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1812-1813 - (Sixth) War with Russia

From 1809 to 1812 the main strength of the French Empire was devoted to continuing the struggle in the Peninsula. A number of isolated events in other parts of Europe, however, made the period important. In pursuance of the Treaty of Tilsit, the Czar robbed Sweden of Finland (1808), and in the same year the French seized Swedish Pomerania. The next year the Swedish Kingdom was the scene of a revolution. Gustavus IV was deposed and his uncle placed on the throne as Charles XIII. Marshal Bernadotte, the brother-in-law of Joseph Bonaparte, was elected heir to the childless monarchy and intrusted with the government of the Kingdom.

Denmark had likewise been marked to suffer on behalf of Napoleon's Continental System; but in this instance he was forestalled by England, which seized the Danish fleet in September, 1807. After the Treaty of Tilsit a kingdom of Westphalia was carved out for Jerome Bonaparte in Germany, and numerous changes made in the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon enlarged his own Empire bv the annexation of Tuscany (1807), the Papal States (1809), Holland (1810), Valais and the German coast line to Lubeck (1810). He also kept the Illyrian provinces, which had been wrested from Austria, for himself. Naples was transferred to Murat after the choice of Joseph as King of Spain. Pope Pius VII, the same pontiff who had consecrated Napoleon as Emperor in 1804, was carried away as a prisoner and kept in confinement.

From the peace of Tilsit, Bonaparte began to prepare his fall, by making a Tower of Babel of his attempt to construct the edifice of a continental empire, without suffering himself to be duly warned by Nimrod's fate. In other words, he was seized with the aspirations of the founders of Oriental empires, haunted by the idea of Alexander, Cesar, the Caliphs, Charlemagne, Zenghiskhan, and Timour. This was obvious, as early as 1810, to Talleyrand, Fouche\ and the most of those whom he had made great, and who trembled for fear of losing, through him, what they had already gained through him. Another idea was necessarily connepted with this notion of a new Roman Empire, that states could be created and governed just as a man creates and governs an army by orders. The new Caesar must have an heir to his Empire, and accordingly Josephine was divorced and a marriage arranged in 1810 with the Archduchess Maria Louisa of Austria, daughter of the Emperor Francis, who bore Napoleon one son, the King of Rome (1811). From Napoleon's policy England profited as much as did France, for the whole commerce of the seas was under her control and she had seized the colonies of France and all those of the countries under French control or influence that she saw fit. During the years from 1809 to 1815 England furnished the inspiration and the sinews of war for every campaign against Napoleon, but it was only in the Peninsula that she was directly responsible for the conduct of the campaign, which was carried on with desperation on both sides till the French were driven beyond the Pyrenees in 1814.

For three years after Wagram Napoleon did not in person conduct a single military operation. Family affairs and the administration of his great Empire occupied all his attention. During these years many changes were taking place which presaged the downfall of the great conqueror. Austria was very cautiously strengthening her position under the skillful direction of Metternich. The regeneration of Prussia under Stein, Scharnhorst, and Hardenberg is one of the most notable events of the nineteenth century.

Russia was never content with the French alliance, the enforcement of the Continental System was causing great suffering and discontent, and the Czar Alexander was beginning to lose his enthusiastic admiration for Napoleon, who had offended him by concluding a matrimonial alliance with Austria without waiting for an answer to his request for the hand of a grand duchess in marriage and, most of all, by the annexation of Oldenburg to France. The estrangement was increased by the Caesarism of Napoleon, who could no longer endure the existence of even a friendly rival. Alexander, duly warned of Napoleon's intentions, turned to England and in 1812 entered into a close alliance with her. With Turkey he negotiated the Peace of Bucharest (May 28), and with Sweden not only peace, but alliance (April 5).

Napoleon left Paris early in May and went direct to Dresden, where he took care to bind Prussia, Austria, and the other German states more closely to his cause. Then he entered Poland, where he regulated the internal affairs and supervised the mobilization of his army. On June 22 he issued a declaration of war against Russia. The passage of the Niemen was begun on June 24, and by the end of the month Napoleon had 400,000 men across the Russian frontier. The Czar had between 250,000 and 300,000 men under arms, but only about one-half of this number ready to face Napoleon under Barclay de Tolly and Bagration, who conducted a Fabian campaign. Napoleon found the country devastated and abandoned as he advanced, with no enemy to make a stand against him. Like Charles XII, a century earlier, he was being lured to his ruin.

At Smolensk (August 1718) the French encountered the first serious resistance. Napoleon as he advanced had to leave large bodies of troops along his line of march, and he detached a large force to the northward to capture Mitau and Riga and threaten St. Petersburg. Russian discontent became pronounced as the people saw Barclay de Tolly and Bagration permitting Napoleon to advance unresisted on their ancient capital, Moscow. The two generals allowed themselves to be superseded by Kutusoff, who chose his ground, and on September 7 offered battle to the French at Borodino. It was the bloodiest battle of the century, the losses probably aggregating 40,000 on each side.

The loss to Napoleon, who could obtain no reinforcements, was fatal, but still he pressed on and entered Moscow (September 14) only to find himself robbed of the fruit of victory by the terrible conflagration which broke out two days later. With a folly that seemed madness, Napoleon lingered in the city until October 19 before beginning the retreat. The hard-fought drawn battle of Malo-Yaroalavitz (October 24) compelled Napoleon to retreat by the same desert road on which he had advanced, instead of by a more southerly route through country not yet devastated by war. Sufferings from the cold and from lack of food were intensified by the constant presence of the Russians on the flanks and in the rear.

The expected supplies were not found at Smolensk, and the sufferings of the French reached their terrible climax at the crossing of the Beresina (November 26-28), where thousands perished in Bpite of the heroic efforts of Oudinot and Ney. A week later Napoleon turned over the command to Murat and hastened to reach Paris and organize a new army before the news of the great disaster should become known in western Europe. Ney, the bravest of the brave, in command of the rear guard, protected the retreat, but only 20,000 out of the 400,000 who had crossed the Niemen in June recrossed it in December.

The disaster, however, was greater than the mere loss of an army of 400,000 men. Napoleon had lost his prestige, and henceforth Castlereagh, the English Foreign Minister, and the Czar Alexander supplanted Napoleon as controllers of the destinies of Europe.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:17 ZULU