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  • James Houser

September 18, 1812 - Napoleon's Invasion of Russia & the Capture of Moscow

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 18, 1812. Emperor Napoleon gazes from the Kremlin out over his prize – what is left of it. The city of Moscow lies in ruins, destroyed by a fire the Russians themselves started. Napoleon’s great invasion of Russia has reached its destination, but not its end, as he sees his entire plan begin to fall apart. With winter approaching, the French Emperor faces an unthinkable decision that will mark the beginning of his downfall.

In 1807, Napoleon was master of Europe. He had defeated every other major power multiple times on the field of battle, and forced them all into humiliating peace deals. The Emperor’s only remaining opponent was the only one he couldn’t reach by land. This was Great Britain, or “perfidious Albion” as Napoleon snidely called her. Though the British armies had been defeated on almost every occasion, they still retained command of the sea – and after Lord Nelson’s heroic victory at Trafalgar in 1805, that control was virtually unshakeable. Napoleon knew he could defeat the British if he could only get to them, but with the English Channel in his way, London may as well have been on the surface of the moon.

Napoleon resorted to non-military means to defeat Britain. The British loved their profits and their trade; he would shut off all trade with Europe. Napoleon’s “Continental System” was effectively a Europe-wide embargo on all British goods, designed to kill the English economy and force them to the bargaining table. The French forced all their allies and their former enemies into this system, and sent troops out to enforce it. Napoleon hoped to put economic pressure on the British government and secure a closed market for French goods.

The “Continental System” was doomed to fail from the outset. No one really believed in it but Napoleon himself, British naval superiority meant that smuggling became everyone’s favorite pastime, and basic economic calculus meant that Britain’s supply would find its way to Europe’s demand one way or another. Napoleon went nuts trying to enforce his Continental System to no avail; this is one of the reasons he ended up in a disastrous war in Spain starting in 1808. Every supposed ally and every humiliated enemy went behind the French back to trade with the British at the drop of a hat, and this made Napoleon’s entire system a massive farce. The most flagrant violator of the System, and Napoleon’s greatest concern, was Russia.

Napoleon’s armies had defeated Russia in 1807, but had not tried to invade the vast hinterlands of the country. Napoleon had believed that he and Tsar Alexander I could try and patch things up and form a mutual alliance against the British, and for a while they were not only allies but something like friends. Soon, though, their interests diverged. Russia wound up in wars against the Ottomans and Sweden that bought them territory and gave their armies valuable experience, increasing Napoleon’s concerns; Napoleon’s usual aggressive and high-handed behavior put up Alexander’s hackles. Napoleon’s friendship with the Poles especially angered Russian nobles, since the Poles and Russians were ancient enemies.

The relationship deteriorated to the breaking point when, in 1811, Alexander officially declared that he was renouncing the Continental System and was reopening trade with the British. This was finally the excuse Napoleon needed. If Russia openly defied him, all of Europe might soon follow his lead. Napoleon began to bring together the armies of the French Empire and prepare for war.

Given Napoleon’s rule over Europe, he was able to draft men from Spain to Poland. About half the army was French – mostly the long-standing veterans of the Grande Armee that had won Napoleon’s victories for a decade – but German, Italian, Austrian, Prussian, and Polish units made up a large part of his force. It was a large pan-European army that the French Emperor would lead to defeat Russia.

And it was a LARGE army. Stupid large. Napoleon assembled a staggering 685,000 men for his main invasion force, which may literally be the largest army ever assembled by anyone up to this point. He brought almost 1,400 pieces of artillery and 200,000 horses for transport and cavalry use. To feed and supply this vast host, he went over the top to prepare enormous quantities of food, ammunition and clothing. Let no one say Napoleon did not prepare as much as he could for the invasion of Russia. It was just that “as much as he could” was not the same thing as “enough.”

While “invading Russia to defeat Britain” might remind you of someone else who launched a disastrous invasion of Russia, Napoleon had reason to believe that he could succeed. He had extensively studied past campaigns in Russia, especially the famous invasion of Charles XII of Sweden, and was determined not to repeat his mistakes. (He would…make entirely new mistakes.) His main goal was to find the main Russian army, defeat it in a major battle of annihilation, and dictate peace terms from there. This was the strategy that had worked for him before.

