On October 3 1812, Napoleon has a new plan: attack St Petersburg. Philippe-Paul de Segur writes:
On the 3d of October, after a night of restlessness and anger, he summoned his marshals. "Come in," said he, as soon as he perceived them, "hear the new plan which I have conceived; Prince Eugene, read it." They listened. "We must burn the remains of Moscow, march by Twer to Petersburg, where we shall be joined by Macdonald. Murat and Davoust will form the rear-guard."—The Emperor, all animation, fixed his sparkling eyes on his generals, whose frigid and silent countenances expressed nothing but astonishment.
Then exalting himself in order to rouse them—"What!" said he, "and are you not inflamed by this idea? Was there ever so great a military achievement? Henceforth this conquest is the only one that is worthy of us! With what glory we shall be covered, and what will the whole world say, when it learns that in three months we have conquered the two great capitals of the North!"
But Davoust, as well as Daru, objected to him, "the season, the want of supplies, a sterile desert and artificial road, that from Twer to Petersburg, running for a hundred leagues through morasses, and which three hundred peasants might in one day render impassable. Why keep proceeding northward? why go to meet winter, to provoke and to defy it?—it was already too near; and what was to become of the six thousand wounded still in Moscow? were they then to be left to the mercy of Kutusoff? That general would not fail to follow close at our heels. We should have at once to attack and to defend ourselves, and to march, as though we were fleeing to a conquest."
These officers have declared that they then proposed various plans; a useless trouble with a prince whose genius outstripped all other imaginations, and whom their objections would not have stopped, had he been really determined to march to Petersburg. But that idea was in him only a sally of anger, an inspiration of despair, on finding himself obliged in the face of Europe to give way, to relinquish a conquest, and to retreat.
It was more especially a threat to frighten his officers as well as the enemy, and to bring about and promote a negotiation which Caulaincourt was to open. That officer had pleased Alexander; he was the only one of the grandees of Napoleon's court who had acquired any influence over his rival; but for some months past, Napoleon had kept him at a distance, because he had not been able to persuade him to approve his expedition.
It was nevertheless to this very man that he was that day obliged to have recourse, and to disclose his anxiety. He sent for him; but when alone with him, he hesitated. Taking him by the arm, he walked to and fro a long time in great agitation, while his pride prevented him from breaking so painful a silence: at length it yielded, but in a threatening manner. He was to beg the enemy to solicit peace, as if he deigned to grant it.
After a few words, which were scarcely articulate, he said, that "he was about to march to Petersburg. He knew that the destruction of that city would no doubt give pain to his grand-equerry. Russia would then rise against the Emperor Alexander: there would be a conspiracy against that monarch; he would be assassinated, which would be a most unfortunate circumstance. He esteemed that prince, and should regret him, both for his own sake and that of France. His character, he added, was suitable to our interests; no prince could replace him with such advantage to us. He thought therefore of sending Caulaincourt to him, to prevent such a catastrophe."
The Duke of Vicenza, however, more obstinate, than susceptible of flattery, did not alter his tone. He maintained that "these overtures would be useless; that so long as the Russian territory was not entirely evacuated, Alexander would not listen to any proposals; that Russia was sensible of all her advantage at this season of the year; nay, more, that this step would be detrimental to himself, inasmuch as it would demonstrate the need which Napoleon had of peace, and betray all the embarrassment of our situation."
He added, "that the higher the rank of the negotiator whom he selected, the more clearly he would show his anxiety; that of course he himself would be more likely to fail than any other, especially as he should go with this certainty." The Emperor abruptly terminated the conversation by these words: "Well, then, I will send Lauriston."
The latter asserts, that he added fresh objections to the preceding, and that, being urged by the Emperor, he recommended to him to begin his retreat that very day by way of Kalouga. Napoleon, irritated at this, acrimoniously replied, that "he liked simple plans, less circuitous routes, high roads, the road by which he had come, yet he would not retread it but with peace." Then showing to him, as he had done to the Duke of Vicenza, the letter which he had written to Alexander, he ordered him to go and obtain of Kutusoff a safe-conduct to Petersburg. The last words of the Emperor to Lauriston were: "I want peace, I must have peace, I absolutely will have peace; only save my honour!"
Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at pages 300-305.
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.
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