This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here.
Unlike other cities he had conquered, Moscow sent no delegation of citizens to greet Napoleon. No crowds of common folk waited to hail him as a deliverer, as had happened in other places. Napoleon met no one, for scarcely anyone was left in the city. After receiving the news that Kutuzov would not defend Moscow, her people— about 200,000 of them, the rich and poor, the high placed and the lowly—had gathered what they could of their possessions and fled. It was an empty, silent city into which Napoleon made his triumphant entry on September 16, 1812.
That day, the emperor of the French took up his quarters in the Kremlin, the ancient abode of the tsar of the Russians. From its windows, he could look out on the strangely beautiful city, so different from any other city in Europe. It was a city of wooden tenements and elaborate palaces, of “modern” 18th-century structures alongside fanciful churches that seemed like visions of fairyland. It was the legendary capital of that strange oriental land, Russia, and it now belonged to Napoleon I, Emperor of the French!
But, that night of September 16, Napoleon’s wonder and pride turned to foreboding and dismay. From those same Kremlin windows he now saw flames arising in different sectors of the city. Soon he learned that these were not isolated fires; as night gave way to day, it became clear that fire was rapidly laying waste to the wooden structures of the poor as well as the stately palaces of the rich.
All of Moscow was burning.
Napoleon gave way to rage. It hardly seemed possible that so great a fire could have been started by chance; but was it possible that the Russians themselves would have given their beloved capital over to such horrible destruction? Were they destroying it, as they had their villages and fields all along the road from Smolensk? “These are Scythians, indeed!” cried Napoleon. “Moscow no longer exists, the Russians are burning it themselves. What a people!”
When Tsar Aleksandr heard of the burning of Moscow, he burst into tears and swore he would never, never surrender to the barbarous French. If his army were destroyed, said the tsar, he would lead the common people of Russia against the enemy. He would not “subscribe to the shame of my country and my good subjects, whose self-sacrifice I know how to value. God is trying us,” he said. “Let us hope he will not leave us. Either Napoleon or I—I or Napoleon; but we cannot rule together. I have already learned his character; he will deceive me no more.”
The fires raged in Moscow for two weeks, and while they raged, the Grand Armée carried out its own destruction. Soldiers desecrated churches, stripping them of their ornaments; they dug the bones of saints from their shrines, casting them into the streets. The sanctuaries of many churches were used as stables or as places for drunken revelry. God’s human temples fared no better. The few Russians left in the city (some criminals, others just unfortunate poor) were treated with great brutality. And, though he protected one church and a hospital, Napoleon did nothing to stop the violence. Indeed, it seemed it had all passed beyond even his power to control.
And while most of Moscow was burning to a heap of ashes, autumn was moving toward winter. The destruction of the city meant the Grand Armée was without sufficient food or fuel; it could not survive the winter in the depths of Russia. Napoleon realized this and knew he had lingered in the city too long. He had to get back to his encampment on the Niemen, or all was lost.
Thus, on October 19, 1812, the great imperial army of France began its retreat from Moscow. Now only about 115,000 soldiers remained out of the over 400,000 who had crossed the Niemen only four months before. Following the army in a long train as it passed through the city gates were thousands of wagons, loaded with the spoils of Moscow.
About 550 miles lay between Moscow and safety; 550 miles of devastated fields and burned villages. No food. No supplies of warm coats or new boots. Only cold and terror. Not content that the enemy was fleeing, Kutuzov led the Russian army in pursuit of the Grand Armée. He sent out small guerilla bands to harass the long lines of the French, killing thousands of troops whose only thought now was flight. Peasants too joined in the war of vengeance—the “War of the Fatherland.” Bands of peasants fell on stragglers, torturing and killing them in the most brutal ways. Both daytime and the dark of night held unknown terrors for the desperate army of the great Napoleon Bonaparte.
November brought a new enemy against the fleeing French—the bitter cold of a Russian winter. And this winter was very cold, even by Russian standards; it was colder than any winter Russia had known for many years. Snow, ice, frigid winds that cut like bayonet thrusts through thin blue uniforms, assailed the French. They abandoned their carts loaded with booty; they collapsed on the hard road, frozen solid. Many just lay down and died. The path of the Grand Armée’s retreat was lined with the dead bodies of men and horses, broken wagons. Thousands upon thousands died horrible deaths.
On November 11, Napoleon entered Smolensk, but he remained there only three days. Before departing, he ordered that the walls and towers of the city be blown up. He now pushed on to the Berezina River, where he had ordered that supplies be gathered. When he reached that place, however, he discovered to his rage and dismay that his orders had been disobeyed. There were no supplies, and hundreds of miles still lay between him and safety. His army stretched for miles behind him, starving, harried by the enemy. Grimly, Napoleon pushed on.
The journey from the Berezina to the Niemen was the most terrible and deadly of the entire retreat. The cold was so great that men found it nearly impossible to breathe. So cold was it that even the Russians, used to the coldest winters, suffered greatly. The French now lost all discipline. Casting aside even their weapons, the men trudged on in a vast, confused mass. Finally, on December 14, they reached the Niemen and safety. But the mob that crossed the river was not the Grande Armée; Russia’s winter and her people had destroyed that once victorious army. Of the great host that had entered Russia in June, only 40,000 broken men remained.
Napoleon himself, however, did not cross the Niemen with his army. A week before, he had received some disturbing news from Paris. An abbé and a general had told the French senate that Napoleon had been killed. Ignoring the King of Rome, a new government had proclaimed a republic; and the conspirators, with 1,200 soldiers, had imprisoned the prefect of police and taken control of the Paris city government.
To save his throne and, possibly, the lives of Empress Maria Louisa and his young son, Napoleon resolved to return to the capital. Promising his commanding officers to return with 300,000 more men, Napoleon on December 6 abandoned his army. When the French finally crossed the Niemen, their emperor was already halfway to Paris.
A Russian Hymn Drives Out the Marseillaise
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his 1812 Overture in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s triumph over Napoleon. The overture opens with the melody of the Russian Orthodox hymn, Spasi Gospodi Iyudi Tvoya (“Save Thy People, O Lord…), here sung by a chorus. A fragment of La Marseillaise sounds throughout the piece — but is at last driven out by a reprise of the hymn, joined by the anthem, “God, Save the Tsar” — and repeated volleys of cannon fire.