Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Burning Of Moscow

From west to east across Europe had marched the army of the great conqueror, no nation daring to draw a hostile sword, none venturing to place an obstacle in its path. Across Russia it had marched almost as triumphantly, breaking irresistibly through the dams of armed men in its way, sweeping onward with the strength and majesty of fate. At length it had reached the heart of the empire of the czars, and before it lay displayed the ancient capital of the Muscovite kings, time-honored Moscow.

This great city was revealed to the eyes of the weary soldiers with the suddenness of a mirage in the desert. Throughout that day an interminable outreach of level country had seemed to spread before them, dreary, uninviting, disheartening. Now, from the summit of a hill, their triumphant eyes gazed suddenly upon the roofs and spires of a mighty city, splendid, far-reaching, stretching far across the plain that lay revealed before their eyes. It seemed to them truly as if the hand of a magician had touched the desert, and caused this city to spring up across their path.

It was a remarkable spectacle that met their gaze. Here were visible what seemed hundreds of gilded domes and shining spires, thousands of habitations rich with varied colors, a strange compound of palaces and cottages, churches and bell-towers, woods and lakes, Western and Oriental architecture, the Gothic arches and spires of Europe mingled with the strange forms of Byzantine and Asiatic edifices. Outwardly, a line of monasteries flanked with towers appeared to encircle the city. Centrally, crowning an eminence, rose a great citadel, from whose towers one could look down on columned temples and imperial palaces, embattled walls crowned with majestic domes, from whose summits, above the reversed crescent, rose the cross, Russia's emblem of conquest over the fanatical sectaries of the East. It was the Kremlin which they here beheld, the sacred centre of the Russian empire, the ancient dwelling-place and citadel of the czars.

A wild cry of wonder and triumph burst from the soldiers who had first reached the summit of the hill. "Moscow! Moscow!" they shouted, their imaginations strongly excited by the magnificent spectacle. This cry lent wings to those behind them. In crowding hosts the eager soldiers rushed up the long slope, all ranks mingling in their burning desire to gaze upon that great city which was the goal of their far-extended march. Deep were the emotions, intense the joy, with which they gazed on this dazzling vision, with all its domes and spires burning in the warm rays of the sun. Napoleon himself, who hastened to the spot, was struck with admiration, and new dreams of glory doubtless sprang up in his soul as he stood gazing with deep emotion on what must have seemed to him the key of the East, the gateway to conquests never yet surpassed by man. Little did he dream that it was ruin upon which he gazed, the fatal turning-point in his long career of victory. Still certain of his genius, still confident in his good fortune, he looked forward to new conquests which would throw those of the past into the shade, and as his eyes rested on that mighty city of the czars, the intoxication of glory filled his soul.



The conqueror gave but little time to these dreams. The steps to realize them must be taken. Murat was bidden to march forward quickly and to repress all disorders which might break out in the city. Denniée was ordered to hasten and arrange for the food and lodging of the soldiers. Durosnel received orders to communicate with the authorities, to calm their fears, and to lead them to the conqueror, that he might receive their homage. Fancying that the inhabitants awaited his coming in trembling fear, Napoleon halted until these preliminaries should be arranged, before making his triumphant entry into the conquered capital of Muscovy.

Murat, at the head of the light cavalry, galloped rapidly forward, quickly reaching the bridge over the Moskowa. Here he found a rear-guard of the Russian army, in rapid retreat. The meeting was not a hostile one; Murat rode to the Russian line, and asked if there was an officer among them who spoke French. A young Russian immediately presented himself, and asked him what he wanted.

"Who is the commander of this rear-guard?" he asked.

The Russian pointed to a white-haired officer, who wore a long cloak of fur. Murat advanced and held out his hand. The officer took and pressed it warmly.

"Do you know me?" asked the Frenchman.

"Yes," answered the Russian, courteously; "we have seen enough of you under fire to know you."

A short colloquy succeeded, during which Murat could not keep his eyes from the officer's fur cloak, which looked as if it would be very comfortable in a winter bivouac. The Russian, noticing his looks, took off the mantle and offered it to him, begging him to accept it as a present from an admiring foe. Murat courteously accepted it, and in return presented the officer with a beautiful and valuable watch, which was accepted in the same spirit of courteous good-will.

