Fire of Moscow (1812)

Fire of Moscow
Part of the French invasion of Russia
The Moscow fire depicted by Viktor Mazurovsky
Date 14 September 1812
Location 55°45′N 37°38′E / 55.75°N 37.63°E / 55.75; 37.63
Result Most of Moscow destroyed by fire
 First French Empire  Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
First French Empire Napoleon
  current battle
  Prussian corps
  Austrian corps
Moscow on the map, see also Attrition warfare against Napoleon
Moscow on the map, see also Attrition warfare against Napoleon
1817 map, Areas of Moscow destroyed by the fire in red

During the French occupation of Moscow the 1812 Fire of Moscow persisted from 14 to 18 September 1812 and all but destroyed the city. The Russian troops and most of the remaining residents had abandoned Moscow on 14 September 1812 just ahead of French Emperor Napoleon's troops entering the city after the direful Battle of Borodino.[1] The mayor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, has been blamed to have organised the destruction of the sacred former capital to weaken the French army in the scorched city even more.


After continuing Barclay's "delaying operation"[2] as part of his attrition warfare against Napoleon, Kutuzov used Rostopchin to burn most of Moscow's resources as part of a scorched earth strategy, guerilla warfare by the Cossacks against French supplies and total war by the peasants against French foraging. This kind of war without major battles weakened the French army at its most vulnerable point: military logistics. On 19 October 1812 the French army lacking of provisions and being warned by the first snow abandoned the city voluntarily.[3]


Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow from the walls of the Kremlin
Vyazyomy Manor
A 19th-century caricature ( lubok) of Napoleon meeting Satan after the Fire of Moscow, by Ivan Alekseevich Ivanov

Search had been made for the fire engines since the previous day, but some of them had been taken away and the rest put out of action...The Poles reported that they had already caught some incendiaries and shot them, ...they had extracted the information that orders had been given by the governor of the city and the police that the whole city should be burnt during the night.[4]

Before leaving Moscow, Count Rostopchin is supposed to have given orders to the head of police (and released convicts) to have the Kremlin and major public buildings (including churches and monasteries) set on fire. During the following days the fires spread. According to Germaine de Staël, who left the city a few weeks before Napoleon arrived, it was Rostopchin who ordered his own mansions to be set on fire, so no Frenchmen should lodge in it.[5] Today, the majority of historians blame the initial fires on the Russian strategy of scorched earth.[citation needed]

Furthermore, a Moscow police officer was captured trying to set the Kremlin on fire where Napoleon was staying at the time; brought before Napoleon, the officer admitted he and others had been ordered to set the city on fire, after which he was bayonetted by guardsmen on the spot on the orders of a furious Napoleon.[6]

The catastrophe started as many small fires, which promptly grew out of control and formed a massive blaze. The fires spread quickly since most buildings in Moscow were made of wood. Although Moscow had had a fire brigade, their equipment had previously either been removed or destroyed on Rostopchin's orders. The flames spread into the Kremlin's arsenal, but the fire was put out by French Guardsmen. The burning of Moscow is reported to have been visible up to 215 km away.[7]

Tolstoy, in his book War and Peace, suggests that the fire was not deliberately set, either by the Russians or the French, but was the natural result of placing a deserted and mostly wooden city in the hands of invading troops. Before the invasion, fires would have started nearly every day even with the owners present and a fully functioning fire department, and the soldiers would start additional fires for their own needs, from smoking their pipes, cooking their food twice a day, and burning enemies' possessions in the streets. Some of those fires will inevitably get out of control, and without an efficient firefighting action, these individual building fires can spread to become neighborhood fires, and ultimately a citywide conflagration.[8][9]