Napoleon was coming off an unbroken 14-year string of successful campaigns. He was convinced that the Russian peasantry would accept “liberation” from the harsh rule of the Tsar, that Alexander would see reason and back down considering their past relationship, and that his troops could live off the land as they had done in every previous campaign if supply broke down. All of this was sound logic, reasonable and succinct. Too bad none of it proved valid.

Napoleon led his forces across the Niemen River on June 24, 1812. (Napoleon didn’t invade in the winter. He invaded in the summer. Memes are wrong.) His traditionally excellent intelligence corps served him well, and he sought to drive a wedge between the two Russian armies on the frontier. From the beginning, however, the Russians did not behave as expected. Instead of trying to unify and confront Napoleon, the Russian armies just retreated, burning everything behind them. Though the French forces fought several skirmishes with the retreating Russians, no decisive battle occurred and their foes escaped intact. Napoleon had thrown a couple of game-ending punches, but they kept landing on thin air. The Russians traded space for time.

In the meantime, the weather and the Russian scorched-earth tactics were already taking a toll. Unusual heat sapped the strength of both man and beast, and the cavalry was plagued by an epidemic of cholic. A constant roll of thunderstorms turned the roads to mud; wagons sank up to the hub, horses dropped from exhaustion, men lost boots. In the unsanitary conditions of peasant Russia, rampant dysentery and influenza broke out amongst the invaders, and just as many men died from heatstroke. Rations came up short, and the devastated Russian countryside offered no succour. Many of the conscripted Europeans just up and deserted, and clouds of stragglers and deserters fanned off into the Russian wilderness to be picked off by Russian cavalry or guerrillas.

One of the great myths of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is that winter killed his army. The march INTO Russia, however, did far more damage even before winter came. Within the first month, Napoleon had already lost 95,000 men to various causes, and worse was to come. By August, the French forces arrived at Smolensk, and after a brief battle the Russians escaped once again. Napoleon had not wanted to go farther east than Smolensk – he had planned to destroy the Russian army in a major battle within a few weeks. Instead, they had led him on a wild goose chase deeper and deeper towards Moscow. The Emperor faced a stark choice: stop at Smolensk and wait until winter had passed, ending his year’s campaign without a victory and facing a critical loss of prestige and wastage of resources…or keep going and get his decisive battle. Napoleon made the fateful decision to keep marching.

His army continued to suffer losses as he marched eastward. The Russians, meanwhile, weren’t doing so hot themselves. The scorched-earth, Fabian campaign they were waging was proving extremely unpopular at court, and when the Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov planned to abandon Moscow itself without a fight, the Tsar balked. Moscow was no longer the Russian capital – St. Petersburg had been since Peter the Great had built it in 1721 – but it was still the cultural and political heart of Russia, like New York for the United States. The Tsar refused to allow his army to retreat beyond Moscow without a fight. Kutuzov submitted and prepared for battle. Napoleon, learning his foe had stopped and intended to fight, eagerly pushed forward to get the stand-up fight he so desperately sought.

The result was the famous and horrific Battle of Borodino, fought on September 7, 1812. Kutuzov and his Russian army had assembled a series of defensive positions at the village of Borodino, 82 miles west of Moscow. Napoleon approached with the forward units of his rapidly diminishing army, and when he went into battle their numbers were almost easily matched. Borodino was a colossal, brutal battle, with almost 250,000 men on the field from both sides. Enormous batteries of cannon smashed apart formations of men, great swarms of French cuirassiers and Russian Cossacks hacked at each other in cinematic charges, the much-loved Georgian Prince Bagration died defending the Great Redoubt in the center of the Russian line, and huge clouds of infantry in blue and green uniforms fired and smashed away at each other in muddy ravines and atop barren hills.

The Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest day of the Napoleonic Wars and of the whole 19th Century. Larger and more devastating than any battle of the American Civil War, it cost Napoleon a third of his army and the Russians half. Around 35,000 French and allies and 45,000 Russians were killed, wounded, or captured; among the French losses were 47 generals. And after all that, the Russians were battered and driven out of their positions – but not broken. Napoleon won a Pyrrhic victory at Borodino; he had won, but not by enough. He had needed to destroy the Russian Army, instead, he only lost many of his best soldiers and commanders. In his memoirs Napoleon would remark, “The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves worthy of victory, but the Russians showed themselves worthy of being invincible.”

