.'

And now began that retreat which will ever remain one of the
most dreadful chapters in the bloody annals of war. On the 22d of
October the emperor had fixed his quarters at Borovsk. Here,
though the distance was ten leagues from Moscow, was distinctly
heard the sound of the tremendous explosion in which, by Napoleon's
orders, left to be executed by the rearguard of his army, the
Kremlin was blown up. Next day took place the terrible battle
of Malo-Jaroslavitz, fought between the advanced portion of the
French forces under Prince Eugene, and a Russian army under
Doctoroff. The French were victorious ; but this battle had been
one of the most desperate ever fought ; and on the 25th, when
Napoleon entered the town where it took place, and from which it
derives its name, the scene which presented itself shocked even
his accustomed eye. The lines of the streets could no longer be
distinguished, on account of the number of corpses heaped up in
them, many of them with their heads crushed by the wheels of the
cannon which had passed over them. These, and the smoking
ruins, and the blood-stained walls, and the moanings of poor
wounded wretches crawling along, and the doleful sound of the
funeral march accompanying the burial of the slain officers, testified
how obstinate the engagement had been. .The victory of Malo-
Jaroslavitz only shewed Napoleon the desperate position he was in,
and made him more eager to retreat. He was particularly anxious
to reach Smolensk before the winter should have set in with severity :
here he hoped to find plenty of everything of which the army stood
in need, and the retreat beyond that point would be easier. There
were three routes to Smolensk, each of which was attended with its
peculiar difficulties. Napoleon chose that by Mojaisk, and the field
of his former bloody battle of Borodino.

On the 28th of October the army reached Mojaisk, leaving a
track of ruin and devastation behind it, and fronting a desert


equally horrible. ' The fields,' says Labaume, ' trampled down by
thousands of horses, seemed as though they had never been culti-
vated. The forests, cleared by the long continuance of the troops,
partook likewise of the general desolation. But most horrible was
the multitude of dead bodies, which, deprived of burial for fifty-two
days, scarcely retained the human form. As we traversed the fields
of Borodino, my consternation was inexpressible when I found the
forty thousand men who had perished there yet lying exposed. The
whole plain was entirely covered with them. None of the bodies
were more than half-buried. In one place were to be seen garments
yet red with blood, and bones gnawed by dogs and birds of prey ;
in another were broken arms, drums, trumpets, and helmets. Con-
tinuing our march through the plain, we heard at a distance a feeble
voice appealing to us for succour. Touched by his plaintive cries,
some soldiers approached the spot, and, to their astonishment, saw a
French soldier stretched on the ground, with both his legs broken.
" I was wounded," said he, " on the day of the great battle. I fainted
from the agony I endured, and, on recovering my senses, I found
myself in a desolate place, where no one could hear my cries, or
afford me relief. For two months I daily dragged myself to the
brink of a rivulet, where I fed on the grass and roots, and some
morsels of bread which I found among the dead bodies. At night
I laid myself down under the shelter of some dead horses. To-day,
seeing you at a distance, I summoned all my strength, and happily
crawled sufficiently near your route to make my voice heard."'
The poor wretch was placed in a carriage, and carried along with
the army.

From Mojaisk the army retreated to Gshatsk, and thence to
Viazma, the emperor marching some distance in advance, and Prince
Eugene and Marshal Davout bringing up the rear. The sufferings
of the men, especially those in the divisions of Prince Eugene and
Davout, were increased during this march by the severity of the
weather, which, although the sky still continued clear, had become
piercingly cold, and foreboded the coming on of the snow-season.
Starvation, cold, and the attacks of the Russians, especially the
Cossacks, who hovered on the retreat like birds of prey, thinned
the army so much, that when the rear reached Viazma, it became
necessary to reorganise it, adding the broken regiments together, so
as to form new ones. Smolensk was now the goal of all hopes. The
order of march from Viazma to Smolensk was as follows : Napoleon
left Viazma on the 1st of November; Prince Eugene and Davout,
who were a day or two behind, left it on the 4th, fighting their way
through the Russians, who by this time had arrived at the town,
and were occupying the roads in its neighbourhood; and, by the
directions of Napoleon, Marshal Ney remained last of all, to bear
the brunt of the enemy's attacks, and protect the rest of the army
during their retreat. Ney was also instructed to retreat as slowly


