Category Archives: Napoleonic Russia

MARSHAL NEY–BAD ASS ~ by g. kinyon

December morning in Paris, 1815, a quiet corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg, out of the view of the pissed-off mob that has heard about the verdict. Michel Ney, Marshal of France, duc d’Elchingen, prince de La Moskowa, Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis—a cooper’s son—declines the blindfold that is offered him. Four soldiers in plumed shakos train their muskets on him from a knee. Four more behind them do the same from a standing position. A commanding officer directs the proceedings from the squad’s right. More than a quarter century in the service of France and this is how it will end—by the hot lead of his own countrymen. Two years in military service under the Royalty, distinguishing himself and ascending the ranks at a rare speed throughout the Revolution, the Empire, the Restoration, and the Hundred Days. That damned Hundred Days. An outstanding commander—Napoleon called him the bravest of the brave—but in equal measure a clumsy politician, which will cost him. All that remains is for him to give his final order—his choice to do so. Voltaire, in reference to the British and their treatment of a certain admiral, wrote: “Pour encourager les autres.” The words apply again.

Ney’s III Corps fought the Russians in the position of rear guard so that the rest of Napoleon’s army might escape that subarctic shithole of the Tsars. November 18, 1812. A Russian soldier under a flag of truce delivers the message to Ney that he is now cut off. The French army has deserted him, he is told. Ney and his 6,000 men are surrounded by 80,000 Russians. There is no escape. That much is established, a fait accompli, although the Marshal’s counterpart on the Russian side admires him and insists he will be treated with the respect his bravery has earned. Ney arrests the messenger. With only six guns, he mounts a frontal assault on the Russians that nearly succeeds. The enemy is expecting nothing so inspired from this meager unit, but they manage to regroup and begin raking the French ranks without mercy. Every burst of Russian cannon wipes out soldiers by the file. Regiments vanish. Ney launches a second effort that proves to be just as spirited as the first, but it is met with unceasing canister shot. One of the Marshal’s aides-de-camp is captured. The Russian commander, General Miloradovich, expresses his admiration to the prisoner. “Bravo,” he says. “Bravo men of France! You have just attacked, with astonishing vigor, an entire corps with a handful of men.”  The British attaché to the Russian army, General Sir Robert Wilson, records it as “a combat of giants.” Ney gives orders to fight until nightfall.

The Marshal succumbs to a flash of rage and doubt when he grasps the truth in what the Russians have said. He and his corps are being sacrificed. He calls Napoleon a bastard for abandoning them while making good his escape. “What will happen to us?” he says. “Everything is fucked!” But none of that lasts. To have any chance of escaping, the survivors must re-cross the Dnieper (the ancient Greeks called it the Borysthenes) that they crossed on a bridge into the ruined city of Smolensk yesterday. Many miles downstream now, on the river road, they are ignorant of the distance and what lay in between other than field and forest. No food, water, maps, or light at hand. “The presence of Marshal Ney was enough to reassure us,” an officer with the abandoned corps will later write. “The greater the danger, the stronger his determination, and once he made his decision he never doubted its successful outcome.” And at such a moment as this, “his face expressed neither indecision nor anxiety. All eyes were on him, but no one dared question him.”

Some 2,000 soldiers survive the day’s battle. An enemy Cossack is strutting around in Ney’s captured dress uniform somewhere in the Russian camp. With animals, supply wagons, and six limbered guns, the men of III Corps force a path through strange landscapes and thick timber, becoming more disoriented by the minute. Ney at length finds a ravine. He orders the snow cleared at the bottom and the ice broken. The direction of the water flow tells him the direction of the Dnieper.

They reach a village on the river’s bank, a village, at any rate, void of sustenance. Ney assumes Russian scouts are following and watching, and he orders a number of campfires to be lit and organizes outposts to bolster the deception. A peasant is co-opted to guide the main body of men to a place where the river ice is thickest. This brings them to another town, but, despite the intense cold, the ice here doesn’t look nearly sturdy enough. The Marshal decides to pass the night in this hamlet and make the crossing by the morning’s light. Military surgeons attend the injured and Ney catches some shuteye.