The Russian officer now joined his men, who were filing rapidly away, and Murat rode onward into the streets of the captured city, his staff and a detachment of cavalry accompanying him. Through street after street he passed, here finding himself moving between rows of narrow wooden houses, there through avenues bordered by palatial residences, which rose from rich and ample gardens, but all silent and seemingly deserted.

The city was there, but where were the people? Solitude surrounded him. Not an inhabitant was to be seen. It seemed a city of the dead. Into Berlin, Vienna, and other capitals had the French army entered, but never had it seen anything like this utter solitude. The inhabitants, so the surprised soldiers fancied, must be cowering in terror within their houses. This desolation could not continue. Moscow was known as one of the most bustling cities in Europe. As soon as the people learned that no harm was meant them, the streets would again swarm with busy life. Hugging this flattering opinion to his soul, Murat rode on, threading the silent city.

Ah! here were some of the people. A few distracted individuals had appeared in the streets. Murat rode up to them, to find that they were French, belonging to the foreign colony of Moscow. They begged piteously for protection from the robbers, who, they said, had become masters of the town. They told Murat more than this, destroying the pleasant picture of a submissive and contented population with which he had solaced his mind. The population had fled, they said; no one was left in the city except a few strangers and some Russians who knew the ways of the French and did not fear them. In their place was a crew of thieves and bandits whom the Count of Rostopchin had let loose on deserted Moscow, emptying the prisons and setting these convicts free to ravage the city at their will.

Further evidence of this disheartening story was soon forthcoming. When the French approached the Kremlin they were saluted by a discharge of musketry. Some of the villanous crew had invaded the capitol, seized on the guns in the arsenal, and were firing on the invaders. A few minutes settled this last effort in the defence of Moscow. The citadel was entered at a charge, several of the villanous crew were sabred, and the others put to flight. The French had the town, but it was an empty one, its only inmates being thieves and strangers.

The next morning, September 15, 1812, Napoleon made his triumphal march into Moscow, at the head of his conquering legions. But for the first time in his career of victory he found himself in the streets of a deserted city, advancing through empty avenues, to whose windows the tread of marching feet called not an eye to witness the triumph of France. It was a gloomy and threatening impression which was experienced by the grand army in its progress through those silent and lifeless streets. The ancient city of the czars seemed a body without a soul.

But if the people were gone, their dwellings remained. Moscow was taken, with all its palaces and treasures. It was a signal conquest. Napoleon hastened to the Kremlin, mounted to the top of the lofty tower of Ivan, and from its height looked with eyes of pride on the far-extending city. It was grand, that vision of palatial mansions, but it was mournful in its silence and gloom, the tramp of soldiery its only sound, the flutter of multitudes of birds—ravens and crows, which haunted the city in thousands—its only sign of life. Two days before Moscow had been one of the busiest cities in the world. Now it was the most silent. But the conqueror had this satisfaction, that while abandoned like other Russian towns, it was not burned like them, he might find here winter-quarters for his army and by mild measures lure the frightened people back to their homes again. Comforted with this hopeful view, Napoleon descended the stairs again, filled with confidence and triumph.

His confidence was misplaced. Disaster lowered upon the devoted city. On the day succeeding his entrance a column of flame suddenly appeared, rising from a large building in which was stored an abundant supply of spirits. The soldiers ran thither without thought of alarm, fancying that this was due to some imprudence on the part of their own men. In a short time the fire was mastered, and a feeling of confidence returned.

But immediately afterwards a new fire broke out in a great collection of buildings called the Bazaar, in which were the richest shops of the city, filled with costly goods, the beautiful fabrics of Persia and India, and rare and precious commodities from all quarters of the world. Here the flames spread with extraordinary rapidity, consuming the inflammable goods with frightful haste, despite the frantic efforts of the soldiers to arrest their progress. Despairing of success, they strove to save something from the vast riches of the establishment, carrying out furs, costly wines, valuable tissues, and other precious treasures. Such as remained of the people of the town aided in these efforts, in the natural desire to save something from the flames.

Until now all this seemed ordinary accident, and no one dreamed that these fires were the result of hostile design. They were soon to learn more of the unconquerable determination of the Russians. During the following night the wind rose suddenly, and carried the flames of the burning Bazaar along several of the most beautiful streets of Moscow, the fire spreading rapidly among the wooden buildings, and consuming them with alarming rapidity.

