Category Archives: The Occupation of Moscow

Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812

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.”


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

Eugène: Napoleon’s True Son

Today’s post is by a guest blogger, Alice Shepperson.  Alice read my earlier blog post about the portrait of the King of Rome and wondered how Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s step-son and adopted son felt about the situation.  Alice and I exchanged a few emails and she agreed to put her Cambridge history degree to work and the result is this post on the relationship between Napoleon and Eugène.

Without further delay, here is Alice’s post:


Legend has it that Eugène de Beauharnais first met Napoleon when he was 15. He had come to the office of the commander of the Convention’s

Eugène de Beauharnais

troops in order to beg the return of his father’s sword, which had been confiscated, along with all other weapons in Paris. General Alexandre de Beauharnais had been executed the previous summer during the Terror, and Eugène was anxious to secure the return of this keepsake. Impressed by his courage, General Bonaparte returned the sword and invited the young man to visit him again. When he did so, his mother Josephine tagged along, and the rest is history.

Although Eugène recalled in his memoirs that “I have never been able to forget the agony I endured when I realized that my mother had made up her mind to marry again,” he quickly formed a very close attachment to his new step-father who he was anxious to please. Eugène wished to be a soldier, so in 1797 Napoleon took him to Italy as his aide-de-camp and then to Egypt the following year. Eugène was quick to prove himself. After the battle of Marengo, Napoleon wrote to Josephine that, “…your son is making rapid strides on the road to immortality. He has covered himself in glory in all the battles in Italy.”

Though not perhaps an outstanding military genius, Eugène proved

himself brave, hard working, reliable and loyal, and became thoroughly proficient in military strategy and logistics – talents which Napoleon found ample use for.  A steady stream of promotions followed: he was colonel by the age of 22 and a general two years later. In addition to military rank, be became a prince of the French Empire in 1804 and Viceroy of Italy in 1805.

Eugène later earned the epithet “The Bayard of the century, without fear and without reproach” (a title which unfortunately lacks punch unless you know of the exploits of the Chevalier de Bayard (1473–1524)). In addition to his physical bravery, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Eugène’s character was his spotless honour. In an imperial court where Bonaparte’s family were continually conspiring to secure advancement and political gain, it was a blessing to Napoleon to have one person who was, as Madame Remusat described Eugène, “simple and frank, light-hearted and open in all his dealings, displaying no ambition, holding himself aloof from every intrigue, and doing his duty wherever he was placed”.

The Russia Campaign

Napoleon in 1812

By 1812, Eugène was an experienced soldier, having led the Army of Italy since the Wagram campaign of 1809. Napoleon had formally adopted Eugène in 1806 and their relationship had survived the divorce of the Empress; in fact when Eugène had suggested following his mother into retirement, the Emperor had replied “Do you want to leave me, then, Eugene? You  . . . ah! …Supposing I have a son… who will take my place by his side when I am absent? Who would be a father to him if I died? Who would make a man of him?” Though the birth of the “Eaglet” in 1811 had distanced the Emperor a little from his first son, the bond remained strong.

In the Russian campaign, Eugène once more commanded the Army of Italy. He wrote frequent letters home to his wife, Princess Augusta of Bavaria, who was pregnant with their fourth child. On July 6th, he writes from Vilna that “Yesterday the Emperor asked me a great many questions about you. I begged him to allow me to call our next little darling after him, if it should be a boy. He replied, ‘Yes, gladly.'” Luckily, the child turned out to be a girl.

HQ on 9 July 1812
by Albrecht Adam
Adam served on Eugène’s staff

Eugène commanded the left wing of the army at the Battle of Borodino on the 7th September and entered Moscow with the rest of the army on the 14th September. On the 18th, he writes to Augusta “This city is almost entirely in ashes… The Russians have been guilty of the utmost barbarity in thus ruining 300,000 inhabitants and 600 of the greatest seigneurs in Russia, in order to prevent us obtaining possession of their flour, wine, furs and cattle… From 8 to 10,000 inhabitants remained in the town; they are now naked, starving, without a roof over their heads… it is awful!”