A messenger rousts him at midnight with news that the Russians have figured it out. They’re closing in. The crossing will have to be made now. The most severely injured, some three hundred of them, stay behind with the cannon and ammunition wagons, although not by choice. Men slide down the steep bank as gently as possible, distrustful of the ice—as well they should be. Leaders step out over the river and advance with caution, sounding the ice with their musket butts. Loud cracks answer every step. On the opposite side, twelve vertical feet of mud awaits, a pathway to the top that will grow slicker with each attempt to scale it. A few of the lighter carts get across and are pulled up the bank with much effort, but they weaken the ice en route. A wagonload of the injured is too heavy and all aboard perish. Horses and soldiers begin breaching all round; men cry out for help. Help is not possible, and the river takes its toll in lives. The fear of Russian retribution compels men unable to walk to drag themselves across on their knees. At this moment, back in Smolensk, the Russians are incinerating the hospitals and the people inside. Anyone left behind, particularly those of low rank, can expect the same. The remaining cavalry is forced to search for a stronger crossing. Hours tick away, but the cavalry at length shows up. All who’ve survived to see the opposite bank begin the 45-mile march to the city of Orsha, a depot Napoleon organized months ago. He and the rest of the army will be waiting there, the rear guard assumes.

The sun rises and the living skeleton of III Corps passes through a village. Here they surprise several sleeping Cossacks, who become their prisoners. Come noon, another berg. The denizens here have fled this time to leave behind a bounty of food and drink. The revelry is cut short, however, when the call to arms is sent up—a response to Cossack squadrons on the approach. The troops form a column and resume the march, exchanging fire with the Cossack cavalry, who now bring up guns on sledges. The French survive reasonably well keeping to the thick vegetation along the Dnieper’s bank and putting together a makeshift fortress that no Cossacks dare breach. As has become the custom, the fight goes on until nightfall. Ney declares that anybody who gets through this will prove “they have their balls hung by steel wire.”

By now the Cossacks have infiltrated the woods flanking the river. Ney orders the remnants of two line regiments under General Henin to remove them. This they do, but the forest is dense enough to scatter the column in the darkness. Enemy fire comes from several directions, and, as must be, the wounded are left to their fates. A sergeant passes his pack to a comrade who, unlike himself, will be able to use it. A wave of fear sweeps over the lost unit. Edge becomes panic. Fellow soldiers call out for help after taking shrapnel, but surely they understand there will be none. Each man imagines he will be next, or he strives for mental diversion to sustain him until the danger has passed. A few stalwarts put their wit and courage on display for the benefit of all. An officer, no less, laments aloud over what he sees as an imminent surrender; another scolds and berates him, tells him to shut his fucking mouth. Vive l’Empereur!

Ragged, depleted soldiers with boots full of swamp-water stumble into deep ravines from which a doomed few are unable to extricate themselves. Enemy cannon-trajectories follow the march, follow it across encrusted streams and stifling scrub, over knee-deep dirty-white plains and slippery berms. The night fills with bloody spray, with ghosts. Artillery splits trees…and severs limbs. These warriors, terrified as they may be, break ranks only for eternal sleep. The officers by and large have done their duty.

Relief—of the mental variety if nothing else. The long lost Dnieper comes into view. This is the path to Orsha, to Napoleon. General Henin keeps the march as close as possible to the river so the Cossacks can’t outflank. He says nothing when a Russian shell sends a casing fragment into his gut; continues, instead, to command with a full throat. Whose campfires are those in the distance, he wonders. Ney. The corps is reunited but Ney has been breaking camp. The lost regiment is not allowed to rest–not an option if they wish to live. The main body, too, has had its own troubles. A Russian officer of considerable rank rode into earshot earlier and demanded a surrender, only to hear from a French general that Frenchmen don’t know that word. And the night is a long one. The march continues with a merciless exchange of fire, men dropping along the way. The following afternoon finds the dwindling corps bankrupt of ammunition. Few muskets are left as it is, and anyway it’s so miserably cold that no one can hold a firearm in his hands. Still, Ney forms his armed men into two ranks and angles for the greatest effect by placing the unarmed men behind them. Cossacks charge, screaming “Hurrah! (meaning death),” only to reverse their impetus, as is their wont, when the French weapons are pointed in their direction, unloaded as they may be. Cossacks stick out their tongues before turning around, though, a gesture equivalent to the French middle finger or bras d’honneur if perhaps a grade less sophisticated. The march resumes while the Cossacks stay to the front at a useless distance. Marshal Ney asks another officer his thoughts. What can be said other than to point out the obvious, that their position is not brilliant and more cartridges are needed? “True, but it’s here we must know how to sell ourselves dearly,” Ney says.

