24 February 2018
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200 years since Napoleon arrived in Lithuania

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania, 1812
By Jonas Damelis (1780—1840), a neoclassicist artist
associated with the School of Art at
Vilnius University

By Vytautas J. Šliūpas

Two hundred years ago – on June 24, 1812, the French Grande Armée, led by Emperor Napoleon Boneparte, crossed the Nemunas River near Kaunas and invaded Czar Alexander I's Russia. I will not attempt to delineate the historical facts that are well known, but will present several episodes which deal with Lithuania and Lithuanians. Readers may be interested to know these facts, because Napoleon's first and last steps of the Russian campaign were taken in Lithuania.

War was inevitable

In April of 1812 thousands of orders were dispatched to various corners of the French Empire and Napoleon's Grande Armee was formed.  200.000 men were left in Germany and in the Duchy of Warsaw.  The main body , consisting of nine Army Corps – 450,000 soldiers – marched toward the Russian frontier.  Among the French, Dutch, Belgian, German, Italian and other not so very loyal mobilized allies (29,000 Prussians and 34,000 Austrians), was a Spanish regiment and 130 battalions of reservists scattered in the vastness of the Empire.

...Ignoring the approaching war, extravagant parties and banquets were held at the Tulleries.


Czar Alexander I was already in Vilnius anticipating Napoleon's attack, which from April 8 was unavoidable.  At that date the Russian government sent an ultimatum to the French Emperor demanding withdrawal of his Army from Prussia and other occupied locations east of the Elbe River.  The Emperor thus had no other choice but to fight a war.

...In Vilnius, magnificent daily banquets were also in full swing in honor of the Czar.  Preparations for war were all but forgotten.


On June 23, the Grande Armee – 400,000 strong and speaking some ten different languages - „a Tower of Babel on the march“ - was preparing to ford the Nemunas River near Kaunas.  The river was hidden from view by steep valleys and the Pilviskiai forest.  On that day, Major Count Roman Soltys, commander of the Polish cavalry squadron stationed near the Nemunas, noticed a large carriage pulled by six horses galloping towards him.  When it halted nearby, Napoleon himself emerged, in deep thought and quite tired after a long journey.

Napoleon's Army Crossing the Nemunas in Kaunas.  June 24, 1812
Wood carving. Artist: Dž. Bagetti. Carver: I. Klauberis

The Emperor and his retinue, not wanting to be recognized by the Russian scouts, donned Polish officer's uniforms and walked toward the Nemunas to reconnoiter... That same night, closer to midnight, Napoleon galloped his horse again toward the Nemunas.  In the darkness it was difficult to see the other bank of the river.  Suddenly his horse reared – frightened by a hare – and the Emperor fell down.  Rapidly jumping up he remounted his horse.  One of his staff remarked:”This is a very bad omen!  A true Roman would withdraw!”

But Napoleon was not one to believe in bad omens...

Next day, June 24, Napoleon was greeted by a marvelous view, all the surrounding hills and valleys were full of troops and horses.  When the sun rose and lit the entire moving mass and their shining weapons, an order was given to march.  Soldiers, formed in three columns, started toward three bridges, which materialized at night as if by magic...

There was no resistance.  The Russians had already retreated.

Suddenly the skies darkened.  Thunder and lightning roared like the enemy's artillery.  The rain came down in torrents and flooded the entire area.  Many horses were lost.  Some saw in this violent outburst of nature another bad omen of impending doom.

On the heels of the fleeing Czar Alexander I, Napoleon entered Vilnius on June 28 and remained there for twenty days. Then he resumed his march to Moscow...


The die was cast! 

The retreat from Russia started on October 19, 1812 when Napoleon and his Grand Armee, now only 100,000 strong, abandoned the Kremlin.  About this exit the Russian commanding general Kutuzov learned only on October 23.  However, during the 32 days of Napoleon's stay in Moscow, Kutuzov was able to deploy against him 85,000 infantry, 35,000 cavalry and some 200,000 reservists.  Kutuzov had already cut the retreat route near Jaroslavets which was reached by Napoleon on October 24.  After a battle at Kaluga, where the French lost some 700 men, Napoleon decided to retreat toward Smolensk.  The bitter Russian winter, which started with a snowstorm on November 6, was having its effect on the – even though not yet defeated – French Grande Armee.  General Platov's Cossack cavalry was harassing its flanks without respite.  When Napoleon reached Smolensk on November 10, his Grande Armee had shrunk to 12,000 men and 40,000 camp followers.  In Smolensk they only stayed 4 days.  Then on November 25 they reached the Berezina River, where bridges were already blown up by the Russians.  The French retreat was cut off!  But luck was with Napoleon.  Here he met with 20,000 of Marshal Victor's soldiers who were kept behind in reserve.

Napoleon rested on a farm in the mansion of Baron Korsach, the caretaker of the Radvilas family estates.

Description: File:Napoleons retreat from moscow.jpg
Napoleon's withdrawal from Russia,
a painting by Adolph Northen.

The Berezina River was half frozen, all bridges had been destroyed.  The French troops had to get across it at all costs. They had to find a ford nearby, because at Borisovo, directly across from where they were camping, the Russians had assembled 120,000 soldiers... They had to find that ford very quickly.  Time and the Russians were relentlessly pressing without mercy.  While the Russian Admiral Chichakov was happy just watching the French movements from across the river, General Wittgenstein could attack Marshal Victor's Corps at any time.  Kutuzov itself was in a position to attack Napoleon's rear guard and the left flank of his Grande Armee, or whatever was left of it.