During the army’s stay in Moscow, Eugène was often at the Emperor’s side. They played vingt-et-un to pass the time, but found few other amusements in the city, “not even a billiard table”. Things got so dull that the Emperor asked Eugène to have a particular troop of singers sent up from Italy, though it quickly became apparent that this would be impossible. There was however, time for shopping. On the 28th September, he writes to Augusta that “The courier has started with the furs and a small store of tea; he will arrive in time, I hope, for your first soiree when tea will take the place of ices. Here we shall have more ice than tea, and everybody is getting out their fur coats in consequence; as for me, I shall wrap myself up in fur from top to toe.” Eugène’s Italian troops felt the cold even more keenly than the French, being unused to cold winters.

It would be on the retreat from Moscow that Eugène would show his true worth, distinguishing himself in the rearguard actions at Malojaroslawitz and Borowsk, and doing perhaps more than any other general to maintain the coherence and morale of the frozen columns of men. By December, it would be Eugène who shepherded the last survivors of the Grande Armée back across the Nieman.


Napoleon and His Adopted Son Eugene de Beauharnais by V. M. Montagu

The Memoirs of the Empress Josephine by Madame de Remusat, written between 1818 and 1821.

Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce.


Be sure to visit Alice’s blog Noon Observation, where her razor wit and keen observations are on display. ~ Scott Armstrong

The Paintings of Albrecht Adam

Albrecht Adam (1786 – 1862) was a civilian artist who accompanied Napoleon’s army all the way to Moscow, but had the good fortune to leave before the retreat began.  Adam was a German who met Napoleon’s step-son/adopted son Prince Eugene de Beauharnais in 1809 who took him into his household in Italy as his court painter.  In 1812, he was attached to the Prince’s topographical bureau with IV Corps.  Because he left for home on September 24, 1812, his paintings only cover the advance into Russia.

I will post the last two paintings he made of the campaign here along with their accompanying text from Napoleon’s Army in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812, edited by Jonathan North.

Moscow, 22 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

22 September 1812, Moscow
The violence of the fire which engulfed Moscow was matched by the ferocity of the French soldiers as they watched the destruction.  But the army of camp-followers, servants, sutlers and so on which follows in the wake of any army, committed its fair share towards the sacking of the city.  Horses, vehicles, furniture, tools, paintings, works of art, and all manner of other objects which were of no immediate need to anyone, all were seized and dragged into courtyards or onto street-corners and sold off.  Most of the looters were drunk and this meant that they frequently fell to quarreling over their booty, resulting in bloody and battered faces.”

“It had been an army previously distinguished by its fine martial bearing and its appearance, its love of order, sentiments of heroism and honour.  Now, it was revolting to behold and it was a sight which convinced me that I should now return to my homeland and no longer play the witness to inevitable ruin.  Firm in my resolve, I prepared to set off, deaf to those who warned me of the dangers of such a journey, not so that I might avoid the deplorable fate of the army but that I might escape the effects such disgusting scenes were having upon me.”

22 September 1812
Napoleon in Burning Moscow
by Albrecht Adam

22 September 1812, Moscow
“Here is the man who shaped the events which so characterized an age so unforgettable to those who lived through it.  A hero who, at the head of a valiant army, threatened to overthrow the governments of Europe and overturn the continent’s thrones.  But a hero who, in the ash of Moscow, met the end of his glorious career.  And at what cost was the effort to end the gigantic march of this man made?  Only an enormous sacrifice for Russia won victory.”

“No image can truly capture the terrible scene of burning Moscow, only those who saw the city prey to flames can recall the horror which so gripped the soul. Here I have placed a portrait of the hero of the age before the smoldering ruins of Moscow as they menace him with cries of ‘Here your career shall end!'”

