Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


Military Paper Award


“The Mutiny of Generals”

Part IV: Mending Relations?

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS

For the moment good relations between Barclay and Bagration were established. But anti-Barclay sentiments remained, with the senior officers still intriguing for the appointment of Bagration to the supreme command.[1] Some Russian historians even described this dissatisfaction as the “Mutiny of Generals”.[2] General Alexander Ermolov, Chief-of-Staff of the 1st Army, already appealed to the Tsar asking to replace Barclay de Tolly with Bagration.[3] Most of the officers detested Barclay de Tolly, his associates, and the current strategy. Bagration’s consent to obey Barclay de Tolly irritated them. A contemporary recalled that “this event [reconciliation of commanders] infuriated all our generals and officers, who unanimously detested Barclay.”[4] These officers tried to influence Bagration and induce him to oppose Barclay de Tolly publicly. General Vasyl’chykov recalled that
“Ermolov [and other generals] assured Bagration to oppose him [Barclay de Tolly], do not subordinate to the junior in rank, to this German, and take the overall command. It is obvious what disastrous results could these intrigues bring at the time when the fate of Russia was at stake and everything depended on good relations between commanders”[5]
Quartermaster - General of the 2nd Western Army Mikhail Vistitskii stated that in the end of July Bagration “was urged to summon generals of both armies and replace Barclay [by force]”[6] Despite this moral pressure, Bagration did not condescend to intrigue against Barclay de Tolly. He never reprimanded Barclay de Tolly in his correspondence with the Tsar and referred to him with due respect and deference. But in private letters to Arakcheyev, Rostopchin and others, he did not hide feelings and his passionate temper often burst forth.
”I have no power over the minister even though I am senior [in rank]. When the Tsar departed, he did not leave any instructions as to who should be in command in case the two armies join, and hence Barclay, ostensibly because a Minister…. ”[7]
In the letter to Admiral Paul Tchichagov, Bagration emphasized that “I am senior in rank, but His Majesty does not want to give overall command to one person; meanwhile he [Barclay] is allowed to do everything…. I call for the offensive, he - for the retreat.”[8] Alexander Ermolov, who, though nominally working under Barclay, was actually conspiring against him, urged Bagration to write to the Tsar directly and boldly suggest that he be named supreme commander of the Russian armies.
“You accepted the minister’s suggestions; but I do not want you to obey his orders…. Please write to His Majesty [and appeal for the command]. You must fulfill your duty…. I will write to the Tsar and describe your deeds and impediments you had overcame. [I implore you] to take the overall command of the armies….”[9]
Perhaps this was Bagration’s secret ambition, but he hesitated to go so far.  Proud scion of Bagration kings, he was a man of dignity, too high and noble a character to condescend to the intrigue and willful insubordination. Bagration  rejected all appeals to write to the Tsar and wrote to Ermolov that “I would not write the Tsar asking for the command, because this would be attributed to my ambition and vanity, not my merit and abilities.”[10] Maybe, Bagration did realize that Alexander would never give him supreme command of the Russian army. He knew well Alexander’s feeling towards him, especially in a light of their conflict during 1809 campaign in Danube valley, Bagration’s opposition to Alexander’s orders in June-July 1812, and finally Bagration’s liaison with Alexander’s sister Catherine[11]. Nevertheless, Bagration still kept hoping to be appointed commander-in-chief and often remarked in letters to Rostopchin, “if I commanded both armies….”[12] After the surrender of Vitebsk, confidence in Barclay de Tolly had in fact been growing more and more shaky, and now with the junction of the armies, expectations for a change in Russian strategy ran high among the troops and the Russian society. The withdrawal through Lithuania, though far from popular, was reluctantly accepted in view of the enemy’s numerical superiority. But the main front now was across ancient Russian soil, at the bastions of the Holy City of Smolensk, and thoughts of further retreat became intolerable. Also, most of actions that took place during the retreat (clashes at Klyastitsy, Mir, Romanovo, Kobrin, Ostrovno, Saltanovka) were considered by the Russians as victories and this fact added more ardor to their determination to attack the enemy. Bagration wrote,
“The retreat is intolerable and dangerous…. The army was in an excellent condition; but now it is exhausted…. Ten days it marched on sandy terrain, in a hot weather… surrounded by the enemy. Nevertheless, we defeated the adversary every time we opposed him ! I do not understand your witty maneuvers. My maneuver is to seek and attack !”[13]
On 6 August Barclay de Tolly called a council of war, at which commanders-in-chief were joined by Grand Duke Constantine, Chief-of-Staff of the 1st Army General Alexander Ermolov, Chief-of-Staff of the 2nd Army Count Emmanuel Saint Priest, Quartermasters-general Colonel Carl Toll and Mikhail Vistitskii and Count Ludwig von Wolzogen, aide-de-camp to Barclay de Tolly.[14] All participants, except for Barclay de Tolly and Wolzogen urged the expediency of acting on the offensive. Colonel Carl Toll presented a draft of the offensive. Toll claimed the moment appeared appropriate for a counteroffensive. Intelligence reports revealed Napoleon’s troops were scattered around Vitebsk with some of troops resting in cantonments and others still moving up from around Moghilev. Napoleon presently had some 185,000 men, scattered in the country between Beshenkovki, Surazh and Orsha.[15] After the junction, the Russian army amounted to some 120-130,000 men[16] and it seemed that a resolute Russian offensive could easily defeat French corps separately. Therefore, Colonel Toll suggested attacking the French at Rudnya, breaking through the center of Napoleon’s army, and then defeating its scattered forces piecemeal.[17] Bagration was also eager to attack the enemy. “Out duty is to use this moment and attack the center of the enemy troops and defeat them, preventing him [Napoleon] from concentrating his forces. Certainly, it is necessary to strike him now. Our army and all Russia demand to attack ”[18] He also emphasized that the lack of provision would not allow the Russian armies to stay at Smolensk for a long time.[19]  There was naturally considerable divergence of opinion. Despite his previous agreement with Bagration and the heavy pressure from the other generals, Barclay de Tolly refused to commit himself to this plan and was sceptical about its outcome. His aide-de-camp Löwenstern recalled that
“on the one hand, he [Barclay] was aware of the possible gains from the maneuver, while on the other, he saw the dangers of attacking a far superior force… and of engaging, so to speak, in a maneuvering match with that past master Napoleon.”[20] 

