September 20 1812: Napoleon Asks for Negotiations

On September 20 1812, after considering whether to attack St. Petersburg, Napoleon decides to try and see if Tsar Alexander will agree to peace negotiations. He convinces himself that Alexander will be amenable to such negotiations. Napoleon reasons that he has, for all practical purposes, won the war. He has won every major battle. Large parts of Russia are under his control. He has captured Moscow. The Russian Army has not been destroyed but is too weak to engage in any battle. In short, the Russian refusal to admit defeat is simply unreasonable. Napoleon believes that if he deals directly with Alexander he can convince him to see reason. Napoleon thus writes directly to Alexander and asks him for negotiations. He asks Ivan Alekseevich Yakovlev, who is in Moscow, to deliver the letter. Napoleon tells Yakovlev: "I have no reason to be in Russia. I do not want anything from her, as long as the treaty of Tilsit is respected. I want to leave here as my only quarrel is with England. Ah. If only I could take London!  I would not leave that. Yes, I wish to go home. If the Emperor Alexander wants peace, he only has to let me know." Napoleon's letter to Alexander  expresses his regret over the Moscow fire, which he blames on the orders of Governor Rostpochin, and his hope that hostilities can come to an end. Napoleon is especially concerned that Russians not blame him for the Moscow fire. He uses such propaganda tools as his Twentieth Bulletin De La Grande Armée, published on September 20, to get his message out. The Bulletin is reproduced below.  

On the same day, Alexander receives a letter from  Kutuzov his commander in chief. This letter is  personally delivered by Colonel Michaud. The letter and Michaud bring news that Moscow has been captured, news that Alexander already knows, and that Moscow has been ravaged by fire, which he did not know. Alexander is enraged. Michaud assures him that the morale of the Russian army is good and that the only concern is that the Tsar will negotiate a peace treaty with Napoleon. Alexander is supposed to have replied: 
"From all this I see that Providence expects great sacrifices from us, particularly me, and I am prepared to bow to her will....Go back to the army and tell our brave warriors, tell my faithful subjects everywhere you go that even when I do not have a single soldier left, I shall put myself at the head of my beloved nobility and good peasants, I will command them myself and will use all the means of my whole empire!" Alexander replied that he would never sign a peace with Napoleon, and would rather end his days as a beggar in Siberia than to come to terms with him..."Napoleon or me, him or me - but we cannot reign together." [1]
The "unreasonable" rejection by Alexander to any negotiations dooms Napoleon. 

Moscow, September 20, 1812.
Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fusees six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army. He thus got together the squibs and other materials, necessary for the execution of his project.

The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain.

While Rastapchin was taking away the fire engines of the city, he left behind him 60,000 muskets, 150 pieces of cannon, more than 600,000 balls and shells, 1,500,000 cartridges, 400,000 pounds of gunpowder, 400,000 pounds of saltpetre and sulphur. It was not till the 19th that the powder, saltpetre, and sulphur were discovered at a fine establishment, half a league from the city. This is a matter of importance: we are now supplied with ammunition for two campaigns. We every day discover cellars full of wine and brandy. Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia' one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.


1. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at pages 305-306, 313-314. 

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