Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


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“The Mutiny of Generals”

Part III: Divisiveness over the Abandonment of Vitebsk

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS

Bagration reproached Barclay de Tolly for leaving positions at Vitebsk and retreating to Smolensk. He refuted Barclay’s claims that Vitebsk was abandoned because the 2nd Army was unable to join the main forces westward from Smolensk and it was necessary to prevent Marshal Davout’s advance to Smolensk. In fact, Barclay de Tolly did not have any other choice but to retreat facing the main forces of Napoleon. Later, in 1813 Barclay de Tolly would write,

“I met the enemy with my advance guard twenty versts outside Vitebsk. Throughout three days the battle raged there and finally I drew up the First Army in battle formation near the town and gave the impression and had it rumored that I intended to give battle there” (emphasis supplied)[1]

Yet, in July 1812 Barclay justified the surrender of Vitebsk by reprimanding Bagration for the failure to break through at Moghilev. This assertion irritated Bagration, who perceived Barclay’s designs to elude the major battle and withdraw. In the letter to Barclay de Tolly, he endeavored to justify his actions.

“You informed me that you were compelled to leave advantageous positions at Vitebsk only to prevent Davout’s march to Smolensk. In that case, I would like to ask you whether the route to St. Petersburg, now open for Napoleon, is less important for us? Your Excellency was informed about my movement to Smolensk. As you know, there were troops garrisoned at Smolensk, and subsequently it could have been expected that I would anticipate the enemy at Smolensk and [reinforced by those troops] repulse him.”[2]

Bagration also replied on Barclay’s statement on his idleness at Moghilev and reluctance to join the 1st Western Army.

“I would not remind you all the difficulties I had to contend with a fistful of troops to effect a junction. Only the courage and endurance of the Russian soldiers, their devotion to the Fatherland and the Emperor and finally our goal to join you gave me a chance to escape from this perilous situation”[3]

Bagration was also upset with Alexander’s mistrust. He knew that his Chief-of-staff Colonel Emmanuel Saint Priest was in secret correspondence with the Tsar, informing him about the situation in the 2nd Western Army. Bagration often complained, “He [Saint Priest] often writes to His Majesty confidential dispatches in French.”[4] Alexander’s letters to Bagration expressed dissatisfaction with alleged idleness and indecision of the 2nd Army; the Tsar even did not considered it necessary to inform the commander of his intentions and plans. On 19 August in his letter to Alexander Bagration stressed that “I was neither provided with the essential information, nor acquainted with our policy.”[5] Bagration’s correspondence demonstrates how ineffective Barclay de Tolly was at communicating his strategic concept to other commanders and junior officers. Being kept unaware of the strategy pursued, Bagration appealed to Barclay to provide him with the adequate information, but all his demands went unanswered. He wrote to the chief-of-staff of the 1st Western Army,

“I have written to you twice, but there is no answer. I asked the minister where is he leading the army ? I wrote to him, but there is no answer. I do not understand, what does it mean ?! Why do you run so and to where do you hasten? What is happening with you, why do you neglect me? It is no time for jokes. If I write, it is necessary to answer.” [6]

Bagration stressed the difficulties his army had to overcome. The 2nd Western Army was maneuvering in the scorching heat, without food and fodder, and with the French crossing the river in pursuit. In addition, Barclay de Tolly, with all his fine qualities, appeared to be deficient in tact. It seems he did not fully realized the difficulties with which Bagration had had to contend, nor the very creditable attempts which he had made to effect a junction. On July 25 Count von Wolzogen arrived to Bagration’s headquarters with orders from Barclay de Tolly.[7] Since Orsha was blocked by Davout’s presence at Moghilev and Napoleon’s main forces were bivouacked at Vitebsk, Wolzogen took it upon himself to suggest Bagration to march towards Mstislavl on the road to Smolensk. He also brought up a promise he claimed Barclay had made to exercise jointly with Bagration the overall command of the united armies. If one can believe Wolzogen, Bagration showed no enthusiasm at all for linking up and instead considered that his best service would be performed in operating upon Napoleon’s flank.[8] Wolzogen on his side began to press him to hasten the march in phrases unjust in their implications and certainly resented by Bagration. Besides, on 29 July Bagration received Barclay de Tolly’s letter in which the minister reproached Bagration for slowness and accused of disloyalty.[9] Bagration was hurt by these undeserved criticisms.

