Though hastily chosen and prepared, the Russian position at Borodino was well suited to a defensive battle, occupying as it did an elevated plateau between the Kalatsha River and a series of low hills along the Smolensk Road. In the center lay the village of Borodino, while some five hundred yards south of the village a massive earthen fortification known as the Great Redoubt (also known as the Raevski Redoubt) dominated the battlefield. A grouping of lesser earthworks (the Fleches) lay between it and the village of Utitza, where the Russian left was anchored on the Smolensk Road. A third fortified hilltop lay about a thousand yards west of the Fleches near the village of Shevardino, and it was against this relatively isolated position that the initial engagement took place on 5 September as elements of the French vanguard under Murat arrived on the field and sought a foothold south of the river. Eventually outflanked, the fort fell to the French late in the day and a Russian attempt to retake it was beaten back in the gathering darkness. The fighting ended with the Russians holding fast along a line running from Utitza to Borodino.
Throughout the next day, the 6th, both armies continued to come into line while the two commanders surveyed each other’s dispositions. Reconciled to a largely defensive battle, Kutusov spread his forces out evenly along a line running from the Kalatsha to Utitza and prepared to hold on with sheer Russian doggedness. For his part, Napoleon quickly ruled out a thrust against the Russian right, where the Kalatsha, though fordable, presented a considerable obstacle. Concentrating his forces south of Borodino, he intended to turn the Russian left and drive the enemy into the angle between the Kalatsha and Moskva Rivers. To this end a Polish corps under Marshal Poniatowski was to move first, capturing Utitza and gaining the Old Smolensk Road, whereupon Marshals Davout and then Ney would take their respective corps forward en echelon against the enemy’s fortifications. With only three of his five divisions on hand, Davout misliked the plan, and recommended instead a flanking movement to envelop and roll up the Russian left. From a strictly tactical standpoint, it was clearly the better option, promising success without the fearful casualties to be expected in a frontal assault against the Russian earthworks. Napoleon gave the idea short shrift, however, making light of Davout’s penchant for flank attacks (never mind the record of the marshal’s many successes from Austerlitz onward) and insisting on his original plan. In all likelihood the real reason for the Emperor’s refusal was too cold-blooded to bear explaining to those about to do the fighting; fearful that a sudden success against their flank might send the Russians fleeing eastward, Napoleon may well have been seeking a deliberate battle of attrition.
In any case, Davout’s reluctance to engage in a slugfest against an entrenched enemy would soon prove entirely justified. Stepping off at first light on the 7th, Poniatowski’s attack on Utitza quickly ran into difficult terrain and was delayed for over three hours, by which time Davout’s divisions had gone forward against the Russian line and been badly mauled by a combination of infantry and cavalry counterthrusts. In the gathering storm of battle Davout himself was partially stunned when an exploding shell killed his horse beneath him. Even so, he managed to stay in the field, pressing his troops forward in support of Ney, whose initial attack succeeded in driving the Russians out of the Fleches. By 9:30 Poniatowski had captured Utitza and was engaged in driving the Russians from a formidable line of entrenchments in the woods beyond, while on the opposite end of the line Eugène seized Borodino and was preparing to move against the Great Redoubt.
Meanwhile Kutusov had begun shifting troops from his right to his left and center, and as he fed them into the fight the Russians proved their legendary stubbornness in defense of entrenched positions. Retaking the Fleches, they held them briefly before another French attack drove them out, at which point they regrouped and came on again. And so it went throughout the morning hours. With Davout barely able to sit a horse, the French effort lacked coordination and neither side was able to do more than run up the enemy’s casualty figures. In time, however, the superiority of the French artillery began to tell, and as large numbers of Russian reinforcements continued to crowd onto the unprotected heights at the center of the battlefield the terrors of a style of warfare in which entire formations were obliged to remain in position in the face of concerted shellfire were fully realized. (One theory holds that Napoleon’s insistence on a frontal assault was designed to create just such an opportunity for his gunners.) As the French cannoneers found their range, shot after shot left gaping holes in the Russian formations, littering the ground with horribly mangled bodies, among them Prince Bagration himself. Though Kutusov had begun the battle with as many as a hundred more guns than the enemy, the Russian crews were not nearly as effective and the French positions not as exposed, and thus the terrible slaughter in the Russian ranks went largely unanswered.
