Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fire of Moscow

Following the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon marched toward Moscow, reaching the city on September 14, 1812.  A fire broke out that day.  Over the next several days, fire would destroy three-fourths of Moscow.  Sir Walter Scott discussed this event in his “The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte”.

 ‘On the 14th September 1812, while the rear-guard of the Russians were in the act of evacuating Moscow, Napoleon reached the hill called the Mount of Salvation, because it is there where the natives kneel and cross themselves at first sight of the Holy City.

Moscow seemed lordly and striking as ever, with the steeples of its thirty churches, and its copper domes glittering in the sun; its palaces of Eastern architecture mingled with trees, and surrounded with gardens; and its Kremlin, a huge triangular mass of towers, something between a palace and a castle, which rose like a citadel out of the general mass of groves and buildings. But not a chimney sent up smoke, not a man appeared on the battlements, or at the gates. Napoleon gazed every moment, expecting to see a train of bearded boyards arriving to fling themselves at his feet, and place their wealth at his disposal. His first exclamation was, "Behold at last that celebrated city !"— His next, "It was full time." His army, less regardful of the past or the future, fixed their eyes on the goal of their wishes, and a shout of "Moscow !—Moscow !"—passed from rank to rank.
Meantime no one interrupted his meditations, until a message came from Murat. He had pushed in among the Cossacks, who covered the rear of the Russians, and readily admitted to a parley the chivalrous champion, whom they at once recognized, having so often seen him blazing in the van of the French cavalry.  The message which he sent to Buonaparte intimated, that Miloradovitch threatened to burn the town, if his rear was not allowed time to march through it. This was a tone of defiance. Napoleon, however, granted the armistice, for which no inhabitants were left to be grateful.

After waiting two hours, he received from some French inhabitants, who had hidden themselves during the evacuation, the strange intelligence that Moscow was deserted by its population. The tidings that a population of two hundred and fifty thousand persons had left their native city was incredible, and Napoleon still commanded the boyards, the public, functionaries, to be brought before him; nor could he be convinced of what had actually happened, till they led to his presence some of that refuse of humanity, the only live creatures they could find in the city, but they were wretches of the lowest rank. When he was at last convinced that the desertion of the capital was universal, he smiled bitterly, and said, "The Russians will soon learn better the value of their capital."
The signal was now given for the troops to advance; and the columns, still in a state of wonder at the solitude and silence which received them everywhere, penetrated through that assemblage of huts, mingled with palaces, where it seemed that Penury, which had scarce means to obtain the ordinary necessaries of life, had for the next door neighbour all the wealth and profuse expenditure of  the East. At once the silence was broken by a volley of musketry, which some miserable fanatics poured from the battlements of the Kremlin on the first French troops that approached the palace of the Czars. These wretches were most of them intoxicated; yet the determined obstinacy with which they threw away their lives, was another feature of that rugged patriotism of which the French had seen, and were yet to see, so many instances.

When he entered the gates of Moscow, Buonaparte, as if unwilling to encounter the sight of the empty streets, stopt immediately on entering the first suburb. His troops were quartered in the desolate city. During the first few hours after their arrival, an obscure rumour, which could not be traced, but one of those which are sometimes found to get abroad before the approach of some awful certainty, announced that the city would be endangered by fire in the course of the night. The report seemed to arise from those evident circumstances which rendered the event probable, but no one took any notice of it, until at midnight, when the soldiers were startled from their quarters by the report that the town was in flames. The memorable conflagration began amongst the coachmakers' warehouses and workshops in the Bazaar, or general market, which was the richest district of the city. …’

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