Moscow, 24 September

Faber du Faur painted a scene of the aftermath of the fire in Moscow accompanied by this description:  “On the 14th our troops had made their way over the heights before Moscow.  From there they looked down on the thousand golden domes of the magnificent city of the Czars. In the centre of the city we could see the Kremlin.  The city was shrouded in silence; a mute canvas lay before us.  No smoke rose from the city’s chimneys, no curious inhabitants came to stare at the victorious foreigners, no deputation came to implore mercy from the vanquishers.  Moscow, just like Smolensk, Dorogobouye, Viasma and the others before it, had been abandoned by its inhabitants and Murat, with his cavalry corps, trailing the Russian rearguard through the city’s streets, heard noting bu the echo of his horses’ hooves.”

Moscow, 24 September
by Faber du Faur
Note the melted copper roof
in the middle and the body
near the soldiers

“Our arrival was the signal for the fire.  On the night of the 14th to 15th the Russians set fire to a number of areas but seemed to concentrate on the shops in the Chinese quarter.  Despite every effort to put out the conflagration, the fire raged until the 19th, and on the 20th the catastrophe was complete.  Two-thirds of the city’s buildings were now nothing more than heaps of ashes.  Moscow became the grave of our every hope.  There was an odious and penetrating smell of burning infecting the air; tracts of land contained nothing more than rubble and ashes, collapsed roofs and corpses.  Few areas had escaped from the fire and perhaps only the Kremlin, and a handful of suburbs, along with a number of palaces, churches and monasteries, had been spared and served as oases in this desert of ash.”

“Here and there groups of unfortunate inhabitants could be seen wandering in the grim labyrinth, hoping to discover that some part of their home had escaped destruction or to dig up some miserable food in order to prolong their unhappy existence.  Our troops were everywhere, hoping to discover some trophy and, like children, satisfy their greed with some bauble, only to discard it as soon as they came across some other novelty.  Few – too few – took the opportunity to prepare themselves for the encroaching Russian winter.  That which was valuable or useful was soon squandered, and order was only restored when it was too late, detachments being sent into the city with specific orders to procure necessities and supplies.”


With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Faber du Faur, 1812, Jonathan North

Scenes of Moscow by Albrecht Adam

Albrecht Adam was a civilian attached to the topographical staff of Prince Eugène, commander of IV Corps and Napoleon’s step/adopted son.  Today’s post shows three paintings he dated 20 September 1812 along with their accompanying description.

The French Army Before Moscow
20 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

The French Army Before Moscow
“Here was the army camped a few miles before Moscow, so hopeful that the trials and tribulations were now at an end and that respite awaited them in the capital.  This camp was perhaps the last one the French army would enjoy and it is characterised by its military bearing.  Despite being exhausted, weakened by forced marches and reduced to half of its effectives by combat, it was still a great army commanded by a great captain and one which had braved all the obstacles the Russian terrain and climate could present.  But once it reached Moscow its fate was sealed.  Looking at this scene, which of us cannot prevent the sad reflection from escaping his lips that ‘those legions of heroes no longer exist'”

20 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

“On this day large parts of Moscow were nothing more than smouldering ruins.  The dye was cast, fortune was reversed and here it was that providence put an end to the glories hitherto enjoyed by the French army.”

“The soldiers were depressed having to deal with nothing but woe and were prey to dark presentiments.  Having been exhausted by forced marches, afflicted by all manner of privation and particularly by the lack of food, and deprived of clothing which might resist the rigours of bad weather, very few of them were in any condition to even consider what lay in store for them.  Soon they would succumb, unfortunates, to the terrible storm which would be unleashed upon them.”

