Retreat from Moscow
A great amount of snow covers the ground in this image. Many soldiers are partially or completely buried by it, and one soldier sits atop a horse whose legs are also buried. Each soldier wears an expression of terror. To their right, four men huddle in an open tent around a fire, a pot resting beside it. One of them is buried up to his neck in snow, and one is completely shrouded in a blanket. The only sign of plant life is a large pine tree behind the tent. One French flag remains flying near the tent.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
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The Life of Napoleon: A Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos (1815) by William Combe (aka Doctor Syntax)
The governor of Moscow, Fyodor Rostopchin, ordered the city to be burned by convicts after the Russians defeated the French in order to ensure that the French did not seize it. He also hoped that the French who remained would be forced to fight fire and criminals. Another problem soon arose, for the areas that were not damaged were quarrelled over by the soldiers. Fortunately for the French, food and alcohol were not the only goods left in the city; weaponry was also left behind (R. Asprey, Rise and Fall 337).
Alexander I was the leader of Russia at the time of Napolean's retreat from Moscow. With Alexander's permission, Count Rostopchin, the governor of Moscow, set fire to the city. Their plan gave Napoleon the first and arguably the hardest blow to his ego. He had assumed Alexander I was an unfit leader due to his political inconsistencies and had intended to prey upon this weakness. Conversely, Alexander I, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, began to believe that Napoleon was the Antichrist. A surprising string of events resulted in Napoleon and his troops waiting in vain in Moscow for an official surrender. They would never receive it (C. Herold, Age of Napoleon 347-349).
To Alexander I, Moscow was only the “holy” capital; St. Petersburg was the empire’s capital. While the city was set ablaze, Napoleon safely waited in the Kremlin, the city’s citadel (S. Englund, Napoleon: A Political Life 377).
Text from the book which corresponds to the image:
He sought in vain a lurking place,
Destruction star’d him in the face;
Hemm’d in—he sought for peace in vain—
No peace cou’d Bonaparte obtain;
He swore, when peace he cou’d not getm
The Russians were a barb’rous set.
(W. Combe, Life of Napoleon 228)A great reward, as it is said,
Was offer’d for our hero’s head
Poor Bonaparte got safe away.
When he to Wilna’s borders came,
He very wisely chang’d his name;
And in a sledge—t’was so contriv’d,
At Paris in the night arriv’d
While Nap was absent, we must own,
He very nearly lost his throne.
(W. Combe, Life of Napoleon 229)
This image depicts the retreat of Napoleon and his forces from Moscow, with particular emphasis on the harsh and nightmarish conditions of their journey.
On top of the French flag, which is flying lower than in the book's previous images, is an eagle. The eagle is a symbol of imperialism. Because Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow was the sour turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, this symbol is loaded with irony. Like the majority of the objects in the image, the flag and the eagle are stuck in the snow: imperialism has failed.
“Following naturally from the Romantic fascination with the old and exotic was an attraction to the supernatural, bizarre, or nightmarish” (N. King, Romantics 10). Being trapped in the snow, as the soldiers in the image are, is precisely that: nightmarish. Again, the sublime is a driving force in this image; however, terror is the predominant emotion it invokes. Birds are lurking above the men and the viewer can only see grayness in the distance. Although it was believed during the Romantic period that “to be alone in wild, lonely places was for the Romantics to be near to heaven,” this scene is far from the divine (N. King, Romantics 8).
The function of this image is to satirize Napoleon and his troops’ departure from Moscow. Its purpose is to incite humor, which is effected by the men’s entrapment in the snow. Additionally, its function is to portray Napoleon as a greedy and selfish leader, as he is safe and warm inside a tent.
Asprey, Robert. The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Combe, William. The Life of Napoleon: A Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos. London: T. Tegg III, 1815.
Englund, Steven. Napoleon: A Political Life. New York: Scribner, 2004.
Herold, C. The Age of Napoleon. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963.
King, Neil. The Romantics: English literature in its historical, cultural, and social contexts. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003.
4 v. : col. fold. plates, fold. ports. ; 22 cm.
23 January 1815