At nightfall, he has campfires lit at a distance from the Russians, but orders all units to be ready to move at nine o’clock. In the meantime, another Russian flag of truce appears. The Russian general is demanding Ney’s surrender. Surprise. 100,000 troops have him circled. It’s all up with III Corps. Ney sends the messenger back with the news that a Marshal of France never surrenders. The next Russian spokesmen to show up with the same demand is arrested. Ney insists he see for himself how the French surrender. Predictably, a third messenger comes to retrieve his comrade. He too is treated to a stay in the Gallic camp. But while the Marshal is telling him so, the Russian is casting glances in all directions. Ney is plenty annoyed and has him blindfolded; makes him knock it off. The man whines and Ney orders everyone to fall in quietly, to march in close formation without speaking. They pass through the Russian camp, and the Russians fail to even notice them until it’s too late to make Ney regret his arrogance. Instead, they’re left to content themselves with the capture and slow murder of a few straggling injured.

Until daybreak. The Cossacks ride across an open field with sledge-mounted guns. Ney draws his men into square formation and pushes on under fire. A trifling number of French sharpshooters with cartridges torment the enemy as they can, but the incoming artillery is intense and the French are several times on the verge of breaking ranks and surrendering. By virtue of Ney’s unruffled presence is the square maintained until they gain high ground in front of a village. Here the Marshal harangues about dying for France before he positions his two divisions to make a stand. Again and again the Russians attack, but the French repulse them each time. Things come to a point where the Russian commander tires of this determination
that continues to embarrass him and his forces. During the resulting lull, exhausted French soldiers take refuge in the village’s houses. Ney has no choice but to set fire to the town in order to force his men to fall in and pick up the march. And once again, during the night, the Marshal leads them through Russian lines unmolested—all four or five hundred of them.

Napoleon has been awaiting any word of his missing Marshal for days. He orders various scouts on missions to find out what they can. The Emperor would relinquish all 300 million francs in the Tuilleries’ treasury to get Ney back, he declares. But the main Russian forces are closing in. At midnight tonight, he has decided, he will accept the fate of his friend and move on. He’s unaware Ney has sent an officer ahead to get word to him of the rear guard’s escape. That word flashes via couriers through the remnants of the Grande Armee until it reaches l’Empereur. Ney is so revered in this military that a sense of rapture rolls through the ranks and sets off a night of rejoicing among men who will never see home again. High-ranking officers burst into tears at the news. Corks are popped, backs are slapped.

But reality is waiting with teeth bared come morning. Marshal Ney reorganizes and commands the rear guard the rest of the murderous way through Lithuania, holding off the enemy under conditions a preponderance of us could not endure even with an escort and an order of safe passage. The soldiers and civilians who ultimately survive Napoleon’s empire-ending misadventure likely owe their lives to Marshal Ney.


The duchesse d’Angeloume, daughter of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, has been the driving force behind Ney’s execution. Both her parents were beheaded, her brother left to his death in prison, by the revolutionaries some two decades ago. To her, Napoleon represents those regicides. Not that he had a thing to do with any of it, but he was the ultimate product of the Revolution and the chief impediment to the restoration of Bourbon rule. Her family is restored to the French crown in the form of her uncle, Louis XVIII, when Napoleon abdicates. Ney finds favor with this new monarch, and is given a military unit to command. But in March of 1815, the restive Napoleon returns from exile in Elba, full-on ready to make things happen one more time. Ney, calling Napoleon a “wild dog” among a number of other choice epithets, insisting he’ll bring Bonaparte back in an iron cage, is sent to arrest him. But that’s not exactly how it unfolds.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s charisma and sense of self-worth are so off-the-charts overpowering that with a glance and a few words he can cast his spell on a man like Marshal Ney. This is incredible. Ney hated the man’s guts. (The video linked above is probably a reasonable representation of one of history’s true turning points, where  testosterone, dripping from the atmosphere like syrup from a burlap bag, decides the course of the future.) Instead of arresting the little usurper, maybe getting in some payback for that abandonment-in-Russia thing, the Marshal ceremoniously relinquishes his sword to his superior and  joins him in yet another overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy. A hundred days later, though…Waterloo. Ney’s as much as Bonaparte’s. The Bourbon king returns to the throne of France, whereupon his niece and her Royalist allies press him to punish Ney most capitally. True, Ney committed a treasonous act against the crown, but no one believes it was premeditated. He was simply incapable of resisting Napoleon’s magic—he and tens of thousands of others. Louis is in the unenviable position of having to bring a favorite of the French people—a near-mythological figure—to trial. Ney is given a passport to leave the country, but his effort to take advantage of the opportunity is feeble and unavailing. The Marshal, then, is arrested. After the King experiences a bit of trouble collecting a willing jury, a tendentious pool of arbiters is assembled and they condemn Ney to death. Effective immediately.

