Fire of Moscow 1812 Essay

This essay has a total of 1441 words and 6 pages.


Fire of Moscow 1812





When Russians talk about the war of 1812 they do not mean the war in which Washington was
burned by the British, but the war in which, apparently, the Russians burned Moscow. This
war between the French republican empire and the Russian Tsarist Empire was as remarkable
a high - spot in the history of the latter as it was a low - spot in the history of
Napoleon. For Russia, it was one of those rare moments in history when almost all people,
serfs and lords, merchants and bureaucrats, put aside their enmities and realized that
they were all Russians. Russia, sometimes called ‘a state without a people’, seemed to
become, for a few precious months, one people, and never quite forgot the experience.

Following the French victory at Borodino, Napoleon set his sights on Moscow. The French
army had marched the seventy - five miles from Borodino to Moscow without resistance and
found the city undefended and almost deserted. Before dawn on 14 September, French
Marshal Murat had entered the city on the heels on the Russian army, which was leaving. By
arrangement between the two sides, the Russian army left Moscow through one gate while the
French entered it through another. The first units to enter the city on 14 September were
the cavalry of the advance - guard commanded by Murat. Many of these men had previously
entered European cities as conquerors and recalled having marched between hedges of men
and women, often silent, guarded, hostile, often merely curious, often applauding - it had
happened. Here, nothing. Despite the fine weather (which was soon to change) the streets
were empty.

Russian General Kutusov made the difficult decision to abandon Moscow, “As long as the
army exists and is in a condition to oppose the enemy, we preserve the hope of winning the
war: but if the army is destroyed, Moscow and Russia will perish.” (Markham, 194). He
decided to march south, and was followed by much of the populace of Moscow. In fact, on
14 September 1812 Moscow, which normally harbored 300,000 inhabitants, was not completely
deserted. It is true that practically every person of Russian origin had left the city,
compulsorily. The order to evacuate did not affect foreigners living in Moscow. Not only
could they remain, they were obliged to do so. The first concern of those who stayed was
to amass a stock of provisions, which were piled everywhere, especially in cellars. It was
then rumored that the city was to be destroyed and those remaining would be ‘buried in the
ruins. ‘ (Blond 326). Leaving furniture and pictures, taking only their jewels and food,
the foreigners and those Muscovites anxious for their possessions moved to apartments,
often in the palaces of friends who had fled. Later that day, Napoleon entered Moscow with
95,000 men at his side.

Napoleon received from Murat, who was continuing to pursue the enemy army with the best
part of a division, numerous reports in which “the King of Naples stated that the Russian
troops appeared very discouraged and that the Cossacks were discontented and wished to
quit the army.” (Blond 327) These reports cheered the Emperor. However, on 14 September at
11 p.m., an officer arrived to relay the news that the Moscow bazaar was on fire. How the
fire started that night, no one really knows. According to Henri Francoise de Segur, “it
was set deliberately and systematically on the orders of the governor of Moscow, Count
Rostopchin.” (Herold 357). Yet even if Rostopchin did not give the order to start the
fire, and if the fire started by accident, there can be no doubt that once it started it
was deliberately spread, partly be bands of patriots, partly by looters, both French and
Russian.

The dawn of Tuesday 15 September broke in flames. During the morning Napoleon rode through
the Dorogomilov gate towards the Kremlin. The Kremlin, built on a hill, dominated Moscow
and was a city within a city. The surrounding walls and towers were of brick set within a
deep ditch and contained the imperial palace, that of the ancient Greek patriarchs, the
arsenal, the municipal building, many churches, the largest being that of the
Annunciation, which had nine cupolas, of which the highest was Ivan’s Tower, topped by a
very elegant gilded cupola. Napoleon rode around the walls then entered and installed
himself in the quarters occupied by the Tsar when in Moscow.

From a window in the Kremlin, Napoleon watched the spectacle in consternation, while fire
- fighters on the roofs extinguished the flaming debris that kept raining on them. At 8
p.m. on the 15 September, a new fire broke out. The Emperor retired early, as did the
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