The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot

Author: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot

Chap. 14.

In Moscow, Napoleon’s position grew worse daily. The cold was already bitter and only the French-born soldiers maintained their morale, but they composed no more than half the force which Napoleon had led into Russia. The remainder was made up of Germans, Swiss, Croats, Lombards, Romanians, Piedmontais, Spaniards and Portuguese. All these foreigners, who stayed loyal as long as the army was successful, now began to complain and led astray by the leaflets in various languages which the Russians spread widely through our camps, they deserted in droves to the enemy, who promised to repatriate them.

Added to this, the two wings of the Grande Armée, which consisted entirely of Austrians and Prussians, were now no longer in line with the centre as they had been at the beginning of the campaign, but were in our rear, ready to bar our way on the first command of their sovereigns, ancient and irreconcilable enemies of France. The position was critical, and although it would greatly hurt Napoleon’s pride to display to the whole world that he had failed in his objective of imposing a peace on Alexander, the word "retreat" was at last uttered, but neither the Emperor nor the marshals nor anyone else thought of abandoning Russia and recrossing the Nieman; the idea was to go into winter quarters in the least unpleasant of the Polish provinces.

The evacuation of Moscow was agreed on in principle, but before taking this step, Napoleon, in a last endeavour to obtain a settlement, sent an emissary to Marshal Koutousoff, who did not make any response.

During these delays our army was melting away, day by day, and in blind overconfidence our outposts remained at risk in the province of Kalouga in untactical positions, when suddenly a wholly unforeseen event occurred which opened the eyes of the most incredulous and destroyed any illusions which the Emperor still had of achieving peace.

General Sébastiani, whom we saw allowing himself to be surprised at Drouia, had replaced General Montbrun as commander of the 2ndCavalry Corps, and although close to the enemy, he spent his days in his slippers, reading Italian poetry and carrying out no reconnaissance. Taking advantage of this negligence, Koutousoff attacked Sébastiani on the 18th of October, surrounded him and overwhelmed him by numbers, forcing him to abandon part of his artillery. Sébastiani’s three divisions of cavalry, separated from the rest of Murat’s troops were able to rejoin them only after fighting their way through several enemy battalions who stood in their way. In the course of this savage combat, Sébastiani displayed his valour, for he was a brave man, if a noticeably mediocre general. Something which will be demonstrated anew when we come to the campaign of 1813.

At the same time as he surprised Sébastiani, Koutousoff ordered an attack on Murat’s lines, in which the Prince was slightly wounded. Having learned of this unsatisfactory affair, and on the same day been told of the arrival in the enemy camp of a reinforcement of ten thousand cavalry from the Russian army in Wallachia (The Russian border with the Turks, in southern Romania. Ed.) which the Austrians, our allies, had allowed to pass, the Emperor gave the order for the departure to begin on the following day.

In the morning of the 19th of October, the Emperor left Moscow, which he had entered on the 15th of September. His Majesty, the old guard and the bulk of the army took the road to Kalouga; Marshal Mortier and two divisions of the Young Guard remained behind for twenty-four hours to complete the destruction of the city and blow up the Kremlin, after which they brought up the rear of the march.

The army trailed behind it more than forty thousand carriages, which caused an obstruction whenever the road narrowed. When this was remarked on to the Emperor, he replied that each of these coaches could carry two wounded men and food for several, and that their number would gradually diminish. The employment of this philanthropic system could, I think, be objected to, on the grounds that the need to speed the march of a retreating army seems to me to outweigh all other considerations.

During the French occupation of Moscow, Murat and the cavalry corps had been stationed in part of the fertile province of Kalouga, but without seizing the town of that name. The Emperor wished to avoid passing through the area of the battle of Moscow (Borodino) and down the road to Mojaisk, which had been stripped of resources by the army on its approach to Moscow; and for this reason he took the road to Kalouga, from where he counted on getting to Smolensk through fertile and, as it were, unspoiled country, but at the end of several day’s march, the army, which after joining with Murat’s force amounted still to more than 100,000 men, found itself confronting the Russian army which occupied the little town of Malo-Iaroslawetz. The enemy was in an exceedingly strong position, nevertheless the Emperor sent into the attack Prince Eugène, at the head of the Italian Corps and the French divisions of Morand and Gerard. Nothing could stand in the way of these men and they took the town after a long and murderous fight which cost us 4000 killed or wounded. Among the dead was General Delzons, a very fine officer.

The next day, the 24th of October, the Emperor, surprised at the degree of resistance he had encountered, and knowing that the whole Russian army barred his way, halted the march and spent three days considering what course he should follow.

