September 16 1812: Moscow Continues to Burn

On September 16, 1812, at about four in the morning, a sleeping Napoleon is stirred awake  because the fire consuming Moscow is approaching the Kremlin. After some time, Napoleon will move to the palace at Petrovskoie where he will watched Moscow burn. The fire offered a majestic sight to those in safety but within the city's limits many were dying in a horrible inferno. Wounded soldiers, too weak to escape, died in the flames. French soldiers continued to loot or worse now that many officers were not around to provide some restrain. Adam Zamoyski memorably writes "The roar of the fire was pierced by the screams of people beaten up  and women being raped, and by the howls of chained up dogs being burnt alive." 

Armand de Caulaincourt provides description of the the events of that night in this way: 
About half-past twelve [September 16] a third fire broke out a little to the west, and shortly afterwards a fourth, in another quarter—in each case in the direction of the wind, which had veered slightly towards the west. About four o'clock in the morning the conflagration was so widespread that we judged it necessary to wake the Emperor, who at once sent more officers to find out how things really stood and discover whence these fires could be starting.
The troops were under arms; the few remaining inhabitants were fleeing their houses and gathering in the churches; there was nothing to be heard but lamentation. Search had been made for the fire-engines since the previous day, but some of them had been taken away and the rest put out of action.
From different houses officers and soldiers brought boutechnicks (policemen on point duty) and moujiks, who had been taken in the act of setting fire to inflammable material which had been laid in houses for the purpose of burning them down. The Poles reported that they had already caught some incendiaries and shot them; and they added, moreover, that from these men and from other inhabitants they had extracted the information that orders had been given by the Governor of the city and the police that the whole city should be burned during the night. These reports seemed incredible. The arrested men were put under guard, and fresh search and increased watchfulness were enforced. Pickets had already been sent to those quarters of the town which were not already in flames; and the further particulars which continued to arrive confirmed our gravest suspicions. The Emperor was deeply concerned.
Towards half-past nine he left the courtyard of the Kremlin on foot, just when two more incendiaries, caught in the act, were being brought in. They were in police uniform. When interrogated in the presence of the Emperor they repeated their declarations: their commanding officer had ordered them to burn everything. Houses had been designated to this end. In the different quarters everything had been prepared for starting the fire—in accordance with orders from Governor Rostopchin, so they had been told. The police officers had spread their men in small detachments in various quarters, and the order to carry out their instructions had been given in the evening of the previous day and confirmed by one of their officers on the following morning. They were relucant to tell the name of this official, but one of them did so at last: he was a mere underling. They could not or would not indicate where he was at the moment, nor how he might be found. Their replies were translated to the Emperor in the presence of his suite. Many other depositions confirmed unmistakably what theysaid. All the incendiaries were kept under observation; some were brought to judgment and eight or ten executed. The conflagration continued to spread from the borders of the boroughs where it had started. It had already reached the houses around the Kremlin. The wind, which had veered slightly to the west, fanned the flames to a terrifying extent and carried enormous sparks to a distance, where they fell like a fiery deluge hundreds of yards away, setting fire to more houses and preventing the most intrepid from remaining in the neighbourhood with safety. The air was so hot, and the pine-wood sparks were so numerous, that the beams supporting the iron plates which formed the roof of the arsenal all caught fire. The roof of the Kremlin kitchen was only saved by men being placed there with brooms and buckets to gather up the glowing fragments and moisten the beams.

Philippe-Paul de Segur provides a more artful description:  
While our troops were yet struggling with the conflagration, and the army was disputing their prey with the flames, Napoleon, whose sleep none had dared to disturb during the night, was awoke by the two-fold light of day and of the fire. His first feeling was that of irritation, and he would have commanded the devouring element; but he soon paused and yielded to impossibility. Surprised that when he had struck at the heart of an empire, he should find there any other sentiment than submission and terror, he felt himself vanquished, and surpassed in determination.
This conquest, for which he had sacrificed every thing, was like a phantom which he had pursued, and which at the moment when he imagined he had grasped it, vanished in a mingled mass of smoke and flame. He was then seized with extreme agitation; he seemed to be consumed by the fires which surrounded him. He rose every moment, paced to and fro, and again sat down abruptly. He traversed his apartments with quick steps: his sudden and vehement gestures betrayed painful uneasiness: he quitted, resumed, and again quitted, an urgent occupation, to hasten to the windows and watch the progress of the conflagration. Short and incoherent exclamations burst from his labouring bosom. "What a tremendous spectacle!—It is their own work!—So many palaces!—What extraordinary resolution!—What men!—These are Scythians indeed!"
Between the fire and him there was an extensive vacant space, then the Moskwa and its two quays; and yet the panes of the windows against which he leaned felt already burning to the touch, and the constant exertions of sweepers, placed on the iron roofs of the palace, were not sufficient to keep them clear of the numerous flakes of fire which alighted upon them.
At this moment a rumour was spread that the Kremlin was undermined: this was confirmed, it was said, by Russians, and by written documents. Some of his attendants were beside themselves with fear; while the military awaited unmoved what the orders of the Emperor and fate should decree: And to this alarm the Emperor replied only with a smile of incredulity.
But he still walked convulsively; he stopped at every window, and beheld the terrible, the victorious element furiously consuming his brilliant conquest; seizing all the bridges, all the avenues to his fortress, inclosing, and as it were besieging him in it; spreading every moment among the neighbouring houses; and, reducing him within narrower and narrower limits, confining him at length to the site of the Kremlin alone.
We already breathed nothing but smoke and ashes. Night approached, and was about to add darkness to our dangers: the equinoxial gales, in alliance with the Russians, increased in violence. The King of Naples and Prince Eugene hastened to the spot: in company with the Prince of Neufchatel they made their way to the Emperor, and urged him by their entreaties, their gestures, and on their knees, and insisted on removing him from this scene of desolation. All was in vain.
Napoleon, in possession of the palace of the Czars, was bent on not yielding that conquest even to the conflagration, when all at once the shout of "the Kremlin is on fire!" passed from mouth to mouth, and roused us from the contemplative stupor with which we had been seized. The Emperor went out to ascertain the danger. Twice had the fire communicated to the building in which he was, and twice had it been extinguished; but the tower of the arsenal was still burning. A soldier of the police had been found in it. He was brought in, and Napoleon caused him to be interrogated in his presence. This man was the incendiary: he had executed his commission at the signal given by his chief. It was evident that every thing was devoted to destruction, the ancient and sacred Kremlin itself not excepted.
The gestures of the Emperor betokened disdain and vexation: the wretch was hurried into the first court, where the enraged grenadiers dispatched him with their bayonets.


Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at pages 300-303. 

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.  

Armand de Caulaincourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia (Enigma Books, 2008) at pages 100-102.


  1. Re: 'The fire offered a majestic site to those in safety . . '

    a 'majestic sight', I suggest?