Pillaging the Burnt City

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the scene as Napoleon returns to Moscow after having fled the flames, “The Emperor saw that his entire army was scattered over the city.  His progress was impeded by long lines of marauders going for plunder or returning with it…”

Napoleon in Burning Moscow

“He stumbled over the debris of all sorts of furniture which had been thrown out of the windows to save it from the flames, or over heaps of rich plunder that had been abandoned in favor of other loot; for soldiers are like that, snatching up anything they can lay their hands on, greedily loading themselves with more than they can hope to carry, then after a few steps finding their strength unequal to the load, dropping , piece by piece, the greater part of their booty.”

“The thoroughfares were blocked with it, and the public squares, like the camps, had become markets where the superfluous was being exchanged for the necessary.  The most precious of articles, not appreciated by their possessors, were sold for next to nothing, while other things having a deceptively rich appearance brought more than they were worth.  Gold, being easier to carry, was bought at a great loss for silver, which the knapsacks would not hold.  Soldiers were seated everywhere on bundles of merchandise on heaps of coffee and sugar, in the midst of the finest wines and liquors that they were trying to trade for bread.”

Horses in a Church

“It was through such disorder that Napoleon rode back into Moscow.  He willingly gave it over to pillage, trusting that his soldiers, scattered everywhere over the ruins, would not search them fruitlessly.  But when he saw that the disorder was increasing, that even the Old Guard was involved in it, that the Russian peasants, attracted by the prices they were able to get for their wares, were being robbed by our famished soldiers of the food they were bringing us, when he realized that all the still existing resources were being squandered by this lawless pillage — then he reined in the Guard and issued severe orders.  The churches in which our cavalry had taken shelter were evacuated and reopened for worship…”

“But it was too late!  The soldiers had disappeared, the terrified peasants never returned, and many, many supplies had been wasted.  The French army had been guilty of similar mistakes before, but in this case the fire was their excuse, as they had been compelled to act in haste to get ahead of the flames.  It is remarkable enough that order was restored at the Emperor’s first command.”

Source:

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp. 114 – 116

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