September 14 1812: Napoleon at the Gates of Moscow

On September 14, 1812, a week after the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée enters Moscow. The city is still splendid but most of the population has been evacuated, the stores of food taken or destroyed, and fires are set to destroy what remains. The historian, Adam Zamoyski, describes Moscow:
"This capital looked to us like some fantastical creation, a vision from the thousand and one nights," remembered Captain Fain de Odoards. Accourding ot statistics drawn up in January that year, it covered 34,337,304 square metres with its 2,567 stone houses and 6,584 wooden ones, 464 factories and workshops, its gardens, churches and monasteries, and had a population of 270,184. "This magnificent spectacle surpassed by far everything that our imagination had been able to conjure in terms of Asiatic splendour," wrote Lieutenant Julien Combe. "An incredible quantity of bell towers and domes painted in bright colours, topped with gilded crosses and linked to each other with chains which were also gilded, stood out even at a distance in the reddish tinge of the declining sun. The vast Kremlin, and its bell tower ending in a great cross which everyone claimed was of solid gold, but which was certainly of sparkling silver-gilt, dominated this magnificent picture." 
Napoleon was not in a mood for sightseeing. He was at the city's gates upset that no delegation had come out to meet him. The usual rituals of a city's surrender required an official delegation to provide to the conqueror the keys to the city, arrange for the safety of the city's inhabitants, and make arrangements for the occupation, including lodging and feeding of troops. This did not happen. "The barbarians, they really mean to abandon all of this?" Napoleon asked. French troops entered into Moscow that day but Napoleon chose to stay outside the city's limits. He entered Moscow on the following day at 6 0'clock in the morning and riding in a grand procession to the Kremlin [1].    

Philippe-Paul de Segur describes the arrival of Napoleon:
That very day (September the 14th), Napoleon, being at length persuaded that Kutusoff had not thrown himself on his right flank, rejoined his advanced guard. He mounted his horse a few leagues from Moscow. He marched slowly and cautiously, sending scouts before him to examine the woods and the ravines, and to ascend all the eminences to look out for the enemy's army. A battle was expected: the ground favoured the opinion: works were begun, but had all been abandoned, and we experienced not the slightest resistance.

At length the last eminence only remained to be passed: it is contiguous to Moscow, which it commands. It is called the Hill of Salvation, because, on its summit, the inhabitants, at sight of their holy city, cross and prostrate themselves. Our scouts had soon gained the top of this hill. It was two o'clock: the sun caused this great city to glisten with a thousand colours. Struck with astonishment at the sight, they paused, exclaiming, "Moscow! Moscow!" Every one quickened his pace; the troops hurried on in disorder; and the whole army, clapping their hands, repeated with transport, "Moscow! Moscow!" just as sailors shout "Land! land!" at the conclusion of a long and toilsome voyage.

At the sight of this gilded city, of this brilliant knot uniting Asia and Europe, of this magnificent emporium of the luxury, the manners, and the arts of the two fairest divisions of the globe, we stood still in proud contemplation. What a glorious day had now arrived! It would furnish the grandest, the most brilliant recollection of our whole lives. We felt that at this moment all our actions would engage the attention of the astonished universe; and that every one of our movements, however trivial, would be recorded by history.

On this immense and imposing theatre we marched, accompanied, as it were, by the acclamations of all nations: proud of exalting our grateful age above all other ages, we already beheld it great from our greatness, and completely irradiated by our glory.

At our return, already so ardently wished for, with what almost respectful consideration, with what enthusiasm should we be received by our wives, our countrymen, and even by our parents! We should form, during the rest of our lives, a particular class of beings, at whom they would not look but with astonishment, to whom they would not listen but with mingled curiosity and admiration! Crowds would throng about us wherever we passed; they would catch up our most unmeaning words. This miraculous conquest would surround us with a halo of glory: henceforward people would fancy that they breathed about us an air of prodigy and wonder.

When these proud thoughts gave place to more moderate sentiments, we said to ourselves, that this was the promised term of our labours; that at length we should pause, since we could no longer be surpassed by ourselves, after a noble expedition, the worthy parallel to that of Egypt, and the successful rival of all the great and glorious wars of antiquity.

At that moment, dangers, sufferings were all forgotten. Was it possible to purchase too dearly the proud felicity of being able to say, during the rest of life, "I belonged to the army of Moscow!"

Well, comrades, even now, amidst our abasement, and though it dates from that fatal city, is not this reflexion of a noble exultation sufficiently powerful to console us, and to make us proudly hold up our heads, bowed down by misfortune?

