On December 5, 1812, Napoleon left his army to race ahead to Paris to shore up his government and begin rebuilding the army. Philippe-Paul de Ségur, Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp, was transferred to the headquarters of Marshal Murat who was now in command of the army.
The Minard map shows that the temperature dropped to -35.5 degrees Fahrenheit on the 6th and the army was now down to 12,000 men.
In Antony Brett-James book, Ségur gives his account of what happened to him the next day [December 6, 1812]: “… either because of disorder around Murat or of personal preoccupation, I lost all trace of the King’s [Murat] lodging. As this fatal day was drawing to a close, I felt exhausted by the effort of walking a dozen leagues on glistening ice and weighted down by the seventy-five pounds weight of my weapons, my uniform, and two enormous furs; so I tried to hoist myself back into the saddle. But almost immediately my horse collapsed on top of me so heavily that I was trapped underneath. Several hundred men passed by without my being able to persuade one of them to set me free. The most compassionate moved a little to one side, others stepped over my head, but most of them trampled me underfoot. Eventually a gendarme d’élite picked me up.”
“I had gone all day with nothing to eat, and I spent that night – the coldest of any – without food, in a hut open to the wind, surrounded by corpses and huddled near a dying fire.”
“… An elderly engineer general came and shared this melancholy shelter. Right in front of me he devoured some remnants of food without offering me any and I could not bring myself to ask him for a small share of the paltry meal to which he was reduced.”
“This room abutted on to a huge barn which was still standing, and during that bitterly cold night between four and five hundred men took refuge inside. At least three quarters of them froze to death, even though they had lain one on top of another round several fires. The dying had clambered over the dead in their efforts to approach a fire, and so it went on.”
“When, before daybreak, I tried to grope my way out of this dark tomb, my feet kicked into the first comers. Astonished by their taciturn impassivity, I stopped, but having tripped over another obstacle on my hands, I felt the stiff limbs and frozen faces and these explained the silence. After looking in vain for a way out, I had to climb painfully over these various heaps of corpses. The highest was near the door, and was so high that it entirely hid the exit from the barn.”
In his own book, Ségur describes the sixth as follows: “… the sky became still more terrible. The air was filled with infinitesimal ice crystals; birds fell to the earth frozen stiff. The atmosphere was absolutely still. It seemed as if everything in nature… had been bound and congealed in a universal death. Now not a word, not a murmur broke the dismal silence, silence of despair and unshed tears.”
“We drifted along in this empire of death like accursed phantoms. Only the monotonous beat of our steps, the crunch of the snow, and the feeble groans of the dying broke the vast mournful stillness. Among us was heard neither raging nor cursing, nothing that would imply a trace of warmth: we had hardly enough strength left to pray. Most of the men fell without a word of complaint, silent either from weakness or resignation; or perhaps because men only complain when they have hopes of moving someone to pity.”
“The soldiers who had been most resolute until then lost heart completely. At times the snow opened up under their feet. Even where it was solid, its ice-coated surface gave them no support, and they slipped and fell, and got up to fall again. It was as if this hostile earth refused to carry them any longer, laid snares for them in order to hamper them and retard their flight, and so deliver them up to the Russians, who were still on their trail, or to their terrible climate.”
“When exhaustion compelled them to halt a moment, the icy hand of winter fell heavily on its prey. In vain the miserable victims, feeling themselves grow numb, staggered to their feet, already without voice or feeling, and took a few steps, like automatons, their blood was freezing in their veins, like water in a brook, and showing up their hearts. Then it rushed to their heads, and the dying men reeled along as if they were drunk. Actual tears of blood oozed from their eyes, horribly inflamed and festered by loss of sleep and the smoke of campfires… They stared at the sky, at us, at the earth with a wild, frightened look in their eyes; this was their farewell to a merciless nature that was torturing them… Before long they fell to their knees, then forward on their hands. Their heads wagged stupidly from side to side for a little while, and a gasping rattle issued from their lips. Then they collapsed in the snow, on which appeared the slow-spreading stain of blackish blood – and their suffering was at an end.”
“Their comrades passed them without taking a single step out of their way, lest they should lengthen their journey by a few feet… They did not even feel pity for those who fell; for what had they lost by dying? What were they leaving? We were suffering so much!”
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 269-270
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 268 – 269