The Duchess later in life reads the story above, or a similar version of it, rather, and expresses her regret. Had she known, she admits, she never would’ve handled things so.

Marshal Ney



2014-01-03 18.42.16…young and touching Fanni. Pretty, sweet, amiable, witty, speaking several languages—in a word, possessing all qualities seductive to the most insensitive man—she was reduced to begging for the slightest service, and usually the bit of bread she obtained obliged her to requite it in the most servile way. She implored our help and we abused her. Each night she belonged to anyone who undertook to nourish her.

Halfway between Moscow and the Berezina River, after the weather turns bitter, a French officer in Napoleon’s army by the name of Labaume laments the torment of an innocent young girl. He pities all the Frenchwomen, in fact,

who’d come with us from Moscow, mostly on foot in cloth slippers, dressed in wretched silk or cotton cambric dresses and who’d covered themselves in furs or soldiers’ greatcoats taken from corpses.

Even in the blizzard, Labaume is rendered so heartsick by the cruelties he witnesses he takes the time to describe them in his diary. He mentions one of Napoleon’s generals who beds a French girl in Moscow with promises of marriage. Now she is pregnant, following her man, utterly devoted to him, until he tells her to

go back to Moscow, because he’s married already anyway, and there perhaps find the husband her parents had destined for her. The girl fainted, and the general marched off into the night toward Smolensk.

And just as he too comes into Smolensk, Labaume sees Fanni one last time

no longer, alas, able to walk. The unfortunate girl was having herself dragged along behind a vehicle, and when her strength gave out she fell down into the snow, which no doubt became her winding sheet, without her having aroused anyone’s compassion nor anyone throwing her so much as a pitying glance, so brutalized were our souls and so extinct our sensibility. Misery no longer had any witnesses. We were all its victims.

That, my friends, is game.        


Russian BivouacThe French in Russia during the 1812 invasion often commented on the stamina of the low-ranking Russian soldier. The private seemed to be more machine than man, fighting as if he had no mind of his own and no thought of dying. The truth was not too far off. Many of those young Russian minds probably were gone. Conscription filled the Russian ranks, but unlike other European states, the Russians drafted the ranker essentially for life. Twenty-five years was the mandatory term, but after so long a time, the conscripted soldier knew he could not likely go home. If he did, he would be a stranger among a family who would not have heard from him in many years. He would be a middle-aged man without the skills necessary for village or manorial life. And as a retired soldier, he was considered “free,” which meant he was no longer held responsible to the lord of a manor if he’d been a serf, or for paying taxes in his village if he’d been a state peasant.  The military would be all he knew at that point. Most retired soldiers became wanderers.

When the authorities imposed a levy, life was finished for the young man whose number came up; existence as he knew it was at an end. In fact, an induction was usually treated like a funeral, with tolling bells and wailing women. To a soldier, military life was so miserable that death was often preferable. State-owned peasants and manorial serfs bore the brunt of the military draft as the laws exempted sons of merchants, clergy, and noblemen. National service was devastating to the point that parents frequently maimed their male babies rather than ever have to worry about it. Self-mutilation by draftees was so common that laws had to be implemented. Intentional injury could be severely punished and the perpetrator could be forced into service anyway, which pissed off company commanders trying to form cohesive units. Runaways eventually became the responsibility of village leaders, whose backs might feel the lash if they could not produce the required number of conscripts. Incarcerating a draftee until an officer came to collect him was common practice. On the outskirts of the empire, particularly near Poland or Prussia, flight was practicable, but in the interior it was near impossible. A male of draft age wandering into a town with no visible means of support was automatically considered a draft dodger and quickly reported.Russian charge

Some peasants were wealthier than others, and these might be able to buy a substitute inductee from a broker. Enterprising middlemen could buy serfs from a landowner and then sell them at a profit to peasant families who could afford them. A family then would deliver the purchased peasant in place of their son to the draft officer. Administrative corruption was also rampant, and bribery was another means for the better-off to avoid giving up their own. Sometimes, losing a son to conscription would ruin a small family.