On one occasion, during a reconnaissance of the enemy line, the Emperor nearly fell into their hands. There was a very thick fog, and suddenly shouts of "Hourra! Hourra!" were heard. It was a group of Cossacks who were emerging from a wood bordering the road, which they had been going through not twenty paces from the Emperor, knocking down and spearing anyone that they came across: but General Rapp rushed forward with the two squadrons of Chasseurs and mounted Grenadiers which went everywhere with the Emperor who, wielding their sabres, put the enemies to flight. It was during this encounter that M. Le Couteulx, my former companion on the staff of Marshal Lannes, and now an aide-de-camp to Prince Berthier, having armed himself with the lance belonging to a Cossack whom he had killed, was unwise enough to come back brandishing this weapon, and, furthermore, dressed in a pelisse and a fur hat which concealed the French uniform. A mounted Grenadier of the Guard mistook him for a Cossack officer, and seeing him heading towards the Emperor, went after him and slashed him across the body with his heavy sabre. In spite of this serious wound, M. Le Couteulx, placed in one of the Emperor’s carriages, survived the cold and the exhaustion of the retreat, and managed to reach France.

The reconnaissance carried out by the Emperor had convinced him that it would be impossible to continue his march towards Kalouga without fighting a sanguinary battle against the large force commanded by Koutousoff. He decided, therefore, to reach Smolensk by taking the road leading through Mojaisk. The army then left the fertile countryside to take once more the now devastated route along which, marking their passage with fires and dead bodies, they had travelled in September. This movement by the Emperor left him, after ten weary days, no more than twelve leagues from Moscow, and caused the troops to feel increasing anxiety about the future. The weather turned much worse; Marshal Mortier rejoined the Emperor after having blown up the Kremlin.

The army saw once more Mojaisk and the battlefield of Borodino. The ground, furrowed by cannon-balls, was covered with the debris of helmets, cuirasses, wheels, weapons, fragments of uniform and thirty thousand bodies, partly eaten by wolves. The Emperor and the troops passed by quickly, casting a sad look at this immense graveyard.

After they had reached Vyazma the snow began to fall and a bitter wind to blow, which slowed their progress. Many of the vehicles were abandoned, and some thousands of men and horses perished of cold by the roadside. The flesh of the horses provided some nourishment for the men and also for the officers. The command of the rearguard passed successively from Davout to Prince Eugène and finally to Marshal Ney, who kept this unpleasant job for the rest of the campaign.

Smolensk was reached on the 1st of November. The Emperor had arranged for a great quantity of food clothing and footwear to be collected there, but those in charge of these supplies did not realise the state of disorganisation into which the army had fallen, and insisted on the paperwork and formalities of a normal distribution. This delay so exasperated the men, who were dying of cold and hunger, that they broke into the stores and took forcibly, whatever they could. With the result that some had too much, some enough and some nothing.

As long as the troops had maintained a proper order of march, the mixture of nationalities had given rise to no more than minor inconveniences, but once fatigue and privation had broken the ranks, discipline was lost. There was no way in which it could be maintained in a vast body of isolated individuals, lacking every necessity, walking on their own, without understanding why; for in this disorderly mass there ruled a veritable babel of tongues. A few regiments, mainly those in the Guard, held together. Almost all the troopers of the cavalry, having lost their horses, were formed into infantry battalions, and those of their officers who still were mounted were made into special squadrons, commanded by Generals Latour-Mauberg, Grouchy and Sébastiani, who acted as ordinary captains, while brigade commanders and colonels filled the post of sergeant and corporal. This resort alone, shows to what extremity the army was reduced.

In this critical position, the Emperor had counted on a strong division of troops of all arms, which General Baraguey d’Hilliers was supposed to bring to Smolensk; but, as we neared the town, we heard the General had laid down his arms before a Russian column, with the provision that he alone would not be made prisoner and would be allowed to rejoin the French army in order to explain his actions. The Emperor, however, refused to see Baraguey d’Hilliers and ordered him to return to France and to consider himself under arrest until he was brought before a court-martial. Baraguey d’Hilliers avoided court-martial by dying in Berlin, it was said, of despair.

This General was another of Napoleon’s mistakes. He had been impressed by him at the time of the encampments at Boulogne when he had promised that he could train dragoons to serve either as cavalry or infantry. However, when this system was tried out in 1805, during the Austrian campaign, the Dragoons, now on foot and commanded by Baraguey d’Hilliers in person, were defeated at Wertingen before the eyes of the Emperor, and when placed once more on horseback, they once more suffered the same fate. It was several years before the unit recovered from the effects of this experiment. The originator of the system, having fallen from favour and hoping to re-establish himself by asking to come to Russia, had completed his downfall by capitulating without a struggle, and violating a decree stating that a commander forced to surrender should accompany his men into captivity, and forbidding him from negotiating terms favourable only to himself.

After spending several days at Smolensk, to allow stragglers to catch up with him, the Emperor went to Krasnoe, from where he despatched an officer to 2nd Corps, which was still by the Dvina and was now his only hope of safety.

