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4 Narrative of the Campaign in Russia, during the year
1812. By Sir Robert Ker Porter.
[From the Critical Review, for November, 1813.]
The sudden destruction of the gigantic army of Bonaparte in Russia at the commencement of the last winter, reminds us of some of the extraordinary exertions of Divine Power in the old testament, by which the proud were humbled and the mighty overthrown. This valiant host, which the conqueror led from the banks of the Rhine to the eastern extremity of Europe, appeared to be invincible, and invincible it would have been to any human adversary; but its destruction was effected comparatively in a moment by the reduction of the temperature to a few degrees more than ordinary below the freezing point. Whether this awful catastrophe were the immediate interposition of the great governor of the universe, or whether it were the effect of ambition degenerating into mail temerity by unexampled success, it is of little difference with respect to the ultimate result in a moral point of view. For the train of causation, which punishes folly and pride, cruelty and injustice, though it is a part of the constitution of the universe, is nevertheless the appointment of the Deity. We, who have always been accustomed to look upon God, not as a name for a nonentity, but for power, and wisdom, and goodness perpetually active, cannot help referring to the supreme agency the memorable catastrophe which befel the French armies between the Moskwa and the Vistula.
We do not believe that the history of any people presents an instance, or rather a mass of instances, of greater self-devotion than was exhibited by the Russian people on the invasion of their country by the French army under Bonaparte. Patriotism has been sometimes thought to be the product only of free states ; but here we find it alive and active in every bosom under a despotic government. We find the inhabitants of all descriptions, both bond and free, boors and nobles, willing to sacrifice their property and their homes, all that they held most dear, and even life itself, in order to preserve the independence of their country. When the news of the burning of Moscow by the citizens themselves first arrived, we believe that the general sensation was, that it was an act of barbarous temerity and infatuated self-destruction, rather than the sober and deliberate result of patriotic magnanimity and prospective calculation. But the event soon changed the general sentiment on the subject; and proved that it was less the effect of rashness than of caution, of folly than of foresight; and that, though the sacrifice was great, it was more than exceeded by the
subsequent benefit. The temporary evil was more than compensated by the permanent good. The Russian empire preserved its independence; the Russian government escaped humiliation; and Bonaparte experienced a reverse, which gave the first signal check to his unbounded ambition, and his unparalleled success.
The desperate resistance which Bonaparte experienced at Smolensko, or Smolenzk, and indeed during the whole time of his march, after passing the Russian frontier, was a sufficient presage of the efforts which were likely to be made to defeat the success of his daring and flagitious enterprise. But still he little thought that the patriotism of the Russians, and their determination not to bend their necks to a foreign yoke, would lead them, as an act of self-defence, to reduce to ashes the ancient capital of the Czars, the object of fond and long-cherished veneration.
At the battle of Borodino, which was one of the most obstinate ever fought, Sir R. Ker Porter states the loss of the Russians, in killed and wounded, to have amounted to not less than thirty thousand men, whilst he computes that of the French at more than fifty thousand. "" The horses which lay on the ground from right to left numbered full five and twenty thousand. This wide de struction cost both armies nearly the whole of their ammunition." After this memorable conflict, in which whatever might be their actual loss, the French had certainly no reason to boast of their success, the Russian general Koutousoff, finding that Bonaparte had been powerfully reinforced, retired to Moscow, which, instead of staying to defend, he passed throughand abandoned to the enemy. In his despatch to the Emperor Alexander, on this occasion, Koutousoff, having mentioned the alternative to which he was reduced of sacrificing Moscow, or of crouching before the invader, says,
“ Moscow was left a mere desert of walls and houses, without an inhabitant. Call to mind what the human body is when deserted by the soul! so is Moscow when abandoned by its citizens. The soul of an empire is its people; and wherever they are, there is Moscow, there is the empire of Russia." “As long as the army of your imperial majesty exists, (and it will exist as long as there is a Russian alive to defend his country!) the loss of Moscow is not the loss of the empire."
This is the language of men resolutely determined to endure every extremity rather than that of foreign subjugation. It breathes a spirit not unlike that of Rome in the days of republican heroism.
Bonaparte halted before the gates of Moscow “ about noon on the 14th of September." His advanced guard under Murat and Beauharnois entered the city with all the pride and circumstance
of glorious war. But the author says that Bonaparte deferred this ceremony
“ until the authorities of the city should arrive in deputation to invite his entrance! He looked again and again towards its walls; all seemed busy there, but nothing presented itself in the form be expected. The afternoon came, and yet no person appeared. He then took the resolution of sending a Polish general into the town to suggest to the citizens the desired deputation. The general proceeded on his errand: and inquiring his way of a resident foreiguer, whom chance brought in his path, he was conducted by this stranger to the palace which had been the seat of government; then to the police-office, and afterwards to the house of the governor general. In short, he made his guide lead him to every place where he might have any expectation of meeting a public functionary; but the search was in vain. He returned to Napoleon, the information that no legal authorities remained in Moscow; that the city was already a desert, and would soon be a heap of ruins. This was the first time that the tyrant's expectations had been disappointed in the homage he anticipated from a captive city. No farce of a deputation, no keys presented, no plaudits of the moderation of the conqueror, were offered to the advancing Cæsar! Not one shadow of respect presented itself worthy a Bulletin or a Moniteur! However, the invader of Russia would not quite relinquish his preposterous hopes. He flattered himself that on the next day the resident foreigners at least would collect some of the terrified natives, and uniting themselves with them in the form of a representation of the city, would furnish him with some materials for publishing a triumph. In this expectation he took up his quarters for that night in the Petrofsky palace, about a mile from the St. Petersburgh barrier. The wished-for morning broke, the noon succeeded it, and still no trace of a coming deputation could be discerned. Incensed at this double disappointment, he at last gave up the expectation; and giving orders for his guard to proceed, he entered the town in sullen silence. Without the beating of drums, the discharge of cannon, or any of the parade with which he usually gratified the pride of his army, he took possession of the capital of the Czars !