“On 20 and 21 September elements of the army began to move into the city from Peterskoi where Napoleon had stayed whilst the fire ravaged the city.  A few sentries were posted here and there among the smoking cinders, all that remained of this fine imperial city, whilst bands of unfortunate men sought shelter in vain.  Others, motivated by abject want, searched high and low for food but there were also others, inspired by greed, who sought to acquire booty even though it could little benefit them in such desperate circumstances.  Everyone was in a state of confused desperation and none really knew what they were looking for.”

20 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

“The effect the destruction of Moscow had on individual soldiers was, of course, diverse, and it offered an attentive observer a rich variety of subjects to study.  On the whole, the vast majority were overcome by discouragement, partly induced by the long ordeal they had been through and by the fact that they had seen all their hopes for a better future, and for an end to their sufferings, go up in smoke.”

“Some of the more reflective soldiers were absorbed by sombre contemplation of what might now come to pass.  Those of a more insensitive nature allowed themselves the liberty to do as they pleased and to profit from the opportunity.  Discipline, so vital for the working of such a vast host, was gone and violence and selfishness overcame order.  True, a mass of provisions had been found in Moscow but the disorder which reigned in the city put paid to any attempt to distribute such supplies fairly.  Everyone, by guile or by force, sought to get his hands on anything which might prove useful.”

“So it was that one day, whilst passing through the ruins, I came across a body of drunken cavalrymen dragging along with them whatever they could carry and shouting at teach other to hurry up.  One of them was riding a horse carrying a basket loaded with bottles and supplies.  He was so completely drunk that he tottered this way and that until his horse made a sharp movement, sending the man sprawling on the floor along with his booty.  His comrades laughed heartily, drunk as they were, at the scene.”


Napoleon’s Army in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

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.”


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

Moscow Burns

In Alan Palmer’s book: Napoleon in Russia, he recounts how General Philippe Paul de Ségur entered Moscow to prepare the Kremlin to receive Napoleon.  He tried to sleep in an armchair, but around midnight, got up and looked out a window and saw: “Some distance away, in whatever direction I looked, there were flames leaping up.”

Moscow Burning

Sergeant Bourgogne with the Imperial Guard was with some of the first troops to enter the city.  In order to prevent looting, they were not allowed to leave the Kremlin square when dismissed.  Bourgogne said: “We went to the houses in the square to ask for food and drink, but as we found nobody in them we helped ourselves.”  The same thing was going on all over Moscow.

Shooting Arsonists
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

The commander of the Guard sent Bourgogne and his men off in search of pumps and hoses to fight the flames (they had all been destroyed by the Russians).  Men with torches were passing them by, but they were allowed to pass unchallenged.  His patrol eventually did round up some incendiaries, but Bourgogne himself allowed three to escape.

Russian Incendiaries

One of the escapes happened in this way:  Bourgogne’s men had rounded up 32 prisoners and he was in command of the rear guard.  As they went, he noticed one crying like a child, and saying repeatedly “Mon Dieu! I have lost my wife and son in the fire!”

The man turned out to be from Switzerland and had been working as a French and German tutor in Moscow.  Bourgogne felt sorry for the man and offered to help him look for his family.  The man recognized his house by the large stove standing in the burned wreckage.  The column stopped at this time due to the street being blocked by flames.  The man soon found his wife and son, both dead in the cellar of the house.

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Image and translation of commemorative 1912 Russian candy box card provided by Alexey Temnikov

The French are Coming! Hide the Furniture!

This account is from a woman who worked in a prince’s house in Moscow.  Just prior to the arrival of the French, they had the idea of dividing a “…store-room with a stone wall, seeing that we had our own stove-makers and that bricks for the alteration were lying in the yard.  The wall was begun, and all the family’s trunks, boxes of crockery, linen, and different things – everything imaginable! – were dragged there.  All our belongings were put on tip, and the wall rose higher and higher.  From above they had already started to throw feather beds and pillows from the whole house.  when the wall was finished, all but the last two feet, a man we knew suddenly looked into our store-room from the neighbouring yard and began to entreat us to let him hide his property there as well.  All kinds of trash was brought.  It wouldn’t have been worth hiding, but you know nobody wants to part with his own, and you have to help people in trouble.”