At this crucial moment a real miracle or luck happened for the French.  General J. B. Corbineau, finding the river crossing at the Borisovo village blocked by the Russians, led his decimated brigade up the river through overgrown bushes and very dense forest.  Suddenly, he came upon a Lithuanian villager, whose horse was wet up to the breast.  That meat the villager and his horse had come across, and a ford had to be nearby.  The Lithuanian agreed to take the General to a point some five leagues upstream from Borisovo – to the Studyanka village whose log houses were on the river bank just across from the Bychi hamlet.  At this location the river divided into several branches dotted with swampy islands, and was flowing between low wooded hills.

Description: File:Berezyna.jpg
Napoleon's crossing of the Berezina
an 1866 painting by January Suchodolski
oil on canvas, National Museum in Poznań

Everyone realized that this was the place one could wade across, as the water reached only to the armpits.  General Corbineau and his soldiers jumped without hesitation into the icy water, which drowned and swept away 70 of the men downstream.  But the majority of his soldiers reached the right bank.  It was proven that a temporary bridge could be built at this location.

Napoleon ordered his engineers to start working on the bridge immediately, while the remainder of his Grande Armee continued to face the Russians at Borisovo.

During the night of November 25, 400 French engineers came to the location and completely naked, standing in the water up to their armpits, started building a wooden trestle bridge.  They drove logs into the muddy Berezina ignoring the floating ice sheets all around them.  “Some of them” - remembers grenadier Pils - “died on the spot from exposure and were carried downstream frozen into ice blocks.  But the tragic end of their comrades did not stop others from their urgent task.”

Across the river one could see the campfires of a Russian Army unit.  It was General Chuplitz's division, some 6,000 strong.  When the dawn broke, the French were surprised to find that the Russians had abandoned their camp.  At a distance they saw30 Russian cannons being towed toward Borisovo.  Segur, who saw this with his own eyes, noted: “It required only one cannon shot to destroy this bridge of our salvation, which we had built during the night from river bank to river bank.  But the Russian artillery retreated at the moment when we ourselves were just bringing up our own guns into position”.

To the great amazement of the French soldiers, the Russians retreated at the most critical moment,believing that the French were coming over to trap them.  They were concentrating all their forces at Borisovo.

The first bridge was completed in the morning of November 26 and 9,300 men of the Oudinot's Corps crossed the Berezina.

Napoleon's life in the hands of a Lithuanian

After suffering great losses but nevertheless successfully crossing the Berezina River, Napoleon divided its forces into several groups, so they all would not be retreating through the same previously depleted areas.  The surviving Lithuanian and Polish units were ordered to separate themselves from the Grande Armee at Molodecno.  They were to retreat toward Warsaw via Alytus and Gardinas.  The cavalry units were to cross the Namunas River at Merkine.

The main French column continued to retreat toward Vilnius.  However, because of the continuous extreme winter cold, with temperatures down to -20 degrees below zero, and the collapse of discipline, Napoleon decided to abandon his demoralized troops at Smurgonys.  After turning the command to King Murat, on December 5, 1812, Napoleon turned his carriage toward Paris.  At first, Napoleon was escorted by his own light cavalry, but after a few leagues he continued his flight alone accompanied only by his trusted Lithuanian aide-de-campe Count Dunin-Vancevičius (Wonsowiczius).

It is known that, right at the start of his flight, Napoleon handed to Count Vancevičius two loaded pistols and ordered to shoot him whenever there was danger of Napoleon falling into the enemy's hands.  Napoleons life at the crucial moments of his flight to Paris was entrusted to a Lithuanian officer.

Before Napoleon reached Paris on December 18, 1812, he was overtaken by a military dispatcher from Lithuania telling him some very grim news...

After leaving Vilnius for Kaunas, the French Guards artillery and the surviving Imperial field wagons with boxes of collected loot were unable to negotiate the steep icy slopes of a narrow road at Paneriai.  Soldiers threw down their guns, abandoned their cannons, and started emptying the supply wagons.  The looting frenzy was so great that the French soldiers failed to notice flying bullets of the encircling Cossack cavalry shooting at them.  The rout of what was left of the Grande Armee was complete – the final blow was delivered just outside Vilnius at Paneriai.

From that moment on there was no longer any French artillery left.  Marshal Ney, who desperately tried to save the last units of his artillery, rapidly gave up the effort.  Marshall Victor was last seen walking on foot toward Kaunas.  He was alone because his once loyal soldiers of the rear guard abandoned him.

The last report to Napoleon by Marshal Berthier vividly describes these final hours: “I have to report to Your Imperial Highness, that there is no more any discipline left in the regular army, or in the Guard units, which at this moment consist of 400, perhaps 500 men.  Generals and other officers have lost everything they had: many of them have frozen limbs.  Many corpses litter the roadways, and houses are full with dying men. At this moment the Army consists of a column only a few leagues long.  Receiving no orders, this column starts walking in the morning and stops at night.  The Marshals are walking on foot along with all other commoners.  The Army has ceased to exist.”

Thus ended Napoleon's dream of conquering the Czarist Russian Empire.

Description: File:Peaceatallcosts.JPG
Napoléon and General Lauriston  Peace at all costs!
By Vasily Vereshchagin (1899-1900). Oil on canvas. Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.


References: Philippe Segur “History of Napoleon's Russian Campaign”,  Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1958, presented by Henry L. Gaidys in “Lituanus”, Spring 1984, p. 30-31;  Lietuvių Enciklopedija, vol XIX, p.520, Boston, 1959;  and Andre Castelot “Napoleon”, The Easton Press, Norwalk, CT, 1991.

Category : Featured black / Historical Lithuania

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