Cowardice or other forms of dishonor on the Russians’ side of a battlefield met a punishment both swift and capital. The Russian soldier was not permitted to duck his head while under artillery fire. During skirmishes and pitched battles against Napoleon’s army, the Russian ranker generally faced death admirably, but hopelessness likely informed that behavior more often than any patriotism. On entry into the service, the recruit was immediately forced to march great distances to his regiment. Here, the living conditions were ripe for disease and illness. The food was anything but nutritious, the water was unhealthy, and the barracks were usually close and filthy. The men were treated like hell, often barbarically, which, combined with homesickness, was a significant factor in the high rate of suicide.

Russian Infantry

In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm purchased several Don Cossacks, serfs also known as “Little Russians,” to work his stables. He bought these from a female landholder—a pomeschitsa—in Voronezh province. Such a woman actually existed at that time, and her reputation was one of inveterate cruelty. Sir Malcolm treated his serfs well and they responded accordingly. Every once in awhile a ne’er-do-well was discovered in the mix, and Sir Malcolm would mark such a person for the conscription rolls when a levy was imposed. In real life, masters and villagers were known to turn over criminals, drunkards, and the generally useless for military service when called upon to satisfy the requirements of a levy. Sometimes a serf family’s sons were called out of turn by the master to punish the father. Sir Malcolm was a factory owner, and in 1812 Russia, factory workers were often exempted from duty, as the state needed their skills in their civilian capacities. Many of Sir Malcolm’s employees volunteered out of patriotism when Napoleon invaded, which was not an uncommon reaction that year. Manor-house staff in 1812 Russia also enjoyed exempt status, which is why Sir Malcolm did not have to find replacements for his. Sir Malcolm’s carriage factory, by the way, was based on one the French actually found unharmed and stocked when they arrived in Moscow. That factory survived the fires, as did Sir Malcolm’s. Russian Infantry Borodino

Russian Serfs and Peasants During the Napoleonic Invasion

Angry SerfsDuring the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Russia in 1812, the British liaison to the Russians described in his journal what he saw take place in a rural village. To paraphrase General Sir Robert Wilson, the peasants had laid some fifty refugees out naked in the snow. Village women commenced dancing around and singing while bashing their prisoners’ brains out with clubs. Other eye witnesses reported captured refugees being roasted on spits, being stripped and made to freeze to death, being drowned, and being battered and used as target practice. Peasants didn’t withhold the most unfathomable tortures from women or children let alone soldiers. So who were these people who were so unfeeling and so over-the-top violent—acting not only as individuals but as whole communities? There is no simple answer to that.

Serfs Towing BoatThe condition of Russian peasantry in 1812 was as appalling and as hopeless as any existence at the time. The livelihood of the nobility was dependent on the free labor that serfdom provided, and the odds of that changing were essentially zero. Each estate was its own world with its own rules set down by the individual master or mistress. The difference between serfs and peasants was essentially that serfs were owned by private landowners, where peasants were the property of the Russian state. Human beings were bought and sold at auction or by way of a contract between private parties; they were sold along with mules, carts, or any other material goods. Russian newspapers carried ads describing a slave’s attributes and skills for interested buyers. For example, this ad was posted in the Moscow News in 1797: For sale: a waiter, 25 years old, with his wife and a minor son. A very good weaver; can also shave and draw blood. The wife can look after the mistress and is capable of any work. Also for sale in the same place: a…carriage, not much used, of the best workmanship.

Families were sold together by and large, but not always; they could be permanently torn apart. In general, the more serfs a master—or pomeshchik—owned, the better off the serfs would be. If several thousand serfs were owned, they would commonly be on obrok, in which the serf paid quitrent in cash or kind. Serfs owned by lesser pomeshchiks in many cases labored under the system of barshchina, similar to the pre-Revolution corvee in France, where the master was compensated in labor. This type of existence was conducive to short, tormented lives for the workers. It should be noted that life was not horrible for every serf; many actually became wealthy through personal skills, education, and entrepreneurship, and even purchased their own serfs and property. The serf was not legally allowed to own property, however, and such purchases were necessarily made in the name of the master. Envy and resentment of a neighbor’s success was firmly embedded in the Russian character, and the industrious peasant was often a lonely peasant. Peasants could not marry without the consent of their masters, and female serfs who turned up pregnant without being married were punished severely.Russian Steppe Serfs

