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September 18 1812: Napoleon Returns to Moscow




On September 18 1812, Napoleon rides back into Moscow as the fire that has been raging for three days begins to abate. The fire is dying down since there is now little left that can be burned.  A battalion of  Napoleon's Imperial guard was able, by heroic efforts, to  save the Kremlin but the fire destroyed large parts of Moscow. Napoleon's soldiers had looted many homes in the interval. De Segur describes the Moscow that Napoleon found: 
The camps which he traversed on his way thither presented an extraordinary sight. In the fields, amidst thick and cold mud, large fires were kept up with mahogany furniture, windows, and gilded doors. Around these fires, on a litter of damp straw, imperfectly sheltered by a few boards, were seen the soldiers, and their officers, splashed all over with mud, and blackened with smoke, seated in arm-chairs or reclined on silken couches. At their feet were spread or heaped Cashmere shawls, the rarest furs of Siberia, the gold stuffs of Persia, and silver plates, off which they had nothing to eat but a black dough baked in the ashes, and half broiled and bloody horse-flesh. Singular assemblage of abundance and want, of riches and filth, of luxury and wretchedness!
Between the camp and the city were met troops of soldiers dragging along their booty, or driving before them, like beasts of burden, Muscovites bending under the weight of the pillage of their capital; for the fire brought to view nearly twenty thousand inhabitants, previously unobserved in that immense city. Some of these Muscovites of both sexes were well dressed; they were tradespeople. They came with the wreck of their property to seek refuge at our fires. They lived pell-mell with our soldiers, protected by some, and tolerated, or rather scarcely remarked by others...
On entering the city, the Emperor was struck by a sight still more extraordinary: a few houses scattered among the ruins were all that was left of the mighty Moscow. The smell issuing from this colossus, overthrown, burned, and calcined, was horrible. Heaps of ashes, and at intervals, fragments of walls or half demolished pillars, were now the only vestiges that marked the site of streets.
The suburbs were sprinkled with Russians of both sexes, covered with garments nearly burned. They flitted like spectres among the ruins; squatted in the gardens, some of them were scratching up the earth in quest of vegetables, while others were disputing with the crows for the relics of the dead animals which the army had left behind. Farther on, others again were seen plunging into the Moskwa to bring out some of the corn which had been thrown into it by command of Rostopchin, and which they devoured without preparation, sour and spoiled as it already was.
Meanwhile the sight of the booty, in such of the camps where every thing was yet wanting, inflamed the soldiers whom their duty or stricter officers had kept with their colours. They murmured. "Why were they to be kept back? Why were they to perish by famine and want, when every thing was within their reach! Was it right to leave the enemy's fires to destroy what might be saved? Why was such respect to be paid them?" They added, that "as the inhabitants of Moscow had not only abandoned, but even endeavoured utterly to destroy it, all that they could save would be legitimately acquired; that the remains of that city, like the relics of the arms of the conquered, belonged by right to the victors, as the Muscovites had turned their capital into a vast machine of war, for the purpose of annihilating us."
....The Emperor saw his whole army dispersed over the city. His progress was obstructed by a long file of marauders going in quest of booty, or returning with it; by tumultuous assemblages of soldiers grouped around the entrances of cellars, or the doors of palaces, shops, and churches, which the fire had nearly reached, and into which they were endeavouring to penetrate.
His steps were impeded by the fragments of furniture of every kind which had been thrown out of the windows to save it from the flames, or by rich pillage which had been abandoned from caprice for some other booty; for such is the way with soldiers; they are incessantly beginning their fortune afresh, taking every thing without discrimination, loading themselves beyond measure, as if they could carry all they find; then, after they have gone a few steps, compelled by fatigue to throw away the greatest part of their burden.
The roads were obstructed; the open places, like the camps, were turned into markets, whither every one repaired to exchange superfluities for necessaries. There, the rarest articles, the value of which was not known to their possessors, were sold at a low price; others, of deceitful appearance, were purchased at a price far beyond their worth. Gold, as being more portable, was bought at an immense loss with silver, which the knapsacks were incapable of holding. Everywhere soldiers were seen seated on bales of merchandize, on heaps of sugar and coffee, amidst wines and the most exquisite liqueurs, which they were offering in exchange for a morsel of bread. Many, in an intoxication aggravated by inanition, had fallen near the flames, which reached them, and put an end to their lives.
...It was amidst this confusion that Napoleon again entered Moscow. He had allowed this pillage, hoping that his army, scattered over the ruins, would not ransack them in vain. But when he learned that the disorder increased; that the old guard itself was seduced; that the Russian peasants, who were at length allured thither with provisions, for which he caused them to be liberally paid for the purpose of drawing others, were robbed of the provisions which they brought us, by our famished soldiers; when he was informed that the different corps, destitute of every thing, were ready to fight for the relics of Moscow; that, finally, all the existing resources were wasted by this irregular pillage; he then issued strict orders, and forbade his guard to leave their quarters. The churches, in which our cavalry had sheltered themselves, were restored to the Greek worship. The business of plunder was ordered to be taken in turn by the corps like any other duty, and directions were at length given for securing the Russian stragglers.
Napoleon has to bring order to the general breakdown that had taken place as a result of the fire. The fire caused a great deal of harm to the cohesion of his army. Armand De Caulaincourt writes: 

His departure from Moscow had been the signal for outbreaks of the gravest disorder. Such houses as had been saved from the fire were pillaged. Such unfortunate inhabitants as had remained were ill-treated. Shops and wine-cellars were forced open; and thence flowed every excess, every crime that can result from the drunkenness of soldiers who have got out of their superiors' control. The city rabble, taking advantage of this disorder, began pillaging, too, and led the troops to the cellars and vaults and anywhere else that they thought might have been used to conceal property, in the hope of sharing the pillage. Those army corps not actually in the city sent in detachments to secure their portion of the victuals and booty. The result of this systematic search can be guessed. All kinds of supplies were found, and plenty of wine and brandy. The grain and fodder warehouses along the quays had escaped the fire. The army horses had been so short of provender between Smolensk and Ghjat, and from the battle until we reached Moscow, that everyone hastened to forage for them and got enough hay, during the two days of the fifteenth and sixteenth, to last several months. Part of these provisions were consumed in the houses as they were found; and it was thanks to the surplus that we were able to live in abundance until our departure from the city, and even to keep the men and horses alive during part of the retreat. 
Notes
The post above is a pastiche of different sources but mostly from Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign, the Gutenberg translation. The original French can be found hereArmand de Caulaincourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia (Enigma Books, 2008) at pages 100-102.


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