The regiments of this corps, although they had not suffered the hardship and privation of those who had gone to Moscow, had however been more often in action against the enemy. Napoleon wishing to reward them by appointments to vacant positions, had brought to him for his approval a number of proposals for promotions, several of which related to me. One of these recommended me for the rank only of lieutenant-colonel and it was this that was put before the Emperor for his signature. I have it from General Grundler who, having been detailed to carry the despatch, found himself in the Emperor’s office during the signing, that the Emperor scratched out with his own hand the words Lieutenant-colonel and wrote in the word Colonel, saying "I am paying off an old debt." So, on the 15th of November, I at last became Colonel of the 23rd Chasseurs, although I did not know it until some time later.

The painful retreat was resumed. The enemy, whose strength increased continually, cut off the corps of Prince Eugène, Davout and Ney from the rest of the army. The first two managed to fight their way through to join the Emperor, who was very distressed at the absence of Ney, of whom he had had no news for several days.

On the 19th of November Napoleon reached Orscha. It was now a month since he had left Moscow and there was still a hundred and twenty leagues to cover before reaching the Nieman. The cold was intense.

While the Emperor worried unhappily about the fate of his rear-guard and the gallant Marshal Ney, the latter was engaged in one of the finest feats of arms recorded in history. Leaving Smolensk on the morning of the 17th, after blowing up the ramparts, the Marshal had hardly begun his march when he was assailed by a myriad of the enemy, who attacked both flanks and the front and rear of his column.

Driving them off continually, Ney marched, surrounded by them for three days, to halt eventually before the dangerous pass of the Krasnoe ravine, beyond which could be seen a great mass of Russian troops and an array of guns which opened a lively and sustained fire.

Without being cast down by this unforeseen obstacle the Marshal took the bold decision to force a passage, and ordered the 48th of line, commanded by Colonel Pelet, to attack with the bayonet. At Ney’s command, the French soldiers, although tired, hungry and numb with cold, rushed the Russian batteries and captured them. They were regained by the enemy and captured once more by our men but in the end they had to yield to the superiority in numbers. The 48th, shattered by grape-shot, was largely destroyed. Of the six hundred and fifty men who entered the ravine only about a hundred emerged. Colonel Pelet, gravely wounded was among them.

Night fell, and for the rearguard, all hope of rejoining the Emperor and the rest of the army seemed to be lost; but Ney had confidence in his men, and above all in himself. He ordered lines of fires to be lit, in order to keep the enemy in their camp, in the expectation of a renewed attack the next day, but he had decided to put the Dnieper between himself and the Russians and to entrust his fate and that of his troops to the strength of the ice covering the river. It was while he was trying to decide which was the shortest route to the river that a Russian colonel from Krasnoe arrived, as an envoy, and demanded that Ney should surrender. Ney was indignant, and as the officer was carrying no written instructions, he replied that he did not regard him as an envoy but as a spy who would be executed if he did not guide them to the nearest spot on the bank of the Dnieper. The Russian Colonel was forced to obey.

Ney immediately gave the order to quit the camp in silence, leaving behind the guns, wagons, baggage and those wounded unable to march with him; and helped by the darkness, he reached, after four hours, the banks of the Dnieper. The river was frozen over, but the ice was not everywhere thick enough to bear the weight of a number of men, so the Marshal sent his troops across one by one. Once over the river the troops thought they had reached safety, but dawn revealed an encampment of Cossacks. This was commanded by Hetman Platov who, as was his custom, had spent the evening drinking and was still asleep.

Discipline is so rigid in the Russian army that no one dared wake him nor take up arms without his orders, so the remains of Ney’s Corps were able to pass within a league of the camp without being attacked. The Cossacks did not appear until the next day.

Under constant attack, the Marshal marched for three days along the winding bank of the Dnieper, which would lead him to Orscha, and on the 20th he at last saw this town where he hoped to find the Emperor and the army. He was, however, still separated from Orscha by a large area of open ground in which were many enemy troops, while the Cossacks were preparing to attack him from the rear. Taking up a good defensive position, he sent of a succession of officers to find out if the French were still in Orscha, failing which resistance would no longer be possible. One of these officers reached Orscha where the general headquarters still was. The Emperor was delighted to hear of the return of Marshal Ney, and to rescue him from his dangerous position he sent Prince Eugène and Marshal Mortier who drove off the enemy and brought back Ney and what remained of his unit.

The next day the Emperor continued the retreat. He was joined by troops under the command of Marshal Victor who had recently arrived from Germany, and he made contact with 2nd Corps, where Saint-Cyr had just returned the command to Marshal Oudinot.


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Chicago: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, "Chap. 14.," The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. Iles, George, 1852-1942 and trans. Colt, Oliver C. in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 25, 2023,

MLA: de Marbot, Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin. "Chap. 14." The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, edited by Iles, George, 1852-1942, and translated by Colt, Oliver C., in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 25 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: de Marbot, J, 'Chap. 14.' in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 March 2023, from