December 1 1812: French to Russian

On  December 1 1812, in St Petersburg, John Quincy Adams writes, in part, the following diary entry : 
December 1st. The ladies were to have gone to the theatre, at which a French Opera had been announced. It was changed, however, for a Russian play. Great efforts have been made to obtain the dismissal of all the French players ; and it has been repeatedly said that the Emperor had determined to dismiss them. The Russian public have manifested some uneasiness at their continuance here, and everything French, even the language, has become an object of their abhorrence. 

November 30 1812: Byron's 37 Letters

On November 30, 1812, Lord Byron writes to Lady Melbourne, having just received 37 letters with some of the letters again being from Lady Caroline Lamb! 
Lord Byron to Lady Melbourne Batts’ Hotel. Novr. 30th. 1812 
Dear Ly. M. - I am just arrived & have received exactly 36 letters notes &c. (as I write a 37th!) of all descriptions so that I have full employment for ye. present. – I find amongst them some from C. of  yesterday’s date (Welwyn) 
I believe most incoherent &c. & to which in the name of all the Saints & martyrs what answer can I give but what has been given already? – – Her letters I have already said of my own accord I will give up to her or destroy in your or her {or any} <an>other’s presence, so that the interference of any other person will only mar my good intention – I thank you for the hint – an answer to Men always depends upon the temperance & tenor of the question. – 

November 29 1812: Walter Scott

On November 29, 1812, Walter Scott writes to J. B. S. Morritt of Rokeby:  
Edinburgh, 29th November, 1812.
My dear Morritt, -
I have been, and still am, working very hard, in hopes to face the public by Christmas, and I think I have hitherto succeeded in throwing some interest into the piece. It is, however, a darker and more gloomy interest than I intended; but involving one’s self with bad company, whether in fiction or in reality, is the way not to get out of it easily; so I have been obliged to bestow more pains and trouble upon Bertram, and one or two blackguards whom he picks up in the slate quarries, than what I originally designed. I am very desirous to have your opinion of the three first Cantos, for which purpose, so soon as I can get them collected, refuge there after forfeiting a good estate and an ancient baronetcy, in the affair of 1715. A monument to the gallant General’s memory has recently been erected near the spot of his birth.
I will send the sheets under cover to Mr Freeling, whose omnipotent frank will transmit them to Rokeby, where, I presume, you have been long since comfortably settled—

November 28 1812: Captain King

On November 28, 1812, Captain King, having been captured by the British, writes to  General Smyth, asking for negotiations to release him and his men.  "A trip to Quebec," he writes, "at this season of the year under any circumstances would be extremely disagreeable, but particularly as a prisoner of war." 

Captain Wm. King to General Smyth.
Fort George, Nov. 28th, 1812.

Dear General,—At the very moment that the boats, (probably coming to my relief,) made their appearance yesterday morning, Major Ormsby, at the head of the British army, arrived and halted in front of the house into which I had thrown myself, with an intention to defend it against any force not greatly superior, but against the troops under his command it would have been folly to resist, and I surrendered myself and thirty men prisoners.

November 27 1812: Napoleon Parody

On November 27 1812,  The Morning Chronicle publishes a parody of Napoleon's letter to the Bishops of France after the Battle of Borodino or as the French referred to it the Battle of Moskwa, after the nearby river. The parody reads: 

For victories gained in various places, 
Since last we saw your pious faces, 
It is our will and royal pleasure, 
That you forthwith should call together 
Our loving people, one and all,—
Wealthy and poor, and short and tall; 
And then, with Custom as conductor, 
And Revelation for instructor, 
You must proceed, with pious zeal, 
To speak the grateful joys you feel; 
And, as best suits your various choices, 
In hymns or prayers exalt your voices, 
Just as your Christian hearts incline. 
We too would pray, if we had time; 
To him on whom, you know, my friends, 
Success in war so much depends; 
Without whose aid in this great battle 
We had not slain these men and cattle; 
'Tis true, by him they were created,
But view the question fairly stated:—
The Gospel tells us, "do no murther;" 
But there it stops; it goes no further; 
In no place do we find it say 
In words express, thou shalt not slay; 
Of course it follows that we may, 
And thus you see the blood we've spilt, 
Leaves not behind a stain of guilt.

Oh looking o'er this bloody plain, 
To count the number we had slain, 
Our royal pleasure was unbounded, 
To find so many dead and wounded; 
A field of slaughter so prodigious, 
Aroused a feeling quite religious; 
So straight we wash'd our bloody hands, 
Which, else, had stained these pure commands, 
Resolved in pious mood to write 
The letter which we now indite; 
And feeling grateful for success, 
Could Christians think of doing less?

If, in your numerous congregations,
Some mourn the loss of slain relations,
Tell them we pray—a fine-spun story,
About their having died with glory,
And quick you'll see each meagre face
Exchange its sorrow for grimace;
Thoughtless and gay, they won't remember
Husband or Brother till December.
Now mind you sing, and don't deceive us,—
It is our serious wish, believe us; 
And till again we're drench'd in blood, 
We pray the Author of all good, 
(Whose favours we have just been reaping) 
To have you in his holy keeping.

November 26 1812: Crossing the Berezina

On November 26 1812, the Grande Armee continues the retreat by crossing on a newly constructed bridge over the Berezina River. Russian armies are in front and two other armies are coming from behind. Chaos reigns, but Napoleon is able to save his army from total destruction, by a virtuoso display of military maneuvering admittedly in a lost cause. One soldier amid the confusion and chaos is Jakob Walter:
Finally, toward four o'clock in the evening, when it was almost dark, I came to the bridge. Here I saw only one bridge, the second having been shot away. Now it is with horror, but at that time it was with a dull, indifferent feeling, that I looked at the masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled high upon the bridge. Only "Straight ahead and in the middle!" must be the resolution. "Here in the water is your grave; beyond the bridge is the continuation of a wretched life. The decision will be made on the bridge!" Now I kept myself constantly in the middle. The major and I could aid one another; and so amid a hundred blows of sabers we came to the bridge, where not a plank was visible because of the dead men and horses; and, although on reaching the bridge the people fell in masses thirty paces to the right and to the left, we came through to the firm land.

