VI. THE WAY BACK: OCTOBER 19 — NOVEMBER 28, 1812

One hope remained. Kutuzov had accumulated provisions at Kaluga, ninety miles southwest of Moscow. Napoleon thought of marching there, and forcing the wily general to battle for those stores; if the French won decisively the Russian nobles might compel Alexander to sue for peace. Moreover, Kaluga was on another road to Smolensk than that by which the invaders had come; it would spare the pain of passing through Borodino, where so many of their mates had died. The order went out: prepare to evacuate.

So, on October 19, Napoleon’s army—50,000 soldiers, 50,000 noncombatants—began to file out from Moscow. Baggage carts contained provisions for twenty days; by that time they could reach Smolensk, where fresh supplies had been ordered for them.56Other wagons bore the sick or wounded, some heavy trophies, and Napoleon’s diminishing supply of gold.

At Maloyaroslavets, twenty-five miles north of Kaluga, the French made contact with Kutuzov’s army. A sharp action followed (October 24), which forced the Russians to withdraw behind their defenses in Kaluga. Napoleon decided that his army was not equipped for a long siege. Reluctantly he bade his men take the road via Borovsk and Mozhaisk to Borodino. Thence they retraced the route they had followed in the summertime of their hopes. Now, however, that devil of a Kutuzov brought up his army to march on a parallel route to theirs, keeping elusively out of sight, but sending up, now and then, cavalry detachments of wild Cossacks to harass the French flanks; and happy peasants took shots at stragglers who ventured too far from the sixty-mile line of march.57

Napoleon was well protected, but only from immediate danger. Couriers brought him, en route, news of active dissension threatening his government in Paris, and rising rebellions in his subject lands. On October 26, a week out of Moscow, he asked Caulaincourt should he, Napoleon, leave at once for Paris to face and control the discontent aroused by his defeat, and to raise a new army to defend the French forces left in Prussia and Austria. Caulaincourt advised him to go.58 On November 6 word came that Claude-François de Malet, a general in the French Army, had overthrown the French government on October 22, and had won the support of prominent individuals, but had been deposed and shot (October 29). Napoleon resolved to go.

As the retreat progressed the weather worsened. Snow fell on October 29; soon it would form a permanent cover, beautiful and blinding, turning, in the cold of the night, to ice on which many dray horses slipped and fell. Some were too exhausted to rise again, and had to be abandoned; farther on the march such victims were eaten by starving troops. Most officers kept their mounts alive by care and covering. The Emperor rode part of the time in his carriage with Marshal Berthier, but two or three times a day, or more often, according to Méneval, he walked with the rest.59

On November 13 the army, now reduced to a total of fifty thousand men, began to enter Smolensk. They were furious on finding that most of the food and clothing which Napoleon had ordered had been lost through Cossack raids and local peculation; so a thousand oxen marked for the army had been sold to merchants, who had resold them to any buyer.60 The warriors fought for the remaining supplies, and took by force whatever they could lay their hands on in the markets.

Napoleon had hoped to give his men a long rest at Smolensk, but word came that Kutuzov was approaching with 80,000 Russians who were no longer willing to retreat. Against them Napoleon could find only some 25,000 of his men who were fit to fight.61 On November 14 he led part of his forces out on the road to Krasnoe, by a different route to Vilna than the one they had taken in the summer. Davout was to follow on the 15th, Ney on the 16th. The road was hilly and covered with ice; the horses, not properly shod for a Russian winter, slipped back on the hills; after several such defeats hundreds of them resisted all efforts to get them up, and accepted death as one of life’s mercies; and many of the men took the same exit. “All along our way,” one veteran recalled, “we were forced to step over the dead or dying.”62 In descending those icy hills no one dared to ride, or even to walk; all, including the Emperor, took them sitting down, as a few of them had done in crossing the Alps to Marengo twelve years before. These were days that counted for years in the aging of master and men. It was apparently at this point that Napoleon persuaded Dr. Yvan to give him a vial of poison to carry with him in case he should be captured or for some other reason might wish to end his life.

