The Russian campaign was the decisive turning-point of the Napoleonic Wars that ultimately led to Napoleon’s defeat and exile on the island of Elba
In Napoleon’s Memoirs, as recorded by his private secretary, we have a curious disjuncture. On one hand, the hideous retreat of Napoleon’s army was almost a good thing in that it allowed the French soldier-other nationalities are not mentioned-to display all of those sterling qualities that emerge under adversity. On the other hand, however, “It was no longer possible to preserve even the shadow of discipline, and each man left to himself tried to reach Vilna as best he could.” Some years after the fact, the balance of cheeky defiance and unhappy inward recognition of reality that produced indecisiveness was still operative.
On November 28, the main body of Napoleon’s army passed over the Berezina River. Desperate rear-guard actions succeeded in keeping the Russian army from destroying this pitiful remnant altogether. Nevertheless, Russian artillery ¤re was intense and thousands, including women and children who had accompanied the army, were slaughtered. There was, of course, bitter cold, and virtually no food. General Eblé, the Swiss officer who had accomplished engineering miracles in constructing bridges across the river, said he attempted to persuade the emperor to show more celerity in getting his army to the relative safety west of the Berezina. Napoleon, who had been complaining about various matters up to that point, snapped, “`That will do.’ He looked at the ground. A few moments later he began complaining again and seemed to have forgotten what the general had said.”
Napoleon’s success in bringing most of his army over the Berezina was due in no small degree to the timidity and, at times, incompetence of the Russian generals. They were overawed to some extent by Napoleon’s reputation, while at other times they were raw and overconfident. In any case, it cannot be maintained that the Russian army “won” a battle at the Berezina. It is perhaps a measure of the cheekiness inspired by the Napoleonic legend (or perhaps of simple French nationalism) that contemporary commentators have referred to the Berezina episode as constituting a French “victory.”
Yet, it is true that Napoleon had succeeded in saving at least a crucial remnant of the Grand Armée from annihilation. Part of this, as suggested above, was no doubt due to the incompetence of his pursuers. There is another factor that was certainly of crucial importance, however. Paris was now his goal and it was charged with a valence even more positive than Moscow had been. Malet’s conspiracy had to be dealt with, where the emperor could act with the certainty characteristic of one who finds himself back in a familiar setting. The Russian army, of course, was still a negatively charged barrier, but in a pursuit characterized by a mixture of timidity and tactical sloppiness, it was, paradoxically, less of a threat-at least to Napoleon personally-than it had been when he first led his six-hundred-thousand-man host into Russia in the first place.
As inflexible as he had once been during the advance, he now was frantic in his effort to return to Paris. Just as during the advance, this necessitated that he occasionally not allow himself to see fully what was going on around him. Napoleon also was assailed by doubts, and patterns of avoidance could not continuously prevent him from knowing of the suffering of his remaining troops. Ahead, however, were Paris, safety, and the possibility of raising a new army. Behind him was a gutted city, the taking of which had at one point been the inflexibly held goal that had compensated for original uncertainties about a campaign undertaken with reluctance. More immediately behind him was an army whose badly coordinated pursuit allowed Napoleon to avoid it or, on occasion, to defeat it in detail. His men might still die by the thousands, but the life region of Paris, even more positively charged than Moscow had been, had become a second “sun of Austerlitz” for a man to whom negative valence was no longer of paralyzing significance.
After crossing the Berezina, a river now choked with the debris, human and otherwise, left behind by a disaster unparalleled in military history up to that time, Napoleon dashed off his famous Grand Armée Bulletin Number 29. Dated December 3, 1812, it contained an admission that things were not well. Napoleon blamed everything on the weather, the “cruel season” as he called it, and dwelled lovingly upon the military incompetence of the Russians and the cowardice of the Cossacks. The latter, he declared, attacked only wagons and supplies and were miserable as cavalry. A group of Cossacks, he said, “makes only noise and is not capable of beating a company of voltigeurs.” Only the peculiar circumstances surrounding recent events allowed them to succeed. After further self-serving ramblings, Napoleon ended his message with the well-known phrase, “His majesty’s health has never been better.” Napoleon’s apologists have maintained that the last sentence was necessary, at least in his own mind, because he was still worried about Malet’s conspiracy. At the very least, however, one can bring up the question of taste.
Originally uncertain as to his goal(s), Napoleon-perhaps out of fear of, if not necessarily respect for, the unpredictable Russian army-decided rather early on that he would conquer space, this achievement to be crowned by the taking of Moscow. The taking of territory in general and Moscow in particular thus became a life region charged with positive valence. The Russian army, on the other hand, became a barrier which, even if it had to be dealt with in order to attain the positive goal, was a region charged with negative valence and thus aroused intense anxiety in the emperor. He was not eager to confront it personally, and his delays along the way and his sloppy performance in battle can be explained by this uncertainty. Yet, having decided on taking territory, he drove his army forward with inflexible determination, just about ruining it in the process. This inflexibility masked a variety of uncertainties about the campaign, as did periodic exhibitions of noxious bravado. A statement Napoleon made while in retirement on Saint Helena revealed this uncertainty: “The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves worthy of victory, and the Russians worthy of being invincible.” In a word, Napoleon’s army had defeated a foe that had not lost. Even on Saint Helena, albeit only for a moment, the conqueror of Moscow revealed himself to be the individual who, as the campaign was about to begin, had no goal- a condition for which an unwonted rigidity would have to compensate. Concern over possible defeat at the hands of a foe that was in so many ways a mystery to him would be overcome through territorial conquest. What in fact would function, much as Alexander had supposed it would, as a lifesaving barrier for him and his army, Napoleon was able to turn into something of positive value.
Of course, those geographic distances-which were not a conscious psychological barrier during the advance (indeed confirming that more territory had been conquered)-haunted Napoleon throughout the retreat, aided and abetted by the weather. Yet, wanting only to get “home” as quickly as possible, there was no longer any spiritual confusion and, except for delays at Smolensk and at the Berezina River-which for obvious reasons must have had strong symbolic significance-he was able to right off an army whose pursuit was less than wholehearted. With clarity and purpose restored, and all ambivalences and hesitations a memory (if that), the emperor could go about his task of raising a new army with cold-blooded energy.
Napoleon’s Russian adventure perhaps can best be explained by recognizing that since he had no clear goals originally, he had allowed his opponent to delude him into accepting the one that would most benefit his foe. The tsar was right when he remarked while riding into Paris, “and they thought I was the fool.”