 The Diary of Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter, (Penguin Books), pages 86

November 26 1812: Lord Byron

On November 26 1812, Lord Byron writes to Lady Melbourne, from Middleton, Oxfordshire: 
Middleton Novr. 26th. 1812 

My dear Ly. Melbourne, - I perceive by ye. arrivals & departures in ye. papers that you will not object to my being in town (as I must be on Sunday) on business. I shall take my seat on tuesday, & not go to the romantic melodrama of Monday, notwithstanding the attraction of a royal Roscius.
– – I have been here these 2 days past in the palace of propriety with a picture of Lucretia in the act of – suicide over my chimney, & a tome of Pamela lying on ye. table, {ye. first} as a hint I presume not to covet ye. mistress of a house, & the last as a defensive treatise in behalf of the Maid. – – 

November 25 1812: Adams on Napoleon's Disaster

On November 25, 1812, in St Petersburg, John Quincy Adams   makes the following  entry  in his diary: 
25th. This morning I received a notification from the Grand Master of the Ceremonies, Narishkin, that a Te Deum would be performed at the Cathedral Church at Kazan, at half-past eleven o'clock this forenoon, to return thanks for the defeat of the enemy's corps under the command of the Marshals Davoust and Ney. I went with Mr. Smith accordingly at this hour. It is the greatest victory that the Russians have gained since the war commenced, and is perfectly decisive of the fate of the campaign and of the Emperor Napoleon's main army. It is now morally impossible that the remnant of them should escape. In every probability they are at this hour all prisoners of war. He is lost without resource. The trophies, among which is Davoust's Marshal's truncheon, were exhibited in the church. Czernicheff, who has highly distinguished himself, was present, as were General Wintzingerode and his aid-de-camp, young Narishkin, the Grand Chamberlain's son, who were taken prisoners by a most extraordinary accident when Wintzingerode's corps took Moscow, and were retaken by another accident no less extraordinary, on their way as prisoners to France. A few Cossacks of Czernicheff's detachment released them. Czernicheff has been promoted to the rank of a Major-General, and Aide-de-Camp General to the Emperor, and appeared in his new uniform. Joy and triumph were upon every countenance; but upon none with such transport as upon that of Madame Narishkin, who went about with her son by the hand, presenting him to all her friends, and saying she had nothing more to ask of Heaven. The Emperor and imperial family performed their prostrations to the miraculous image of the Virgin, and the Emperor, on leaving the church, was greeted with loud shouts of the populace. Mr. Harris visited us at the close of the evening. There have been rumors of internal commotions at Paris in circulation some time. They were much exaggerated in the reports, but accounts from Sweden ascertain that they did take place even before the end of October, and before Napoleon's disaster had commenced. They were then suppressed; but they afford a presage of violent convulsions, when the real events of the last month shall be sufficiently known to produce their effects. The crisis is great and awful beyond all example. Almighty God, grant that it may turn to good! to peace! to the relief of mankind from the dreadful calamities of unbridled ambition!

November 24 1812: British Parliament Assembles

On November 24, 1812, the Fifth Parliament of the United Kingdom assembled after the general election of 1812. The various elections in the constituencies, most not really contested, had run from October 5 to November 6. The result was a victory for the ruling Tory government of Lord Liverpool. The History of Parliament describes the election this way:
Ninety-six constituencies (25 per cent) were contested. The issue of Catholic relief ensured that there was more  excitement in Ireland than elsewhere. The most spectacular contest was at Liverpool, where, after an intensive campaign of speechifying on Catholic relief, parliamentary reform and the prospect of war with the USA, the Tories George Canning and Isaac Gascoyne defeated the Whig pair of Henry Brougham and Thomas Creevey. Other prominent Whigs, including Francis Horner, William Lamb, Sir Samuel Romilly, Richard Sheridan and George Tierney, either failed to find a seat or were defeated. Of the 658 men returned, 119 (18 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience. A further 120 novices came in during the life of the Parliament.  The government gained some 30 seats, which produced, in crude terms, a House made up of 419 supporters of government and 239 in opposition.

November 23 1812: Napoleon Contemplates Being Captured

On November 23, 1812, Philip de Segur, overhears a conversation between Napoleon and some of his minsters: 

It was getting late; Napoleon had gone to bed. Duroc and Daru, who remained in his chamber, fancying that he was asleep, were giving way, in whispers, to the most gloomy conjectures; he overheard them, however, and the word "prisoner of state," coming to his ear, "How!" exclaimed he, "do you believe they would dare?" Daru, after his first surprise, immediately answered, "that if we were compelled to surrender, we must be prepared for every thing; that he had no reliance on an enemy's generosity; that we knew too well that great state-policy considered itself identified with morality, and was regulated by no law." "But France," said the Emperor, "what would France say?" "Oh, as to France," continued Daru, "we are at liberty to make a thousand conjectures more or less disagreeable, but none of us can know what will take place there." And he then added, "that for the sake of the Emperor's chief officers, as well as the Emperor himself, the most fortunate thing would be, if by the air or otherwise, as the earth was closed upon us, the Emperor could reach France, from whence he could much more certainly provide for their safety, than by remaining among them!" "Then I suppose I am in your way?" replied the Emperor, smiling. "Yes, Sire." "And you have no wish to be a prisoner of state?" Daru replied in the same tone, "that it was enough for him to be a prisoner of war." On which the Emperor remained for some time in a profound silence; then with a more serious air: "Are all the reports of my ministers burnt?" "Sire, hitherto you would not allow that to be done." "Very well, go and destroy them; for it must be confessed, we are in a most melancholy position." This was the sole avowal which it wrested from him, and on that idea he went to sleep, knowing, when it was necessary, how to postpone every thing to the next day.

November 23 1812: Sheaffe to Prevost

On November 23, 1812, Major-General Sheaffe writes to Sir George Prevost: 

Fort George, 23rd Nov., 1812.
Sir,—I have this day received a packet from York containing a letter from Colonel Vincent, apprising me of the return of Paymaster Brock from Sackett's Harbor and of the intelligence brought from thence by him. It fully confirms that which had been previously received through several channels of the activity of the enemy in preparing the most formidable means for establishing a superiority on the lakes. If the weather at this advanced period should not countenance their design of employing them against us this season, and we should be fortunate enough to maintain- our military positions in this Province during this winter, it will require exertions of the most energetic kind to enable us to contend with them in the spring for the ascendancy on the lakes, to obtain which engages the particular attention of the American Government as being necessary to the attainment of what is evidently the main object of the war, the possession of the Upper Province, with an ulterior view to establishing a control over the numerous Indian nations.
I have the honor of transmitting to Your Excellency an address which I have received from the committee of the Executive Council of this Province respecting the comparative state of its marine. The subject is indeed interesting and has a special claim on the attention of the guardians of the public welfare.

November 22 1812: It all Depends

On November 22, 1812,  Brigadier-General Adamson Tannehill replies to General Smyth's question as to how many companies would refuse to cross into Canada. Tanehill's answer was not comforting.  The day before, General Smyth pointedly had asked: "Sir,—Will you be pleased to ascertain whether there are any companies of your brigade who will refuse to serve the United States in Canada." Brigadier-General Adamson Tannehill response was:
Sir,—To enable me to answer your note of yesterday I convened my field officers in camp. The prevailing opinion appears to be that if an efficient force can be had to cross into Canada a very general embarkation of my brigade may be expected. If, on the contrary, it is difficult for me to say what number may be calculated on.