[1] These malcontents were led by the Grand Duke Constantine, who as Alexander’s brother and Imperial heir apparent, played an important role in the army.
[2] Tartarovsky, Unknown Barclay, 79; A. Muravyev, Sochinenia i pisma [Writings and letters] (Irkutsk, 1986), 103.
[3] Headquarters’ Archives, XIV, 259-61.
[4]Muravyev, Writings and letters, 102.
[5] Pogodin, M. A.P. Ermolov: Materiali dlia ego biografii, sobrannie Pogodinim [A.P. Ermolov: Materials for His Biography] (Moscow, 1864), 445-46.
[6] V. Kharkevich, 1812 god v dnevnikakh, zapiskakh i vospominaniakh sovremennikov [1812 Campaign in Diaries, Memoirs and Correspondence of the Contemporaries] (Vilna, 1900) 184.
[7] Bagration to Rostopchin, July, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, 72-73.
[8] Bagration to Tchichagov, 15 August, 1812, Secret Correspondence, 168.
[9] Ermolov to Bagration, 1 August, 1812, Secret Correspondence, 178; also see Ermolov to Bagration, 31 July, 1812, Ibid., 177.
[10] Ermolov, Memoirs, I, 176.
[11] Alexander’s mistrust of Bagration was strengthen by intimacy between his sister, Catherine and Bagration. On 10 September 1807 Empress Elisabeth sent a long letter to her mother, Duchess of Baden,  writing that “now she [Catherine] is hand in glove with Prince Bagration, who, for the last two summers, has been in residence at Pavlovsk where he commands the garrison. If not his ugliness, she would have sacrifice herself to this liaison….” In 1809 Catherine was married to George of Oldenburg, but continued her correspondence with Bagration that provoked a resonance at the Court. Alexander, irritated by this affair, appointed Bagration to the army of Danube and drove him out St. Petersburg. This affair further evolved after the death of Bagration in 1812. On 25 September, 1812, the next day of Prince’s decease, Catherine wrote to Alexander asking to retrieve her correspondence. “You remember my affairs with him… he holds papers that could seriously discredit and compromise me should they fall into strange hands…. It is very important for me (and may I say for you) to conceal this relationship…. I beg you have his papers sealed and handled over to you so that I can recover those belong to me“. N. Mikhailovich, Correspondence de l’Empereur Alexandre Ier avec sa souer la Grande Duchesse Catherine (St. Petersburg, 1912) 85. Thus, Alexander, in the middle of the war, was compelled to sent two couriers to Simy, where Bagration has died, and attend to his sister’s embarrassment. But the couriers could not find any letter related to the Duchess. It was said that the Prince burnt the correspondence himself to preserve Catherine’s good name. It is interesting, that Alexander continued the search till 1818, being apprehensive for the honor of the Royal family.
[12] Bagration to Rostopchin, 26 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, 95-98.
[13] Bagration to Ermolov, 7 July, 1812, From the Private Correspondence, 50.
[14] Muratov, Historical survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 67;  Zhilin, Gibel’ Napoleonovskoi armii v Rossii [Destruction of Napoleon’s Army in Russia], (Moscow, 1974) 119; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 106; Beskrovny, Otechestvennaia voina 1812 goda [The Patriotic War of 1812], (Moscow, 1968), 30; Tarle, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 139.
[15]The Grand Army was deployed on the following positions: the 5th and 8th corps were around Moghilev and to the south on the banks of the Dnieper; the 6th Corps, the Imperial Guard and the 4th Corps were at around Vitebsk (where the imperial headquarters was set up) and northern area; the 1st , 3rd and Murat’s cavalry were between Orsha and Rudnya. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, (New York, 1966) 782; Elting, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. (London, 2000), map 111;Thiers, Louis, History of the Consulate and the Empire of France under Napoleon, (London, 1894) VIII, 83.
[16]Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 106; Shvedov, S. Komplektovanie, chislenost’ i poteri russkoi armii v 1812 g [Organization, Streng th and Losses of the Russian army in 1812], (Moscow 1987), Istoria SSSR, N4, 131-32.; Beskrovny, The Patriotic War of 1812, 30.
[17] V. Kharkevich, Barklai de Tolly v Otechestvennuyu voinu posle soedineniya armii pod Smolenskom [Barclay de Tolly After the Junction of Armies at Smolensk During the Patriotic War] (St. Petersburg, 1904) 7-8; Zhilin, Destruction of the Napoleonic army in Russia, 119.
[18] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, August 3, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 218.
[19] Ibid., 218.
[20] Löwernstein, Waldemar, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Livländers: Aus den Jahren 1790-1815 (Leipzig, 1858) I, 189.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2001


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