By noon, the steam had started to go out of the Russian effort, and Marshal Ney, having secured the Fleches at last, began battering his way into the village of Semyonovskaya. With Poniatowski across the Old Smolensk Road east of Utitza and Eugène massing for an attack on the Great Redoubt, the Russian left and center was on the brink of collapse. It was at this point, however, that a large force of Russian cavalry, having splashed across the Kalatsha north of Borodino, penetrated the French flank guard to threaten the enemy’s supply train. (In a desperate bid to tip the scales in his favor, Kutusov ordered the attack–his one offensive action of the battle–without the benefit of infantry support nor, apparently, with a clearly-defined objective.) The Russian horsemen were eventually driven off by a combination of Delzon’s infantry and the train’s escort, but not before compelling Eugène to redirect troops back across the Kalatsha to bolster his flank, a movement that cost the French an hour’s delay. Thus, according to the complex calculus of battle, the ill-defined cavalry attack may well have saved the Russians from disaster.
The contest turned next on the capture of the heavily-garrisoned Great Redoubt, a massive earthen fort bristling with guns at the center of the Russian line. About 2 p.m., after considerable delay, French heavy cavalry under General Caulaincourt swept forward in an irresistible charge that passed south of the fort, meeting and repelling a Russian counter-charge. Next, wheeling left, the armored cuirasseurs waded into Russian infantry behind the redoubt even as French infantry stormed the position from the front. Under the combined weight of the attack, the fort fell and the French quickly managed to drive off a Russian effort to retake it. Meanwhile, French supports moved forward between the fort and Semyonovskaya, and thus, in one well-coordinated operation the Russian center was shattered.
The battle’s climax having arrived, the French were poised to break through the enemy’s reforming line and destroy Kutusov’s army before it could regain its footing. Riding forward to Semyonovskaya, Napoleon surveyed the new Russian positions at close range while his advisors urged him to deliver a final, decisive blow. At this point, however, he hesitated, reluctant to send in his “last reserve.” (In fact, he had on hand some 30,000 troops who had seen little or no action.) As a young man he had once counseled, “When you contemplate giving battle, it is a general rule to collect all your strength and to leave none unemployed. One battalion sometimes decides the issue of the day.” For once, however, he seemed content to ignore his own advice. Indeed, he seemed scarcely himself, remaining strangely aloof and giving little real direction to the course of the fighting, a lethargy at least partly attributable to a bad head cold. No doubt an awareness of his isolation deep within enemy territory preyed on his thoughts; perhaps fatherhood had made him instinctively more cautious; after more than two months of arduous campaigning, he may simply have been exhausted. In any case, he declined to press his advantage, and, returning to Shivardino, allowed the battle to devolve into an artillery duel.
The Russians held their position until nightfall, then began an orderly retreat upon Moscow. Thus, while Napoleon could claim a tactical victory, the opportunity to destroy the Russian army, an opportunity he had been seeking throughout the long campaign, had been lost, and with some justification Kutusov could claim a larger strategic triumph. Though the Russians had suffered an appalling 40,000 casualties, reinforcements and supplies were near at hand, and their army would recover relatively quickly. The French, meanwhile, could not easily replace their 30,000 losses (including 43 generals and 110 colonels), and their situation would only grow more precarious with the passage of time. Then too, the Russians had but to wait; with each passing week their traditional ally, winter, was drawing nearer. Soon, the invaders would feel its awful presence settle over them.
Meanwhile, Kutusov scrambled to find suitable ground for another battle before the gates of Moscow, swearing to die before giving the city up to the invaders. At the last moment, however, he thought better of his oath, and after conferring with his officers he began evacuating his forces to the south. The about-face enraged Moscow’s phlegmatic governor, Count Rostopchin, who now set in motion an unparalleled act of defiance. Giving orders for the destruction or removal of all fire-fighting equipment, Rostopchin sent agents throughout the city warning its inhabitants that Moscow was doomed. Terrified, the city’s population crowded into the streets to see the army marching off in advance of the enemy’s arrival, and, gathering whatever belongings they could put their hands on, they followed. Soon a vast horde of refugees was streaming through the Kolomna gate and fanning out across the countryside to the south in search of shelter. Next, Rostopchin ordered the evacuation of the city’s prisons, whose inmates flooded into the streets to form a deranged and dangerous mob. Addressing them as “sons of Russia,” he encouraged them to wreak a terrible vengeance on the French. Then he too departed, leaving behind in the city’s hospitals thousands of sick and wounded whose fate scarcely bears contemplating.