November 21 1812: Betsy Doyle Returns Fire

On November 21, 1812, at six o'clock the British batteries at Fort George begin to fire on the American garrison at Fort Niagara. The cannonade lasts until sundown with various buildings set on fire. The Americans reply with their own guns firing across the Niagara River to Fort George. Colonel McFeeley will recall: "Our garrison was not as well provided with artillery and ammunition as I could have wished; however, the batteries opened a tremendous fire upon them in return, with hot shot, admirably well directed."

The incident is also noteworthy because of the exploits of Betsy Doyle during the attack. Betsy is the mother of four whose husband was captured at the Battle of Queenston. He is being held as a prisoner of war by the British. On November 21, after  some of the gunners are wounded, Betsy stepped in to help. The Americans were loading "red hot shot" or cannonballs heated red hot into their guns to fire at Fort George.  As the historian, Catherine Emerson notes, this was done to set  fire to Fort George’s wooden buildings. Betsy helped bring the "red hot shot" from the fireplaces downstairs to the guns on the roof of the Stone Mess Hall. Colonel McFeeley will report to General Smyth:
An instance of extraordinary bravery in a female (the wife of one Doyle, a private in the United States Artillery, made a prisoner at Queenston,) I cannot pass over. During the most tremendous cannonading I have ever seen, she attended the six-pounder on the mess-house with red hot shot, and showed fortitude equal to the Maid of Orleans. 
The exchange of fire will continue until sunset. At one point, all the Americans run out of  gun cartridges used in the guns so they "cut up their flannel waistcoats and shirts, and the soldiers their trousers, to supply their guns." Colonel McFeeley will report: "The enemy threw more than two thousand red hot balls into it and a number of shells, amounting to more than 180, only one of which did injury to our men." After the attack has ended the Americans have suffered four dead and seven wounded with parts of Fort Niagara in flames. 

The British sustined some damages to their barracks in Fort George and suffered two deaths. 


The above account is taken from that of Colonel George McFeeley to Brigadier-General Smyth found here  and the article  by Catherine Emerson found here.  The picture is from here

November 21 1812: Prevost Reports

On November 21, Sir George Prevost, at his headquarters in Chambly in Lower Canada, reports to Lord Bathurst on the attack on Kingston Harbour by Commodore Chauncey:
Sir George Prevost to Lord Bathurst.

Headquarters, Chambly, 

Nov. 21,1812. 
My Lord,—I have the honor to acquaint Your Lordship that the efforts of the enemy at Sackett's Harbor enabled them out on the 10th instant seven sail of armed vessels, manned by the crew of one of the American frigates and commanded by some of their naval officers, having on board a considerable detachment of troops for the purpose of carrying the port of Kingston by surprise and of destroying His Majesty's ship Royal George then lying there. I have much satisfaction in reporting to Your Lordship that the vigilance and military skill of Colonel Vincent, who is in command at Kingston, frustrated their designs, and after many hours of ineffectual cannonade the American flotilla hauled off,and on the following day' returned into port. 

November 20 1812: Southey and the Evangelical Mind

On November 20, 18120, Robert Southey writes a curious letter to his friend Grosvenor Charles Bedford where he discusses an evangelical admirer of his poem  Thalaba the DestroyerJohn Martyn Longmire had written to Southey admiring the poem and pointing out all sort of parallels between the poem and biblical stories.  Southey wants to be polite but it is clear that he does not share the religious significance and worldview of his admirer. This blog has not taken into account the importance of the religious changes that are taking place in Britain. It is important to remember that the evangelicals were gaining adherents and the "religiosity" and worldview that this brought was reshaping culture and politics in very important ways. In Southey's letter, one sees a bemused attempt to grapple with the evangelical perspective. He finds it "very delightful to a fanciful & ingenious mind in the discovering types & symbols everywhere." At the same time, he does not know whether he believes the stories of the bible, such as the story of Isaac and Abraham,  are true. More telling, in his words, "nor have I thought it of sufficient importance seriously to ask myself whether I do or not." 

November 20 1812: Ney's Return

On November 20, 1812, Marshall Ney, with some  thousand survivors of his army corps,  finally reaches  Prince Eugène's corps, outside of Orsha, two leagues from Napoleon's headquarters. Ney's men hear "Qui vive? to which they shout, "France!" [1] When Ney and Eugène meet, they fall into each other's arms. Soon the news is sent to Napoleon. Caulaincourt describes the effect of Ney's return:
Never has a victory in the field caused such a sensation. The joy was general; everyone was drunk with delight, and went running to and fro to spread the news; it was impossible to resist telling everyone you met. It was a national triumph,and you shared it even with your grooms. Officers, soldiers, everyone was convinced now that we could snap our fingers at Fortune and the elements alike—that Frenchmen were invincible! 
Philippe-Paul de Segur [3] writes that when Napoleon, heard that Ney had  reappeared, he leapt and exclaimed, "I have then saved my eagles! I would have given three hundred millions from my treasury, sooner than have lost such a man." Others claim [4], on seeing Ney, Napoleon says, "I'd have given everything not to lose you." 


1. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at page 430. 
2.  Armand de Caulaincourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia (Enigma Books, 2008), pgs 167-168.
3.  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.  
4. Paul Britten Austin, 1812 The Great Retreat told by the Survivors, (Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania  1996), page 204 

November 19 1812: Ney Crosses the Dnieper

On the night of November 18 to 19, Marshall Ney crosses the Dnieper near Variski, over barely formed ice. He has with him the survivors of his own army corps. "We slithered carefully one behind the other, fearful of being engulfed by the ice, which made cracking sounds at every step we took; we were moving between life and death," General Freytag was to recall later[1].

Philippe-Paul de Segur [2] writes:  

November 18 1812: Ney Bravest of the Brave

"That bastard has abandoned us; he sacrificed us in order to save himself," Marshall Ney was angry,"what can we do? What will become of us? Everything is fucked?" [1] It is November 18, 1812, Ney learns that Napoleon has left Krasnoi. He is furious. Napoleon had been forced to leave so as not to be destroyed. Ney does not know this. He only knows that he alone and surrounded my Russian forces. Kutuzof sends an emissary to offer an honorable surrender.  

Philippe-Paul de Segur [2] writes:  

November 17 1812: General Alexander Smyth

On November 17, 1812, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, at a Camp near Buffalo, again issues a Proclamation to inspire his men for the invasion of Upper Canada.   Smyth  had been born in Ireland but his family had emigrated to Virginia when he was young. He had replaced General Stephen Van Rensellaer after the loss of the Battle of Queenston Heights, a loss that Smyth had contributed to by not supplying his own forces on the day of battle. Smyth for most of November has been boasting about his planned invasion, which only served to alert the British. Aside from proclamations, Smyth did not carry out the necessary planning and preparation for an invasion to be successful. At various times, his men were in open rebellion against him. Smyth thus has a special place in the long line of incompetent American generals and leaders in the War of 1812.

