On December 13, 1812, what is left of the Grand Army reaches Kovno near the Nieman River where Napoleon had crossed on June 24, 1812 to begin the war against Russia. The river is now frozen and can be crossed by men and wagons. Philippe-Paul de Segur describes the arrival at Kovno and sets the stage for Marshall Ney's last stand. Ney has been fighting rearguard actions since Napoleon left the army. His presence alone has galvanized heroic defences covering the retreat of the army. Segur writes:
Finally, on the 13th of December, after marching forty-six days under a terrible yoke, they once more came in sight of a friendly country. Instantly, without halting or looking behind them, the greater part plunged into, and dispersed themselves, in the forests of Prussian Poland. Some there were, however, who, on their arrival on the allied bank of the Niemen, turned round. There, when they, cast a last look on that land of suffering from which they were escaping, when they found themselves on the same spot, whence five months previously their countless eagles had taken their victorious flight, it is said that tears flowed from their eyes, and that they uttered exclamations of grief.
"This then was the bank which they had studded with their bayonets! this the allied country which had disappeared only five months before, under the steps of their immense united army, and seemed to them then to be metamorphosed into moving hills and valleys of men and horses! These were the same valleys, from which, under the rays of a burning sun, poured forth the three long columns of dragoons and cuirassiers, resembling three rivers of glittering iron and brass. And now men, arms, eagles, horses, the sun itself, and even this frontier river, which they had crossed replete with ardour and hope, all have disappeared. The Niemen is now only a long mass of flakes of ice, caught and chained to each other by the increasing severity of the winter. Instead of the three French bridges, brought from a distance of five hundred leagues, and thrown across it with such audacious promptitude, a Russian bridge is alone standing. Finally, in the room of these innumerable warriors, of their four hundred thousand comrades, who had been so often their partners in victory, and who had dashed forward with such joy and pride into the territory of Russia, they saw issuing from these pale and frozen deserts, only a thousand infantry and horsemen still under arms, nine cannon, and twenty thousand miserable wretches covered with rags, with downcast looks, hollow eyes, earthy and livid complexions, long beards matted with the frost; some disputing in silence the narrow passage of the bridge, which, in spite of their small number was not sufficient to the eagerness of their flight; others fleeing dispersed over the asperities of the river, labouring and dragging themselves from one point of ice to another; and this was the whole grand army! Besides, many of these fugitives were recruits who had just joined it."
Two kings, one prince, eight marshals followed by a few officers, generals on foot, dispersed, and without any attendants; finally, a few hundred men of the old guard, still armed, were its remains; they alone represented it. Or rather, I should say, it still breathed completely and entirely in Marshal Ney. Comrades! allies! enemies! here I invoke your testimony; let us pay the homage which is due to the memory of an unfortunate hero: the facts will be sufficient.
All were flying, and Murat himself, traversing Kowno as he had done Wilna, first gave, and then withdrew the order to rally at Tilsit, and subsequently fixed upon Gumbinnen. Ney then entered Kowno, accompanied only by his aides-de-camp, or all besides had given way, or fallen around him. From the time of his leaving Wiazma, this was the fourth rear-guard which had been worn out and melted in his hands. But winter and famine, still more than the Russians, had destroyed them. For the fourth time, he remained alone before the enemy, and still unshaken, he sought for a fifth rear-guard.
At Kowno the marshal found a company of artillery, three hundred German soldiers who formed its garrison, and General Marchand with four hundred men; of these he took the command. He first walked over the town to reconnoitre its position, and to rally some additional forces, but he found only some sick and wounded, who were endeavouring, in tears, to follow our retreat. For the eighth time since we left Moscow, we were obliged to abandon these en masse in their hospitals, as they had been abandoned singly along the whole march, on all our fields of battle, and at all our bivouacs.
Several thousand soldiers covered the marketplace and the neighbouring streets; but they were laid out stiff before the magazines of spirits which they had broken open, and where they drank the cup of death, from which they fancied they were to inhale fresh life. These were the only succours which Murat had left him; Ney found himself left alone in Russia, with seven hundred foreign recruits. At Kowno, as it had been after the disasters of Wiazma, of Smolensk, of the Berezina, and of Wilna, it was to him that the honour of our arms and all the peril of the last steps of our retreat were again confided.