Tag Archives: Moscow

The Day of Departure

We pick up Jakob Walters’ narrative about the day he marches out of Moscow:

Withdrawal of Napoleon from Moscow
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“When we assembled in the morning, my company was 25 privates strong, and all companies were more or less of this size.  The march went forth to the right from behind the eastern side of the city, and we moved past the city on the south.  There were two bridges thrown across the river below us, and the smoke from the flames surged up behind us.  Up on the heights past the bridge to the left of the road stood a cloister in which there was a flour storeroom where everyone fetched as much as he could carry.  Beyond the bridge there was a cabbage patch where millions of cabbage heads were still standing; it pained me not to be able to take along even one of these heads, since I fully expected the utmost famine.”

The suffering on the retreat is so well known that we tend to overlook the recent suffering on the advance: heat, hunger, exhaustion.   We also hear about the plunder the army carried off from Moscow and that image overshadows what the men must have been thinking: ‘This march is going to be worse.’  Walter knows he will regret leaving those cabbage behind.

At the Kaluga Gate
Moscow, 19 October
by Faber du Faur

Faber du Faur wrote the following description to accompany his painting, “The Emperor had busied himself with preparations for our departure for a good number of days  The sick and wounded were dispatched towards Mojaisk and Smolensk, those too ill to make the journey being place in the Foundling Hospital to be cared for by the army’s medical personnel.  Dismounted cavalry, to the number of 4,000 men, were organized into four battalions.  Army corps were passed in review by the Emperor; it was the turn of the Imperial Guard and, on the 18th, that of Ney’s divisions [IIIrd Corps].  As these latter were being reviewed, news arrived that Murat had been surprised and had sustained heavy losses around Vinkovo.  The review was, it is true, completed, but, as we filed out of the Kremlin heading for our quarters in the German Quarter, we received orders to quit Moscow the following day.  Thus it was that on the 19th we set out on the march that would result in the annihilation of the entire army.  The troops were set in motion before dawn and, keeping the Young Guard and the four battalions of dismounted cavalry in the Kremlin as a rearguard under [Édouard Adolphe Casimir Joseph] Mortier, filed out of the city through the Kaluga Gate.  The streets were crowded – in fact stuffed fit to burst – as corps ran into corps.  Time after time the way was blocked by disorganized convoys, for 500 guns, 2,000 wagons, drawn by exhausted horses, and countless carts and vehicles of all types and from all nations, loaded with booty or supplies, accompanied the army and slowed it down.”

“The sun was high in the sky on this fine autumnal day when, after considerable effort, we finally reached the Kaluga Gate.  We halted here, waiting in vain for two of our guns.  These guns had got lost in the crowded streets and only re-joined us a few hours later.”


The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 59

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

Things are comfortable in Moscow, but it’s time to leave

Jakob Walter’s account of his stay in Moscow is short, but he did write about how provisions could be bought in the “German suburb” where the Württemberg corps stayed for three weeks.

“Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow.  Everyone tried to dress as much as possible with silks and materials of all colors.  Only tailors were lacking; silks, muslins, and red Morocco leather were all abundant.  Things to eat were not wanting either.  Whoever could find nothing could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields.  Particularly was there an abundance of beets, which were as round and large as bowling balls and fiery red throughout.  There were masses of cabbage three and four times as large in size as cabbage heads that we would consider large.  The district called Muscovy is more favored in agriculture and climate, and more civilized than the regions toward St. Petersburg than those through which we had come.  It was still good weather, and one could steep warm enough under a coat at night.”

Negotiations for a Russian surrender had not gone according to plan and Napoleon decided to leave Moscow and head west in search of winter quarters.  Walter describes the evacuation: “After we had been citizens of Moscow for four weeks, we lost our burgher rights again.  Napoleon refused the peace treaty proposed to him, and the army which had advanced some thirty hours’ farther on had to retreat, because the Russian army stationed in Moldavia was approaching.  Now it was October 17, and Napoleon held an army review and announced the departure for October 18, early in the morning at 3 o’clock, with the warning that whoever should delay one hour would fall into the hands of the enemies.  All beer, brandy, etc., was abandoned and whatever was still intact was ordered to be burned.  Napoleon himself had the Kremlin undermined and blown up. [Note: The Kremlin was not blown up]  The morning came, and each took his privilege of citizenship upon his shoulders and covered it with his coat cape of strong woolen cloth, and everybody had bread pouches of red Morocco leather at his side, all had an odd appearance as they set out; they filled, as far as it was possible, everything with sugar and the so-called Moscow tea in order to withstand the future misery.”

The Grande Armée did not actually leave Moscow until the 19th.  Perhaps Walter had his dates wrong or merely remembered the original plan for departure.


The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 57 – 59

The Kremlin

Faber du Faur captured an image from one of his last days in Moscow as preparations for departure were being made.

In the Kremlin, Moscow
17 October
by Faber du Faur

In the Kremlin, Moscow, 17 October
“Moscow boasts hundreds of churches, resplendent with gold, silver and brightly coloured, shimmering domes, earning for its city, the ancient capital of the Czars, the title of the City of the Golden Cupolas.  It is an astonishing sight, the only one of its kind, perhaps, in the entire world.  The city is a wonder to behold in the sunlight, particularly as you emerge from the forests to the west of Moscow, on the Mojaisk road.”