On this day, Smyth's headquarters a Black Rock are also being bombarded by British guns from near Fort Erie. A cannonball, falling into his dining room, interrupts Peter B. Porter's dinner.  

Smyth's Proclamation is reproduced below.

November 16 1812: Southey's Laborious Idleness

On November 16 1812, Robert Southey writes to his friend Neville White. His letter reveals much about the contradictory aspects of Southey. These contradictions make him interesting from a historical perspective but probably limit his artistic achievement as a writer. Put it in another way,  his writing lacks a palpable tension though facts and ideas are expressed with great fluency. Still, when Bryon threatens to take over this blog as he invariably does, I find some comfort in reading stolid Southey. There is also much to admire about  Southey. He was a loving father, an incredibly industrious writer, and a very good stylist.
In his letter, Southey writes that he is teaching his son Greek, though he does not say he is teaching his daughters. He also writes nicely about a "species of falsehood which consists in telling nothing but truth, but, by telling only a part of the truth, produces all the effects of falsehood." In his discussion of Russia, one can tease out the concepts of the state of nature, corruption, civilization and the "English journeymen manufacturers." This shows that the connection between Rousseau's state of nature and reactionary politics is not as circuitous as one may think, but it also reveals interesting connections between social conditions, class, industrialization, culture and patriotic feeling. Southey writes:  
I know persons who have lived in Russia; they uniformly speak of the nobles as a corrupted and vicious class, but of the people as possessing those good qualities which in a certain stage of civilization are natural to humanity. In savage life they are like the seed which fell upon stones, and cannot shoot forth: in such a state as that of the Russian nobles, or the English journeymen manufacturers, they are stifled or poisoned; but neither the beard of the common Russian, nor the dust of his house, nor his creepers and crawlers, have any necessary effect upon the natural charities of life. One of his virtues has now been sufficiently proved; he loves his country, and will fight for it.
Southey's letter is reproduced below.

November 15 1812: Napoleon Faces Down the Enemy

On November 15 1812, Napoleon having left Smolensk, fights for the next four days a series of battles around Krasny as the remnants of the Grande Armée continue to retreat. Kutuzov's much larger force surrounds Napoleon but Kutuzov hesitates to commit all his forces to obtain a decisive victory. The situation for the Grande Armée is very desperate.  Armand de Caulaincourt [1] writes:
How, indeed, could one exact service, or any test of endurance, from a man whom one had to let starve, in weather that froze his fingers if he left them exposed to the air? How make any dispositions whatever during an unceasing march, and when the staff officers have lost their horses and must go on foot to deliver the orders they carry? When all are crowded on to the same road, and flanked by Cossacks who hardly let them get ahead out of their sight? There remained not a single brigade of cavalry in a fit state to cover our movements. The exhausted, unshod horses could go no further unless men dragged them by the bridle. Without drawing upon the Guard, who were themselves much reduced, we had not sufficient cavalry to carry out a reconnaissance far enough or boldly enough to give us definite news of the enemy's position. 
On November 15th, Napoleon personally leads the Imperial Guard as they march on the Old Smolensk Road under the fire from Russian troops. The Russian troops are commanded by Miloradovich and hold the high ground. Napoleon walks into the middle of the battlefield and faces down the enemy as Russian shells fall around him. Sergeant Bourgogne describes Napoleon's actions [1]: "Advancing with a firm step, as on the day of a great parade, he placed himself in the middle of the battlefield, facing the enemy's batteries."   The Russian witness Denis Davidov also observes the Imperial Guard on that day and writes:  
"...after midday, we sighted the Old Guard, with Napoleon riding in their midst... the enemy troops, sighting our unruly force, got their muskets at the ready and proudly continued on their way without hurrying their step... Like blocks of granite, they remained invulnerable... I shall never forget the unhurried step and awesome resolution of these soldiers, for whom the threat of death was a daily and familiar experience. With their tall bearskin caps, blue uniforms, white belts, red plumes, and epaulettes, they looked like poppies on the snow-covered battlefield... Column followed upon column, dispersing us with musket fire and ridiculing our useless display of chivalry... the Imperial Guard with Napoleon ploughed through our Cossacks like a 100-gun ship through fishing skiffs.
"He [Napoleon] was vastly outnumbered," the historian writes, "but his bearing, standing calmly under fire as the Russian shells struck men all around him, seems to have impressed not only his men but the enemy. Miloradovich moved back from the road, leaving it open for Davout to march through. And Kutuzov resisted the entreaties of Toll, Konovnitsin, Bennigsen and Wilson, who could all see that the Russians were in a position to encircle Napoleon and overwhelm him by sheer might of numbers, ending the war there and then". 


1. Armand de Caulaincourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia (Enigma Books, 2008) at pages 185.

2. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at page 422. 

November 14 1812: Hobhouse, Dr. Johnson and Gibbon

On November 14 1812, John Cam Hobhouse has an interesting dinner conversation with  John de Grenier Fonblanque, who in his youth had met Dr. Johnson. On this day Hobhouse writes in his diary  about the encounter and later some other anecdotes involving the historian Edward Gibbon:
On Thursday night at Reilly’s, a drunken fellow, one Fonblanque, a King’s Counsel, addressed himself to my father and me with several impertinencies. I find him to have gone half-distracted with poverty He met Dr Johnson once in  a post-coach going to Oxford. Johnson was reading a little Æschylus, great part of the way. Johnson complained that a gentleman who had sat opposite him and had left the coach, had not spoken  to him, which, said he, it was his place to do. “Perhaps,” said Fonblanque (then a boy), “he was more modest than I, and after seeing that you did not answer me freely, was abashed.” – “Sir,” said Johnson, “I stand corrected.”

November 14 1812: Lady Caroline's Terrors

On November 14, 1812, Lord Byron again writes to Lady Melbourne and again what concerns him most is the dreaded arrival of Lady Caroline Lamb in London from Ireland. Lady Caroline is "threatening if some unexpressed or unintelligible wish (about a picture I believe) is not complied with to visit Eywood in all her terrors".  Caroline is now obsessed with getting Byron's  portrait. Byron fears his peaceful time in Eywood with Lady Oxford will be disturbed by her.  He is enjoying the quiet contentment in the arms of Lady Oxford. He also appears to have reconciled himself to not marrying Annabella Milbanke. He writes: "I congratulate A– & myself on our mutual escape. – That would have been but a cold collation, & I prefer hot suppers".