“The wall was built up to its full height and partly plastered, otherwise it would have been as clear as daylight to anybody that it was new.  They dragged all the shabbier stuff to the front of the store-room and crammed it full.  ‘Smash it, carry it off, if you like.  You won’t get very rich on it, you cursed Frenchmen.'”

Major Jean-François Boulart, Major of the Guard Artillery,  had this discovery at the house he occupied in Moscow: “We had no linen and very little crockery, but at the servant’s suggestion I had a hole made in a freshly plastered wall and behind it we found prodigious quantities of china, glasses, kitchen utensils, vinegar and mustard, the best China tea and some table linen.  In another corner, also walled up, I found a fine library.  I shared my riches with my comrades and even some generals.  My house became the meeting place for those less fortunate than ourselves who loved good meat and wine.  Yet the days passed drearily.  We had no other sources of distraction then our libraries, and no one is really tempted to read books who has such reasons for disquietude as we had.”

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia; Antony Brett-James, p. 151

1812: Napoleon in Moscow; Paul Britten Austin, p. 81


Arriving at the Walls of Moscow

Napoleon Near Moscow
by Valili Vereshchagin

On the 14th of September, 1812, Napoleon’s army arrived at the gates of their destination: Moscow.  Sergeant Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard recorded his impressions in his memoirs: “At one o’clock in the afternoon of September 14th, after passing through a great forest, we saw a hill some way off, and half an hour afterwards part of the army reached the highest point, signaling to us who were behind, and shouting ‘Moscow! Moscow!’  It was indeed the great city; there we should rest after all our labours, for we of the Imperial Guard had marched more than twelve hundred leagues without resting.”
It was a beautiful summer’s day; the sun was reflected on all the domes, spires, and gilded palaces.  Many capitals I have seen – such as Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, and Madrid – had only produced an ordinary impression on me.  But this was quite different; the effect was to me – in fact, to everyone – magical.”

The Arrival at Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Jakob Walter describes his approach and entry into the city (probably on the 15th): “On the march into the city or rather on the march toward it, from a hill in a forest an hour and a half away, we saw the huge city lying before us.  Clouds of fire, red smoke, great gilded crosses of the church towers glittered, shimmered, and billowed up toward us from the city.  This holy city was like the desecration of the city of Jerusalem… Farther inward toward the city was a wide plain… As we marched through, I observed as much as I could: there were broad streets, long straight alleys, tall buildings massively built of brick, church towers with burned roofs and half-melted bells, and copper roofs which had rolled from the buildings; everything was uninhabited and uninhabitable.”

All Struggling Forward in the Same Direction

Faber du Faur’s unit was given three days rest after the battle of Valutino-Gora.  But once camp was broken, conditions became harsh and du Faur’s description of them is almost the same as Jakob Walter’s during the same period.

Here is du Faur’s description which accompanies his painting: “After our three-day halt at Valutina-Gora, we broke camp on the 23rd and followed the Russian army, making arduous marches along the main road and braving the heat and enormous clouds of dust, and being jostled by swarms of other troops all struggling forward in the same direction.”

Between Dorogobouye and Slavkovo, 27 August
by Faber du Faur
Note the weary expressions on the men around the fire and the oriental look of the building in the background

“Thus it was that, in the afternoon of the 26th, we reached Dorogobouye on the left bank of the Dnepr; this town was, like Smolensk and so many others, the victim of flames and was soon reduced to ashes.  We only remained here a few hours, and camped a few miles further on, continuing our march, on the 27th, towards Viasma.  Swarms of stragglers, who either could not keep up or who were charged with obtaining food, milled about and bore stark witness to the disorder besetting the army.  The disappearance of the Jews and the oriental appearance of the architecture indicated that we were now gracing the soil of ancient Muscovy.”