Serfs were subject to the whims of the master or those of the stewards and bailiffs in his employ. The treatment they received at times was inhuman. By law, owners weren’t allowed to kill their slaves, but they could and did beat them near to death. (Limits on lash strokes applied to minors.) Some landowners cultivated virtual harems out of their serf populations, in which young girls were required to satisfy their masters’ sexual demands under threat of torture. No laws existed to stop these things, and such behavior was not necessarily imbued with any social repugnance. House serfs, being in the close proximity of the pomeshchik or pomeshchitsa, seemed to bear the brunt of the caprice and cruelty dished out from above relative to their brothers and sisters who worked the land. Good masters did exist, it would be fair to say, and the lot of certain serfs was not so bleak. Some masters provided schools—although laws prohibited serfs from entering high school—and hospitals, and even allowed their slaves to buy or otherwise earn their freedom. On a rare occasion, a serf would actually become wealthy or attain high levels of employment in government service. Stories also abound of the sadistic behavior of serfs in charge of other serfs.

For all the torment the peasant population of Russia endured, these servants could be inconceivably brutal in their own rite. Alcoholism was prevalent in lower-class Russian families and villages, which paved the way for physical abuse at home. Peasant husbands and even grandparents beat their wives and children as severely and as often as they liked. But such violence was not limited to the cottage. School teachers used birch rods on bare legs to discipline students for such egregious behavior as not earning acceptable grades or talking. Pets that got into mischief were sometimes put on trial and hanged. But the most unfathomable reports of peasant behavior came during the retreat of the French military and civilians from Moscow. Throughout the advance of Napoleon’s army in the summer of 1812, soldiers became marauders, putting whole Russian villages to the torch, raping and murdering females, wreaking gratuitous destruction without restraint. The villagers paid Cossacks and partisans for captives during the winter exodus in order to exact retribution for those outrages, whether those captives were French soldiers or private citizens of other nationalities who had nothing to do with any past injustices. Villagers herded prisoners into barns before setting the structures on fire; they forced people into deep pits and buried them alive; they drove spikes through people’s heads; they pushed even children through holes they’d chopped in iced-over ponds. In “Beyond the Berezina,” such scenes of horror play out time and again for the principals, all based on extant reports from survivors of the era.

It should be mentioned that the Russians—and particularly the provincials—were extremely religious. The belief that Napoleon was the antichrist referred to in the Bible permeated the rural mind. Every occurrence was due to the direct actions of God or Satan; and the savage treatment of prisoners was divinely sanctioned. Superstition governed the lives of the lower classes; peasants looked for omens and avoided behavior that brought on retribution from unseen forces. Beliefs varied regionally, but every home had an icon corner, and around almost every neck hung the image of a saint—usually Nicholas. Great processions of humanity annually followed statues of the Virgin or some other relic, which may have been assigned supernatural attributes, from one location to another and back. The dominant religion was Russian Orthodox Christianity, which varied in many aspects from its Latin and Greek cousins. Regional pagan customs often survived from the pre-Christian era to be included in the established orthodoxy.

In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm Ussher owns several serfs that he’d bought at auction, slaves from an area close to the Ukraine then known as Little Russia. The Little Russians had different beliefs and practices from those of the peasants reared nearer to Moscow or St. Petersburg, or those from Siberia. Many of them were Cossacks from the vicinity of the Don or Kuban Rivers, and were referred to as Don or Kuban Cossacks. They were not nearly as patriotic or concerned with the fate of Mother Russia as their northern cousins. Overall, Napoleon’s invasion was important to the civilian population in those regions only as it related to their own well-being. In regions farther north, too, along the lines of the French advance, some serfs used the opportunity of the invasion to talk the invaders into murdering their masters. No single peasant mindset could be counted on in those days.


Throughout the year of 1811, even while a massive earthquake was making the Mississippi River run backwards, the inhabitants of Europe and Russia could step out of their homes at night to see a comet illuminating the heavens. To peasants, gentry, and aristocracy alike, the comet was an omen. Something extraordinary was in the works, the population was largely convinced–an event of historic gravity. Some witnesses recorded feelings of absolute terror, many refusing even to look up again until the thing was gone. Not everyone was as superstitious as to tremble at a natural occurrence; but those who were so disposed, as it would turn out, were justified in their anxieties, whether the epic events to come were attributable to coincidence or not.

In that same year, Napoleon Bonaparte’s valet, Constant, awoke one night to the sound of screams emanating from his master’s adjacent bedchamber. The valet found the Conqueror of Europe tossing in his bed, babbling unintelligibly, his sheets on the floor. After shaking the sweat-drenched Napoleon awake, Constant learned his boss had been dreaming that a bear was tearing his heart out. Napoleon brought that dream up in conversation several times over the ensuing months, attempting to decode its meaning as it might pertain to his present circumstances. The very fact that he thought a dream was in need of decoding suggests at least to a degree that he was assigning it supernatural properties.