Both sides slept in their positions on that night, exhausted after the day of slaughter. Napoleon almost always launched a vigorous pursuit of his defeated enemy after a battle, but not today. When morning came, the Russians withdrew, defeated on the field but not in spirit. The Battle of Borodino’s unusually high cost did not alter the outcome one iota. Just as before, Kutuzov retreated, Napoleon pursued.

On September 8, Kutuzov called a council of his subordinates and informed them of his plan to abandon Moscow. He would not fight for Russia’s greatest city, but instead would evacuate it and leave an empty shell for the French. He had been the main advocate for scorched-earth tactics, and was about to take it to its extreme. Kutuzov and the Russians had left no food, no shelter, no aid for the French as they retreated. The Emperor would not take Moscow intact.

The French entered Moscow on September 14, 1812, with the ailing Napoleon riding at their head. He was surprised to receive no delegation from the city. It was traditional for the civil authorities of a conquered city to present themselves to arrange for the occupation. Napoleon sent out aides looking for officials or anyone to work with, but soon it became clear that Moscow was nearly deserted. Kutuzov had evacuated the vast majority of the 270,000 civilians, who had taken all their food and valuables with them. The Grande Armee had entered a ghost town – stripped of everything to make it bearable. As the Emperor and his army settled in, they could at least take comfort in the fact that they had shelter.

Not for long. The Governor of Moscow had secretly left behind a small detachment of police. Their mission: burn the city to the ground. The French could have its corpse. On the first night of the occupation, a small fire started in the Bazaar. The French reacted quickly, and when more fires broke out in the suburbs, the French generals assumed they were the result of soldiers being dumb soldiers. (A not unfair assumption.) On the night of September 15, though, the city began to burn for real, and all illusions were gone.

The Russian arsonists had prepared houses with flammables, destroyed the city’s fire engines and left burning fuses across the city. Soon, though, the heat was rising and the ancient wooden city, with centuries of built-up debris and slums, was a perfect tinderbox. Napoleon, to his great credit, took charge of organizing the firefighting, directing detachments to save the Kremlin and organizing evacuations of the few civilians still left in the city. But the Russians had done their work.

On September 18, 1812, the last fires went out in Moscow. Around four-fifths of the city was left in blackened, charred ruins, and the French army surveyed the destruction haplessly. From his quarters in the Kremlin, Napoleon looked out over his shattered prize. Surely, he thought, the Tsar had to see reason now. For it all to have come to this… Napoleon sent out multiple messages to Tsar Alexander I, offering to settle the war, to make peace, to accept terms that could be honorable to them both. The only response the Tsar gave was silence. There was no reply, no message, not even a verbal rumor outside of official channels. The Tsar froze Napoleon out.

He was about to be assisted in that mission. Winter was coming. Stranded hundreds of miles in enemy country, with their food stocks running low, half the Grande Armee already dead, injured or captured, and without a decisive victory under his belt, Napoleon needed to retreat back to Poland before winter set in. But he delayed, and delayed, and delayed, beseeching the Tsar to make peace, to wring *something* concrete out of this miserable campaign into the heart of Eurasia. But the only answer was silence. When Napoleon did get moving on October 19, 1812, it was far too late. Winter was here.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia failed for one major reason: Napoleon underestimated the Russian army, the Russian resolve, and the Russian Tsar. He had won colossal, wonderful victories in his career. He had taken France to the height of its power. He had conquered Europe and redrawn its map. But when he tried his old tricks in 1812, they had not worked.

The Russians had refused to give him his decisive battle; instead, they retreated into the interior, draining his strength, and the Battle of Borodino was almost worse for Napoleon than for the Russians. The Russians had burned everything in his path, so Napoleon could not live off the land as he had always done in Germany or Italy. These scorched-earth tactics and the inhuman weather caused his army to hemorrhage casualties even as they moved deeper into Russia. The population, far from accepting their “liberation” from Russian feudalism, were uniformly hostile. And even as Napoleon, Emperor of France, stood in the ashes of his enemy’s capital, the Tsar refused to bend or “see reason.” And so Napoleon’s invasion of Russia foundered on his own hubris.

But the story is not over yet. Napoleon still has to escape…if he can. See you on December 14.

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