On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 September 1812

fireofmoscowNapoleon enters Moscow

When Kutuzov decided to surrender Moscow, he said, ‘Napoleon is a torrent but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.’ Moscow was deserted when the French arrived. Out of 250,000 inhabitants, only around 15,000 stayed on, many of them non-Russian. On September 13 Napoleon received the president of the Moscow University and the delegation of French Muscovites, who told him that no deputation of notables would be coming to surrender the city keys and offer the traditional gifts of bread and salt. Instead, an enterprising old peasant offered the Emperor a guided tour of the city, which Napoleon declined. ‘There at last is that famous city. It’s about time,’ exclaimed Napoleon when he sighted the city walls.

Only the Imperial Guard and the Old Guard were billeted inside the city, with the rest of the army remaining outside. Napoleon occupied the Kremlin, the residence of the Tsars. ‘The city is as big as Paris,’ the Emperor wrote to Marie Louise, ‘provided with everything.’ But Napoleon spoke too soon. That very evening fire broke out across the city. It was the Russians, who, in abandoning the city, wanted to make it as uninhabitable for the French as possible. The city’s governor, Fyodor Rostopchin, had released the prisoners, ordering them to burn Moscow. As the Russians retreated, all the firefighting equipment was removed from the city. ‘I’m setting fire to my mansion,’ Rostopchin wrote to the French on the sign at his own estate in Boronovo outside Moscow, ‘rather than let it be sullied by your presence.’

The fire couldn’t be contained. Napoleon was forced to leave the city and set up headquarters at Imperial Palace of Petrovski six miles away. ‘When I got to Moscow, I considered the business done,’ he later said. He claimed that he could have stayed in Moscow throughout winter had it not burnt. In retrospect, it would have been better for the French had the whole city been raised to the ground, as that would have forced them to retreat immediately.

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