“I am deeply hurt to see your doubts in my devotion to the Fatherland. My deeds clearly showed the opposite: despite of all impediments, I accomplished the mission; twenty five days of the continuous, forced marches, four resolute battles and Marshal Davout’s inaction could easily justify my actions….”[10] 

He reached Smolensk in a state of mind which would find a cause of offense in every trifle. However, Barclay displayed unusual tact, for which his aide-de-camp Waldemar Lowernstern gives himself the credit. Bagration arrived on 3 August, as he promised to Wolzogen, accompanied by an imposing escort of generals and aide-de-camps.[11] To show his respect to Bagration, Barclay de Tolly met him wearing parade uniform complete with medals, sash and sword, with plumed bicorne in hand.

“When Prince Bagration accompanied by all his staff, came for the first time to see the commander-in-chief I persuaded the latter to go out to the ante-room to meet the Prince, sword and hat in hand, and to say that he was on his way to pay him a visit. This step, which had not been anticipated by Bagration, had tremendous effect on him and all his suite, who had jealously noted that Bagration, though senior to General Barclay, had been placed under his orders by command of the Tsar. Barclay’s modesty and his usual lack of pretensions, above all this considerate step, had all captivated them in his favor….”[12]

The two commanders then had a conversation, as the result of which both  apologized for any injustice they might have done to each other. Bagration praised Barclay’s withdrawal from Vitebsk, and Barclay complimented Bagration on the skillful manner in which he had eluded the trap Napoleon had sought to spring on him. Bagration seemed to be surprised with Barclay’s tact and his readiness to cooperate. He was pleased with this conversation and, though being senior in rank, gallantly agreed to subordinate himself to Barclay de Tolly.[13] Thus, the unity of command was achieved. Bagration wrote a friendly letter to Barclay apologizing for previous discords. “I always respected you… and considered as one of my closest friends. But now you fascinated me once more…. So, lets forget past dissension and became friends again, so nobody could defeat us. Please, be frank and just with me and you will find most loyal friend and associate….”[14] Furthermore, Bagration wrote to Alexander suggesting to appoint Barclay de Tolly commander-in-chief of all armies, assuring him “to obey orders from the superior… since a single overall command is necessary to save the motherland”.[15]


[1] Barclay de Tolly,  Justification by Commander-in-Chief Barclay de Tolly of His Actions during the Patriotic War with the French in 1812, Zhurnal Imperatorskogo Russkogo voenno-istoricheskogo obshestva, VI, 1.

[2] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 1 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 213-15.

[3] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 1 August, 1812, Ibid., 214.

[4] Gribanov, Bagration in St. Petersburg, 186.

[5] Bagration to Alexander, 19 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 234.

[6] Ermolov,Memoirs, I, 178.

[7] Wolzogen und Neuhaus, Ludwig, Memoiren des Königlich Preussischen Generals der Infanterie Ludwig Freiherrn von Wolzogen (Leipzig, 1851), 109-12.

[8] Ibid., 109-12.

[9]Correspondence of Bagration,  214.

[10] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 30 July, 1812, Ibid., 213.

[11] Bagration was accompanied by generals Rayevsky, Borozdin, Vorontsov, Paskevich, Vasyl’chykov and by the staff members. Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, 105; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, (Oxford, 1980) 113.

[12] Löwernstein, Waldemar Hermann, Memoires du general-major russe baron de Löwernstein (1776-1858), (Paris, 1903), I, 218-19.

[13] Tartarovsky, Unknown Barclay, 87-89; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 80. Its should be noted that Bagration volunteered to subordinate to Barclay. He was senior in rank, since he became Lieutenant General in 1805, commanded Barclay de Tolly in 1806-1807 campaigns, and finally was awarded with all highest military decorations, including orders of St. George (for Austerlitz) and St. Andrew (for the 1809 campaign).

[14] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 2 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 217.

[15] Bagration to Alexander, 4 August, 1812, Ibid., 219.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2001


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