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First Italian Campaign | The Egyptian Campaign | Second Italian Campaign | The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign | The Prussian Campaign | The Peninsular War | The Austrian War | The Russian Campaign | From Lützen to Elba | The Waterloo Campaign

The Russian Campaign, 1812, continued

Fearing the approach of winter but reluctant to abandon his conquest, Napoleon wrote the Tsar proposing negotiations. The Tsar responded with icy silence. After five weeks of waiting, Napoleon bitterly ordered his soldiers home.

On October 19, laden with spoils, they marched out of the Kremlin through the Gate of the Savior. It was a warm Fall day. Three weeks later it began to snow. The Russian winter had arrived early.

Temperatures fell to twenty-two degrees below zero. Napoleon's soldiers froze in the open countryside. "Our lips stuck together," one soldier wrote. "Our nostrils froze. We seemed to be marching in a world of ice."

CASTELOT: You can’t imagine the suffering of the Russian retreat. When they spoke, their breath froze with a little dry sound; their words were freezing in the air.

Food ran out. Horses died by the thousands. Hungry soldiers quarreled over the horseflesh. They were fighting starvation, cold, fatigue, disease — and the Cossacks.

The Cossacks harried Napoleon’s flanks, tearing at his army as if it were a wounded animal. Russian peasants showed no mercy on the stragglers, torturing the sick and wounded, and anyone left behind.

SOKHOLOV: The army is being eaten away, because it is being attacked on all sides. So the army fell apart, little by little.

The French army barely existed as a fighting force. Napoleon watched as his army slowly died. Fearing capture, he carried in a little black leather bag tied around his neck a vial of poison. His fighting spirit revived briefly as he fought off hesitant Russian troops to cross the ice-packed Berezina River. The French were forced to retreat, but in Napoleon's eyes it was victory. What remained of his defeated army straggled toward relative safety.

Six months before, he had crossed into Russia with more than a half million soldiers, confident of victory. Now, on December 5, rumors of a coup in Paris forced him to abandon his troops and head back to the French capital.

As his sled made its way across Europe, he told a companion: "It’s just one step between the sublime and the ridiculous."

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