Moscow – Napoleon’s Visit – Russian Travel

Various accounts are given respecting the first entry of the troops into Moscow. Some of the inhabitants who remained, having faith in the assurances of Rostopchin, welcomed the invaders, believing them to be some of the foreign allies of the Russian army. An official who had not been able to escape states that he saw some serfs carrying arms from the arsenal, one, who was intoxicated, had a musket in one hand and in the other a carbine, for remarking upon the folly of such an armament, the man threw first the musket then the carbine at him, and a crowd of rioters rushed from the arsenal all armed, as the advance-guard of the French approached. The captain begged an interpreter to advise the crowd to throw down their arms and not engage in an unequal struggle, but the ignorant people, excited if not intoxicated, fired a few rounds accidentally, or by design, and the French thereupon made use of their artillery, and a wild fight ensued. After some ten or a dozen had been sabered, the others asked for quarter, and received it. Another story is to the effect that some of the armed citizens mistaking a general for Napoleon, fired at him as he approached the Kremlin and were then charged by his guard and put to flight. When later, Napoleon rode up to the Borovitski Gate, a decrepit soldier, a tottering veteran, too stubborn to forsake his post, resolutely blocked the way and was mercilessly struck down by the advance-guard.

The fires commenced the same evening that the French entered the town; there were no engines available and the soldiers, hungry and joyful, disregarded the danger and attended to their more immediate needs. Rostopehin had ordered that the contents of the “cellars” should be burned, but there was no lack of liquor, and the conquerors were not to he denied.

So while rank and file caroused, the small beginnings of the great conflagration were neglected and men were powerless to cope with the later developments, tho some worked like Trojans. The stores of oil, the spirits, the inflammable wares in the Gostinnoi Dvor were ignited, and altho Marshal Mortier worked well to extinguish the fires near the Kremlin, the lack of engines and the continuous outbursts of fresh fires, made complete success impossible. The looting of the town commenced at once; soon the greedy soldiers left their partly cooked rations to search for valuables, even the sentinels forsook their posts and they fought with the rabble from the prisons for such goods as seemed most easily removed. In time, not content with such as had been abandoned, they commenced to rob from the person; women were spoiled of head-dresses and gowns, the men fought with each other for the temporary possession of pelf. The only lights for this unholy work were the torches all carried and the fires the looters set ablaze in order that they might see. When Napoleon thought the conflagration was the result of a preconcerted scheme he ordered all incendiaries to be shot, and then none dare carry a light by night without risk of being there and then shot by some predatory soldier on his own initiative, or, not less surcly executed in due form after a mock court-martial at dawn of day.

Discipline was lax; among the soldiery of the army of occupation, many bold souls did just as they wished, and of their enormities, their cruel-ties and shameful orgies, nothing need be written. Others had leave of absence—a license to pilfer. They not only ransacked the occupied houses, but dragged people from their hiding places, harnessed them to carts, with bayonet and sword urged them on, heavily laden, through burning streets, and saving themselves from the crumbling walls and roofs, saw their miserable captives crusht, buried, or struggling among the burning debris, and abandoned to their fate. In the immediate neighborhood of the Kremlin the pilfering was official; in the Cathedral of the Assumption, great scales and steelyards were set up, and out-side two furnaces, one for gold the other for silver, were kept ever burning to melt down the settings torn from the sacred pictures, the church vessels, the gilt ornaments, ay, even the decorations on the priests’ robes. Horses were stabled in the cathedrals and churches; Marshal Davoust slept in the sanctuary with sentinels on both sides of the “royal doors” of the ikonostas. “Destroy that mosque,” was Napoleon’s peremptory order to one of his generals with reference to the Church of the Protection of the Virgin, but he delayed executing the order finding this cathedral convenient as a stable and storehouse.

