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1817 map, Areas of Moscow destroyed by the fire in red
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 the city of Moscow on 14 September 1812 just ahead of French Emperor Napoleon's troops entering the city after the Battle of Borodino.
Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow from the walls of the Kremlin
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.
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. Today, the majority of historians blame the initial fires on the Russian strategy of scorched earth.
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.
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.
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 police 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.
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.
8 September - Russian army began retreating east from Borodino. They camped outside Mozhaysk.
9 September - When the village of Mozhaysk was captured, the Grande Armée rested for two days to recover.
12 September - Napoleon Bonaparte, who suffered from a cold and lost his voice, slept in the main manor house of Bolshiye Vyazyomy (on the same sofa in the library) within one day.
13 September - Napoleon left the manor house and headed east. Napoleon and Poniatovsky 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 a remarkable chapter. 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." Beginning of civilian flight from Moscow, organized by Miloradovich; Kutuzov kept a low profile during the retreat.
14 September - The Russian army crossed the Moskva river near Sparrow Hills and marched through Moscow into an southeast bound road to Ryazan, followed by masses of civilians. 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 but they did not slow down the French invasion of the city.
15 September - More wind and massive fires. Napoleon arrived at Kremlin. 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.
16 September - Sergeant 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."
18 September - Fire destroyed 3/4 of the city and settled down; when it began to rain Napoleon returned to Kremlin. He lost sight of Kutuzov.
20 September - Napoleon proposed peace to the Tsar. The fires subsided on the 21st; the captured arsonists were executed.
21 September - Kutuzov changed direction and turned west along the Pakhra river
23 September - Order given for the two battalions of the 33rd Regiment to break away. On 25 September, in collaboration with German infantrymen and French dragoons, it had to sweep the area around Malye Vyaziomy.
24 September - Dinners were held, with promotions and ribbons, and a theatre was set up. On the 27th, 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.
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.
4 October - A plan to march to Saint Petersburg was given up; absolute lack of forage, limited cavalry and artillery as horsed died on the spot. Murat is forced to withdraw into a ravine. A network of Cossacks and armed peasants were killing all isolated men.
5 October - On order of Napoleon, the French ambassador Jacques Lauriston leaves Moscow to meet Kutuzov at his headquarters near Tarutino. Kutuzov agrees to meet, despite the orders of the Tsar.
7 October - Although the weather was fine and the temperature mild, not a single courier from Moscow reached Vilnius, due to a lack of horses.
8 October - Murat personally asked Miloradovich to let his cavalry go foraging.
15 October - Napoleon ordered evacuataion of the 12,000 sick and wounded to Smolensk.
16 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.
18 October - At dawn, Murat's camp was surprised by an attack by forces led by Bennigsen in a forest known as Battle of Winkovo; Bennigsen was supportrd by Kutuzov from his headquarters. 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.
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 and forced to go north.
...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.
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]."
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 governor Dmitry Golitsyn was gradual, lasting well over a decade.
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