Byron's letter is reproduced below.

November 13 1812: Brock is Captured

On November 13, 1812, S.T. Anderson writes to the Secretary of Navy to advise that the Growler has captured the British sloop Elizabeth, and that on board was Captain James Brock.  Anderson misidentifies Captain James Brock as Isaac Brock's brother, when in fact he was his first cousin.  James was returning his cousin's belongings on the Elizabeth when the vessel was captured.  Every sailor with a claim to Brock's belongings as  a prize waived his right to them.  James Brock was later paroled and allowed to return to Upper Canada with his cousin’s belongings. Anderson's letter reads:
S. T. Anderson to the Secretary of the Navy Sackett's Harbor, 13th Nov., 1812, at night.
Sir,—Since the enclosed letter from the Commodore was written the Growler has returned with a prize, and in her Capt. Brock, brother to the late General of that name, with the baggage of the latter. By the prize we learned that the Earl of Moira was off the False Ducks, and the Commodore has put off in a snow storm in the hope of cutting her off from Kingston.
From information received from Captain Brock there is no question but Kingston is very strongly defended. He expressed surprise to find our vessels had got out of the harbor after having been in it, and says that the regiment to which he belongs is quartered there 500 strong, besides other regulars and a well appointed militia The resistance made fully justifies this report. Be assured, Sir, that in the action of which the Commodore has given you an account the national honor has been most ably supported.


For more on James Brock see the excellent article by Stephen Otto "James Brock Brockton’s Name Recalls Isaac Brock’s Cousin" which can be found here. The attack on Kingston is described by Robert Henderson in his fine article "Full of Confidence” The American Attack on Kingston Harbour in 1812" which can be found here

November 13 1812: Commanding Commodore

On November 13, 1812, Commodore Chauncey writes to the Secretary of the Navy to report on the attack on Kingston Harbour:

Commodore Chauncey to the Secretary of the Navy
Sackett's Harbor, 13th Nov., 1812.

Sir,—I arrived here last evening in a gale of wind, the pilots having refused to keep the lake. On the 8th I fell in with the Royal George and chased her into the Bay of Quinte, where I lost sight of her in the night. In the morning of the 9th we again got sight of her lying in Kingston channel. We gave chase, and followed her into the harbor of Kingston, where we engaged her and the batteries for one hour and forty-five minutes. I had made up my mind to board her, but she was so well protected by the batteries and the wind blowing directly in, it was deemed imprudent to make the attempt at this time; the pilots also refused to take charge of the vessels.

November 12 1812: The Changeable Mr. Porter

On November 12, 1812, Peter B. Porter issues a declaration from Buffalo on behalf of General Smyth.  Peter B. Porter was a former Congressman from New York who had been a War Hawk. He had then changed his position and argued against war. He finally became the quartermaster general for the New York militia and helped his brother obtain the federal contract to supply the soldiers at Niagara and Detroit.  Augustus Foster wrote of the changeable Mr. Porter: “Porter, after being for war, then against it, then for it and anew against it, set out at last for the frontiers of Canada with a commission for supplying the troops.” He was for war before he was against it and is now for it again.  On November 12, 18123,  Porter is trying to encourage support for the war. 

November 11 1812: Shelley and Mary Meet

On November 11, 1812, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, fifteen years old, meets Percy Shelley for the first time.  Shelley, his wife Harriet and Harriet's sister Eliza have dinner at the Godwins that night. The night before, Mary, with her friend  Christy Baxter, had returned home to London after having spent some months in Scotland. It is possible that Mary was too tired from the journey and did not leave her room to meet Percy. Their romantic relationship only started years later. Alternatively, I imagine that Mary and Percy meet under Harriet's cold fearful eyes.

November 10 1812: Slave Trade and Impressments

On November 10, 1812, in St Petersburg, John Quincy Adams   makes the following  entry  in his diary: 

10th. I read the remainder of Gisborne's Principles of Moral Philosophy, and his remarks on a decision in the British House of Commons, in April, 1792, on the abolition of the slave trade. He is a very zealous advocate for this abolition, which has been since legally decreed in England, as well as in America. Whether it will be eventually abolished in fact is yet a problem. The trade is beyond question an abomination, disgraceful to the human character, but there are so many powerful passions and interests concurring to support it, and the efforts to obtain its abolition are themselves so much composed of fashion and faction, that I still doubt whether the abolition will be accomplished. I say the motives of the abolitionists are in a great degree fashion and faction; for the impressment of seamen is to all intents and purposes a practice as unjust, as immoral, as base, as oppressive and tyrannical as the slave trade. It is in all its most heinous features identically the same crime; in some particulars it is more aggravated; and yet the same members of the British Parliament who have been the greatest zealots for abolishing the slave trade are not only inflexible adherents to the practice of impressments among their own people, but are now waging a rancorous war against the United States to support the practice of their officers in impressing men from American merchant vessels on the high seas. Every particle of argument that can bear against the slave trade bears with equal force against impressment. Dr. Gisborne is at least consistent. He admits that the impressment of seamen is a violation of the general principles of the English constitution; and he speaks of it, even as applied to British subjects, with disapprobation. He says nothing of the abuse of extending the practice to Americans and upon American vessels, and even his censure upon it as applied only to British subjects is very faint and cold compared with his fervor of passion against the slave trade.

November 10 1812: Second Coleridge Lecture

On November 10 1812,  Samuel Taylor Coleridge gives another lecture on Belles Lettres at the Surrey Institution. Henry Crabb Robinson is again in attendance and writes in his diary:
Took tea with Lamb. Then heard Coleridge's second lecture at the Surrey Institution. It was very wide of all immediate reference to polite literature. It was full of pious--cant, I fear. It treated very rhapsodically & obscurely of the primitive & barbarous state of man &c.