At around three in the morning on the 23rd of June, 1812, Napoleon was galloping along the left bank of the Niemen River, reconnoitering the opposite shore. In his company was the largest army ever assembled in European history, poised to cross the river into Russian territory. As the emperor rode through the darkness, a hare jumped out of the weeds and through the legs of his horse, which shied and threw its rider. Witnessing this event were Napoleon’s two most trusted aides, Generals Berthier and Calaincourt. The former commented to the latter that the ancient Romans would have understood this as the bad omen it was, and refused to cross the river. Calaincourt wrote that at any other time Napoleon would have cursed and blamed the horse, the hare, and Calaincourt, but that this time he scrambled back onto his mount and acted like nothing had happened. Calaincourt went on to observe that his boss seemed uncharacteristically pensive and uneasy after the tumble, as if he likewise took it all as a sign of pending doom.

Six months from that moment, this imperial force of some 500,000 men was no more. Twenty-thousand humans at best, half-insane, more than half-frostbitten, beaten, bloody, bruised and starving, would drag themselves back across that river with whatever clothing and limbs remained on their bodies. In the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was a type of devastation theretofore unfamiliar to historians. Countless villages had been removed from the maps, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children lay dead. More still were homeless or crippled.

Eye witness accounts of the invasion and exodus are replete with examples of spot-on prophecies of individual mortality. Under such circumstances, the accurate prognostication of one’s own death connotes no great feat of magic. However, many individuals involved handed over their personal belongings to comrades with great urgency, with assurances that they would not see another tomorrow and pleas that the trustee deliver those trinkets to a mother or sister. Geographical features, particularly rivers, were commonly cited as places presumably-doomed persons were sure they would never reach. We have no way of knowing how often such divinations were wrong, but journal-recordings of those that were correct are numerous.

All this puts me in mind of a similar episode in my own pages, when a friend wanted to show me where his burial plot was situated. At the time, I had more pressing concerns and I told him so. I said I’d go another day. But he was insistent. He wanted me to go with him right now. I couldn’t understand what the hurry was, but I relented and went along to look at his future gravesite. He was dead a few days later, suddenly, unexpectedly.

I cover these occurrences of presentiment in “Beyond the Berezina,” because they were a part of the true story. And because they spark interest in all but the most devoutly atheistic among us. None of the above proves anything, true, but it doesn’t hurt, either. I have had several déjà vu experiences over the years, and like most people familiar with the phenomenon, I had no idea what caused that bizarre feeling of having been through it all before. That is until I had a certain dream that I continued to remember long after the fact. One day the scene I remembered from that dream happened—it played out in real life just as if I were watching a film for the second time. And accompanying my repeat viewing was that cool déjà vu sensation. So, while I don’t know how I’ve already seen something, I know that I have. I pretty much feel like I was let in on a little secret with that one.

Again, I can’t prove anything—not about déjà vu, not about accurate premonitions. But neither can science prove anything in those areas, and science has made some desperate attempts at accounting for déjà vu. One thing is certain, though: those feelings—those forebodings—exist, and they have to come from somewhere. The nature of that source, unfortunately, is something we’ll never know. Never being relative, of course, to our material existence.


The word rings sweet in our ears. Women scream for it in the delivery room. It has made previously-unthinkable surgeries routine. It keeps us from living our lives in fear. It is more indispensible than air conditioning. And it leaves us with this question: How did civilization manage for millennia without it?

Napoleon’s military surgeons had an advantage in the winter that they did not have during the warm months, and particularly in Russia: the anesthetizing effect of frigid temperatures and snow. Surgeons packed snow around doomed limbs to numb them before amputation. Women, including camp followers such as prostitutes, cantinieres, vivandieres, and actresses, plied men with brandy when it was available before surgery, but it was the cold that did the most to render amputations bearable. Surgery without anything to numb the affected areas, such as during the warm months, must have been indescribably horrific. Sometimes the patients were mere youths, too: drummer boys or civilian children caught in the crossfire. It’s not something most of us care to think about. If you ever suffer surgery without anesthesia, you will not soon forget it.

I have done many things for the sake of the experience, sometimes so that I could write about it. I have had many experiences for reasons of necessity. I wouldn’t volunteer to undergo surgery without anesthesia just to know first-hand what it was like, and not so that I could write about it. But I would do it in order to continue living.

