Departing for Smolensk

In early August, Napoleon held a council with his generals at Vitebsk.  As described in Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russian: The 1812 Campaign, Napoleon wished to pursue a victory so he could bring the campaign to an end in 1812.  He was determined to go on to Smolensk and Moscow if necessary in order to force the issue with Alexander.

The generals were not comfortable with this plan, fearing they were too far into Russia already.  Napoleon dismissed them angrily saying “I have made my generals too rich.  They think only of their pleasures, of hunting, of rolling through Paris in brilliant carriages!  They have become sick of war!”

The following day, Chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, and Count Bruno Daru, Minister Secretary of State, held an eight hour meeting with Napoleon.  Daru gave his reasons for halting the advance: 8,000 horses dead so far, no fodder within thirty miles of Vitebsk itself; no forges for shoeing the cavalry, no surgical lint for the medical service, no certainty that the supply train would get through.  Without fighting a battle, the Grande Armée had lost a third of its force through desertion, disease and hunger.

But Napoleon thought he detected signs of a Russian willingness to take a stand and give him the battle he wanted.  At two in the morning on August 13, he headed by carriage to Smolensk where the 1st and 2nd Russian armies had joined.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Bourgogne was staying in Vitebsk for a fortnight.  He wrote that his regiment was quartered in the suburbs with a family.  In the house, the family had a vat for making beer and some of the ingredients, but no hops.  He gave the husband some money to buy hops and held the wife and daughters hostage to insure his return.  One day later, the husband returned with the hops and one of the members of the regiment, who was a brewer, made “…five barrels of excellent beer.”

When they left town on August 13 to head for Smolensk, they still had two barrels of beer left.  “…we put them under the care of Mother Dubois, our cantiniere.  The happy idea then occurred to her of staying behind and of selling the beer for her own profit to the men who were following us, while we, in the sweltering heat, were nearly dead of thirst.”

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