Arriving at the city’s western gates on 14 September, Murat’s cavalry came upon the Russian rear guard and a deal was struck whereby the retreating enemy was allowed time to evacuate the city without harassment. For a time the soldiers of both armies commingled, and when a group of Cossacks recognized the flamboyant Murat they gathered round him in awe, calling him by their name for supreme leader, Hetman. Napoleon arrived sometime in the afternoon and, after gazing in wonder at the ancient capital, waited on a hill outside the gates for the customary delegation of citizens to appear for the purpose of officially surrendering the city. When reports arrived that the city was empty, he refused to believe them. It was not possible that this great metropolis of some 300,000 souls, a city full of treasures, would simply be abandoned. When evening came without any sign of Moscow’s leaders, however, the truth began to dawn on him. By this time, Murat’s cavalrymen had passed through the sprawling city in eerie silence, the sounds of their horses’ hoofbeats echoing off the empty buildings as they made their way to the Kolomna gate and fired a few obligatory volleys in the direction of the retreating Russians. It was after dark when Napoleon finally entered the city he had come so far to conquer, taking up temporary quarters in a large house in one of the western suburbs. Now nearly two thousand miles from Paris, his dreams of a glorious conquest fading fast, he rested fitfully as word of a great fire arrived during the night.
By morning the rumors were confirmed; the city’s central Bazaar was ablaze. Napoleon responded with a flurry of orders and went to the scene of the fires to oversee efforts to put them out. He then rode to the walled enclosure of the Kremlin to establish his new headquarters. Despite the shock of finding the city evacuated, he considered that all was still well. Tsar Alexander would eventually come to accept the French victory and sue for peace. Meanwhile, the army would rest and refit. Throughout the city the troops were already busy laying claim to the best houses and feasting on the spoils of victory. Among themselves the soldiers marveled at their accomplishment; having achieved what would surely be seen as one of the greatest feats of arms in history, they now stood on the threshold of Asia.
That night, however, more fires sprang up in the city’s northern districts. Driven by a northerly gale, the flames spread rapidly, and by daylight of the 16th the conflagration was beyond all efforts to control it. The work of hundreds of Russian incendiaries, the fires were emblematic of an implacable hatred that grew and fed upon itself. From his rooms in the Kremlin palace, Napoleon stood watching the catastrophe in baffled amazement, uttering a series of exclamations in which shock gave way to a begrudging sort of admiration. Here was an enemy whose resolve was a match for his own. Even as he stood watching, word came that the Kremlin itself was on fire, and after a series of entreaties by his marshals he was finally compelled to leave lest he be trapped by the flames. As a result of his delay, it was only by the narrowest of margins that he was able to make his way out of the Kremlin and through the burning city. Heading north, upwind of the fire, he spent the night in Petrovski.
While Moscow continued to burn out of control, Napoleon considered his options. His first thought was to initiate a fresh offensive, either north against St. Petersburg or south against Kutusov’s army. When word arrived in Petrovski that much of the Kremlin had been saved from the flames, however, he decided to return to Moscow, unable to disabuse himself of the fantasy that Alexander would suddenly relent and make peace. Earlier in his career, in conversation with a Russian ambassador, he had compared his rival European monarchs to ducks who had been hit on the head and knew not which way to fly. Now he was the one who seemed stunned and without a clear sense of direction.
Kutusov, meanwhile, had not been idle, stealing a march on Murat during the night of 15-16 September and swinging his forces westward toward Podolsk. During the march, the burning city lit up the sky to the north and the roar of the fire could be heard on the winds of the gale, filling the Russian soldiers with a lust for revenge. No longer tasked with halting the advance of the French juggernaut, Kutusov could now direct his energies against the enemy’s long and vulnerable line of communication and supply, a mission for which his Cossacks–superb horsemen of Tatar origin–were eminently well-adapted. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Tsar Alexander received the news of Moscow’s destruction with profound shock followed by righteous defiance. The war that had come about in part as a result of his political difficulties at home would now provide him with the means to reassert his leadership. “Shall we draw back now,” he enjoined his countrymen, “when all Europe is following us with encouraging eyes? Let us be an example to them, and welcome the Hand which has chosen us to be the first nation in the cause of truth and liberty!”
Napoleon arrived back in the Tsar’s palace at the Kremlin on the 20th, by which time much of Moscow had been burned beyond recognition, the streets and landmarks all but obliterated. Huddled around bonfires amid the smoky rubble, the soldiers of the Grand Army were likewise scarcely recognizable, having become indistinguishable from thousands of Russian soldiers and civilians who had been driven out of hiding by the fire and with whom the invaders shared their camps. It seemed the great fire had left its survivors in a strange netherworld where friend and foe, soldier and civilian, luxury and squalor, coexisted. Here French soldiers, their faces and uniforms blackened by smoke, could be seen lounging on silk sofas amid piles of rare furs and other fineries, eating partly-cooked horseflesh before fires they fed with pieces of expensive mahogany furniture. Under such conditions, military discipline quickly fell apart, and those resources that might have been salvaged to sustain the army as a whole were systematically squandered in an orgy of pillaging. Worse still, before order was restored thousands of Russian stragglers would escape to rejoin Kutusov’s army.
