Napoleon Invades Russia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Napoleon’s disastrous attempt to invade Russia led to the near destruction of his army and began the fall of his empire.

Summary of Event

On June 23, 1812, the French emperor Napoleon I crossed the Niemen River with 440,000 troops to open a campaign against Russia. France and Russia had been allied since 1807, but their relationship had never been cordial and had degenerated rapidly since 1809. The Russian court and Russian commercial opinion had both opposed the alliance from the start, and Russia’s Czar Alexander I had refused to give political, military, or economic cooperation to Napoleon. In 1809, the Russians had given no effective aid to the French in the war with Austria, even though the alliance committed Russia to support France. Moreover, the Russian czar had been lax in enforcing Napoleon’s embargo against British goods, and, in 1810, Russia levied special customs duties that affected French trade adversely. Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);French invasion of Russia Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Russian invasion Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Russia invasion Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and French invasion[French invasion] France;and Russia[Russia] Russia;and France[France] [kw]Napoleon Invades Russia (June 23-Dec. 14, 1812) [kw]Invades Russia, Napoleon (June 23-Dec. 14, 1812) [kw]Russia, Napoleon Invades (June 23-Dec. 14, 1812) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);French invasion of Russia Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Russian invasion Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Russia invasion Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and French invasion[French invasion] France;and Russia[Russia] Russia;and France[France] [g]France;June 23-Dec. 14, 1812: Napoleon Invades Russia[0580] [g]Russia;June 23-Dec. 14, 1812: Napoleon Invades Russia[0580] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 23-Dec. 14, 1812: Napoleon Invades Russia[0580] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 23-Dec. 14, 1812: Napoleon Invades Russia[0580] Bagration, Pyotr Ivanovich Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Bogdanovich Kutuzov, Mikhail Ilarionovich

Alexander had refused to negotiate a marriage between Napoleon and the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna Pavlovna, Grand Duchess Anna . Serious political difficulties concerning Turkey, Prussia, and the remnants of Poland increased the tension between France and Russia. In 1811, when Napoleon seized the grand duchy of Oldenburg Oldenburg, grand duchy of —whose integrity he had guaranteed when he met Alexander at Tilsit—the diplomatic crisis broke, and war began a year later.

Because Alexander knew that war was imminent, he made peace with Turkey Turkey;and Russia[Russia] Russia;and Turkey[Turkey] and formed an alliance with Sweden. Sweden;and Russia[Russia] Russia;and Sweden[Sweden] His attempts to win Prussia, Austria, and the grand duchy of Warsaw Warsaw failed, however, and the British could provide no effective military aid. For all practical purposes, Russia was forced to stand alone against the French. By contrast, Napoleon was able to recruit and arm his forces from almost the whole of Europe. Including his reserves, he could send 600,000 men against Moscow. Moscow The Russian armies that faced him totaled only 153,000 men with reserves of 30,000, even though the Russians had suffered 40,000 casualties before the Battle of Smolensk Smolensk, Battle of (1812) . The French held a heavy numerical superiority at the start, but their numerical advantage was offset to some extent by problems of logistics and diversions that prevented them from concentrating their forces. Moreover, the large proportion of non-French elements in Napoleon’s Grand Army made discipline difficult and desertions a serious problem.

French troops burning their flags for warmth during their disastrous retreat from Moscow.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Napoleon’s Russian campaign proved to be a bitter, bloody struggle. The first Russian commander, Prince Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly, Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Bogdanovich retreated from a confrontation with Napoleon’s vastly superior forces, and the war became a series of vicious rearguard actions carried on in blistering heat with both armies suffering from lack of water and supplies. The situation worsened for the French when they left the Russo-Polish borderlands, for the Russian peasants fled, burning their homes and destroying their crops. Napoleon tried desperately to prevent the Russian Second Army, under the command of Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration, Bagration, Pyotr Ivanovich from joining Barclay, but he failed.

Napoleon then sought a final, crushing engagement with the Russians, but in this he also failed. On the Russian side, disorder was as threatening as were the French. The supply service broke down, sufficient food and fodder were not available, and men and animals alike suffered and died. Furthermore, a bitter rivalry between Barclay and Bagration, as well as intrigues at the Russian court, disrupted the war effort. Alexander was finally persuaded to appoint Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov Kutuzov, Mikhail Ilarionovich as commander in chief, although the czar personally loathed him. A septuagenarian with less than one year to live, Kutuzov was both shrewd and able, and he planned to continue the campaign as Barclay Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Bogdanovich had begun it.

The First and Second Russian Armies joined together, Smolensk Smolensk, Battle of (1812) was abandoned in flames to the invaders, and Kutuzov chose a position near the small village of Borodino to fight the battle he knew was needed before he could again retreat. The Battle of Borodino began on September 7. When it ended, the Russian army had checked Napoleon’s advance. Both sides suffered terrible casualties, but the Russians were able to withdraw in order. Kutuzov enraged his officers and scandalized St. Petersburg when he refused to attack the French the morning after Borodino. Furthermore, he threw the country into despair by refusing to defend Moscow Moscow .