But this was not the most disturbing indication. Rockets were seen in the distance, ascending into the air, and immediately afterwards fire broke out in a dozen quarters, and hired bandits were seen carrying combustibles at the end of long poles, and seeking to extend the empire of the flames. A number of these were arrested, and under threat of death revealed a frightful secret. The Count of Rostopchin had ordered that the great city of Moscow should be set on fire and burned, with as little heed for the immense loss involved as he would have had in ordering the burning of a wayside village.

The news filled the whole army with consternation. Waiting till the wind had risen, the ferocious count had sent up his signal-rockets to order the work to begin. He had done more. On running to the pumps to obtain water to extinguish the flames, there were none to be found. They had been removed and the fire-extinguishing apparatus destroyed in preparation for this incendiary work.

Napoleon, alarmed and incensed, ordered that all caught in the act of firing buildings should be executed on the spot. The army was directed to use every effort to extinguish the flames. But the high wind set all their efforts at defiance. It increased in fury and varied in direction, carrying the conflagration over new quarters. From the Kremlin could be seen vast columns of fire, shooting from building to building, wrapping the wooden structures in lurid sheets of flame, sweeping destruction forward at frightful speed. The roar of the flames, the explosions that from time to time took place, the burning fragments which filled the air, borne on the wings of the wind, all went to make a scene as grand and fearful as human eye has ever gazed upon. To Napoleon and his men, who saw their hopes of safe and pleasant winter-quarters thus vanishing in flame, it must have been a most alarming and disquieting spectacle.

After blowing for some hours from the north-west, the wind shifted to the south-west, and the conflagration invaded new regions of the city. The Kremlin, hitherto out of the range of the flames, was now in danger. Fiery sparks, borne by the wind, fell on its roof and in its court-yard. The most frightful danger of the whole night now threatened the imperilled army. In the court-yards of the Kremlin had been placed more than four hundred wagons of ammunition; in its arsenal were a hundred thousand pounds of powder. Should the flames reach these, Napoleon and his guards would be blown into the air.

All who were near him pressed him to hasten from this imminent peril. General Lariboisière begged him to fly, as a duty which he owed to his army. Officers who came in from the streets reported that it was almost impossible to pass through the avenues of the town, and that delay would increase the danger. To remain where they were much longer might render escape impossible.

Napoleon, convinced by these words, left the Kremlin, after some twenty-four hours' possession of this old palace of the czars, and descended to the quay of the Moskowa, where he found his horses awaiting him. Mounting, he rode through the fire-invaded streets towards the north-west, but with no little difficulty and danger, for the flames from the other quarters of the city were now spreading here.

The wind seemed steadily to increase in violence, torrents of smoke, cinders, and sparks were driven down into the streets; sheets of flame seemed to bend downward as if to sweep the ground; on every side the troops were flying for their lives, on every side the conflagration pursued them; it was through imminent peril that the grand army, which on the morning before had marched so triumphantly into that abandoned city, now succeeded in gaining a safe location outside, whence they could look back in despair on that hell of flames in which their dearest hopes were being consumed.

A small number of the inhabitants who had remained concealed in their houses now came out, carrying away with them what treasures they most esteemed; in some cases, women their children, men their aged parents; many of them barely saving their clothes, and disputing the possession of even these with the band of robbers whom Rostopchin had let loose, and who, like spirits of evil, danced with glee in the midst of the terrible conflagration which had been kindled by their hands.

So ended one of the most startling events in history,—the burning of a great city to dispossess a victorious foe. It proved successful. When Napoleon left the Kremlin on that fearful night he began his downward career. The conflagration, it is true, did not drive him at once from Moscow. He lingered for more than a month amid its ruins, in the vain hope that the czar would ask him for terms of peace. But the czar kept silent, the city was untenable for winter-quarters, and retreat became imperative. When, at length, the grand army marched, winter marched with it,—a winter such as even Russia had rarely seen. Napoleon had delayed too long. The north gathered its forces and swooped upon his shivering ranks, with death in its blasts. The Russians, recovering from their losses, rushed upon his freezing columns, pouring destruction upon them as they marched. All was at an end. The great victor's tide of success had definitely turned. He had entered Russia with nearly half a million of men; hardly a tenth part of this great army followed him from that fatal land.