And still Napoleon waited, convinced that any sign of weakness or retreat would lead to a disastrous succession of political reverses. September passed with no word from Alexander, and on 3 October Napoleon called his marshals together to propose an advance upon St. Petersburg. The idea met with scant enthusiasm, however, and the meeting ended on a querulous note when Davout and others put forward well-reasoned objections. Tellingly, Napoleon was not greatly upset by their resistance; in all probability, he never seriously considered the scheme, presenting it only as a means to cover efforts to open peace talks on his own. Even here, however, he met with resistance from his subordinates. His first choice for negotiator, Armand Caulaincourt (brother of the hero of Borodino), understood Alexander and the Russians well enough to know that such a mission was a waste of time and said so with his usual bluntness. In response Napoleon grew peevish and abruptly sent for his former ambassador to Russia, Jacques Lauriston, who also misliked the chances for success and wisely counseled the Emperor to undertake an immediate withdrawal to Kaluga. Suddenly angry, Napoleon shot back, “I like simple plans, the roads with the fewest turns, the main roads, the ones we took to reach here; but I will not return over them till peace has been made!”
Tasked with carrying the Emperor’s letter to the Tsar, Lauriston was ordered to go first to Russian headquarters, where he was to negotiate directly with Kutusov for safe passage to St. Petersburg. Upon his arrival in the Russian camp on 5 October, an immediate suspension of hostilities was arranged, but a series of delays soon followed. Clearly seeking to engage in drawn-out negotiations while they continued to build up their forces and await the turning of the season, the Russians dragged their feet, refusing to grant a direct meeting with Kutusov. Lauriston responded by storming off, glad of the opportunity to abandon the mission, at which point the Russians quickly relented. When at last the meeting was held, Kutusov expressed a sincere desire for peace but explained that he did not have the authority to give Lauriston safe passage to St. Petersburg. Instead, with artful Russian guile he proposed that one of his own officers deliver the Emperor’s letter, during which time both sides would agree to an armistice until the details of a larger peace could be worked out. Despite the fact that the arrangement gave the Russians complete control over the timetable of events, Napoleon was taken in by the offer, and for the next two weeks he remained in Moscow, content to allow his direst enemies to control his fate.
Two weeks. In the long tradition of historical hindsight those two weeks assume monumental significance. As it happened, the weather during that crucial interval was unseasonably warm and dry, with fair skies and bright sun. As yet no snow had fallen, and the roads along the return route were clear and easily passable. What might have been accomplished during those two weeks is a question one cannot help but ponder. The entire Friedland campaign had taken less than two weeks. Two weeks had been all the time required for the complex series of maneuvers that resulted in the Austrian defeat at Ratisbon. Of all the regrets and second thoughts Napoleon was to experience throughout the long months of exile that lay ahead of him, the memory of those two weeks must surely have been among the most painful to recall.
Meanwhile the soldiers of the Grand Army, forced to travel farther and farther afield to forage for provisions, increasingly fell victim to guerilla attacks, and what had begun as a feast of plentiful spoils devolved into a daily struggle for the necessities of life. Even the Russian serfs rose up against the invaders. On 10 October a band of peasants stormed the outlying town of Vereia, whose French garrison was surrounded and slaughtered to the last man. Ominously, the attack was conceived and led by the local priest. About the same time, Murat–whose vanity had led him to contemplate a second career as leader of a Cossack army–was suddenly brought back to earth when one of his erstwhile idolaters took a shot at him. Enraged, the French commander threatened to break the armistice if such sniping continued. The Russians, however, were way ahead of him, and on the 18th Kutusov initiated a full-scale attack on Murat’s position near Tarutino. Thrown back and nearly cut off from the rest of the army, Murat managed to rally his troops and fight his way out of the trap, but he himself would be wounded and his forces badly mauled in the encounter.
Revealing the depths of the Russian deception, the attack served as a wake-up call for Napoleon, who quickly sprang into action, issuing a flurry of orders with his usual thoroughness. Seeking to withdraw through country not already picked clean of supplies, he planned to march on Kaluga, well south of the route along which he had arrived. Thus, on 19 October, more than a month after its arrival, the Grand Army left Moscow and started on the long journey back to France. Despite the the city’s destruction and its resulting hardships, the army was still a potent force, with over 100,000 combatants (an increase of some 10,000 over its strength upon arrival), 500 guns, and 2,000 wagons. In its train, however, was a vast horde of as many as 40,000 refugees and hirelings laden with plunder of all sorts, (including a giant, gold-plated cross Napoleon planned to install atop the Invalides in Paris). Clinging to the army as to a liferaft, this unorganized mob would prove a serious hindrance and compound the terrible suffering that was to come, eventually falling by the wayside in an agonizing odyssey of despair.