Fought on 7 September 1812, Borodino was the climactic battle of Napoleon I's Russian campaign of 1812. The Treaties of Tilsit, which ended the last Franco-Russian war in 1807, had committed Russia to Napoleon's Continental System—a complete embargo on trade with Great Britain. By 1810 Tsar Alexander I of Russia had decided that this embargo was hurting Russia too badly and that Napoleon was too unreliable an ally. He abandoned the system, therefore, and tensions between St. Petersburg and Paris rapidly rose. By mid-June 1812, Napoleon had assembled a vast army of well over a half-million men on the Russian frontier, drawn from all of the nations of conquered Europe. Alexander had mustered an army that was large for Russia, but still much smaller than Napoleon's.
Alexander stationed his forces in four main armies arrayed along his frontier from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The forces directly opposite the French were divided into two armies. The First Army, under the command of Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, was to withdraw at the beginning of hostilities to a fortified camp at Drissa on the Western Dvina River, while the Second, commanded by Prince Peter Bagration, was to sweep into the rear of the French army that the Russians expected would follow Barclay.
Napoleon had invaded Russia hoping to force a battle near the frontier. He drove the bulk of his army between Barclay's and Bagration's forces, aiming to keep them separated and to defeat them in detail. The outnumbered Russian armies retreated rather than fighting, however, and Napoleon pursued them. Barclay and Bagration managed to join forces at Smolensk, and Napoleon tried to force them to fight there. He attempted to envelop the Smolensk position to facilitate the destruction of the Russian army, but Barclay learned of his aims and withdrew without fighting. His efforts to force a decision at Smolensk having failed, Napoleon decided to advance toward Moscow hoping to compel the Russian army, now under the command of General Mikhail Kutuzov, to stand and fight. Pressed hard by Tsar Alexander to do so, Kutuzov selected the field near the small village of Borodino, some 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Moscow, for the battle. He concentrated his force, still nominally divided into two armies under Bagration and Barclay, and constructed field fortifications in preparation for the fight.
Napoleon eagerly seized upon Kutuzov's decision and prepared for battle. Napoleon's normal practice would have been to try to turn one of the flanks of the Russian army, which Kutuzov had fortified. Mindful of the Russians' retreat from Smolensk when he had tried a similar maneuver, however, Napoleon rejected this approach in favor of a frontal assault. The extremely bloody battle that ensued centered around French attempts to seize and hold Kutuzov's field fortifications, especially the Raevsky Redoubt. Both sides fought skillfully and with determination. By this point in the Napoleonic Wars, the Russians were organized under and trained to virtually the same structure and doctrine as the French. Most of the Russian commanders and soldiers were now veterans of several wars. The Grande Armée of Napoleon, on the other hand, included a large number of troops drawn from more or less unwilling satellite states. The odds in battle between Napoleon and his enemies were now sufficiently even that he had little hope of success in a straightforward frontal assault. Napoleon's initial advantages in manpower had evaporated, moreover, as the long march, Russian scorched-earth tactics, and the need to garrison his lines of communications had left the French emperor with only slightly more troops than his enemy had on the battlefield. The battle was thus a stalemate militarily, although Kutuzov decided to abandon the field during the night, continuing his retreat to Moscow.
Borodino was effectively a victory for the Russians and a turning point in the campaign. Napoleon sought to destroy the Russian army on the battlefield and failed. Kutuzov had aimed only to preserve his army as an effective fighting force, and he succeeded. Napoleon's subsequent seizure of Moscow turned out to be insufficient to overcome the devastating attrition his army had suffered. Russia's losses were, nevertheless, very high, and included Bagration, wounded on the field, who died from an infection two weeks later.
Frederick W. Kagan