French War of 1812

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The French war of 1812 was one of the most decisive conflicts of modern times. Napoleon crossed the Russian frontier on June 24, 1812, with more than 650,000 troops, and just a few months later recrossed the frontier, defeated, with less than one-tenth of that number. Although winter played a role in the deaths of tens of thousands of French soldiers during the retreat, Russia won the campaign through a skillful withdrawal and the careful selection of battlefields. Napoleon contributed to his own disaster by failing to provide adequately for an extended campaign in terms both of supplies and of reinforcements.

Originally Russia had contemplated an invasion of French-held Poland, but the Russian commander, Mikhail B. Barclay de Tolly, quickly changed the plan. When Napoleon crossed the frontier, Barclay de Tolly intended to have his First Army withdraw to a fortified camp at Drissa, luring Napoleon's main body behind it. While Napoleon attacked the camp, Peter I. Bagration's Second Army was to fall on the French rear, destroying the invading army. The plan was abandoned and the retreat began when the Russians realized that Napoleon's force was more than twice as large as they had believed.

The Russian armies had been drawn up with a considerable gap between them, and Napoleon drove right through it, intending to keep them separated. Barclay de Tolly and Bagration naturally wished to link up before they accepted battle, but were unable to do so before reaching Smolensk in mid-August. Facing ever-increasing pressure from Tsar Alexander to fight, Barclay de Tolly prepared to accept battle supported by Smolensk's impressive walls. Napoleon, however, attempted to envelop the Russian position rather than attack head-on. As Barclay de Tolly became aware of this movement, he decided once again that discretion was the better part of valor and withdrew from Smolensk rather than risk losing his army.

Frustrated by this continued retreating and also by the bickering between Barclay de Tolly and Bagration, neither of whom was prepared to take orders from the other, Alexander appointed Mikhail I. Kutuzov as overall commander of what was now effectively an army group comprising two armies marching together. Despite Alexander's continued prodding, Kutuzov continued the retreat. As he neared Moscow, he recognized that he would have to give battle before abandoning Russia's ancient capital, and so he selected the field near Borodino, which he prepared with field fortifications.

Napoleon, chastened by his experience at Smolensk and desperate for a decisive battle, refused the advice of his subordinates to envelop the Russian position at Borodino and on September 7 launched a bloody frontal assault instead. The Russian army held, and Kutuzov mustered it to continue its retreat that night. Barely pausing in Moscow, Kutuzov withdrew to the south in order to prevent Napoleon from marching into the rich fields of Ukraine to replenish his supplies, and also to protect Russian reinforcements coming from those regions. Napoleon occupied Moscow on September 14 and remained in the city for more than a month before abandoning it on October 18. During the French occupation, the city was destroyed almost completely in an enormous fire, although the exact cause of the blaze remains unclear and controversial to this day.

Having decided to leave Moscow when Alexander refused to make any move toward peace, Napoleon tried to march southward but found Kutuzov's army arrayed against him at Maloyaroslavets. The bloody battle there on October 2425 forced Napoleon back to the Warsaw-Moscow highway along which he had originally invaded, and he began the long retreat by the way he had come.

Napoleon's retreating forces suffered horribly. They had eaten most of the supplies along the road on their inward march, and the Russians had deliberately pursued a scorched-earth policy to destroy the remaining supplies. The burning of Moscow had also deprived Napoleon of valuable supplies, and when Kutuzov cut him off from Ukraine, the fate of the Grande Armée was sealed. All the way back to the Russian border, peasants, Cossacks, and Russian regular troops harried the French, who died in droves. The Russians attempted to cut off the French retreat altogether at the Battle of the Berezina on November 2728. Although Napoleon managed to batter his way through, his casualties were staggering. When the remnants of the French army struggled across the Russian frontier, one of the most powerful armies ever assembled to that point in history had been virtually wiped out.

It is customary to credit the Russian winter with the destruction of the French army, but this notion is greatly exaggerated. The most critical events in the campaignNapoleon's initial operations, the maneuver at Smolensk, the Battle of Borodino, the seizure of Moscow, and even the Battle of Maloyaroslavetswere fought before hard cold and snow set in. The Russian army was forced to confront the vast French force on its own without climatological aids for four months, and literally hundreds of thousands of French soldiers perished in that time. The hard winter that followed merely added to the misery and completed the destruction of a French force that had already been defeated by Russian arms.

The invasion of Russia set the stage for the collapse of Napoleon's hegemony in Europe. In the wake of Napoleon's flight, the Prussian auxiliary corps he had forced to advance into the Baltic States made peace with the Russia on its own accord and committed Prussia to fight against France. As Russian forces crossed their own frontier and marched westward, Austria, Britain, and Sweden were persuaded to join the now-victorious Russian army, and the final coalition against Napoleon was born. By catalyzing this last great and victorious coalition, the War of 1812 marked a profound turning point in European history and also in Russian history. Pursuing the French back to France, Russian troops found themselves in Paris itself. Alexander committed himself absolutely to a prominent role in the affairs of the entire European continent. Russian soldiers who had the unique chance to see the French capital, on the other hand, would ultimately become so frustrated with Alexander's conservative regime as to stage the Decembrist Rebellion in 1825. The costs of this greatest of Russian victories were, in every respect, staggering.

See also: borodino, battle of; decembrist movement and rebellion; france, relations with; holy alliance; kutuzov, mikhail ilarionovich; quadruple alliance and quintuple alliance


Duffy, Christopher. (1973). Borodino and the War of 1812. New York: Scribner.

Tarle, Evgeny Viktorovich. (1942). Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frederick W. Kagan