V. THE BURNING OF MOSCOW: SEPTEMBER 15–19, 1812

Napoleon marveled at the beauty of the deserted city. “Under every point of view,” he told Las Cases, “it might bear comparison with any of the capitals of Europe; the greater number of them it surpassed.”45 It was Russia’s largest city, its Holy City or spiritual capital, with 340 churches coloring the sky with their bulging domes. Most of these churches survived the fire, being built of stone. Dwellings were nearly all of wood; 11,000 of these were destroyed, including 6,000 built of “fireproof” materials.

Some fires were seen by the entering French, who ran to extinguish them, but new fires sprang up, and spread so rapidly that they turned the night of September 15 into day, and wakened by their light the valets who guarded Napoleon’s sleep. They roused him; he ordered the army’s fire brigade into action, then went back to bed. On the morning of the 16th, Murat and Eugène, fearing that a spark might ignite the powder magazines that the army had deposited in the Kremlin, begged Napoleon to leave the city. After much resistance he rode out with them to a suburban palace, followed by wagons bearing records and matériel. The fire subsided on September 18, after destroying two thirds of Moscow, and Napoleon returned to the Kremlin.

Who was responsible? The city authorities, before departing, had released the prisoners,46 and these may have set the first fires in the course of their looting. Some French soldiers may have been similarly careless in their pillaging.47 Many reports were brought to Napoleon on September 16 that torchbearers were scattering through Moscow, deliberately setting fires; he ordered that captured incendiaries be shot or hanged; these orders were carried out. One arsonist, a Russian military policeman, caught setting a fire in a turret of the Kremlin, alleged that he had acted under orders. He was interviewed by Napoleon, was taken down into the courtyard, and killed.48 Several arrested Russians alleged that the departing governor of the city, Count Rostopchin, had given orders that the city be burned.49

On September 20 Napoleon wrote to Alexander:

The proud and beautiful city of Moscow is no more. Rostopchin has had it burned. Four hundred incendiaries were arrested in the very act; they all declared that they set fire to the place by order of the Governor, the Director of the Police. They have been shot. Three houses out of every four have been burned down…. Such a deed is as useless as it is atrocious. Was it intended to deprive us of provisions? These were in cellars that the fire could not reach. Besides, what a trifling object for which to destroy the work of centuries, and one of the most lovely cities in the world! I cannot possibly believe that, with your principles, your feelings, and your ideas of what is right, you can have authorized excesses so unworthy of a just sovereign and a great nation.

I made war on your Majesty without any hostile feelings. A single letter from you, before or after the last battle, would have stopped any advance, and I would willingly have surrendered the advantage of occupying Moscow. If your Majesty still retains some part of your old feelings for me, you will take this letter in good part. In any case you cannot but agree that I was right in reporting what is happening in Moscow.50

Alexander did not answer this letter, but he answered the Russian officer who had been assigned to announce to him the burning of Moscow. The Czar asked if the event had hurt the morale of Kutuzov’s army. The officer answered that the only fear of the army was that the Czar would make peace with Napoleon. Alexander, we are told, replied, “Tell my brave men that when I have been reduced to one soldier I shall put myself at the head of my nobility and my peasants. And if it is fated that my dynasty must cease to reign, I shall let my beard grow to my breast, and shall go and eat potatoes in Siberia rather than sign the shame of my country and my good subjects.”51

The people of Russia applauded his resolution, for the capture and burning of Moscow shocked them to the depths of their religious faith. They reverenced Moscow as the citadel of their creed; they looked upon Napoleon as an unscrupulous atheist, and believed that his imported savages had burned the holy city. They held Alexander guilty for having accepted friendship with such a man. At times they feared that this living devil would take St. Petersburg too, and slaughter millions of them. Some of the nobility, thinking that at any moment Napoleon might summon their serfs to freedom, favored a compromise to get him out of Russia; but the majority of Alexander’s entourage urged him to resistance. The foreign group around him—Stein, Arndt, Mme. de Staël, and a dozenémigrés—daily pleaded with him; as the struggle proceeded he came to see himself as the leader not only of his country but of Europe, Christianity, civilization. He refused to answer any of the three messages sent to him from Moscow by Napoleon offering peace. As the Russian aristocracy saw week after week pass without any further action by Napoleon, they began to understand the wisdom of Kutuzov’s deadly inaction, and adjusted themselves to a long war. Again the palaces of the capital gleamed with countesses in jeweled robes, and officers in proud uniforms, moving confidently in stately dances to music that had never felt the Revolution.

After the fire had been extinguished Napoleon ordered his men to care for the injured or destitute survivors, of whatever ethnic origin,52 and made arrangements for the storage or orderly consumption of victuals left by the departing citizens. He answered the messages or inquiries brought to him by couriers from his subject lands; later he boasted that during his stay in Moscow not one of his couriers—and they averaged one a day—had been intercepted by the enemy on their route.53 He reorganized and reequipped his army, and tried to keep it fit by frequent drills; but the spirit had gone out of such parades. He had concerts and plays presented by French musicians and actors who had been domiciled in Moscow,54 and found time to draw up a detailed order for the reorganization and operation of the Comédie-Française in Paris.

A month passed, but no word came from Alexander. “I beat the Russians every time,” Napoleon complained, “but that does not get me anywhere.”55 September cooled into October; soon the Russian winter would come. Finally, having lost hope of any answer from the Czar, or any challenge from Kutuzov, and realizing that every day made his situation worse, he surrendered to the bitter decision: to go back, empty handed, or with a few solacing trophies, to Smolensk, Vilna, Warsaw… Paris. What victory could ever wipe out the shame of this defeat?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!