November 9 1812: Snow and Death of General Pardo

On November 9, 1812, in St Petersburg, John Quincy Adams   makes the following  entry  in his diary: 

9th.- On taking my usual walk this morning, I found the two bridges of the Neva gone, and the river about half full of floating ice. The Fontanka Canal was almost everywhere frozen over. There has been yesterday and the day before a considerable fall of snow, so that the sledges pass upon it. The thermometer (Reaumur's) has been from five to seven below zero, the temperature at which the river usually freezes. Mr. Harris called upon me, and brought with him some English newspapers containing the English official account of the capture of the British frigate Guerriere by the Constitution, Captain Hull, and also the dispatches from General Brock, and the shameful capitulation of General Hull and his army in Upper Canada. The Countess Colombi and her sister, Frederica Bode, visited the ladies, and mentioned the decease of General Pardo, the late Spanish Minister here. He died at a small, mean hovel of an inn, upon his journey from this city. General Essen, at Riga, has taken his daughter, a child about fourteen, who was left friendless and alone when her father died. Madame Colombi intends sending for her. Pardo, I believe, died of a broken heart. He had connected himself with the French party in Spain inextricably, while his feelings were all on the other side. He accepted office, military rank, and a blushing riband from Joseph Bonaparte, and yet in all his conversation with everybody was enthusiastically zealous for the patriots. There was a contrast between his conduct and his discourse greater than I ever witnessed in any other man. He had lost his fortune and several of his near relations by the war in Spain; he had been two or three years without pay from the Government that he had consented to serve; and by the new war he was dismissed, even from nominal employment, without any present provision, or any prospect of future supply, so much as for the subsistence of himself and his daughter, besides a son of sixteen or seventeen, who is at Paris. He was a learned classical scholar, a well-taught connoisseur in the fine arts, a profound theoretical proficient in the art of war, a lively and pleasant convivial companion, and a man of strong and brilliant genius. I believe if he had possessed firmness and energy of character he would have taken an active part, and been a highly distinguished leader, in the Spanish cause.

November 9 1812: Byron Receives an Irish Epistle

On November 9, 1812, Lord Byron writes again to Lady Melbourne about the perennial problem that is Lady Caroline Lamb, who has written "another Irish epistle, foolish, headstrong, & vainly threatening herself." Byron ends the letter by writing that he has now found someone who will give him a quiet love that is the very opposite of the "ridiculous display of last season" with Caroline. Lady Melbourne knows he is referring to Lady Oxford. He writes "I cannot exist without some object of love – I have found one with whom I am perfectly satisfied, & who as far as I can judge is no less so with me; our mutual wish is quiet – & for this reason I find a double pleasure (after all the ridiculous display of last season) in repose; I have engaged myself too far to recede, nor do I regret it – are you at least satisfied with what I have done to comply with your wishes if Ly. B. is not? If Ly. C. wishes any interview pray explain for me that I will not meet her, if she has either pride or feeling this will be sufficient – all letters &c. &c. may be easily destroyed without it".

Byron's letter is reproduced below.

November 8 1812: Winter Continues Attack

On November 8, 1812, the snow storm continues to decimate the Grand Army as it makes its way to Smolensk. Armand de Caulaincourt writes:
On the eighth, headquarters were at Beredikino. For a moment the Emperor thought of pushing forward as far as Smolensk himself; but the surface of the snow had been first melted in the thaw and then frozen when the frost set in again, and this made the road impracticable, particularly in the dark. The fear that by leaving he might draw swarms of stragglers after him, and so cause disorder in the night at Smolensk, made the Emperor decide to wait till the following day; and in this he was well-advised, for even those on foot were hard put to it to hold the road. 
Nearly everybody travelled on foot. The Emperor followed the march of the Guard in his carriage, accompanied by the Prince of Neuchatel; but he got down two or three times a day and went on foot for a while, leaning sometimes on the Prince's arm, sometimes on mine, sometimes on one of his aides-decamp. The road and the strips beside it were covered with the bodies of wounded men who had died of cold and hunger and want. No field of battle ever bore so fearful an aspect. 


Armand de Caulaincourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia (Enigma Books, 2008) at pages 176-177.

November 7 1812: Robert Southey

On November 7 1812,  Robert Southey writes a letter to his friend Charles Danvers:  
Robert Southey to Charles Danvers, 7 November 1812 Keswick. Nov. 7. 1812.

My dear Danvers - If I had had a son born on the fifth of November, a possibility which I looked on to, his name should have been Danvers, – but I could not have resisted the temptation of prefixing Guy.  And to my great delight Tom looking to a like possibility, hath vowed & sworn that if on that day he should have a boy born unto him, Guy shall be his name. I have a girl instead, – & I have found out a good reason for a name for her. Isabel she shall be called, which is good Spanish, good Portugueze, & good Cumberland, – now Isabel abbreviates into Bell, & Dr Bell is destined to be her God father. Lo & behold the admirable fitness of things! Mr Shandy  himself would have been delighted herewith.
I may yet have a nephew Guy, tho disappointed of a son; – but I fear not as this nights post has not brought me any such tidings. All is going on as well as could be wished God bless youRS.
Tell George this piece of family news. We were all heartily glad to hear that he got so well out of a disagreable business. Two copies of Omniana will be sent you, one of which is for Rex. 

November 6 1812: Byron Gossip

On November 6, 1812, Lord Byron writes again to Lady Melbourne sharing the latest gossip but being careful to use initials or dashes to disguise who he is discussing. He does this in case Lady Caroline Lamb or servants later read his correspondence. For example, he refers to a P who is identified by Peter Cochran as the attractive Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, on the right. He writes: "So – a new accusation of imposition! – At M– & before – my memory really fails me – I never laughed at P – (by the bye this is an initial which might puzzle posterity when our correspondence bursts forth in the 20th century)" Byron also schemes with Lady Melbourne on how to contain Lady Caroline Lamb or as he terms it "on the arrival of Pandora (& her boxes of evil for all her acquaintance) at Tixal". 

Byron's letter is reproduced below.

November 6 1812: War News

On November 6, 1812, in St Petersburg, John Quincy Adams   makes the following  entry  in his diary: 
6th. The official account of the battle of Malo Yaroslawetz, 24th October, is now published. Koutouzof, as usual, claims the victory; but his army again retreated after it. As yet, no decisive proof appears whether the object of the French army was to cover its own retreat, or to penetrate farther into Russia. That they do not expect or intend to return to Moscow appears certain.

November 6 1812: Winter Attacks

On November 6 1812, is the day when Russia's fiercest general takes the field in full force. Winter came suddenly with a drop of temperature to about 10°C and the first serious snow fall. The French are completely unprepared. Francois Dumonceau writes:
Our campfires, which we could only keep going with difficulty, did not succeed in warming us. The biting north wind came and found me even under the bearskin rug I was covered with. Frozen one one side, scorched on the other, suffocated by the smoke, alarmed by the roar of the wind as it tore at the trees of the dense wood, I could not bear it and like the others, ran this way and that in order to warm myself, spending a night without and experiencing suffering the like of which we had never known. 
Philippe-Paul de Segur writes: 
But on the 6th of November, the heavens declared against us. Their azure disappeared. The army marched enveloped in cold fogs. These fogs became thicker, and presently an immense cloud descended upon it in large flakes of snow. It seemed as if the very sky was falling, and joining the earth and our enemies to complete our destruction. All objects changed their appearance, and became confounded, and not to be recognised again; we proceeded, without knowing where we were, without perceiving the point to which we were bound; every thing was transformed into an obstacle. While the soldier was struggling with the tempest of wind and snow, the flakes, driven by the storm, lodged and accumulated in every hollow; their surfaces concealed unknown abysses, which perfidiously opened beneath our feet. There the men were engulphed, and the weakest, resigning themselves to their fate, found a grave in these snow-pits.

