University Essays: Lesson 12, Reading 4

by Leo Tolstoy

On the 29th of May*, Napoleon left Dresden, where he had been spending three weeks surrounded by a court that included princes, dukes, kings, and even one emperor.

Before his departure, Napoleon took a gracious leave of the princes, kings and emperor deserving of his favor, and sternly upbraided the kings and princes with whom he was displeased. He made a present of his own diamonds and pearls those, that is, that he had taken from other kings to the Empress of Austria. He tenderly embraced the Empress Marie Louise who considered herself his wife, though he had another wife still living in Paris and left her, so his historian relates, deeply distressed and hardly able to support the separation. Although diplomats still firmly believed in the possibility of peace, and were zealously working with that object, although the Emperor Napoleon, with his own hand, wrote a letter to the Emperor Alexander calling him “Monsieur mon frere,” and assuring him with sincerity that he had no desire of war, and would always love and honor him, he set off to join the army, and at every station gave such commands, hastening the progress of his army from west to east. He drove in a traveling carriage, drawn by six horses and surrounded by pages, adjutants and an armed escort, along the route by Posen, Thorn, Danzig and Konigsberg.

In each of these towns, he was welcomed with enthusiasm and trepidation by thousands of people.

The army was moving from west to east, and he was driven after by continual relays of six horses. On the 10th of June, he overtook the army and spent the night in the Vilkovik forest, in quarters prepared for him on the property of a Polish count.

The following day, Napoleon drove on ahead of the army, reached the Niemen, put on a Polish uniform in order to inspect the crossing of the river, and rode out on the river bank.

When he saw the Cossacks posted on the further bank and the expanse of the steppes in the midst of which, far away, was the holy city, Moscow, capital of an empire, like the Scythian empire invaded by Alexander of Macedon Napoleon surprised the diplomatists and contravened all rules of strategy by ordering an immediate advance, and his troops began crossing the Niemen the next day.

Early on the morning of the 12th of June he came out of his tent, which had been pitched that day on the steep left bank of the Niemen, and looked through a field glass at his troops pouring out of the Vilkovik forest, and dividing into three streams at the three bridges across the river. The troops knew of the Emperor’s presence, and were on the lookout for him. When they caught sight of his figure in the greatcoat and hat standing apart from his suite in front of his tent on the hill opposite, they threw up their caps and shouted, “Vive l’Empereur!

And one regiment after another, in a continuous stream, flowed out of the immense forest that had concealed them, and split up to cross the river by the three bridges. “We shall make some way this time. Oh, when he takes a hand himself, things begin to get warm! Name of God!… There he is! … Hurrah for the Emperor! So those are the Steppes of Asia! A nasty country it is, though. Goodbye, Beauche; I’ll keep the finest palace in Moscow for you. Good-bye! Good luck! . . . Have you seen the Emperor? Hurrah for the Emperor! If they make me governor of the Indies, Gerard, I’ll make you minister of Cashmere, that’s settled. Hurrah for the Emperor! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! The rascally Cossacks, how they are running. Hurrah for the Emperor! There he is! Do you see him? I have seen him twice as I am seeing you. The little corporal.. . I saw him give the cross to one of the veterans . . . Hurrah for the Emperor!”

Such was the talk of old men and young, of the most diverse characters and positions in society. All the faces of those men wore one common expression of joy at the commencement of a long-expected campaign, and enthusiasm and devotion to the man in the gray coat standing on the hill opposite.

On the 13th of June, Napoleon mounted a small thoroughbred Arab horse and galloped towards one of the bridges of the Niemen, defended all the while by shouts of enthusiasm, which he obviously endured simply because they could not be prevented from expressing in such shouts their love for him. But those shouts, invariably accompanying him everywhere, wearied him and hindered his attending to the military problems which beset him from the time he joined the army. He rode over a swaying bridge of boats to the other side of the river, turned sharply to the left, and galloped in the direction of Kovno, preceded by horse guards, who were breathless with delight and enthusiasm, as they cleared the way before him.

On reaching the broad river Niemen, he pulled up beside a regiment of Polish Uhlans* on the bank.

“Vive l’Empereur!” the Poles shouted with the same enthusiasm, breaking their line and squeezing against each other to get a view of him. Napoleon looked up and down the river, got off his horse, and sat down on a log that lay on the bank. At a mute sign from him, they handed him the field glass. He propped it on the back of a page who had run up delighted. He began looking at the other side, then, with absorbed attention, scrutinized the map that was unfolded on the logs. Without raising his head, he said something, and two of his adjutants galloped off to the Polish Uhlans.

“What? What did he say?” was heard in the ranks of the Polish Uhlans as an adjutant galloped up to them. They were commanded to look for a fording-place and to cross to the other side.

The colonel of the Polish Uhlans, a handsome old man, flushing red and stammering from excitement, asked the adjutant whether he would be permitted to swim across the river with his men instead of seeking for a ford. In obvious dread of a refusal, like a boy asking permission to get on a horse, he asked to be allowed to swim across the river before the Emperor’s eyes. The adjutant replied that probably the Emperor would not be displeased at this excess of zeal.

No sooner had the adjutant said this than the old whiskered officer, with happy face and sparkling eyes, brandished his sabre in the air shouting “Vive l’Empereur!” and commanding his men to follow him, he set spurs to his horse and galloped down to the river. He gave a vicious thrust to his horse, that foundered under him, and plunged into the water, making for the most rapid part of the current. Hundreds of Uhlans galloped in after him. It was cold and dangerous in the middle of the rapid current. The Uhlans clung to one another, falling off their horses.

Some of the horses were drowned, some, too, of the men; the others struggled to swim across, some in the saddle, others clinging to their horses’ manes. They tried to swim straight across, and although there was a ford half a verst* away, they were proud to be swimming, and drowning in the river before the eyes of that man sitting on the log and not even looking at what they were doing. When the adjutant, on going back, chose a favorable moment and ventured to call the Emperor’s attention to the devotion of the Poles to his person, the little man in the gray overcoat got up, and summoning Berthier, he began walking up and down the bank with him, giving him instructions, and casting now and then a glance of displeasure at the drowning Uhlans who had interrupted his thoughts.

It was no new conviction for him that his presence in any quarter of the earth, from Africa to the Steppes of Moscow, was enough to impress men and impel them to senseless acts of self-sacrifice. He sent for his horse and rode back to his bivouac.

Forty Uhlans were drowned in the river in spite of the boats sent to their assistance. The majority struggled back to the bank from which they had started. The colonel, with several of his men, swam across the river and with difficulty clambered up the other bank. But as soon as they climbed out in drenched and steaming clothes, they shouted, “Vive l’Empereur!” looking ecstatically at the place where Napoleon had stood, though he was no longer there, and at that moment thought themselves happy.

In the evening, between giving two orders one for hastening the arrival of the counterfeit rouble notes that had been prepared for circulation in Russia, and the other for shooting a Saxon who had been caught with a letter containing a report on the disposition of the French army Napoleon gave a third order for presenting the colonel, who had quite unnecessarily flung himself into the river, the order of the Legion d’Honneur, of which he was himself the head. Quos vult perdere, dementat. [Those whom (God) wishes to destroy he drives mad.]

*1812.   * Uhlan: Polish light cavalry armed with lances, sabres and pistols. * Verst: a Russian unit of distance equal to 0.6629 miles

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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