They reached Krasnoe on November 15, but could not rest; Kutuzov was approaching with an overwhelming force; Napoleon bade his men to march on to Orsha. Eugène led the way, fighting off desultory bands; the Emperor and Davout followed. They reached Orsha after three more days of marching on the ice; and there they waited anxiously for Ney to bring up the third part of the French forces.

Ney was the bright star of the army at this time, as he had been at Borodino. As commander of the rear guard he had led his seven thousand men through a dozen battles to protect the retreat from attacks by Kutuzov’s raiders. He and his division entered Smolensk late on November 15, and were shocked to discover that so little food had been left there by the departed divisions under Napoleon and Davout. They managed to survive, and hurried on to Krasnoe. There they found not Napoleon as promised, but Kutuzov, blocking their way with murderous barrages of artillery. Under cover of the night (November 18–19) Ney guided his troops along a frozen stream to the River Dnieper, crossed it at some loss in men and horses, and fought his way through Cossacks and over frozen marshes to reach Orsha on November 20. There Napoleon and the waiting divisions welcomed the famished heroes with praise and food. Napoleon embraced Ney, called him “the bravest of the brave,” and later said: “I have four hundred million in gold in the cellars of the Tuileries; I would gladly have given all of it to see Marshal Ney again.”63

To distance Kutuzov’s slower masses the French hurried on through four days’ march to face their next hurdle, the River Berezina. When they reached it (November 25) they found that General Chichagov had come up from the south with 24,000 men, and that another Russian force, 34,000 strong, under Marshal Ludwig Wittgenstein, was hurrying down from the north to catch the French between two fires just when they were in such disorder that their leaders despaired of saving them from destruction.

Not all the news was bad. Napoleon soon learned that two friendly forces had come to help him. A division of Poles under General Jan Henryk Dombrowski, though outnumbered three to one, had challenged Chichagov and delayed the Russian advance; and on November 23 a French force of 8,000 men under Marshal Oudinot had surprised Chichagov, captured one of his battalions, and driven the remainder in flight across a bridge at Borisov to the right, or western, bank of the southward-flowing Berezina. The Russians, however, had destroyed the bridge, the only one that spanned the river in that locality.

News of these operations reached Napoleon as his weary host—now 25,000 soldiers and 24,000 noncombatants—neared the stream which, they hoped, would deter Kutuzov’s further pursuit. He too had lost men, by desertion, illness, or death; only 27,000 remained of the 97,000 that had started with him from Kaluga; and now they were forty miles behind Napoleon’s rear guard. There was still time to cross the river if it could be crossed.

Regaining hope, Napoleon sent a detachment under Marshal Victor to go north and stop Wittgenstein, and another under Ney to join Oudinot in preventing Chichagov from recrossing the river. Ever since crossing the Niemen, Napoleon had kept, as part of his staff, the engineers who had built the bridges there in June; now he asked them to find a spot on the Berezina over which they could raise two pontoon bridges. They found such a spot at Studenki, nine miles north of Borisov. They and their assistants worked through two days in the freezing waters. Ice floes battered them, and several of them were drowned; but by one o’clock on the afternoon of the 26th one bridge was ready, and the army began to pass over it; by four o’clock another bridge was carrying over artillery and other heavy loads. Napoleon and his generals waited till most of the soldiers had reached the west bank; then they crossed over, leaving a force under Victor to protect some 8,000 noncombatants who had still to cross. Before that final operation could succeed, the Russians concerted an attack along both sides of the river; they were repulsed by Victor, Oudinot, and Ney. Napoleon organized the crossing and the resistance as well as he could in the confusion of thousands of men struggling to survive. Twice a bridge broke down; hundreds were drowned; meanwhile Wittgenstein’s artillery rained cannon shot upon the final thousands crowding to cross. On November 29, to delay pursuit of his men by the forces of Wittgenstein and the arriving Kutuzov, Napoleon ordered his sappers to destroy both bridges, leaving hundreds of noncombatants still pleading for a chance to cross. All in all, the escape across the Berezina was the most heroic episode in six months of costly fantasies and miscalculations by one of the greatest generals in history.