Bonaparte had scarcely entered the imperial palace when the conflagration began, which soon destroyed his hopes of providing winter quarters for his army in the capital of the Czars. What would we not have given to have had the emotions of Bonaparte actually described in this awful scene, when enveloped by inore than a thousand fires, which his criminal ambition had forced the Russians to kindle as the last effort of patriotic martyrdom, in order to rescue their country from the menace of his galling yoke! Are tyrants ever agitated by the sentiment of retribution? If such a sentiment ever visited the sensory of Bonaparte, surely it must have made its appearance in the midst of this scene of unspeakable horror and desolation.
“ From the night of September 14th, until that of the 19th, the fire blazed in all quarters. It first broke out near the foundling hospital, and then, almost immediately, on the side of the city close to the stone bridge, and in the neighbourhood of the palace which the King of Naples selected for his residence. A third and more extensive fire burst out and spread itself along the face of the centre of the town. The inhabitants beheld their burning houses with a resignation which could only proceed from the belief that they should not long survive their destruction. The conviction that their losses would be deprivation to the enemy also ; that in the flames perished his most important resources; was the tranquillizer of every regret. New fires broke forth wherever the French soldiers directed their ruthless steps. Women cast themselves into the fames to escape violation; and the blood of the brave Muscovite was vainly shed to extinguish fires kindled by his patriot hands.
“ On the morning of the thiril day after the entrance of these robbers, a violent wind arose, and then, indeed, the conflagration became general. In less than an hour the whole extent of the capital, for many wersts, seemed a sheet of flame. All the immense tract of land above the river, which used to be covered with houses, was one sea of fire; and the sky was hidden from our eyes by the tremendous volumes of smoke wbich rolled over the city.”
Bonaparte evidently expected that after he had obtained possession of the Russian capital, the government would be awed into proposals of peace, and he was, in some measure, the dupe of this expectation." He lost that time in Moscow which he might have employed in securing his retreat before the severities of the winter commenced. Finding that no flags of truce arrived, Bonaparte made himself two ineffectual attempts to open a negotiation with Koutousoff. General Lauriston, who was sent to the Russian head-quarters, was told by the venerable chief that “both his imperial majesty Alexander, and the nation at large, were determined never to lieten to one pacific word, whilst a foreign soldier remained within the frontiers of their country.” Napoleon then made an attempt to obtain an armistice upon the condition that the French army should evacuate Moscow, and retire upon Wiazma; but this effort proved equally abortive with the preceding; and the mighty conqueror, after this fatal procrastination, found himself compelled to abandon the projects of domination which he had conceived before he left the Thuilleries for his northern expedition.
Sir R. Ker Porter states that before the French retreated from Moscow, the part of the city which had escaped the flames was abandoned by Napoleon to the indiscriminate havoc and pillage of his troops. The following is part of the author's description of this scene of horror and cruelty, which, for the honour of human nature, we hope to be greatly exaggerated.
“ The demon of destruction was let loose to satiate itself with human misery. The soldiers of the camp and of the town rushed from all quarters to pursue their devastating task. Nothing was to be spared; neither church, nor palace, nor private dwelling, was to be left unsacked, undestroyed. The foundling hospital alone (having been made the asylum of the French sick, and which now contained several thousand of the wounded soldiers) was to be exempt from the torch of annihilation."
“ It is not possible for any imagination that has not seen the acts then committed, to form any conception of their variety of wickedness; of their demoniac wantonness of cruelty."
“ Thousands of these French ruffians, almost in a state of complete nakedness, without shoes, or any clothing on their limbs, and scarce a covering but a few filthy rags flying from their bodies, were met in every direction; more like the banditto their deeds imitated, than the soldier, whose noble profession their enormities stigmatized with disgrace. In this wretched plight were all the followers of Bonaparte. Bis own personal guards were not better clad; having nothing in their appearance that spoke their military order but the arms they carried."
We should have been much better pleased with the perusal of Sir R. Ker Porter's work, if he had adopted more precision and simplicity in his style. He accumulates words upon words till they cease to convey any distinct meaning. And this kind of inflated rhetorical style is more particularly reprehensible in an bistorical work, because it tends to excite an idea that the writer is more studious of ornament than of truth. We believe that no amplification, not even that of Sir R. Ker Porter, can go beyond the sufferings of the French after the frost had set in with its utmost intensity during their retreat; but we cannot so readily believe that the whole army of Napoleon, before leaving Moscow, were, according to the above representation, “almost in a state of complete nakedness, without shoes, or any clothing on their limbs, and scarce a covering but a few filthy rags flying from their bodies,” &c.
We shall now follow the enemy in their retreat from the Russian capital, and exbibit some of our author's descriptions of that ever memorable catastrophe. After the battle of Wiazma, on the 3d of November, in which the French under Davoust, Ney, and Beauharnois, made a desperate stand, in order to give time for the part of their army in advance to proceed, and where they were defeated by Miloradovitch, Sir R. Ker Porter says, that
“ the pursuit of the enemy only finished with the night-and such a night! In that terrible darkness all the horrors of winter seemed at once to burst upon them. The snow fell unremittingly till it covered