Timeline of events

Commemorative Bandanna: Burning of Moscow (1812) Printed in England – "Conflagration of Moscow Seen from the Kremlin, on the entrance of the French Army, the 14th of Sept 1812"
Liturgy in the Saint Euplo church of Moscow in presence of French soldiers, 27 September 1812.
  • 7 September - Battle of Borodino;
  • 8 September – Russian army began retreating east from Borodino.[10] They camped outside Mozhaysk.[11][12] When the village of Mozhaysk was captured on the 9th, the Grande Armée rested for two days to recover.[13]
  • 10 September – The main quarter of the Russian army was situated at Bolshiye Vyazyomy.[14] Kutuzov settled in a manor on the high road to Moscow. The owner was Dmitry Golitsyn, who entered military service again. Russian sources suggest Mikhail Kutuzov wrote a number of orders and letters to Rostopchin about saving the city or the army.[15][16]
  • 11 September – Tsar Alexander signed a document that Kutuzov was promoted General Field Marshall, the highest military rank. Napoleon wrote Marshal Victor to hurry to Moscow.[17]
  • 12 September [O.S. 31 August] 1812 the main forces of Kutuzov departed from the village, now Golitsyno and camped near Odintsovo, 20 km to the west, followed by Mortier and Joachim Murat's vanguard.[18]
  • 12 September – Napoleon Bonaparte, who suffered from a cold and lost his voice, spent the night at Vyazyomy Manor (on the same sofa in the library) within 24 hours.[19]
  • 13 September – Napoleon left the manor house and headed east.[20] Napoleon and Józef Poniatowski also camped near Odintsovo and invited Murat for dinner.
  • 13 September – Russian army set camp at Fili; Russian vanguard lodged nearby in Dorogomilovo. On Sunday afternoon the Russian military council at Fili discussed the risks and agreed to abandon Moscow without fighting. Leo Tolstoy wrote Rostopchin was invited also and explained the difficult decision in quite a few remarkable chapters. The troops started at once. "They were passing through Moscow from two o'clock at night, till two in the afternoon and bore away with them the wounded and the last of the inhabitants who were leaving."[21] The civilian flight from Moscow was organized by Miloradovich while Kutuzov kept a low profile during the retreat using side streets.[22]
  • 14 September – The Russian army crossed the Moskva river near Sparrow Hills and marched through Moscow into a southeast bound road to Ryazan, followed by masses of civilians.[23] Napoleon arrived at Poklonnaya Hill. After a ceasefire Murat's corps was the first to ride through the city, taking the Kremlin in the afternoon, leaving the inhabitants enough time to depart. First fires broke out in the evening[1] but they did not slow down the French invasion of the city.[citation needed]
  • 15 September – More wind and massive fires. Napoleon arrived at Kremlin.[24] At nine in the evening a ball of fire exploded. Fires in various quarters of the town. The wind changed direction and reached hurricane strength. Six or seven thousand little shops caught fire again.[25]
  • 16 September – Firestorm threatens Kremlin. Watching the fire from Kremlin Hill, Napoleon relocated to the suburban and empty Petrovsky Palace.[24][26] According to sergeant Adrien Bourgogne: "Orders had been given to shoot everyone found setting fire to houses. This order was executed at once. A little open space next to the Place du Gouvernement was called by us the Place des Pendus, as here a number of incendiaries were shot and hung on the trees."[27]
  • 18 September – Fire destroyed 3/4 of the city and settled down; when it began to rain Napoleon returned to Kremlin.[28] He lost sight of Kutuzov.
  • 19 September - Kutuzov changed direction and turned west to Tarutino where he would be more protected by the surrounding hills and the Nara river.[29]
  • 20 September – Napoleon proposed peace to the Tsar.
  • 21 September – The fires subsided on this day; more captured arsonists were executed.[citation needed]
  • 23 September – Order given for the two battalions of the 33rd Regiment to break away. As they were 'daily bothered by numerous pulks of Cossacks' Napoleon ordered to clean the area and forage with the assistance of a Dutch flying squadron. On 25 September, in collaboration with German infantrymen and French dragoons, it had to sweep the area around Malye Vyaziomy.[30]
  • 24 September – Dinners were held, with promotions and ribbons, and a theatre was set up.
  • 26 September - After loosing sight of the Russian army Murat finally detected them near Podolsk.
  • 27 September - A ball was held. Everyone put on their newly acquired clothes and drank rum punch. First snow, the army was suffering from famine and the cold.[31]
  • 28 September – A large supply of foodstuffs was seized at Malye Vyaziomy and loaded onto 26 wagons. They were pursued by Cossacks who managed to take 15 wagons.[32]
  • 3 October – Kutuzov and his entire staff arrived at Tarutino. He wanted to go even further in order to control three roads from Kaluga, so that Napoleon could not turn south.

