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September 11 1812: Napoleon Recuperates


On September 11, 1812, the remnants of the French army continue to pursue the Russian army as it retreats towards Moscow, while Napoleon recuperates from his illness at Mojaisk. A cold has cost him the use of voice. Unable to make himself heard, he writes on different papers the heads of his dispatches or explains himself by signs. At one point, Bessières is reading a list to him of all the generals who were wounded at Borodino. "This fatal list affected him so poignantly," Phillipe-Paul de Segur writes,"that by a violent effort he recovered his voice, and interrupted the marshal by the sudden exclamation, "One week of Moscow , and this will not matter any more." Napoleon understands that his army has been greatly weakened but he is now gambling everything on capturing Moscow. He writes to Berthier: "The enemy, struck to the heart, no longer trifles with us at the extremities. Write to the duke of Belluno to direct all, infantry, cavalry, artillery, and isolated soldiers to Smolensk, in order to be forwarded from thence to Moscow."  The excerpt from Philippe-Paul de Segur's [1] retelling of this period of time is reproduced below.  

They marched for two days, with no other food than horse-flesh and bruised wheat, without finding a single person or thing by which to discover the Russian army. That army, although its infantry only formed one confused mass, did not leave behind it a single fragment; such was the national spirit and habit of obedience in it, collectively and singly, and so thoroughly unprovided were we with every kind of information, as well as resources, in this deserted and thoroughly hostile country.

The army of Italy was advancing at some leagues' distance on the left of the great road, and surprised some of the armed peasantry, who were not accustomed to fighting; but their master, with a dagger in his hand, rushed upon our soldiers like a madman: he exclaimed that he had no longer a religion, empire, or country to defend, and that life was odious to him; they were willing, however, to leave him that, but as he attempted to kill the soldiers who surrounded him, pity yielded to anger, and his wish was gratified.

Near Krymskoié, on the 11th of September, the hostile army again made its appearance, firmly established in a strong position. It had returned to its plan of looking more to the ground, in its retreat, than to the enemy. The duke of Treviso at first satisfied Murat of the impossibility of attacking it; but the smell of powder soon intoxicated that monarch. He committed himself, and obliged Dufour, Mortier, and their infantry, to advance to his support. This consisted of the remains of Friand's division, and the young guard. There were lost, without the least utility, 2000 men of that reserve which had been so unseasonably spared on the day of battle; and Mortier was so enraged, that he wrote to the emperor, that he would no longer obey Murat's orders. For it was by letter that the generals of the vanguard communicated with Napoleon. He had remained for three days at Mojaisk, confined to his apartment, still consumed by a burning fever, overwhelmed with business, and worn out with anxiety. A violent cold had deprived him of the use of his voice. Compelled to dictate to seven persons at once, and unable to make himself heard, he wrote on different papers the heads of his despatches. When any difficulty arose, he explained himself by signs.

There was a moment when Bessières enumerated to him all the generals who were wounded on the day of the battle. This fatal list affected him so poignantly, that by a violent effort he recovered his voice, and interrupted the marshal by the sudden exclamation, "One week of Moscow , and this will not matter any more."[2]"

Meantime, although he had hitherto placed all his futurity in that capital, a victory so sanguinary and so little decisive lowered his hopes. His instructions to Berthier of the 11th of September for marshal Victor exhibited his distress: "The enemy, attacked at the heart, no longer trifles with us at the extremities. Write to the duke of Belluno to direct all, infantry, cavalry, artillery, and isolated soldiers to Smolensk, in order to be forwarded from thence to Moscow."

In the midst of these bodily and mental sufferings, which he carefully concealed from his army, Davoust obtained access to him; his object was to offer himself again, notwithstanding his wound, to take the command of the vanguard, promising that he would contrive to march night and day, reach the enemy, and compel him to fight, without squandering, as Murat did, the strength and lives of the soldiers. Napoleon only answered him by extolling in high terms the audacious and inexhaustible ardour of his brother-in-law.

He had just before heard, that the enemy's army had again been found; that it had not retired upon his right flank, towards Kalouga, as he had feared it would; that it was still retreating, and that his vanguard was already within two days' march of Moscow. That great name, and the great hopes which he attached to it, revived his strength, and on the 12th of September, he was sufficiently recovered to set out in a carriage, in order to join his vanguard.

Notes



1. See the Gutenberg. The original French can be found here.
2. I have taken the translation for Napoleon's words from Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), at page  85. 

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