“In October 1812 the square to the east of the church was covered with hundreds of French and Allied caissons which, owing to the lack of draught horses, had been deposited within the Kremlin’s walls.  The square was so congested that it was in fact rather difficult to find a suitable position from which to draw.”

“The caissons were abandoned when we commenced our retreat and gunpowder from them was later used for blasting mine galleries beneath the Kremlin.”

Horses in the Assumption Cathedral

The cathedral on the right in the above painting with the silver domes is the Cathedral of the Assumption.  Faur included the following description giving the hundreds of years worth of history (even in 1812).  Contrast that with the images on the left.  “The Cathedral of the Assumption was founded in 1325 by Peter, Metropolitan of Kiev,

French in the
Assumption Cathedral
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

and was completed in 1327.  Struck by lightning in 1492, it was rebuilt in 1519 by Grand Duke Ivan Ivanovitch.  The interior was decorated by gold-leaf frescos commissioned by Czar Ivan Feodorovitch in 1692, and Catherine II restored the Church in 1773.”

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

Commemorative card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

Contrasting Views in Moscow

In reading the eyewitness accounts of the occupation of Moscow, it is sometimes a study in contrast.  Compare the two paintings of peaceful scenes with well dressed soldiers to the description at the end by an author of a book published in 1914.  First, two paintings by Faber du Faur, both dated 11 October, with his accompanying descriptions:

In the Vicinity of Lafertovskaja Sloboda, Moscow, 11 October

In the Vicinity of
Lafertovskaja Sloboda
by Faber du Faur

“If you stand on the left bank of the Jausa, between the Military Academy and the Church of the Old Believers, with your back to the latter, you look out towards the Soltikov bridge and the road which runs between the German Quarter and the Vladimir Gate.  The banks of the river are tree-lined, and these trees partially obscure the Military Hospital and the Lafertovskaja suburb.  To the left can be seen a group of buildings occupied by Imperial Quarters and a number of the 25th Division’s officers.”

Moscow, 11 October

Moscow, 11 October
by Faber du Faur

“There was a particularly beautiful church, a little distance from the German Quarter, in the direction of the Kremlin.  It was remarkable chiefly on account of its multitude of bell-towers and had, by and large, escaped the flames, standing out from the desolation that surrounded it.  It took us some time to learn the name of the street, and the identity of the saint to whom this richly coloured church was consecrated.  There were too few inhabitants around to ask, and those that remained would flee as soon as they caught sight of us.  The street itself was so littered with debris that it was impossible to get from one end to the other.”

“Finally, by dint of persistence, I learned that the street was called Basmannaya and that the church was under the protection of Saint Nicetas.”

Here is a passage from Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812 by Dr. Achilles Rose:  “All eye-witnesses speak of the extreme destitution of the soldiers in regard to clothing after one month’s stay in Moscow.  Already at this time, even before the most terrible and final trials of the retreat which awaited them, one had to consider them lost.  When they first took to woman’s clothes or shoes or hats it was considered an amusement, a joke, but very soon a mantilla, a soutane, a veil became a precious object…”

“At first Napoleon reviewed the regiments near the ponds of the Kremlin, and at first reviews the troops marched proudly, briskly, with firm step, but soon they began to fail with astonishing rapidity.  They answered the roll of the drums calling them together, clad in dirty rags and with torn shoes, in fast diminishing numbers.  During the last weeks of their stay in Moscow many had reached the last stage of misery, after having wandered through the streets looking for a little bit of nourishment, dressed up as for a carnival, but without desire to dance, as one remarked in grim humor.”

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, Edited and translated by Jonathan North

Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812, by Achilles Rose, p. 34



An Idyllic Scene of Moscow

Faber du Faur managed to find a number of peaceful scenes to record as we shall see in today’s post and in the days to come.

The Church of the Old Believers,
Moscow, 3 October
by Faber du Faur

“III Corps’ artillery were quartered in the Military Academy, a building in the Laftertovskaja district on the left bank of the Jausa by the Soltikov bridge, throughout our stay in Moscow.”

“The surrounding area was magnificent, covered in trees and presenting a delightful appearance.  Exploring the area, we came across a beautiful church, hidden in a charming clump of trees.  It was a most dazzling sight: its cupolas were blue and speckled with golden stars and towered forth over the brilliant masses of autumnal leaves.  This was the Church of the Old Believers, although I was unable to discover whether it was actually frequented by Old Believers or whether it was just named after them.”


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

Scenes of Moscow

Faber du Faur’s scene dated October 2nd reflects for the first time that the weather is getting colder as evidenced by the great coat on the sentry and the accompanying description.

Guarding III Corps’ Artillery Park,
By the Vladimir Gate, Moscow, 2 October
by Faber du Faur

“III Corps’ artillery park was situated by the Vladimir Gate and was guarded by Württemberg, French and Dutch troops.  Soon, however, the position was deemed vulnerable and the park was relocated in a square, with sentries being lodged in a merchant’s house close by.  The rest of III Corps’ artillery were quartered a short distance from the park.”

“Here we see the park’s sentries a their posts.  Cold nights and mornings had already led to the troops’ adopting some strange costumes: one of the sentries, a Dutch gunner, keeps out the cold with a fur cap, warms his hands in a muff and, under his greatcoat, sports a nightgown.  Such precautions were but the prelude to the universal adoption of attempts to keep out the cold.”


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

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