    Kutuzov's food supplies and reinforcements were mostly coming up through Kaluga from the fertile and populous southern provinces, his new deployment gave him every opportunity to feed his men and horses and rebuild their strength. He refused to attack; he was happy for Napoleon to stay in Moscow for as long as possible, avoiding complicated movements and manoeuvres.[33]

    Kutuzov avoided frontal battles involving large masses of troops. This tactic was sharply criticised by Chief of Staff Bennigsen and others, but also by the Autocrat and Emperor Alexander.[34] Barclay de Tolly interrupted his service for five months and settled in Nizhny Novgorod.[35] Each side avoided the other and seemed no longer to wish to get into a fight.
  • 4 October – A plan to march to Saint Petersburg was given up; absolute lack of forage, limited cavalry and artillery as horses died on the spot. Murat and his cavalry arrived at Winkovo and settled near a lake,[36] watching the Russian army, but he was forced to withdraw into a ravine. A network of Cossacks and armed peasants were killing all isolated men.[37]
  • 5 October – On order of Napoleon, the French ambassador Jacques Lauriston left Moscow to meet Kutuzov at his headquarters near Tarutino. Kutuzov agreed to meet, despite the orders of the Tsar.[38] Rostopchin owned an estate near Tarutino, Russia. Robert Wilson was with him, when Rostopchin set fire to his estate.[39][40]
  • 7 October – Although the weather was fine and the temperature mild, not a single (French) courier from Moscow reached Vilnius, due to a lack of horses.[41]
  • 8 October – Murat personally asked Miloradovich to let his cavalry go foraging.[42][43]
  • 15 October – Napoleon ordered evacuation of the 12,000 sick and wounded to Smolensk.[44]
  • 17 October - French columns again passed the Nara river, and proceeded to their respective destinations.
  • 18 October – At dawn during breakfast, Murat's camp in a forest was surprised by an attack by forces led by Bennigsen, known as Battle of Winkovo. Bennigsen was supported by Kutuzov from his headquarters at distance. Murat lost 12 guns, 3,000 men and 20 of his baggage carts. Bennigsen asked Kutuzov to provide troops for the pursuit. However, the General Field Marshal refused.[45]
  • 19 October – After 36 days, the French army (around 108,000) left Moscow at seven in the morning. Napoleon's goal was to get around Kutuzov, but on the 24th he was stopped at Maloyaroslavets and forced to go north.

Extent of the disaster

Napoleon within the burning Moscow

...In 1812, there had been approximately 4,000 stone structures and 8,000 wooden houses in Moscow. Of these, there remained after the fires only about 200 of the stone buildings and some 500 wooden houses along with about half of the 1,600 churches, although nearly every church was damaged to some extent...the large number of churches that escaped total destruction by the flames is probably explained by the fact that altar implements and other paraphernalia were made of precious metals, which immediately attracted the attention of the looters. Indeed, Napoleon had a systematic sweep made for the church silver, which ended up in his war chest, the mobile treasury.[1]

Still, the remaining buildings had enough space for the French army. As General Marcellin Marbot reasoned:

"It is often claimed that the fire of Moscow... was the principal cause of the failure of the 1812 campaign. This assertion seems to me to be contestable. To begin with, the destruction of Moscow was not so complete that there did not remain enough houses, palaces, churches and barracks to accommodate the entire army [for a whole month]."[46]

Reconstruction of the city

Some 18th-century buildings were rebuilt to original plans
Vasily Pushkin house, a typical example of 1810s cheap wooden architecture with neoclassical trim

The process of rebuilding after the fire under military governor Dmitry Golitsyn was gradual, lasting well over a decade.[7]

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