As the rearguard for the Grande Armée, Ney‘s IIIrd Corps was the last to leave Smolensk. They had orders to blow up the walls of the city as they left. There was plenty of powder in the city for this task, but the effect was minimal. Marshal Davout had sent back a messenger to warn Ney of the Russians across the road, but Ney dismissed it saying something to the effect that all the Cossacks in the world wouldn’t bother him.
Davout’s corps had barely made it through to Krasnoe and now it was Ney’s turn to run the gauntlet. Ney left Smolensk on the morning of the 17th with 6,000 soldiers and thousands of camp-followers and stragglers. On the afternoon of the 18th, his lead troops came under fire through a heavy mist. The Russians had placed artillery across the road and along each side. To a request for surrender, Ney replied “A Marshal of France does not surrender.”
Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and de Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this: Ney tried to force his way through for five hours before taking a different approach. Leaving his camp fires burning, his army slipped away to the north toward the Dnieper river. Becoming disoriented in the dark, Ney had the ice of a stream broken so they could tell which direction the water flowed and follow it to the Dnieper. They reached the river around midnight, but found that the ice was not strong enough to support the crossing. Ney had the column sit and rest for three hours to allow the ice to harden. Any remaining wagons and artillery along with the sick and wounded were left on the bank. A fire was set on the far bank to guide any stragglers and the column moved on.
In the morning, Cossacks found the survivors and a running battle ensued. At nightfall, the IIIrd Corps occupied a town and set it on fire for warmth before slipping away again. In the meanwhile, an officer had been sent ahead on horseback to Orsha to alert the army of Ney’s situation. All that day they fought their way forward. Anyone who could not keep up was lost. As night approached on the 21st, Ney’s men could hear a signal gun being fired by Eugène’s corps and responded with volley fire. The two groups advanced toward each other and had a joyous reunion.
While Ney only had 900 men under arms remaining and had lost all of the stragglers, news of his safe return to the army lifted the spirits of everyone. Napoleon was overjoyed and bestowed on Ney the title “Bravest of the Brave.”