Marie Louise had persuaded him to let her accompany him as far as Dresden, and to invite her parents to meet them there, so that she might be once more, however briefly, with her family. Napoleon agreed, and thought it wise to invite also Frederick William III of Prussia, and divers other royalties and notables. From Mainz eastward his passage through the Rhineland became a triumphant procession as the local rulers came out to receive their suzerain; they joined his cortege as he advanced into Saxony. A few miles west of Dresden they were met by King Frederick Augustus, who escorted them into his capital. They reached the city an hour before midnight on May 16. The streets they followed were crowded with people holding torches and crying welcome; salvos of artillery were fired, and church bells rang.26
On May 18 Metternich arrived with the Emperor and Empress of Austria*; Marie Louise embraced her father with visible emotion; her happiness was softened by her premonition that the year was heavy with misfortune. Soon thereafter came the King and Crown Prince of Prussia, probably uncomfortable amid the apparent entente cordiale between their country’s historic enemies; however, Czar Alexander had secret assurance that both Prussia and Austria were praying for Napoleon’s defeat.27 King Frederick Augustus, as host, lightened their politics with opera, drama, hunting, fireworks, dances, and receptions at which the rulers of Germany paid homage to Napoleon, who, apparently modest, beamed for twelve days from the zenith of his curve.
On May 28 he set out to join one of his armies at Thorn on the Vistula. Orders had gone out to his generals to meet him on the banks of the River Niemen, which separated the grand duchy of Warsaw from Russia. He himself rode in a carriage equipped with a lamp, a table, writing materials, maps, and books. Each night on the march this equipment was transferred to a tent, where he composed, and issued to his secretaries, the orders to be transmitted to generals for the morrow’s operations. His old secretary Méneval, his newer secretary, François Fain, and his valet Véry Constant accompanied him all the way to Moscow and return. He reached the Niemen on June 23, reconnoitered, and saw no sign of enemy presence on the other side. Three pontoon bridges were soon set up, and on June 24–26 some 200,000 of his men crossed to the town of Kovno (now Kaunas). Almost at the same time another French army of some 200,000 men crossed the same river farther downstream at Tilsit (now Sovetsk),28 where Napoleon and Alexander, five years earlier, had sworn friendship till death.
Alexander was now at Vilna, fifty-seven miles southeast of Kovno. Several armies were awaiting his command: on the north 150,000 men under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, of Scottish descent; on the south 60,000 under Prince Pyotr Bagration, a Georgian; on the east 40,000 under General Aleksandr Tormasov. They were no match for Napoleon’s 400,000 troops; but, in an orderly retreat, they could consume, destroy, or cart away all usable provisions, and leave little for the invaders to pillage. Another Russian army, 60,000 strong, freed by the peace with Turkey, was marching up from the south under General Paul Chichagov; but they were several days away.
On June 24 Alexander was the guest of honor at a bal champêtre on the estate of Count Levin Bennigsen, who had fought Napoleon to a draw at Eylau in 1807. During the festivities a messenger brought to the Czar word that the French were crossing the Niemen into Russia. Alexander concealed the news till the fete was over. Returning to his headquarters, he issued orders to his local armies to unite if possible, but in any case to retreat into the interior. The French had come sooner than expected; the Russian forces could not unite, but they retreated in good order.
On June 26 the Czar sent to Napoleon an offer to reopen negotiations, but only on condition that the French should at once leave Russia. Putting little faith in his own proposal, he left Vilna with Barclay de Tolly’s army for Vitebsk. There, at the persistent suggestion of his officers that he was not equipped to determine military strategy, he left for Moscow, and appealed to the citizens to sacrifice money and blood in support of their invaded fatherland. They responded with fervor, and he returned encouraged to St. Petersburg.
On June 27 Napoleon and his main army began the long trek—550 miles —from Kovno to Moscow. Even those first days in Russia were an ordeal: the days were hot, the nights were cold; a heavy rain drenched everything. Each soldier carried with him food for five days, but to spare or augment their supply, they pillaged the fields and cottages of the countryside, regardless of the Emperor’s prohibition. The army reached Vilna on June 28, and plundered as much as they could before Napoleon arrived. He came expecting to be welcomed as a liberator; some Poles and Lithuanians greeted him so; but some faced him in grim silence, resenting robbery.29 A deputation asked him to pledge the restoration of the Polish monarchy; he would not commit himself, fearing to alienate the Prussians and Austrians in government or in his army; he asked the petitioners to defer the matter until his victorious return from Moscow.
