Captain Coignet’s Purchase

These events took place in the first days of the occupation of Moscow.  Captain Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard describes how he came to purchase some furs, and later was forced to give up the best one:  “When I had fulfilled the duty which had been assigned me, I waited for the Emperor, but in vain; he did not come…  As I was crossing the square of the Kremlin, I met some soldiers loaded with fur robes and bear-skins; I stopped them, and offered to buy their furs.”

“How much is this one?”

“Forty francs.” I took it immediately, and paid him the price he asked “And this bear-skin?”

“Forty Francs.”

Frenchmen in Moscow

“Here they are.” It was a piece of luck to obtain these two things of such inestimable value to me…  The Emperor was obliged to leave his headquarters in the Faubourg during the night, and establish himself in the Kremlin, in consequence of a fire which broke out in both of the lower towns.  It must have required a great many persons to set fire to all parts of the town at the same time.  It was said that all the criminals from the prisons took part in it; each man had a street, and went from house to house, setting them on fire.  We had to escape into the squares and large gardens. Seven hundred of the incendiaries were arrested, tinder in hand, and taken to the vaults of the Kremlin.”

“The fire was made more frightful by the wind which blew the roofing of sheet-iron off the palaces and churches; all the people, as well as the troops, found themselves in the midst of the fire.  The wind was terrible; the sheets of iron were blown immense distances through the air.  There were eight hundred fire-engines in Moscow, but they had all been removed.”

“About eleven o’clock in the night we heard screams in the gardens, and, going to investigate, found that our soldiers were robbing the women of their shawls and ear-rings.  We hastened to put a stop to the pillage.  Two or three thousand women were there, with their children in their arms, looking upon the horrors of the fire, and I am sure I never saw one of them shed a tear.”

“…We were lodged in the house of a princess…  [Coignet’s] colonel had three servants of his own, and he kept them well employed…  He would go out in the evening with three servants furnished with wax tapers; he knew that the pictures in the churches were all in relief on plaques of silver, so he took them down, in order to get this silver plate; he put the saints into a crucible, and reduced them to ingots, which he sold…  He was a hard man with a face to match…”

“One evening the colonel showed us his purchases, or, rather, his stolen goods, for he was always going round with his three servants.  He showed us some beautiful fur robes made of the skins of the Siberian fox.  I had the imprudence to show him mine, and he compelled me to exchange it with him for one of the Siberian fox.  Mine was of sable, but I had to submit.  I feared his vengeance   He was rascal enough to take it from me, and sell it to Prince Murat for three thousand francs.  This robber of churches was a disgrace to the name of Frenchmen.  I saw him afterwards at Wilna, frozen to death.  God punished him.  His servants robbed his body.”

Source:

Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp. 222 – 224

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