October 19 1812: Napoleon Leaves Moscow

On October 19, 1812, Napoleon leaves Moscow with about 100,000 men and 40,000 wagons overflowing with looted spoils. The sun was shining that day. Philippe-Paul de Segur provides a description of the army as it leaves:  
In the southern part of Moscow, near one of its gates, one of its most extensive suburbs is divided by two high roads; both run to Kalouga: the one, that on the right, is the more ancient; the other is new. It was on the first that Kutusoff had just beaten Murat. By the same road Napoleon left Moscow on the 19th of October, announcing to his officers his intention to return to the frontiers of Poland by Kalouga, Medyn, Yuknow, Elnia, and Smolensk. One of them, Rapp, observed that "it was late, and that winter might overtake them by the way." The Emperor replied, "that he had been obliged to allow time to the soldiers to recruit themselves, and to the wounded collected in Moscow, Mojaisk, and Kolotskoi, to move off towards Smolensk." Then pointing to a still serene sky, he asked, "if in that brilliant sun they did not recognize his star?" But this appeal to his fortune, and the sinister expression of his looks, belied the security which he affected.
Napoleon entered Moscow with ninety thousand fighting men, and twenty thousand sick and wounded, and quitted it with more than a hundred thousand combatants. He left there only twelve hundred sick. His stay, notwithstanding daily losses, had therefore served to rest his infantry, to complete his stores, to augment his force by ten thousand men, and to protect the recovery or the retreat of a great part of his wounded. But on this very first day he could perceive, that his cavalry and artillery might be said rather to crawl than to march.
A melancholy spectacle added to the gloomy presentiments of our chief. The army had ever since the preceding day been pouring out of Moscow without intermission. In this column of one hundred and forty thousand men and about fifty thousand horses of all kinds, a hundred thousand combatants marching at the head with their knapsacks, their arms, upwards of five hundred and fifty pieces of cannon, and two thousand artillery-waggons, still exhibited a formidable appearance, worthy of soldiers who had conquered the world. But the rest, in an alarming proportion, resembled a horde of Tartars after a successful invasion. It consisted of three or four files of infinite length, in which there was a mixture, a confusion of chaises, ammunition waggons, handsome carriages, and vehicles of every kind. Here trophies of Russian, Turkish, and Persian colours, and the gigantic cross of Ivan the Great—there, long-bearded Russian peasants carrying or driving along our booty, of which they constituted a part: others dragging even wheelbarrows filled with whatever they could remove. The fools were not likely to proceed in this manner till the conclusion of the first day: their senseless avidity made them think nothing of battles and a march of eight hundred leagues.
In these followers of the army were particularly remarked a multitude of men of all nations, without uniform and without arms, and servants swearing in every language, and urging by dint of shouts and blows the progress of elegant carriages, drawn by pigmy horses harnessed with ropes. They were filled with provisions, or with the booty saved from the flames. They carried also French women with their children. Formerly these females were happy inhabitants of Moscow; they now fled from the hatred of the Muscovites, which the invasion had drawn upon their heads; the army was their only asylum.
A few Russian girls, voluntary captives, also followed. It looked like a caravan, a wandering nation, or rather one of those armies of antiquity returning loaded with slaves and spoil after a great devastation. It was inconceivable how the head of this column could draw and support such a heavy mass of equipages in so long a route.
Notwithstanding the width of the road and the shouts of his escort, Napoleon had great difficulty to obtain a passage through this immense throng. No doubt the obstruction of a defile, a few forced marches and a handful of Cossacks, would have been sufficient to rid us of all this incumbrance: but fortune or the enemy had alone a right to lighten us in this manner. As for the Emperor, he was fully sensible that he could neither deprive his soldiers of this fruit of so many toils, nor reproach them for securing it. Besides, the provisions concealed the booty, and could he, who could not give his troops the subsistence which he ought to have done, forbid their carrying it along with them? Lastly, in failure of military conveyances, these vehicles would be the only means of preservation for the sick and wounded.
Napoleon, therefore, extricated himself in silence from the immense train which he drew after him, and advanced on the old road leading to Kalouga. He pushed on in this direction for some hours, declaring that he should go and beat Kutusoff on the very field of his victory. But all at once, about mid-day, opposite to the castle of Krasnopachra, where he halted, he suddenly turned to the right with his army, and in three marches across the country gained the new road to Kalouga.
The rain, which overtook him in the midst of this manœuvre, spoiled the cross-roads, and obliged him to halt in them. This was a most unfortunate circumstance. It was not without difficulty that our cannon were drawn out of the sloughs.
At any rate the Emperor had masked his movement by Ney's corps and the relics of Murat's cavalry, which had remained behind the Motscha and at Woronowo. Kutusoff, deceived by this feint, was still waiting for the grand army on the old road, whilst on the 23rd of October, the whole of it, transferred to the new one, had but one march to make in order to pass quietly by him, and to get between him and Kalouga.
A letter from Berthier to Kutusoff, dated the first day of this flanking march, was at once a last attempt at peace, and perhaps a ruse de guerre. No satisfactory answer was returned to it.


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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment