In September, 1812, a victorious Napoleon enters Moscow.
The defence of our country, of our independence and national honour, have forced me to unsheath the sword. I will not return it to the scabbard as long as a single enemy remains on the Russian territory.—Emperor Alexander.
The Burning of Moscow.
THE sight of the grotesque towers and venerable walls of the Kremlin first revived the Emperor’s imagination, and rekindled those dreams of Oriental conquest, which from his earliest years had floated in his mind. His followers, dispersed over the vast extent of the city, gazed with astonishment on the sumptuous palaces of the nobles and the gilded domes of the churches. The mixture of architectural decoration and shady foliage, of Gothic magnificence and Eastern luxury, excited the admiration of the French soldiers, more susceptible than any other people of impressions of that description. Evening came on: with increasing wonder the French troops traversed the central parts of the metropolis, recently so crowded with passengers; but not a living creature was to be seen to explain the universal desolation. It seemed like a city of the dead. Night approached; an unclouded moon illuminated those beautiful palaces—those vast hotels—those deserted streets: all was still—the silence of the tomb. The officers broke open the doors of some of the principal mansions in search of sleeping quarters. They found everything in perfect order; the bedrooms were fully furnished as if guests were expected; the drawing-rooms bore the marks of having been recently inhabited; even the work of the ladies was on the tables, the keys in the wardrobes; but not an inmate was to be seen. By degrees a few of the lowest class of slaves emerged, pale and trembling, from the cellars, showed the way to the sleeping apartments, and laid open everything which these sumptuous mansions contained; but the only account they could give was that the whole inhabitants had fled, and that they alone were left in the deserted city.
But the terrible catastrophe soon commenced. On the night of the 13th a fire broke out in the Bourse, behind the Bazaar, which soon consumed that noble edifice, and spread to a considerable part of the crowded streets in the vicinity. This, however, was but the prelude to more extended calamities. At midnight on the 15th a bright light was seen to illuminate the northern and western parts of the city; and the sentinels on watch at the Kremlin soon discerned the splendid edifices in that quarter to be in flames. The wind changed repeatedly during the night; but, to whatever quarter it veered, the conflagration extended itself: fresh fires were every instant seen breaking out in all directions; and Moscow soon exhibited the spectacle of a sea of flame agitated by the wind. The soldiers, drowned in sleep, or overcome by intoxication, were incapable of arresting its progress; and the burning fragments, floating through the hot air, began to fall on the roofs and courts of the Kremlin. The fury of an autumnal tempest added to the horrors of the scene: it seemed as if the wrath of Heaven had combined with the vengeance of man to consume the invaders in the city they had conquered.
But it was chiefly during the night of the 18th and 19th that the conflagration attained its greatest violence. At that time the whole city was wrapped in flames; and volumes of fire of various colours ascended to the heavens in many places, diffusing a prodigious light on all sides, and attended by an intolerable heat. These balloons of flame were accompanied in their ascent by a frightful hissing noise and loud explosions, the effect of the vast stores of oil, tar, resin, spirits, and other combustible materials, with which the greater part of the shops were filled. Large pieces of painted canvass, unrolled from the outside of the buildings by the violence of the heat, floated on fire in the atmosphere, and sent down on all sides a flaming shower, which spread the conflagration in quarters even the most removed from those where it originally commenced. The wind, naturally high, was raised, by the sudden rarefaction of the air produced by the heat, to a perfect hurricane. The howling of the tempest drowned even the roar of the conflagration; the whole heavens were filled with the whirl of the volumes of smoke and flame, which rose on all sides, and made midnight as bright as day;* while even the bravest hearts, subdued by the sublimity of the scene, and the feeling of human impotence in themidst of such elemental strife, sank and trembled in silence.
* “At the distance of three quarters of a league from Moscow, I could, at midnight, read the despatches which the major-general of the army addressed to me.”—Dumas, Souvenirs, iii. 450.
The return of day did not diminish the terrors of the conflagration. An immense crowd of hitherto unseen people, who had taken refuge in the cellars or vaults of the buildings, issued forth as the flames reached their dwellings: the streets were speedily filled with multitudes flying in every direction with the most precious articles of their furniture; while the French army, whose discipline this fatal event had entirely dissolved, assembled in drunken crowds, and loaded themselves with the spoils of the city. Never in modern times had such a scene been witnessed. The men were loaded with packages, charged with their most precious effects, which often took fire as they were carried along, and which they were obliged to throw down to save themselves. The women had often two or three children on their backs, and as many led by the hand, which, with trembling steps and piteous cries, sought their devious way through the labyrinth of flame. Many old men, unable to walk, were drawn on hurdles or wheelbarrows by their children and grandchildren, while their burnt beards and smoking garments showed with what difficulty they had been rescued from the flames. Often the French soldiers, tormented by hunger and thirst, and loosened from all discipline by the horrors which surrounded them, not contented with the booty in the streets, rushed headlong into the burning edifices, to ransack their cellars for the stores of wine and spirits which they contained, and beneath the ruins great numbers perished miserably, the victims of intemperance and the surrounding fire. Meanwhile the flames, fanned by the tempestuous gale, advanced with frightful rapidity, devouring alike in their course the palaces of the great, the temples of religion, and the cottages of the poor. For thirty-six hours the conflagration continued at its height, and during that time above nine-tenths of the city was destroyed. The remainder, abandoned to pillage and deserted by its inhabitants, offered no resources for the army. Moscow had been conquered; but the victors had gained only a heap of ruins.*
* It is a most extraordinary fact, that, more than four hundred years before, Moscow had undergone a similar destruction by fire from the ruthless hands of the victorious Tartars—“What words,” says the Russian historian, “can adequately paint the deplorable state to which Moscow was then reduced? That populous capital, resplendent with riches and numbers, was annihilated in a single day; there remain only smoking ruins; piles covered with ashes and drenched with blood: you see nothing but corpses and churches sacked or half devoured by the flames. Tho awful silence of death is interrupted only by the pitiable lamentations of wretches covered with wounds, a prey to all the agonies of prolonged torture.”—Singular destiny of a capital to have been twice the victim of such a catastrophe!—Karamsin, Historie de Russie, v. 101.
The Emperor long clung to the Kremlin, in the hope that the cessation of the fire would enable him to retain his conquest. But at length, on the 16th, the conflagration had spread in every direction: the horizon seemed a vast ocean of flame, and the cry arose that the Kremlin itself was on fire. He gave vent to his rage by commanding the massacre of the unfortunate men who had been intrusted with the duty of commencing the conflagration, and, yielding to the solicitations of his followers, abandoned the Kremlin. The wind and the rush of the flames was so violent, that Berthier was almost swept away by their fury; but the Emperor and his followers arrived in safety before night at the country palace of Petrowsky. General Mathieu Dumas and Count Daru, who were among the last that left the Kremlin, could scarcely bear the intense heat as they rode along the quay to follow the Emperor; and, on leaving it, their horses were with difficulty brought to pass between two burning houses at the entrance of the street, which formed the sole issue that remained to them. Arrived at length at Petrowsky, they had leisure to contemplate the awful spectacle which was presented by the conflagration. Early on the following morning, Napoleon cast a melancholy look to the burning city, which now filled half the heavens with its flames, and exclaimed, after a long silence—“This sad event is the presage of a long train of disasters!”
Imagination cannot conceive the horrors into which the remnant of the people, who could not abandon their homes, were plunged by this unparalleled sacrifice. Bereft of everything, they wandered amidst the ruins, eagerly searching for a parent or an infant amidst the smoking heaps; and from the scene of devastation, the wrecks of former magnificence were ransacked alike by the licentious soldiery and the suffering multitude. The city, abandoned to pillage, was speedily filled with marauders; and, in addition to the whole French army, numbers flocked in from the country to share in the general license. Furniture of the most precious description, splendid jewellery, Indian and Turkish stuffs, stores of wine and brandy, gold and silver plate, rich furs, gorgeous trappings of silk and satin, were spread about in promiscuous confusion, and became the prey of the least intoxicated among the multitude. A frightful tumult succeeded to the stillness which had reigned in the city when the troops first entered it. The cries of the pillaged inhabitants, the coarse imprecations of the soldiers, were mingled with the lamentations of those who had lost their parents, their children, their all, in the conflagration. Pillage became universal in those days of unrestrained license: the same place often beheld the general’s uniform and the soldier’s humble garments in search of plunder. The ground, in the parts which had been consumed, was covered with a motley group of soldiers, peasants, and marauders of all countries and aspects, who sought in the smoking ruins the remains of the precious articles which they formerly contained. The church of St Michael, which covered the tombs of the Emperors of Russia, did not escape their sacrilegious violence; but no treasures were found to reward the cupidity of the depredators. The shouts of the marauders were interrupted by the shrieks of the victims of miltary license, and occasionally drowned in the roar of the conflagration; while not the least extraordinary part of the clamour arose from the howling of the dogs, which, being chained to the gates of the palaces, were consumed in the flames with which they were surrounded.
While these terrible scenes were passing in the metropolis, the Russian army retired on the road to Kolomna, and after falling back two marches in that direction, wheeled to the right, and by a semicircular march regained the route to Kalouga, in the neighbourhood of the Smolensko road. By this masterly movement, Kutusoff at once drew near to his reinforcements, covered the richest provinces of the empire, secured the supplies of the army, and threatened the communications of the enemy. The city of Kalouga, stored with ample magazines, served as the base of the future operations of the army. The camp at Tarutino, where he took post, was speedily filled with provisions; and the multitude of recruits who daily arrived from the southern provinces restored the spirits of the soldiers. Placed on the old central route between Moscow and Kalouga, this position enabled the Russians to defend all the avenues to that important city, and also to Toula; and, at the same time, to reap the benefit of all the supplies which these provinces, by far the richest in grain in the whole empire, afforded. The event soon showed of what consequence the admirable selection of this station was to the future success of the campaign.
In making this march, the troops were filled with the most melancholy feelings. The fugitives from the metropolis had already spread the intelligence of the fire; and the lurid light which filled one half of the heavens attested too plainly the truth of their tale. The roar of the flames and the fury of the tempest, occasioned by the extraordinary heat of so large a portion of the atmosphere, was heard even at so great a distance; and as the troops marched at night, their steps were guided by the glare of the conflagration. Only one feeling pervaded every breast, that of profound and ineffaceable indignation; one only passion animated every bosom, that of stern and collected vengeance. The burning of the holy city had effaced all lighter feelings, and impressed a religious solemnity on that memorable march. Words there were none spoken in the vast array; the hearts of all were too big for utterance; the tread of the men alone was heard from the ranks; but the silent tears which trickled down the cheek, and the glance of fire which was turned towards the heavens, bespoke the deep determination that was felt. Silent and mournful they continued their way, interrupted only by the burning fragments which occasionally fell among their ranks, and for a moment illuminated the stern visages of the soldiers. They left behind them their palaces and their temples; monuments of art and miracles of luxury; the remains of ages which had passed away, and of those which were yet unfinished; the tombs of their ancestors and the cradles of their descendants. Nothing remained of Moscow but the remembrance of the city and the resolution to avenge it.*
—Sir Archibald Alison, History of Europe, Vol. XI (1860).