He had hoped to overtake and destroy one of the Czar’s armies at Vilna, but Barclay and his men had escaped to Vitebsk, and Napoleon’s forces were too weary to pursue him. Two weeks were spent in restoring their order and spirit. Successive disappointments were sharpening the Emperor’s temper. He had sent his brother Jérôme, with a substantial army, to pursue Bagration in the south; Jérôme failed to catch his prey, returned to the main French army, was reproved by Napoleon for dilatory procedure and lax leadership, resigned his command, and withdrew to his court in Westphalia.30
On July 16 Napoleon led his reprovisioned army out of Vilna on a 250-mile march northeast to Vitebsk. He had planned to catch up there with Barclay de Tolly, but that clever Scot was already advanced on the road to Smolensk. Napoleon could not pursue him farther, for he had ordered reinforcements and supplies to reach him at Vitebsk, and they were delayed. Several of his generals advised him to camp there for the winter instead of trying to get to Moscow and back before the snows came. Napoleon answered that Vitebsk was not situated to allow successful fortification and defense; that the region was too sparsely cultivated to feed his army; that any delay before reaching Moscow, or a decisive battle, would give Russia time to form and equip more armies to harass the French en route or blockade them in Vitebsk; nothing but the capture of Russia’s holy city and ancient capital would bring Alexander to terms.
After fifteen days at Vitebsk he led his army out on August 13 in the hope of catching Barclay at Smolensk. This was the populous center of a fertile region, favored, by its situation on the Dnieper, for commerce and industry, and so well fortified that Barclay and Bagration, having united their forces there, had decided to make a stand and at least halt Napoleon’s advance.
The French arrived on August 16, exhausted by their long marches, and reduced by death and desertion to 160,000 men.31 Nevertheless their attack was violent and effective; by the night of August 17, whether by Russian despair or French artillery, the city had been set on fire, much to Napoleon’s aesthetic and martial delight. “Don’t you think this a beautiful sight?” he asked his master of the horse. “Horrible, Sire,” answered Caulaincourt. Napoleon: “Bah! Remember what a Roman emperor said: ‘The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet.’ “32 On August 18 the Emperor sent to Maret, minister of foreign affairs, a report to lift the morale of Paris: “We have captured Smolensk without the loss of a man.”33 A later estimate, by an English historian, reckoned the French had lost 8–9,000 men, the Russians 6,000.34 The French losses were irretrievable; the Russian armies retreated into friendly towns and a pool of conscriptible men.
On July 20 Czar Alexander, moved by the divisive views and tactics of the Russian generals, decided that his armed forces needed a united command. He appointed to that post Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov (1745–1813), who had earned a reputation for authoritative and successful generalship through many campaigns. He was sixty-seven years old, lazy and sedentary, so fat that he had to be drawn about the camp or battlefield in a carriage; he had lost one eye in battle, and the other was ailing; he was slightly lecherous, and a bear with women; but he had learned the art of war in fifty years of action; and all Russia had clamored for his appointment. He disappointed nearly everyone, including Napoleon, by avoiding battle, and ordering further retreat.
