Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

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"The Mutiny of Generals

Peter Bagration and Barclay de Tolly at Smolensk: August, 1812

"[Russia] has no good generals, except for Bagration;
though not of a great intelligence, he is still a good general. [1]


By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS


This article describes events at Smolensk in August 1812 and General Peter Bagration's role in the so-called "Mutiny of Generals. Through the years the picture of Peter Bagration has been distorted by myths and half-truths. The majority of Western scholars did not have full access to the Russian archives to get sufficient information on these events. Therefore they had to base their judgments only on foreign or secondary sources. As a result, Bagration was described as a violent, impetuous character, with limited understanding of strategy and tactics. This article aims to provide reader with more accurate account of Smolensk events by combining the Russian, French and English sources. Instead of an arrogant and violent person usually depicted in Western studies, the evidence will demonstrate Bagration as a demanding, noble, and patriotic character. At the same time, the article will show Bagration's misinterpretations and errors, as well as his passionate (and mistaken) argument with Barclay de Tolly on the strategy to be pursued.

On June 24, 1812 the Grand Army crossed the Nieman and invaded Russia. The French quickly advanced and captured Vilna. Meanwhile, Barclay was falling back toward Drissa as arranged. Napolon sent Marshals Murat, Ney and Oudinot to fix and encircle Barclay. At the same time, Prince Jrme, with Reynier's corps and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry, would drive Bagration south and away from Drissa, while Marshal Davout and General Grouchy drove through the center to face Bagration if he headed toward Drissa; and if evaded, to take command of Jrme's force and turn to encircle Barclay. In case this could not be effected, Napolon sent a second force of St. Cyr, Eugne and the Imperial Guard between the two forces to join in the pincer that would entrap Barclay de Tolly. Having reached the Drissa camp, the Tsar realized, as did his vocal generals, that it was a death trap. