Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


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A Complex Warrior-Prince

A Loyal Opponent

"The Finest General"


“The Mutiny of Generals”

Part IX: Bagration: Mutineer or Loyal Opponent?

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS

Bagration played an important role in these events, sometimes even contradicting his own aspirations. It is certain that he aspired to the supreme command. But he was able to realize its impossibility and to constrain his ambitions, even though his temperament could not tolerate Barclay’s “ruinous” strategy of retreat and firmly believed in the possibility of defeating Napoleon in open battle. After a successful retreat and several minor victories over the French, Bagration was certain that the united Russian armies could defeat the French invaders, who were already weakened and exhausted by continuous marches and weather. Perhaps, the vigorous Russian attacks on 8 August would have been successful, but Barclay’s indecision doomed this at the very beginning.

A Complex Warrior-Prince

Whatever his faults, Bagration proved himself a worthy descendant of the glorious Bagration dynasty. Having recognized Russia as his motherland, he served her faithfully to the end, paying the ultimate price — his life — for her well-being.

Bagration’s character was remarkably complex and during the Russian campaign he revealed his diverse nature. On the one hand, he was kind, courteous, taciturn and restrained, for which his contemporaries, both compatriots and foreigners, had praised him. British officer Sir Robert Ker Porter, who regarded Bagration as a friend since the Polish campaign in 1807, called him “a honor to human nature.”[1] Sir Robert Wilson eulogized Bagration’s qualities, his kindness, graciousness and chivalrous bravery. He noted, Bagration “was beloved by every one and admired by all who witnessed his exploits….”[2] Future Decembrist Sergey Volkonsky described him as “the Glory of the Russian army”, while famous Russian writer Derzhavin called him “Bog-rati-on” – “the God of the Army.”[3] But on the other hand, there was a man of an uncontrolled, ambitious and violent temper, who expressed his feelings in a passionate manner and frequently made unjust and malicious statements.

Bagration’s actions at Smolensk are difficult to explain. Patriot as he was, Bagration often ignored the obvious facts, claiming he was safeguarding “Holy Russia”.  He accused Barclay of betraying Russia, yet his own actions could have threatened the Russian armies. He admitted Napoleon’s numerical superiority, but tenaciously called for the offensive that would have been disastrous for the country. He often showed little judgment and behaved in a rather immature manner on many occasions.  After the battle at Smolensk he bragged about his achievements and minimized those of Barclay.

A Loyal Opponent

However, to Bagration’s credit, he had enough sense to recognize the impact of his faulty judgment and sought to curb it. It seems that Bagration suffered from the mental strains of the campaign and was easily influenced by others in opposing Barclay de Tolly; certainly, his animosity was the outcome of his ill temper. While the majority of the senior officers appealed to him to take supreme command, Bagration endured the pressure and remained loyal to Barclay de Tolly, even though he could have easily led the opposition and appealed to the Tsar to give him the overall command.

Bagration did not hide his feelings in his private correspondence, but never expressed them publicly, as Grand Duke Constantine, Ermolov, Rostopchin had done, inciting the rank and file against Barclay de Tolly. In public he respected Barclay and openly expressed his regards on several occasions. On one instance, on 21 August, Barclay and Bagration, accompanied by Grand Duke Constantine and aides-de-camp, went to Usv’atye to inspect a possible battlefield. Both commanders found the position faulty on several counts, including an unprotected left flank; so Bagration suggested another site near to Dorogobouzh.[4] When, during the reconnaissance of Usv’atye, Colonel Toll, Quartermaster-General of the 1st Army, defending the supposed advantages of this position, insulted Barclay, Bagration had furiously defended Barclay, referring  “to his great qualities, and deserves every consideration. I am his senior, but I set the example by serving under him.[5]

On another occasion, after being wounded at Borodino, Bagration was carried to the surgeons at a nearby station. There he saw Barclay’s aide-de-camp, Löwenstern, approaching him.  Despite the agonizing pains, the wounded Bagration addressed him, saying, “Tell General Barclay that the fate and salvation of the army depends on him.”[6]

Though psychologically this was not Bagration of previous campaigns, Prince Peter was still one of the most formidable Russian commanders. Almost all contemporaries considered Bagration to be without equal in courage, initiative and the ability to motivate his troops. He demonstrated excellent tactical skills and successfully opposed superior French forces. His resolute resistance, ability to rally troops and concentrate reinforcements in time insured the safety of the Russian armies at Borodino. His divisional commanders and troops were very loyal to him, admired his ability to command and appreciated his continual concern for their well-being. While showing deep concern for soldiers, Bagration also demanded strict discipline and subordination.[7] Bagration’s troops were always distinguished by their discipline and high moral. Bagration’s victories brought him glory and love of the rank and file. The soldiers admired his leadership, informal attitude and exceptional bravery, calling him “the Eagle”. He was a magnetic personality, who could animate his men to impossible.

“The Finest General”

Prince Peter Bagration unquestionably played a major role in the 1812 campaign. Bagration’s army successfully retreated despite superior French forces. Lacking sufficient information on the current Russian strategy, he was committed to a preventive strike against the French. Nevertheless, facing the Grande Armée, he recognized the weakness of his plans and the necessity of retreat. Bagration’s decision to withdraw on his own initiative was of vital importance for the survival of the Russian armies. Highly gifted by nature, with “a shrewd and flexible mind”[8], Prince Peter Bagration was a proponent of Suvorov’s principles of tactics and strategy. While the outdated Prussian strategy still dominated the Russian military, Bagration opposed it and attempted to introduce new tactical insights into the army.  His “Manual for Infantry Officers on the Day of Battle”, introduced to the 2nd Western Army in July 1812, was inspired by these principles.[9] Bagration always pursued aggressive tactics, preferring offensive to defensive warfare. Suvorov admired Bagration’s skills and effectively exploited them during the Italian Campaign of 1799. In numerous battles of the Napoleonic wars, Bagration succeeded at every level of the command.[10]  

Bagration’s skillful withdrawal in the face of superior French forces in the initial stages of the invasion, his adroit escape from Napoleon’s entrapment before Moghilev, his brilliant concentration with the 1st Western Army at Smolensk and his heroic defense of the fléches at Borodino, ensured the survival of the Russian army and the ultimate success of the homeland defense. Probably, the greatest recommendation for Prince Bagration and his abilities is that Napoléon considered him to be the finest general of the Russian army.[11]


[1] Porter, Robert Ker, Traveling Sketches in Russia and Sweden: during the years 1805, 1806, 1807, 1808 (London, 1809), p.50

[2] Wilson, Narrative of Events…, p.156

[3] Volkonsky, Sergey. Zapiski [Notes], (St. Petersburg, 1901), p.38; Derzhavin, Compilation of Writings, II, p.579.

[4] Its retreat was covered by Platov’s Cossacks and the rear guard under General Baron Korff, while Barclay deployed Jagers under Baron Rozen on the left bank of the river. Supply trains were directed on a detour through Dukhovshina to Dorogobouzh and the wounded were sent to Vya’zma. Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 154.

[5] Dnevnik kapitana Puschina za 1812 god [Diary of Captain Puschin on 1812 Campaign], Aglamov, Historical Materials of the Semyenovsky Lifeguard Regiment, p.45; Ermolov, Memoirs, I, p.180; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, p.155; Memoires of Löwernstein, p.234-35.

[6] Memoires of Löwernstein, p.260;  Borodino: Documents, Letters and Recollections, p.365.

[7] Correspondence of Bagration, pp.160, 183.

[8] Ermolov, Memoirs, I, p.152.

[9] P. Simakovsky, Dva nastavlenia [Two Manuals], Russkii Invalid, 1912, No. 176.

[10] He led advance and rear guards during 1799, 1805 and 1807 campaigns; In 1808-1809 he commanded expeditionary corps in Sweden and was appointed commander-in-chief of the army in 1810-1812 campaigns.

[11] Napoléon to Alexander Balashov, 30 June 1812, Vilna. Balashov’s Notes on the Meeting with the Emperor Napoleon, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.31; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire, VIII, p.26.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2002


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