as possible, in order to afford time for the rest not only to arrive at
Smolensk, but also to repose in that town for a few days after their
fatigues. Thus it will be seen that the post of danger and honour
belonged to Ney The rest of the army had to contend with famine
and cold ; but he had to contend, in addition, with the pursuing
Russians to retreat step by step, and in as dilatory a manner as

The march from Viazma to Smolensk was a terrible one for the
whole army, but especially for the rear divisions. On the 6th of
November, while the most advanced were still two or three days'
march from the long-wished-for Smolensk, the winter came on. It
came on suddenly, like a true Russian winter. The clear blue sky
disappeared; the sun, the luminary of Napoleon's fancied destiny,
was no longer seen ; thick cold fogs descended, rolling and whirling,
from the heavens ; bitter sleety blasts swept along the earth ; and
at length the snow came down in large flakes, darkening the
atmosphere, and enclosing the bewildered traveller as he walked.
The whole aspect of nature was changed : objects around altered
their appearance, at first from the effect of the ghastly fogs which
preceded the storm, and afterwards from the effects of the snow, which
covered the earth, the trees, the hills, and undulations of the ground
with its white mantle. Driven into chasms and hollows, it accumu-
lated there in wreaths, cheating many poor shivering wretches, who,
stumbling in, were engulfed in the snow, and made no efforts to
rise again. Many perished in these snow-pits. Leaving these to
their fate, the others pushed on through the drifting storm. Soon
their garments, after being wet through, began to freeze and stiffen
on their bodies ; their limbs became benumbed and powerless ; their
very breath was congealed as it issued from their mouths, and hung
in icicles from their beards. On and on they staggered, as if by
a mechanical effort of perseverance, growing weaker and weaker
at every step. At last, when sense and feeling were almost extinct,
a stone, a piece of slippery ice, a branch of a tree, would trip them
up, and, falling to the ground, they would lie there, unable to rise,
and in a few minutes they would be covered with a little snow
tumulus. To one turning his head to look back, the road, covered
with these white hillocks, seemed like a churchyard in a snowy day.
All order was at an end among the survivors. Muskets were dropped
among the snow, or fell from the frozen fingers which carried them;
soldiers left their ranks, officers their companies ; and all wandered
on, caring for nothing, and thinking of nothing, but self. Some
would straggle off into by-paths, hoping to reach some shelter.
These uniformly fell into the hands of the Cossacks, who either
killed them at once, or stripped them naked, and left them to perish
in the snow. Night at last came, to vary and increase the horrors
of the day. Halting to bivouac, the first care of all was to kindle
a fire. Wagons, and everything which could be used as fuel, were


broken up ; and after a flame had been with difficulty kindled, crowds
would gather round it, thawing their garments and limbs, and eating
their repast of raw and bloody horse-flesh. Hundreds, falling asleep
by the enormous fires which they had kindled, never awoke. Such
as survived the night, had again to undergo the miseries of the day
to stagger on through the snow, to rush eagerly upon a fallen
horse to secure part of its flesh, to see their companions fall at every
step, to hear the croaking of crows overhead, and the howling of dogs
devouring the corpses behind them and thus for day after night,
for night after day, until Smolensk could be reached.