Napoleon himself hastened up. He paused in transport: an exclamation of joy escaped his lips. Ever since the great battle, the discontented marshals had shunned him: but at the sight of captive Moscow, at the intelligence of the arrival of a flag of truce, struck with so important a result, and intoxicated with all the enthusiasm of glory, they forgot their grievances. They pressed around the emperor, paying homage to his good fortune, and already tempted to attribute to his genius the little pains he had taken on the 7th to complete his victory.

But in Napoleon first emotions were of short duration. He had too much to think of, to indulge his sensations for any length of time. His first exclamation was: "There, at last, is that famous city!" and the second: "It was high time!"

His eyes, fixed on that capital, already expressed nothing but impatience: in it he beheld in imagination the whole Russian empire. Its walls enclosed all his hopes,—peace, the expenses of the war, immortal glory: his eager looks therefore intently watched all its outlets. When will its gates at length open? When shall he see that deputation come forth, which will place its wealth, its population, its senate, and the principal of the Russian nobility at our disposal? Henceforth that enterprise in which he had so rashly engaged, brought to a successful termination by dint of boldness, will pass for the result of a high combination; his imprudence for greatness: henceforth his victory at the Moskwa, incomplete as it was, will be deemed his greatest achievement. Thus all that might have turned to his ruin will contribute to his glory: that day would begin to decide whether he was the greatest man in the world, or the most rash; in short, whether he had raised himself an altar, or dug himself a grave.

Anxiety, however, soon began to take possession of his mind. On his left and right he already beheld Prince Eugene and Poniatowski approaching the hostile city; Murat, with his scouts, had already reached the entrance of the suburbs, and yet no deputation appeared: an officer, sent by Miloradowitch, merely came to declare that his general would set fire to the city, if his rear was not allowed time to evacuate it.

Napoleon granted every demand. The first troops of the two armies were, for a short time, intermingled. Murat was recognized by the Cossacks, who, familiar as the nomadic tribes, and expressive as the people of the south, thronged around him: then, by their gestures and exclamations, they extolled his valour and intoxicated him with their admiration. The king took the watches of his officers, and distributed them among these barbarous warriors. One of them called him his hettman.

Murat was for a moment tempted to believe that in these officers he should find a new Mazeppa, or that he himself should become one: he imagined that he had gained them over. This momentary armistice, under the actual circumstances, sustained the hopes of Napoleon, such need had he to delude himself. He was thus amused for two hours.

Meanwhile the day was declining, and Moscow continued dull, silent, and as it were inanimate. The anxiety of the emperor increased; the impatience of the soldiers became more difficult to be repressed. Some officers ventured within the walls of the city. "Moscow is deserted!"

At this intelligence, which he angrily refused to credit, Napoleon descended the Hill of Salvation, and approached the Moskwa and the Dorogomilow gate. He paused once more, but in vain, at the entry of that barrier. Murat urged him. "Well!" replied he, "enter then, since they wish it!" He recommended the strictest discipline; he still indulged hopes. "Perhaps these inhabitants do not even know how to surrender: for here every thing is new; they to us, and we to them."

Reports now began to succeed each other: they all agreed. Some Frenchmen, inhabitants of Moscow, ventured to quit the hiding-place which for some days had concealed them from the fury of the populace, and confirmed the fatal tidings. The emperor called Daru. "Moscow deserted!" exclaimed he: "what an improbable story! We must know the truth of it. Go and bring me the boyars." He imagined that those men, stiff with pride, or paralysed with terror, were fixed motionless in their houses: and he, who had hitherto been always met by the submission of the vanquished, provoked their confidence, and anticipated their prayers.

How, indeed, was it possible for him to persuade himself, that so many magnificent palaces, so many splendid temples, so many rich mercantile establishments, were forsaken by their owners, like the paltry hamlets through which he had recently passed. Daru's mission however was fruitless. Not a Muscovite was to be seen; not the least smoke rose from a single chimney; not the slightest noise issued from this immense and populous city; its three hundred thousand inhabitants seemed to be struck dumb and motionless by enchantment: it was the silence of the desert!

But such was the incredulity of Napoleon, that he was not yet convinced, and waited for farther information. At length, an officer, determined to gratify him, or persuaded that whatever the Emperor willed must necessarily be accomplished, entered the city, seized five or six vagabonds, drove them before his horse to the Emperor, and imagined that he had brought him a deputation. From the first words they uttered, Napoleon discovered that the persons before him were only indigent labourers.

It was not till then that he ceased to doubt the entire evacuation of Moscow, and lost all the hopes that he had built upon it. He shrugged his shoulders, and with that contemptuous look with which he met every thing that crossed his wishes, he exclaimed, "Ah! the Russians know not yet the effect which the taking of their capital will produce upon them!"