You cannot expect doctors to be square with patients when doing so would mean inciting terror, and I wouldn’t hold that against them. I had a tracheostomy recently, and not only did the surgeons avoid telling me what I was in for, but they lied, for which I am grateful. They did let me know I would have to remain conscious during the procedure. Breathing on my own was crucial, at least until the aperture was made. If I were knocked out, I might stop breathing and suffocate. The lie came when the head surgeon told me the anesthesiologists would inject me with a cocktail that would send me to heaven, figuratively speaking. She said she’d never known a patient to remember the operation.

If that last part was true, then I ruined her streak, but I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t. My first clue that something bad was in store came when they flopped me onto the operating table and started putting my arms into restraints. I told myself this was surely just an emergency precaution. (I would hear later that surgical team members sometimes had to lie across a patient to keep the poor sap in place during a tracheostomy.) The crew fitted a strap around my head and installed a mask over my face so that I couldn’t see. The anesthesiologist announced that he was now injecting me and I would soon be happy and at one with the universe. I looked forward to that. Just the same, that Zen-like tranquility never came. The words were a placebo. The doctors told me lots of placebos. (I now notice that placebo has the same root as placate.) The doctor said that if by any chance I felt pain, to let them know and they would administer a local anesthetic.

If by “let us know” she meant scream, then we were on the same page. And if I was at one with anything, it was with a tiny buzz saw. I couldn’t see the critter, but I could hear and feel it. ZZZZ, ZZZZ, ZZZZ. Into my flesh it went. I gritted my teeth and clenched my sphincter; I didn’t want to be a baby about it. I could only make it a matter of seconds, however, before I called for that local. The anesthesiologist, or somebody, obliged me with a long needle to the sliced-up Adam’s apple. I felt fluid stream into the tissue, riding the current of pain that the needle generated. A numbing sensation—a welcome, appreciated, and wholly inadequate numbing sensation—followed. And the buzz saw followed that. ZZZZ, ZZZZ,ZZZZ went the implement. When you visit torture chamber museums, I was thinking, you see implements. I balled my hands into fists and squeezed my eyes closed. The mask, I realized, was to keep meat and blood from flying into my face. I imagined what was being flung onto the team as they stood around me.

The lead surgeon spoke to her assistant—her trainee—describing what they were seeing, what level they had reached, as she drilled. I asked as calmly as I could for another shot. Again the needle pierced my skin and plunged far too deeply into my neck tissue. Again the burn of fluid under pressure followed the pain of the needle. I felt the touch of air against the exposed nerve endings within the new crater. And then the buzzing resumed. The local gave me maybe a minute of arguably-tolerable pain before I was clenching and grinding and squeezing. The lead surgeon nudged her assistant for agreement that they were at the correct place in my throat. I couldn’t tell if the question was just part of the training, or if somebody was lost. The assistant agreed, but without the confidence in her voice that I longed for. And I asked for another shot. The routine had been established. That terrible blade whirled through me, its power-device producing resistance sounds, its RPMs slowing intermittently as it hit tougher material. I knew if I fought in any way that I’d make things worse. It burned me like a hot iron, but I had to take it. I thought of those soldiers in the tents losing their arms and legs to the stroke of a bone-saw. Again, I requested a shot, and I was lucky to have it, what good it did. I requested lots of shots before it was all over.

At long last—and I honestly don’t know how long it took, but I guessed about twenty minutes—I felt the sensation of fresh oxygen and nitrogen streaming directly into my lungs from my neck. I heard positive exclamations, reminiscent of the eurekas you might hear when gold or oil is struck. I was as relieved as a person could be under the circumstances. I’d thought for a moment I wasn’t going to make it, the pain having been so intense. But no one had secured me to the table with the weight of his body. That was something, anyway. After the surgeon asked the assistant to verify the hole had been drilled in the right place—which the assistant was pretty sure was the case—she told me I could now be drifted off to sleep.

And my trifling operation was nothing compared to a field amputation. Someone had discovered ether by the time the War Between the States came around, but I shudder to imagine life before that. The existence of anesthesia allows us to carry on without fretting over the likely event of an unbearable surgery. We, in our modern times, have no conception of what it was like to have such a thought lurking in our minds, the probability hanging over our heads. I’m surprised that that fear was not written about more often. I will forever feel a debt of gratitude for the people who worked so hard to bring anesthesia to the masses.