At first the fire was most severe in the ware-houses flanking the Grand Square and along the quays. It spread most rapidly amid the great stores on the south side of the river. The Balchoog was a sea of flame and the whole of Za moskvoretski quarter was practically destroyed. On the other side the burning Gostinnoi Dvor ignited neigboring stores in the Nikolskaya, Ilyinka and elsewhere on the Kitai Gored. The gleeds carried by a north wind threatened the palaces in the Kremlin—where, under a cloud of sparks, the buildings glowed red and seemed to many to be also burning. The ammunition had already been brought there and caused the French great anxiety. Napoleon, after a peaceful night in the royal palace, was unwilling to believe that the fires were other than accidental, but as the day waned and the fires increased in number as well as size, he grew agitated and ex-claimed, “They are true to themselves, these Scythian! It is the work of incendiaries; what men then are they, these Scythians !”

He passed the next night in the Kremlin, but not at rest. It was with the greatest difficulty that the soldiers on the roof of the palace disposed of the burning fragments that at times fell upon the metal like a shower of hail The heat was intense; the stores of spirits exploded, and blue flames hid the yellow and orange of the burning timbers and darted with lightning rapidity in all directions, a snake-like progress through the denser parts of the town, firing even the logs of wood with which the streets were at that time paved. When the fire reached the hospitals, where 20,000 unfortunate wounded lay almost helpless, scenes of unmitigated horror were witnessed by the invaders unable to succor, and chiefly intent on their own safety. The famous Imperial Guard stationed in the Kremlin was divided into two sections; one was occupied in struggling against the fire, the other held all in readiness for instant flight. At last the Church of the Trinity caught fire, and while the guard at once set about its destruction, Napoleon, with the King of Naples, Murat, Beauharnais, Berthier and his staff, left the Kremlin hurriedly for the Petrovski Palace. The Tverskaya was ablaze, passage by that way impossible; the party crossed for the Nikitskaya, but in the neighborhood of the Arbat lost their way, and after many adventures and near escapes found the suburbs, and by a roundabout route reached the palace at nightfall.

In many places the fire had burned out by September the fifth, and that night a heavy rain, luckily continued during the next day, stopt the spread of the fire, and on Sunday, the 8th, Napoleon returned over the still smoldering embers to his old quarters in the Kremlin. Amid or near by the cinders of the capital, Napoleon remained for more than a month. The remaining inhabitants suffered great hardships; some fraternized with the French soldiers and helped in quenching fires, but parties accused of incendiarism were still led out almost daily to execution. The French residents were in a most pitiable condition; Napoleon could not or would not do anything for them ; they, and the rest of the citizens, with many of the soldiers were soon threatened with starvation.

In Moscow there are now few traces of the French invasion, for its effect was general rather than particular. The palace occupied by Napoleon has been destroyed; in its place the Czar Nicholas built his new Imperial residence, from the windows of which may still be seen the old Borovitski Gate, by which Napoleon first entered and last left the Kremlin. Beyond that gate there is now an immense and stately pile, the magniflcent new Cathedral of Our Savior, built by the people in gratitude for their deliverance from the invaders. A monument that furnishes conclusive evidence that the spirit of earnestness which actuated the old cathedral builders is not yet extinct in Russia.

One other memorial of the times will attract the attention of visitors to the Kremlin; arranged along the front of the arsenal, opposite the Senate House, are seen the cannon captured from, or abandoned by, the Grande Aimee. The inscriptions, one in French the other in Russian, on the plates to the right and left of the principal entrance set forth the origin of these trophies. Most of the weapons have the Napoleonic initial boldly engraved upon the breech; actually only 365 are French; there are 189 Austrian, 123 Prussian, 40 Neapolitan, 36 Bavarian, 1 Westphalian, 12 Saxon, 1 Hanoverian, 70 Italian, 3 Wurtenibergian, 8 Spanish, 22 Dutch) 5 Polish—in all 875.

Before the great fire there were over 2,500 brick or stone buildings in Moscow, and about 6,600 of wood; the fire destroyed over 2,000 of the brick buildings and some 4,500 of the wooden dwellings.