Some of course suffered less during this retreat than others ;
Napoleon's own division suffered less than that of Prince Eugene ;
and Prince Eugene's, again, less than that of Ney. Key's conduct
during the retreat was heroic. Instructed to protract his march
as long as possible, to afford the rest of the army time to recruit
at Smolensk, he obeyed his orders by literally fighting for ten whole
days between Viazma and Smolensk. It was on the Qth of Novem-
ber when Napoleon reached the latter town his long-looked-for
haven of safety. Alas ! Smolensk was by no means the termination
of their misfortunes ! Napoleon had calculated on finding there
fifteen days' provisions and forage for an army of a hundred thousand
men ; instead of which he found a quantity of flour, rice, and spirits,
not sufficient for fifty thousand, and no meat of any kind. The opera-
tions of the Cossacks, and the activity of several Russian generals
whom he had left in his rear on his advance to Moscow, occasioned
this defalcation. In the distribution, too, of what provisions there
were, fresh sufferings arose. Those who reached Smolensk first
being a host of stragglers, without order and without officers, received
no supplies till they were reorganised, or till the regular troops came
up ; and many died in the interval, besieging the doors of the
magazines where the flour was lodged. When the regular troops
did arrive, only a few could obtain baked bread. To the rest were
distributed rye-flour, vegetables, and spirits, for which they fought
and scrambled in the streets. Refusing to carry the supplies to
their regiments, the wretched men would tear open the sacks at the
doors of the magazines, snatch a few pounds of flour, and as much
spirits as they could obtain, and then rush away to gorge themselves
in some secret place. Next day the dead bodies of many of these
unfortunate wretches were found in the streets and in the houses. As
it was the I4th of November before all the army reached Smolensk,
those who came last, and who stood most in need of refreshment,
fared worst. The brave Ney and his men were regaled with what
the others had left.

On the ipth of October, when the French army left Moscow, it
consisted of 100,000 fighting men, an immense cavalcade of unarmed
stragglers, together with an enormous train of artillery and baggage.
When the whole wreck of the troops was collected at Smolensk, it


appeared that there remained only 36,000 fighting men, with strag-
glers, baggage, and artillery reduced in proportion. In other words,
nearly two-thirds of the army had perished in twenty-five days.
What a carnage ! And what a prospect for the survivors, who had
still so many dangers before them !

The next stage of the retreat was from Smolensk to Orcha, a
distance of five days' march. Napoleon again marched first, quitting
Smolensk on the I4th of November. Prince* Eugene and Davout
were to follow at a "day's interval. Ney was instructed, as before, to
bring up the rear, leaving Smolensk on the i6th or iyth. The
whole country between the two towns was occupied by Russian armies
under Kutusoff, Milaradowitch, and others ; and through these the
various divisions of the retreating army had successively to fight
their way. It is impossible for any but a military pen to do justice
to the retreat from Smolensk to Orcha, or to describe the desperate
battles that were fought within so short a space of time. Suffice it
to say, that again Ney was the hero of the march. When the rest,
escaping from their own difficulties, had arrived at Orcha, they
waited anxiously for the marshal's appearance ; but after several
days, during which no intelligence was received of him, they gave
him up for lost. At length, on the evening of the 2Oth, he reached
Orcha with his brave little band. When Napoleon, who was a
league or two in advance, heard that the marshal had made his
appearance, he leaped and shouted for joy, and cried out that he
had saved his eagles, and that he would sooner have suffered any
other loss than that of such a man. Leaving Smolensk on the lyth,
he had been obliged to pursue a new route, to avoid being cut off ;
and after three days of incessant fighting, during which every
manoeuvre which the most extraordinary military genius could
suggest was put in practice, he had been able to save his army.
One anecdote of his march will shew the terrible condition to
which the poor fugitives were reduced. At the gates of Smolensk,
says Segur, ' a mother had abandoned her little son, only five years
old. In spite of his cries and tears, she had driven him away from
her sledge, which was too heavily laden. She herself cried out,
with a distracted air, " that he had never seen France that he
would not regret it : as for her, she knew France ; she was resolved
to see France once more." Twice did Ney himself replace the
unfortunate child in the arms of his mother : twice did she cast him
off into the frozen snow. This solitary crime, amidst a thousand
instances of the most sublime and devoted tenderness, they did not
leave unpunished. The unnatural mother was abandoned to the
same snow from which her infant was snatched, and intrusted to
another mother. This little orphan was exhibited in their ranks ; and

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 26 of 58)