The tragedy continued as the survivors resumed their westward march. The temperature again fell below the freezing point, but this had one advantage—it allowed travel over frozen marshes, shortening the distance to Vilna. Fear of Cossacks and hostile peasants having subsided, deserters multiplied, and discipline disappeared.

Napoleon saw that he was now of little use to the remnant. He listened agreeably to Murat’s advice to return to Paris lest France succumb again to revolution. At the next main stop, Molodechno, he received more details of the Malet affair. This usurper had been snuffed out, but the ease with which he had imposed upon officials indicated a lax government losing faith in a Napoleon so long absent, apparently demolished, perhaps dead. Jacobins and royalists, Fouché and Talleyrand, were plotting to depose him.

To reassert himself, and reassure the French people, he dispatched from Smorgonie, on December 5, Bulletin No. 29, which differed from its predecessors in almost telling the truth. The French, it said, had won every battle, had taken every city on their march, had ruled Moscow; however, the merciless Russian winter had ruined the great enterprise, and had inflicted pain and death upon civilized Frenchmen accustomed to a civilized climate. The bulletin admitted the loss of fifty thousand men, but it proudly told the story of Ney’s escape from Kutuzov, and presented the crossing of the Berezina in its heroic rather than its tragic aspect. The message concluded, as if in warning to his enemies: “His Majesty’s health has never been better.”

Neverthless, he was worried to the core of his pride. He told Caulaincourt, “I can hold my grip on Europe only from the Tuileries.”64 Murat, Eugène, and Davout agreed with him. He transferred his authority over the marching army to King Murat, and told him to expect provisions and reinforcements at Vilna. Late on the evening of December 5 he left Smorgonie for Paris.

The caravan, reduced to 35,000 troops, departed on the next day for Vilna, forty-six miles away. Now the temperature fell to thirty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and the wind, said a survivor, cut through flesh and bone.65 Arrived at Vilna (December 8), the famished soldiers rushed in primitive chaos upon the supplies awaiting them, and much food was lost in the confusion. They resumed their march, and on December 13, at Kovno, they crossed, 30,000 in number, the same Niemen which had seen 400,000 of them, there and at Tilsit, cross in June. At Posen, Murat, worried in his turn about his throne, resigned his command to Eugène (January 16, 1813), and hurried across Europe to Naples. Eugène, now thirty years old, young but experienced, took charge of the remnant, and led it patiently, day after day, to the banks of the Elbe, where he awaited his adoptive father’s command.

Napoleon rode from Smorgonie in the first of three carriages, each mounted on a sleigh and drawn by two horses. One of the vehicles carried friends and aides of the Emperor; another bore an escort of Polish lancers. Napoleon rode with Caulaincourt, who arranged relays of horses, and with General Wonsowicz, who acted as interpreter. To him Napoleon handed two pistols, saying, “In case of real danger kill me rather than let me be taken.”66 Fearing capture or assassination, he disguised himself by exchanging costumes with Caulaincourt. “Passing through Poland,” Caulaincourt recalled, “it was always I who was the distinguished traveler, and the Emperor was simply my secretary.”67

The ride to Paris was continuous, night and day. The longest stop was at Warsaw, where Napoleon surprised the French representative, the Abbé de Pradt, with a now proverbial remark: “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”68 He wished to make another visit—to the Countess Walewska; but Caulaincourt dissuaded him,69 perhaps reminding him that his father-in-law was also an emperor. On the ride from Warsaw to Dresden, says Caulaincourt, Napoleon “praised the Empress Marie Louise constantly, telling of his home life with a feeling and simplicity that did one good to hear.”

At Dresden Napoleon and Caulaincourt released their sleigh and their Polish escort, and transferred to the closed carriage of the French ambassador. They reached Paris late on December 18, after thirteen days of almost continuous travel. Napoleon went directly to the Tuileries, made himself known to the palace guards, and sent a message to announce him to his wife; just before midnight he “rushed to the Empress’ bedroom and clasped her in his arms.”70 He dispatched a messenger to Josephine, assuring her that her son was safe; and warmed his heart with the sight of the curlyheaded infant whom he had named the King of Rome.

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