Napoleon expected to have victory in hand and enjoy peace by the time he reached Moscow, but all he found when he entered the ancient city on September 14 was emptiness and dismal silence. Soon, the city began to burn. Night after night the destructive flames soared upward as the wind aided patriotic arsonists, until the French were left occupying a smoking shell. Moreover, the Russians ignored French overtures to negotiate, and finally even Napoleon had to admit defeat. With his original forces now reduced to 110,000 men, Napoleon evacuated Moscow Moscow on October 19, 1812. Five days later, after declining another battle at Borodino, he turned away from Kaluga and retraced the old, wasted route to Smolensk.

According to contemporary accounts, Napoleon’s leadership seems to have been sapped by the series of misfortunes that had confronted him since the beginning of the Russian campaign and had steadily increased since the failure to force the czar to sue for peace. Instead of striking at vulnerable Russian forces close to the French lines, Napoleon merely ordered the army to continue its withdrawal, hardly bothering to order the most elementary precautions to defend his flanks or rear.

The retreat had begun; it soon became a rout. Lacking adequate clothing and food, and with Cossacks and peasant irregulars harrying its flanks, the Grand Army entered its death agony. Discipline collapsed, and between Smolensk and the border, the winter struck in all its fury. Nevertheless, the disaster could have been worse; instead of pressing his advantage, Kutuzov Kutuzov, Mikhail Ilarionovich allowed Napoleon to escape. This decision was not entirely a matter of choice, for the Russians had suffered grievous losses, and the bitter cold greatly reduced their own effectiveness.

The final and single most disastrous calamity befell the Grand Army late in November when it reached the Beresina River to find that the Russians had seized a key position overlooking the crossing. At last stirred into action, Napoleon ordered his engineers to construct a bridge Bridges;military uses of across the icy stream. During the retreat, however, Russian artillery hampered the crossing and eventually found the range of the bridge. Those French troops not killed or wounded in the bombardment were forced to try fording the river, and thousands more died. Both the campaign and Napoleon’s army essentially came to an end.

Meanwhile, Napoleon heard disturbing news from France. On October 24, a conspiracy had struck, spreading word of Napoleon’s alleged death and attempting to seize control of the government. Although officers and troops loyal to Napoleon had moved to crush the uprising, the situation was clearly desperate. On December 6, Napoleon left the remnants of his army behind and went on to Paris, where he arrived at midnight on December 18. His arrival had been preceded by an announcement in the Moniteur, the official government news organ, which blamed the French defeat not on the Russian army but instead on the Russian winter. The announcement concluded with a stunning tribute to Napoleon’s egotism: “His Majesty’s health has never been better.”

Significance

On December 14, Marshall Ney crossed the Niemen River with the tattered remains of an army. It is estimated that a mere thirty thousand men returned from the Russian campaign. An army of half a million men had been nearly annihilated. Despite these terrible losses, Napoleon and France continued to fight for fifteen months longer. However, the invasion of Russia proved to be Napoleon’s most serious error. The road that led to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 began at the gates of Moscow.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cate, Curtis. The War of the Two Emperors: The Duel Between Napoleon and Alexander, Russia, 1812. New York: Random House, 1985. Study of the Russian campaign that views the conflict as essentially a personal one between two headstrong monarchs, each bent on imposing his view on Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esposito, Vincent. Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: AMS Press, 1978. Excellent source for a basic understanding of the military nature of the ill-fated invasion and how the campaign was played out.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Paul. Napoleon. New York: Viking Press, 2002. Concise biography of Napoleon that offers an overview of both his life and his career. Johnson portrays Napoleon as an opportunist whose militarism and style of governance planted the seeds for warfare and totalitarianism in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klimenko, Michael. Alexander I, Emperor of Russia: A Reappraisal. Tenafly, N.J.: Hermitage, 2002. A full-length account of Alexander’s life written by a professor of Russian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marris, Albert. Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Viking, 1991. Places the Russian debacle within the context of the overall history of Napoleon’s military campaigns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nafziger, George. Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988. A thorough examination of the Russian campaign from a primarily military point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolson, Nigel. Napoleon, 1812. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985. Concentrates on the campaign from Napoleon’s angle of vision and what he intended to accomplish.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riehn, Richard. 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. A generally balanced and fair appraisal of the events, including an assessment of the Russian army and its commanders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Detailed scholarly biography covering all facets of Napoleon’s life and career. Schom is unusually candid about his subject’s character flaws and failures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarle, Eugene. Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 1812. New York: Oxford University Press, 1942. A detailed account of Napoleon’s invasion, campaign, and retreat from Russia.

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