There was such animosity between the remaining population of Moscow and the occupying forces that no amount of cajoling by the French commanders served to reconcile them. They attempted to open theatres, which were closed almost immediately, as the actors and actresses were robbed.
Commissioners who were sent to the outlying areas to request the farmers to bring food into the city were killed. Peasants who tried to sell food to the French were executed by their fellows as traitors. Skilled artisans had already left Moscow, and the ones that remained were useless to the French. Looting, meanwhile, continued – the landed estates were pillaged by the Russian peasantry as well as the French, who also didn’t spare the great churches and monasteries in Moscow.
Napoleon tried to be charitable, distributing currency notes to the struggling citizens, but even these were worthless – the French and the Russians only accepted gold, and there was little of this to go around.
Meanwhile, the French continued to starve as stocks of food disappeared, and their discipline was close to collapsing entirely. Only the panicked news of a food convoy on the Smolensk road being pillaged, and the loss of 2,500 men and thirty-eight cannon at the Battle of Tarutino snapped them back to their senses.
Napoleon decided to punish the Russians, and ordered a mobilisation of his forces.
The French began to move out of Moscow, laden with cart upon cart of treasures and loot. Napoleon, seeing the size of the goods carriages, was appalled, but he didn’t order the excess to be burnt. He said that the equipage might aid the wounded and the ill.
Like an embattled beast, the grand army struggled away from the ruined ancient capital. The Russians then began to harry and harass it with hit-and-run guerrilla tactics; Cossacks swept in, wreaking havoc, and disappeared as silently as they came.
Napoleon sent a letter to the Czar:
Sire, my brother! Having learnt that Your Majesty’s Minister’s brother is at the Cassel palace here, I sent for him and spoke to him. I instructed him to go to Your Majesty and convey my sentiments.
The beautiful, great Moscow no longer exists! Count Rostopchin gave orders to burn it down. Four hundred arsonists were captured in the act, and all of them claimed that they were torching the place on the instructions of the governor and the commandant of the police. They were executed.
Finally, it appears, the fires died down. Three-quarters of the houses fell prey to the fire; only a quarter survived.
It is a terrible and pointless deed. Is that what they wanted – to deprive us of food? But the foodstocks were in the cellars, which weren’t touched by the fire.
And anyway, how was it possible to put to fire one of the most beautiful cities of the world, the work of centuries, for such a paltry purpose? And this has been going on since Smolensk, and left 600,000 families have been impoverished. The fire-engines in Moscow were either broken or removed, and a portion of the arms in the arsenal given to malefactors, which obliged us to fire a few shots at the Kremlin in order to disperse them.
Humanity, the interests of your Majesty and of this great city, required that the city be entrusted to me, since it was abandoned by the Russian army. It should not have been left without administration, magistrates, and civil guards. Such a plan was adopted twice at Vienna, Madrid, and at Berlin. You yourselves followed this plan in Milan the time of the entrance of Suvorov. The fire gave the soldiers the right to plunder; they saved the loot from the fire.
If I imagined for an instant that such a state of affairs was authorized by your Majesty, I should not write this letter; but I hold it as impossible that, with your Majesty’s principles, and heart, with the justice of your Majesty’s ideas, you could authorize excesses that are unworthy of a great sovereign and of a great nation. While the engines were carried from Moscow, one hundred and fifty pieces of field cannon, 60,000 new muskets, 1,600,000 infantry cartridges, 400,000 weights of powder, 300,000 weights of salt-petre, as much sulphur, etc., were left behind.
I wage war against your Majesty without animosity; a note from you before or after the last battle would have stopped my march, and I should even have liked to have sacrificed the advantage of entering Moscow. If your Majesty retains some remains of your former sentiments, you will take this letter in good part. At all events, you will thank me for giving you an account of what is passing at Moscow.
There was no response, just as there hadn’t been when Napoleon’s emissary, General Lauriston, approached Kutuzov at Tarutino.
It was clear by now that Napoleon’s situation was dire.
[Translated excerpts from КНИЖКА С КАРТИНКАМИ.]