One week after winning a bloody victory over the Russian army at the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée enters the city of Moscow, only to find the population evacuated and the Russian army retreated again. Moscow was the goal of the invasion, but the deserted city held no czarist officials to sue for peace and no great stores of food or supplies to reward the French soldiers for their long march. Then, just after midnight, fires broke out across the city, apparently set by Russian patriots, leaving Napoleon’s massive army with no means to survive the coming Russian winter.
In 1812, French Emperor Napoleon I was still at the height of his fortunes. The Peninsular War against Britain was a thorn in the side of his great European empire, but he was confident that his generals would soon triumph in Spain. All that remained to complete his “Continental System”–a unilateral European blockade designed to economically isolate Britain and force its subjugation–was the cooperation of Russia. After earlier conflict, Napoleon and Alexander I kept a tenuous peace, but the Russian czar was unwilling to submit to the Continental System, which was ruinous to the Russian economy. To intimidate Alexander, Napoleon massed his forces in Poland in the spring of 1812, but still the czar resisted.
On June 24, Napoleon ordered his Grande Armée, the largest European military force ever assembled to that date, into Russia. The enormous army featured more than 500,000 soldiers and staff and included contingents from Prussia, Austria, and other countries under the sway of the French empire. Napoleon’s military successes lay in his ability to move his armies rapidly and strike quickly, but in the opening months of his Russian invasion he was forced to be content with a Russian army in perpetual retreat. The fleeing Russian forces adopted a “scorched earth” strategy, seizing or burning any supplies that the French might pillage from the countryside. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s supply lines became overextended as he advanced deeper and deeper into the Russian expanse.
Many in the czarist government were critical of the Russian army’s refusal to engage Napoleon in a direct confrontation. Under public pressure, Alexander named General Mikhail Kutuzov supreme commander in August, but the veteran of earlier defeats against Napoleon continued the retreat. Finally, Kutuzov agreed to halt at the town of Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow, and engage the French. The Russians built fortifications, and on September 7 the Grande Armée attacked. Napoleon was uncharacteristically cautious that day; he didn’t try to outflank the Russians, and he declined to send much-needed reinforcements into the fray. The result was a bloody and narrow victory and another retreat by the Russian army.
Although disturbed by the progress of the campaign, Napoleon was sure that once Moscow was taken Alexander would be forced to capitulate. On September 14, the French entered a deserted Moscow. All but a few thousand of the city’s 275,000 people were gone. Napoleon retired to a house on the outskirts of the city for the night, but two hours after midnight he was informed that a fire had broken out in the city. He went to the Kremlin, where he watched the flames continue to grow. Strange reports began to come in telling of Russians starting the fires and stoking the flames. Suddenly a fire broke out within the Kremlin, apparently set by a Russian military policeman who was immediately executed. With the firestorm spreading, Napoleon and his entourage were forced to flee down burning streets to Moscow’s outskirts and narrowly avoided being asphyxiated. When the flames died down three days later, more than two-thirds of the city was destroyed.
In the aftermath of the calamity, Napoleon still hoped Alexander would ask for peace. In a letter to the czar he wrote: “My lord Brother. Beautiful, magical Moscow exists no more. How could you consign to destruction the loveliest city in the world, a city that has taken hundreds of years to build?” The fire was allegedly set on the orders of Moscow Governor-General Feodor Rostopchin; though Rostopchin later denied the charge. Alexander said the burning of Moscow “illuminated his soul,” and he refused to negotiate with Napoleon.
After waiting a month for a surrender that never came, Napoleon was forced to lead his starving army out of the ruined city. Suddenly, Kutuzov’s army appeared and gave battle on October 19 at Maloyaroslavets. The disintegrating Grande Armée was forced to abandon the fertile, southern route by which it hoped to retreat and proceed back along the ravaged path over which it had originally advanced. During the disastrous retreat, Napoleon’s army suffered continual harassment from the merciless Russian army. Stalked by hunger, subzero temperatures, and the deadly lances of the Cossacks, the decimated army reached the Berezina River late in November, near the border with French-occupied Lithuania. However, the river was unexpectedly thawed, and the Russians had destroyed the bridges at Borisov.
Napoleon’s engineers managed to construct two makeshift bridges at Studienka, and on November 26 the bulk of his army began to cross the river. On November 29, the Russians pressed from the east, and the French were forced to burn the bridges, leaving some 10,000 stragglers on the other side. The Russians largely abandoned their pursuit after that point, but thousands of French troops continued to succumb to hunger, exhaustion, and the cold. In December, Napoleon abandoned what remained of his army and raced back to Paris, where people were saying he had died and a general had led an unsuccessful coup. He traveled incognito across Europe with a few cohorts and reached the capital of his empire on December 18. Six days later, the Grande Armée finally escaped Russia, having suffered a loss of more than 400,000 men during the disastrous invasion.
With Europe emboldened by his catastrophic failure in Russia, an allied force rose up to defeat Napoleon in 1814. Exiled to the island of Elba, he escaped to France in early 1815 and raised a new army that enjoyed fleeting success before its crushing defeat at Waterloo in June 1815. Napoleon was then exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he died six years later.