Napoleon was tempted to abandon the chase, make Smolensk a fortress in the center of Russia, spend the winter there, and maintain an armed line of communication with Western Europe. But now he found himself in a completely unexpected situation: his army was so disordered by racial faction and the breakdown of discipline that he felt safer on the march, where the fear of an attack compelled cohesion. “This army,” he told General Sébastiani, “cannot now stop;… motion alone keeps it together. One may go forward at the head of it, but neither halt nor go back.”35 So, shortly after midnight of August 25, only a week after its capture, he and his troops left Smolensk on the hot and dusty road to Viazma, Gzhatsk… and Moscow—three weeks away. Murat and his cavalry rode at their head, heartening morale by the gay recklessness with which he and his cavaliers fought back any attack from the rear guard of the retreating Russians. Napoleon later described him:
He was only brave in the presence of the enemy; in that case the bravest man in the world. His impetuous courage carried him into the midst of danger. Then he was decked out in gold and feathers that rose above his head like a church tower. He escaped continually, as by a miracle, for he was easily recognized by his dress. He was a regular target for the enemy, and the Cossacks used to admire him on account of his astonishing bravery.36
On September 5, as they approached the town of Borodino (still seventy-five miles from Moscow), the French vanguard, reaching the top of a hill, saw in the plain ahead a sight that gladdened and saddened them: hundreds of Russians completing redoubts within which artillery could be concealed, and farther in the fields, near the confluence of the Rivers Kalacha and Moskva, thousands of soldiers; apparently Kutuzov had decided to make a stand.
All through September 6 the rival hosts prepared for battle. On that cold, wet night hardly anyone slept. At 2 A.M. Napoleon sent out a proclamation, to be read, in translation, to the various divisions of his army: “Soldiers! Behold the battle that you have so long desired. Now the victory depends upon you. It is indispensable. It will give us abundance, good winter quarters, and an early return to our fatherland.”37 That night, by order of Kutuzov, the priests who accompanied his army carried through his camp an icon of the “Black Virgin,” which had been rescued from burning Smolensk; the soldiers knelt, made the sign of the cross, and responded with fervor to the priests’ repeated prayer “Gospodi pomilui—Lord have mercy,” and Kutuzov bent to kiss the icon.38
About that time a courier brought Napoleon a letter from Marie Louise, with a recent portrait of their one-year-old son. Also the news was brought to him that his army had suffered a critical defeat by Wellington at Salamanca. He spent much of the night issuing directions to his officers for the morrow’s tactics. It must have been difficult for him to sleep, for his habitual dysuria pained him; his urine was alarmingly discolored, his legs were swollen with dropsy, his pulse was weak and frequently missed a beat.39 Despite these discomforts he exhausted three horses on the first day of battle, riding from one part of his army to the other.40
He had 130,000 tired men under him, Kutuzov 112,000; the French had 587 guns, the Russians 640. All through September 7 these thousands of men, fearing, hating, killing, dying, fought their like with heroism and tenacity equal on either side, as if feeling that the destiny of Europe depended upon them. Bagration gave his life in leading a Russian charge; Caulaincourt, in this war that he had sought to prevent, lost a beloved brother; Eugène, Davout, Murat faced death a hundred times; Ney on that field won from Napoleon the fond title of Prince of the Moskva. Victory passed with seeming indifference from one side to the other all that day. When night fell the Russians slowly gave ground; the French remained masters of the field, but Napoleon reckoned victory far from certain. Kutuzov sent to Alexander a proud report that allowed the cathedrals of St. Petersburg and Moscow to raise a Te Deum to their God. The French had lost 30,000 men killed or disabled, the Russians 50,000.41
At first, on September 8, Kutuzov thought of renewing the battle, but as the figures for his losses came in he felt that he could not subject the survivors to another day of such slaughter. He resumed his policy of retreat, and henceforth kept it to the end. On September 13 he ordered the evacuation of Moscow, and on the 14th he set out grimly toward new uncertainties.
On that day Napoleon and his 95,000 survivors42 reached the gates of Moscow, after a march of eighty-three days from Kovno. A message from General Miloradovich, head of the Moscow garrison, asked for a cease-fire while he led out his men; it was granted. Napoleon waited for notables to present themselves and ask for his protection; none came. When he entered the city he observed that none of the inhabitants remained except “a few thousand people belonging to the lower classes.”43 Some harlots had stayed, hoping for francs, and soon willing to agree for food and shelter. Napoleon had brought a load of counterfeit Russian bank notes; the Russians refused to accept them; the notes had to be burned.44 The victors searched the city, pillaged the palaces, sacked the estates in the hinterland; they loaded themselves with wine and heirlooms; the latter were destined to be shed, one after another, on the retreat.
On September 15 Napoleon moved into the Kremlin, and waited for Alexander to sue for peace. On that evening Moscow began to burn.