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NAPOLEON BONAPARTE'S RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN.
In Napoleon's Russian campaign “vaulting ambition overleaped itself.” The horrors of this campaign, the burning of Moscow, the retreat of the French army, can never be adequately described. Napoleon's first overthrow followed fast in the track of the Russian campaign. Henry Heine has left a most life-like picture, drawn in his characteristic style, of the appearance presented by the French army during their advance into Russia, and the contrast presented on their retreat.
1 MUCH has been said, and perhaps somewhat vaguely, on the subject of the Russian campaign, and the particular error committed by Napoleon in engaging in it or carrying it on. He trusted presumptuously in fate; he entered into conflict with the elements; and so on. Not at all. He looked as cautiously after the helping of fate now as he had done at Friedland or Eckmühl. “I was,” he said to O'Meara in St. Helena, “a few days too late; I had made a calculation of the weather for fifty years before, and the extreme cold had never commenced until about the 20th of December, twenty days later than it began this time.” That man left nothing to fate. His intellect was still clear. This early setting in of the cold was the first great cause, in his own belief, of the failure of the Russian attempt; the second was the burning of Moscow. Human prescience could have anticipated neither.
2 The truth is, Napoleon committed one great error in this Russian expedition, and, so far as appears, but one. He did not preserve his rear; he did not secure his retreat. If you look closely into his former campaigns, you find, with the exception, perhaps, of Marengo, no battle which does not exhibit the most cautious circumspection in securing a retreat. He fell back instantly, though seemingly on the way to victory, if, as at Aspern, his communications in the rear were broken. He always made it a grand object to cut off the retreat of his antagonist; once he had his enemy in a position where defeat was ruin, he attacked with confidence as one sure of an outwitted prey. In St. Helena he charged the Duke of Wellington with defective generalship at Waterloo, because, as he alleged, the allied army had no means of retreat. But now his own retreat was insecure; defeat was destruction. He passed across Europe toward the 3 north, accompanied not by the blessings and good wishes, but by the suppressed indignation and muttered curses, of its peoples. Fear and amazement guarded his throne, not love and seemly reverence. No human being is strong enough to despise these. Men now watched him with eyes of menace, and with right hands on the hilt. Disaffection had spread deep and far. His imperiousness, his insolent haughtiness, had turned against him even Bernadotte, to whom he had given his baton; even Lucien, who had served him so well; even the vassal kings, on whom he conferred a humiliating grandeur. France was 4 becoming weary and sick at heart; even glory became cold in its glittering, when there seemed to be no end to war, and when it might almost be said that in every house there was one dead. He took with him, too, his grand army, his old invincibles, that would so proudly die for him ; and who could never be replaced. To all or almost all this, he was blinded. The greatest and most important part of it arose from moral causes, and so escaped him. The story of the Russian campaign is the most solemn 5 and tragic in the annals of modern warfare, if not in the
whole history of war. No poet of these times, so far as one may judge, has possessed a power necessary to its poetic delineation. Perhaps in their very highest moments Coleridge, Shelley, or Byron might have caught certain of its tints of gloom and grandeur; now and then a tone of melody from Mrs. Browning's harp may reach the epic height of its sublimity. But he who depicted the woe of Othello and the madness of Lear, and he who described the march of the rebel angels to the north along the plains of heaven, might have joined their powers to bring out, in right poetic representation, the whole aspects of the Russian campaign. Perhaps it may lie among those subjects for which common life affords no 6 precedent, and common language no words. And, indeed, no description seems necessary. The poetry of Nature, in its weird colors and deep, dark, rhythmic harmonies, is already there; we have but to open our eyes and contemplate it. Those brave soldiers, those dauntless, devoted veterans, those children of victory, swift as eagles, fearless as lions, who had charged on the dikes of Arcola, and hailed the sun of Austerlitz, who were the very embodiment of wild southern valor, following Napoleon, the son of the lightning, beneath the dim vault of the northern winter, there to lay their fire-hearts under that still, pale winding-sheet of snow, the northern blast singing over them its song of stern and melancholy triumph—what could be more sublime poetry than that? 7It is simple fact. Then, how grandly is the darkness broken as those flames touch all the clouds with angry crimson, and a great people, thrilling with an heroic emotion, lays in ashes its ancient cities rather than yield them up to an invader! Worthy flowers to be cast by a nation in the way of that emperor! “It was the spectacle,” said Napoleon in St. Helena, alluding to the conflagration of Moscow, “It was the spectacle of a sea and billows of fire, a sky and clouds of flame; mountains of red rolling flames, like immense waves of the sea, alternately bursting forth and elevating themselves to skies of fire, and then sinking into the ocean of flame below. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrific sight the world ever beheld !” A sublime sight indeed; it were difficult to name one more sublime, unless it were the sight of him describing it, a hopeless captive in that lonely isle.
If we except the Duke of Marlborough, Wellington was the greatest of English generals. He lacked the brilliancy of Marlborough and of his great rival, Napoleon, but his campaigns were marked by a rare combination of energy and clear judgment and by an invincible determination, which almost invariably resulted in success.
His great feat was his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo (June 18, 1815), by which Napoleon was finally overthrown, and the whole tenor of European history changed. Wellington's personal character, too, was above reproach. He has been censured by some for failing to interpose in Ney's behalf after the battle of Waterloo, but if this was an error it was not a crime, and no charge of avarice or rapacity has ever sullied his pure and lofty fame. For estimates of the great commanders referred to in the “Reader,” the student should consult Chesney’s “Military Biography.”
MUCH has been said concerning the coldness of Wel-1 lington's emotions, and his alleged want of kindliness. In this portion of his character, too, we find the traits we have specified. He possessed a kindliness all his own.
It must be granted that he never exhibited that strange fascination of genius which has been so powerful in many instances—in a Mirabeau, a Napoleon, a Hannibal. Yet a manly kindliness was his which comported well with the massive strength of his character. He loved, if we may so say, in the mass; his kindness was that of calm, considerate reason, and borrowed no flash from passion. In India he used no small arts to secure attachment; he was encircled, and he wished to be so, by the dignity of a 2 high-born British gentleman. Yet his rule was felt to be kindly and beneficent, and the inhabitants of the wide provinces whose affairs he administered blessed him in their hearts. He might not, with sentimental sigh, lament over the individual loss or destruction; but the general prosperity, the happiness of the people as a whole, lay near his heart; he did not care to dispense those small personal favors whence are born kind words and smiles, but he spread his blessings as from a great cornucopia 3 over the land. It was so, also, in his military career. If we may say that he did not love each soldier, we must yet assert that no general ever loved his army better. If the individual soldier had to be sacrificed for the good of the army, he hesitated not ; but, since the efficiency of the army required the comfort and safety of the individual soldier, the British private could not possibly have sustained fewer hardships in Spain than he experienced under Wellington. In a word, and in all cases, those under our great chief experienced that security and assured joy which weakness always finds under the shield 4 of strength. We might appeal to the case of the captive son of Dhoondiah to prove that kindness lay deep in his nature; it was this which, uniting with his powerful faculties, naturally produced the considerate beneficence which we assert to have distinguished him. We can not