Those who followed turned aside, but the storm drove into their faces both the snow that was descending from the sky, and that which it raised from the ground: it seemed bent on opposing their progress. The Russian winter, under this new form, attacked them on all sides: it penetrated through their light garments and their torn shoes and boots. Their wet clothes froze upon their bodies; an icy envelope encased them and stiffened all their limbs. A keen and violent wind interrupted respiration: it seized their breath at the moment when they exhaled it, and converted it into icicles, which hung from their beards all round their mouths.

The unfortunate creatures still crawled on, shivering, till the snow, gathering like balls under their feet, or the fragment of some broken article, a branch of a tree, or the body of one of their comrades, caused them to stumble and fall. There they groaned in vain; the snow soon covered them; slight hillocks marked the spot where they lay: such was their only grave! The road was studded with these undulations, like a cemetery: the most intrepid and the most indifferent were affected; they passed on quickly with averted looks. But before them, around them, there was nothing but snow: this immense and dreary uniformity extended farther than the eye could reach; the imagination was astounded; it was like a vast winding-sheet which Nature had thrown over the army. The only objects not enveloped by it, were some gloomy pines, trees of the tombs, with their funeral verdure, the motionless aspect of their gigantic black trunks and their dismal look, which completed the doleful appearance of a general mourning, and of an army dying amidst a nature already dead.

Every thing, even to their very arms, still offensive at Malo-Yaroslawetz, but since then defensive only, now turned against them. These seemed to their frozen limbs insupportably heavy, in the frequent falls which they experienced, they dropped from their hands and were broken or buried in the snow. If they rose again, it was without them; for they did not throw them away; hunger and cold wrested them from their grasp. The fingers of many others were frozen to the musket which they still held, which deprived them of the motion necessary for keeping up some degree of warmth and life.

We soon met with numbers of men belonging to all the corps, sometimes singly, at others in troops. They had not basely deserted their colours; it was cold and inanition which had separated them from their columns. In this general and individual struggle, they had parted from one another, and there they were, disarmed, vanquished, defenceless, without leaders, obeying nothing but the urgent instinct of self-preservation.

Most of them, attracted by the sight of by-paths, dispersed themselves over the country, in hopes of finding bread and shelter for the coming night: but, on their first passage, all had been laid waste to the extent of seven or eight leagues; they met with nothing but Cossacks, and an armed population, which encompassed, wounded, and stripped them naked, and then left them, with ferocious bursts of laughter, to expire on the snow. These people, who had risen at the call of Alexander and Kutusoff, and who had not then learned, as they since have, to avenge nobly a country which they were unable to defend, hovered on both flanks of the army under favour of the woods. Those whom they did not despatch with their pikes and hatchets, they brought back to the fatal and all-devouring high road.

Night then came on—a night of sixteen hours! But on that snow which covered every thing, they knew not where to halt, where to sit, where to lie down, where to find some root or other to eat, and dry wood to kindle a fire! Fatigue, darkness, and repeated orders nevertheless stopped those whom their moral and physical strength and the efforts of their officers had kept together. They strove to establish themselves; but the tempest, still active, dispersed the first preparations for bivouacs. The pines, laden with frost, obstinately resisted the flames; their snow, that from the sky which yet continued to fall fast, and that on the ground, which melted with the efforts of the soldiers, and the effect of the first fires, extinguished those fires, as well as the strength and spirits of the men.

When at length the flames gained the ascendancy, the officers and soldiers around them prepared their wretched repast; it consisted of lean and bloody pieces of flesh torn from the horses that were knocked up, and at most a few spoonfuls of rye-flour mixed with snow-water. Next morning circular ranges of soldiers extended lifeless marked the bivouacs; and the ground about them was strewed with the bodies of several thousand horses.

From that day we began to place less reliance on one another. In that lively army, susceptible of all impressions, and taught to reason by an advanced civilization, discouragement and neglect of discipline spread rapidly, the imagination knowing no bounds in evil as in good. Henceforward, at every bivouac, at every difficult passage, at every moment, some portion separated from the yet organised troops, and fell into disorder. There were some, however, who withstood this wide contagion of indiscipline and despondency. These were officers, non-commissioned officers, and steady soldiers. These were extraordinary men: they encouraged one another by repeating the name of Smolensk, which they knew they were approaching, and where they had been promised that all their wants should be supplied.

It was in this manner that, after this deluge of snow, and the increase of cold which it foreboded, each, whether officer or soldier, preserved or lost his fortitude, according to his disposition, his age, and his constitution. That one of our leaders who had hitherto been the strictest in enforcing discipline, now paid little attention to it. Thrown out of all his fixed ideas of regularity, order, and method, he was seized with despair at the sight of such universal disorder, and conceiving, before the others, that all was lost, he felt himself ready to abandon all.

From Gjatz to Mikalewska, a village between Dorogobouje and Smolensk, nothing remarkable occurred in the imperial column, unless that it was found necessary to throw the spoils of Moscow into the lake of Semlewo: cannon, gothic armour, the ornaments of the Kremlin, and the cross of Ivan the Great, were buried in its waters; trophies, glory, all those acquisitions to which we had sacrificed every thing, became a burden to us; our object was no longer to embellish, to adorn life, but to preserve it. In this vast wreck, the army, like a great ship tossed by the most tremendous of tempests, threw without hesitation into that sea of ice and snow, every thing that could slacken or impede its progress.

During the 3d and 4th of November Napoleon halted at Stakowo. This repose, and the shame of appearing to flee, inflamed his imagination. He dictated orders, according to which his rear-guard, by appearing to retreat in disorder, was to draw the Russians into an ambuscade, where he should be waiting for them in person; but this vain project passed off with the pre-occupation which gave it birth. On the 5th he slept at Dorogobouje. Here he found the hand-mills which were ordered for the expedition at the time the cantonments of Smolensk were projected; of these a late and totally useless distribution was made.

Next day, the 6th of November, opposite to Mikalewska, at the moment when the clouds, laden with sleet and snow, were bursting over our heads, Count Daru was seen hastening up, and a circle of vedettes forming around him and the Emperor.

An express, the first that had been able to reach us for ten days, had just brought intelligence of that strange conspiracy, hatched in Paris itself, and in the depth of a prison, by an obscure general. He had had no other accomplices than the false news of our destruction, and forged orders to some troops to apprehend the Minister, the Prefect of Police, and the Commandant of Paris. His plan had completely succeeded, from the impulsion of a first movement, from ignorance and the general astonishment; but no sooner was a rumour of the affair spread abroad, than an order was sufficient again to consign the leader, with his accomplices or his dupes, to a prison.