It was now an hour since Murat, and the long and close column of his cavalry, had entered Moscow; they penetrated into that gigantic body, as yet untouched, but inanimate. Struck with profound astonishment at the sight of this complete solitude, they replied to the taciturnity of this modern Thebes, by a silence equally solemn. These warriors listened, with a secret shuddering, to the steps of their horses resounding alone, amid these deserted palaces. They were astonished to hear nothing but themselves amid such numerous habitations. No-one thought of stopping or of plundering, either from prudence, or because great civilized nations respect themselves in enemies' capitals, in the presence of those great centers of civilization.

Meanwhile they were silently observing that mighty city, which would have been truly remarkable had they met with it in a flourishing and populous country, but which was still more astonishing in these deserts. It was like a rich and brilliant oasis. They had at first been struck by the sudden view of so many magnificent palaces; but they now perceived that they were intermingled with mean cottages; a circumstance which indicated the want of gradation between the classes, and that luxury was not generated there, as in other countries, by industry, but preceded it; whereas, in the natural order, it ought to be its more or less necessary consequence.

Here more especially prevailed inequality—that bane of all human society, which produces pride in some, debasement in others, corruption in all. And yet such a generous abandonment of every thing demonstrated that this excessive luxury, as yet however entirely borrowed, had not rendered these nobles effeminate.

They thus advanced, sometimes agitated by surprise, at others by pity, and more frequently by a noble enthusiasm. Several cited events of the great conquests which history has handed down to us; but it was for the purpose of indulging their pride, not to draw lessons from them; for they thought themselves too lofty and beyond all comparison: they had left behind them all the conquerors of antiquity. They were exalted by that which is second to virtue only, by glory. Then succeeded melancholy; either from the exhaustion consequent on so many sensations, or the effect of the operation produced by such an immeasurable elevation, and of the seclusion in which we were wandering on that height, whence we beheld immensity, infinity, in which our weakness was lost: for the higher we ascend, the more the horizon expands, and the more conscious we become of our own insignificance.

Amid these reflexions, which were favoured by a slow pace, the report of fire-arms was all at once heard: the column halted. Its last horses still covered the fields; its centre was in one of the longest streets of the city; its head had reached the Kremlin. The gates of that citadel appeared to be closed. Ferocious cries issued from within it: men and women, of savage and disgusting aspect, appeared fully armed on its walls. In a state of filthy inebriety, they uttered the most horrible imprecations. Murat sent them an amicable message, but to no purpose. It was found necessary to employ cannon to break open the gate.

We penetrated partly without opposition, partly by force, among these wretches. One of them rushed close to the king, and endeavoured to kill one of his officers. It was thought sufficient to disarm him, but he again fell upon his victim, rolled him on the ground, and attempted to suffocate him; and even after his arms were seized and held, he still strove to tear him with his teeth. These were the only Muscovites who had waited our coming, and who seemed to have been left behind as a savage and barbarous token of the national hatred.

It was easy to perceive, however, that there was no unison in this patriotic fury. Five hundred recruits, who had been forgotten in the Kremlin, beheld this scene without stirring. At the first summons they dispersed. Farther on, we overtook a convoy of provisions, the escort of which immediately threw down its arms. Several thousand stragglers and deserters from the enemy, voluntarily remained in the power of our advanced guard. The latter left to the corps which followed the task of picking them up; and these to others, and so on: hence they remained at liberty in the midst of us, till the conflagration and pillage of the city having reminded them of their duty, and rallied them all in one general feeling of antipathy, they went and rejoined Kutusoff.

Murat, who had been stopped but a few moments by the Kremlin, dispersed this crew which he despised. Ardent and indefatigable as in Italy and Egypt, after a march of nine hundred leagues, and sixty battles fought to reach Moscow, he traversed that proud city without deigning to halt in it, and pursuing the Russian rear-guard, he boldly, and without hesitation, took the road for Wladimir and Asia.

Several thousand Cossacks, with four pieces of cannon, were retreating in that direction. The armistice was at an end. Murat, tired of this peace of half a day, immediately ordered it to be broken by a discharge of carbines. But our cavalry considered the war as finished; Moscow appeared to them to be the term of it, and the advanced posts of the two empires were unwilling to renew hostilities. A fresh order arrived, and the same hesitation prevailed. At length Murat, irritated at this disobedience, gave his orders in person; and the firing, with which he seemed to threaten Asia, but which was not destined to cease till we reached the banks of the Seine, was renewed.


Napoleon did not enter Moscow till after dark. He stopped in one of the first houses of the Dorogomilow suburb. There he appointed Marshal Mortimer governor of that capital. "Above all," said he to him, "no pillage? For this you shall be answerable to me with your life. Defend Moscow against all, whether friend or foe."


1.  The quote Much of the information above is taken again from Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at pages 295-298 and Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction). The account of De Segur above is from the Gutenberg translation is reproduced below because it available on line here. The original French can be found here.

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