The Burning of Moscow as Seen by One of Napoleon’s Generals

Philippe de Ségur served as Quartermaster–General during the invasion of Russia and had accompanied Napoleon on many of his military campaigns.


At sight of this palace, at once of Gothic and modern architecture, of the Romanofs and Rurice, of their still extant throne, of the cross of the great Ivan, and of the most beautiful part of the city of which the Kremlin commands a view, and which the flames, still confined to the bazaar, appeared inclined to respect, his first hopes revived. His ambition was gratified by this conquest. He was heard to say, “I am at length then in Moscow! in the ancient city of the Czars: in the Kremlin.” He examined all the details with eager curiosity and a lofty feeling of complacency.

Two officers had taken up their quarters in one of the buildings of the Kremlin from which they had a commanding view both of the northern and western parts of the city. About midnight they were awakened by an overpowering light. They instantly looked out and saw palaces in flames which, after exhibiting all their striking and elegant architecture in the fullest blaze, in a short period converted them into ruins. They observed that the wind, being in the north, drove the flames directly upon the Kremlin, and felt the utmost alarm for that vast enclosure of buildings where the choicest troops of the army, and their commander, were reposing. They were likewise apprehensive respecting all the adjoining houses, in which our soldiers, attendants, and horses, after all their great fatigues, and a full evening's repast, were, it could not be doubted, all sunk in profound sleep.

An alarming and awful suspicion now darted on their minds. The Muscovites aware of our rash and dangerous negligence, had probably conceived the hope of destroying our soldiers together with the city, as they lay overpowered by wine, fatigue, and sleep; or, rather perhaps, they had intended to involve in the catastrophe Napoleon himself. They had thought probably that the destruction of such a man would more than compensate for that of their capital; that the result would be of such mighty moment that the whole of Moscow might well be sacrificed to it; that, perhaps, in order to their obtaining so great a triumph it might be the will of heaven to require of them so great a sacrifice; and, finally, that such a vast funeral pile was perhaps required for such a vast Colossus.

At length day, a day of dismal ruin, appeared. It came to add to the horror of the scene, and to dim its splendor. Many of the officers took shelter in the halls of the palace. The chiefs, including Mortier himself, overcome by the fire with which they had contended for six and thirty hours, returned to the Kremlin, and fell down in a state of exhaustion and despair.

They were silent, and we accused ourselves of the disaster. It appeared clear to the greater number that the neglect of discipline and the intoxication of our soldiers had commenced it, and that the tempest had completed it. We regarded ourselves with something of a feeling of disgust. The exclamations of horror which would in consequence of this event resound through Europe, absolutely terrified us. We threw our eyes upon the ground in consternation at the idea of so frightful a catastrophe: it tarnished our glory; it tore from the fruit of it; it menaced both our present and our future existence; we were now nothing but an army of criminals, on whom heaven and the civilized world were bound to inflict deserved punishment. From this abyss of dreadful reflections and the violence of our rage against the imagined incendiaries, we recovered only in consequence of the eager pursuit of intelligence, all of which now began to assert, and every moment more strongly to confirm the idea, that the Russians alone were chargeable with this calamity.

All the narrators had remarked men of atrocious look and tattered garments and frantic women roaming amidst the flames, and thus completing a horrid image of the infernal world. These wretched miscreants, intoxicated at once with liquor and the success of their crimes, did not vouchsafe to conceal themselves but ran about in triumph through the burning streets: they were often taken with flambeaux in their hands, extending the work of destruction with zeal and even fury; it became necessary in order to make them drop their torches to cut at their arms with the saber. It was said that these banditti had been loosened from their chains by the Russian chiefs on purpose to burn Moscow, and that, in fact, so extreme a retaliation could only have been formed by patriotism and executed by crime.

While our soldiers were still contending with the fire, and the army were disputing with the flames so noble a prey, Napoleon, whose sleep no one had uttered to disturb during the night, was awakened by the double light of day and conflagration. In the first impulse of his feelings he display[ed] great irritation, and seemed determined to master the devouring element; he soon, however, bent before the difficulty, and yielded to what was absolutely inevitable. Surprised, after striking at the heart of an empire, to find it exhibit any other sentiment than that of submission and terror, he felt himself conquered and surpassed in determination.

This mighty conquest, for which he had sacrificed every thing, appeared now like a phantom which had been long pursued by him, which he had vainly thought he had at length grasped, but which, after all, he now saw vanishing in air, in a whirlwind of smoke and flames. He was then in a state of extreme agitation, and seemed parched by the flames by which he was surrounded. He was every moment starting from his seat, and after a few hurried steps again returning [to] it. He rapidly traversed his apartments, and his abrupt and vehement movements indicated the dreadful trouble of his mind: he quitted, and resumed, and again left business of the most pressing urgency to rush to his windows and trace the progress of the flames; while the following short and broken exclamations occasionally gave vent to his oppressed and laboring feelings. “What a frightful spectacle! To have done it themselves! Such a number of palaces! What extraordinary resolution! What a people! They are genuine Scythians!”

This incident had decided Napoleon. He rapidly descended the northern staircase, celebrated for the massacre of the Strelitzes, and gave orders for a guide to conduct him out of the city, a league on the Petersburg road, to the imperial castle of Petrowsky.

We were besieged, however; in the midst of an ocean of flames; they blocked up all the gates of the citadel, and repulsed the first attempts to escape. After considerable search, however, there was discovered across the rocks a postern gate which opened towards the Mosqua. It was through this narrow pass that Napoleon and his officers and guard obtained their escape from the Kremlin. But what had they gained by this escape? Still nearer to the flames than before, they could neither go back nor stay where they were; and how was it possible to advance? How were they to cross the waves of this sea of fire?

Source: General Count Philip de Sˇgur, History of the Expedition to Russia, undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812, 2 vols. (London: H.L. Hunt and C.C. Clarke, 1825), II: pp. 38-48