The Emperor was apprised at the same moment of their crime and their punishment. Those who at a distance strove to read his thoughts in his countenance could discover nothing. He repressed his feelings; his first and only words to Daru were, "How now, if we had remained at Moscow!" He then hastened into a house surrounded with a palisade, which had served for a post of correspondence.

The moment he was alone with the most devoted of his officers, all his emotions burst forth at once in exclamations of astonishment, humiliation and anger. Presently afterwards he sent for several other officers, to observe the effect which so extraordinary a piece of intelligence would produce upon them. He perceived in them a painful uneasiness and consternation, and their confidence in the stability of his government completely shaken. He had occasion to know that they accosted each other with a sigh, and the remark, that it thus appeared that the great revolution of 1789, which was thought to be finished, was not yet over. Grown old in struggles to get out of it, were they to be again plunged into it, and to be thrown once more into the dreadful career of political convulsions? Thus war was coming upon us in every quarter, and we were liable to lose every thing at once.

Some rejoiced at this intelligence, in the hope that it would hasten the return of the Emperor to France, that it would fix him there, and that he would no longer risk himself abroad, since he was not safe at home. On the following day, the sufferings of the moment put an end to these conjectures. As for Napoleon, all his thoughts again flew before him to Paris, and he was advancing mechanically towards Smolensk, when his whole attention was recalled to the present place and time, by the arrival of an aide-de-camp of Ney.

From Wiazma that Marshal had begun to protect this retreat, mortal to so many others, but immortal for himself. As far as Dorogobouje, it had been molested only by some bands of Cossacks, troublesome insects attracted by our dying and by our forsaken carriages, flying away the moment a hand was lifted, but harassing by their continual return.

They were not the subject of Ney's message. On approaching Dorogobouje he had met with the traces of the disorder which prevailed in the corps that preceded him, and which it was not in his power to efface. So far he had made up his mind to leave the baggage to the enemy; but he blushed with shame at the sight of the first pieces of cannon abandoned before Dorogobouje.

The marshal had halted there. After a dreadful night, in which snow, wind, and famine had driven most of his men from the fires, the dawn, which is always awaited with such impatience in a bivouac, had brought him a tempest, the enemy, and the spectacle of an almost general defection. In vain he had just fought in person at the head of what men and officers he had left: he had been obliged to retreat precipitately behind the Dnieper; and of this he sent to apprise the Emperor.

He wished him to know the worst. His aide-de-camp, Colonel Dalbignac, was instructed to say, that "the first movement of retreat from Malo-Yaroslawetz, for soldiers who had never yet run away, had dispirited the army; that the affair at Wiazma had shaken its firmness; and that lastly, the deluge of snow and the increased cold which it betokened, had completed its disorganization: that a multitude of officers, having lost every thing, their platoons, battalions, regiments, and even divisions, had joined the roving masses: generals, colonels, and officers of all ranks, were seen mingled with the privates, and marching at random, sometimes with one column, sometimes with another: that as order could not exist in the presence of disorder, this example was seducing even the veteran regiments, which had served during the whole of the wars of the revolution: that in the ranks, the best soldiers were heard asking one another, why they alone were required to fight in order to secure the flight of the rest; and how any one could expect to keep up their courage, when they heard the cries of despair issuing from the neighbouring woods, in which large convoys of their wounded, who had been dragged to no purpose all the way from Moscow, had just been abandoned? Such then was the fate which awaited themselves! what had they to gain by remaining by their colours? Incessant toils and combats by day, and famine at night; no shelter, and bivouacs still more destructive than battle: famine and cold drove sleep far away from them, or if fatigue got the better of these for the moment, that repose which ought to refresh them put a period to their lives. In short, the eagles had ceased to protect—they destroyed. Why then remain around them to perish by battalions, by masses? It would be better to disperse, and since there was no other course than flight, to try who could run fastest. It would not then be the best that would fall: the cowards behind them would no longer eat up the relics of the high road." Lastly, the aide-de-camp was commissioned to explain to the Emperor all the horrors of his situation, the responsibility of which Ney absolutely declined.

But Napoleon saw enough around himself to judge of the rest. The fugitives were passing him; he was sensible that nothing could now be done but sacrifice the army successively, part by part, beginning at the extremities, in order to save the head. When, therefore, the aide-de-camp was beginning, he sharply interrupted him with these words, "Colonel, I do not ask you for these details." The Colonel was silent, aware that in this disaster, now irremediable, and in which every one had occasion for all his energies, the Emperor was afraid of complaints, which could have no other effect but to discourage both him who indulged in, and him who listened to them.

He remarked the attitude of Napoleon, the same which he retained throughout the whole of this retreat. It was grave, silent, and resigned; suffering much less in body than others, but much more in mind, and brooding over his misfortunes. At that moment General Charpentier sent him from Smolensk a convoy of provisions. Bessières wished to take possession of them, but the Emperor instantly had them forwarded to the Prince of the Moskwa, saying, "that those who were fighting must eat before the others." At the same time he sent word to Ney "to defend himself long enough to allow him some stay at Smolensk, where the army should eat, rest, and be re-organized."

But if this hope kept some to their duty, many others abandoned every thing, to hasten towards that promised term of their sufferings. As for Ney, he saw that a sacrifice was required, and that he was marked out as the victim: he resigned himself, ready to meet the whole of a danger great as his courage: thenceforward he neither attached his honour to baggage, nor to cannon, which the winter alone wrested from him. A first bend of the Borysthenes stopped and kept back part of his guns at the foot of its icy slopes; he sacrificed them without hesitation, passed that obstacle, faced about, and made the hostile river, which crossed his route, serve him as the means of defence.

The Russians, however, advanced under favour of a wood and our forsaken carriages, whence they kept up a fire of musketry on Ney's troops. Half of the latter, whose icy arms froze their stiffened fingers, got discouraged; they gave way, justifying themselves by their faint-heartedness on the preceding day, fleeing because they had fled; which before they would have considered as impossible. But Ney rushed in amongst them, snatched one of their muskets, and led them back to the fire, which he was the first to renew; exposing his life like a private soldier, with a musket in his hand, the same as when he was neither husband nor father, neither possessed of wealth, nor power, nor consideration: in short, as if he had still every thing to gain, when in fact he had every thing to lose. At the same time that he again turned soldier, he ceased not to be a general; he took advantage of the ground, supported himself against a height, and covered himself with a palisaded house. His generals and his colonels, among whom he himself remarked Fezenzac, strenuously seconded him; and the enemy, who expected to pursue, was obliged to retreat.

By this action, Ney gave the army a respite of twenty-four hours; it profited by it to proceed towards Smolensk. The next day, and all the succeeding days, he manifested the same heroism. Between Wiazma and Smolensk he fought ten whole days.
Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at page 390. 

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.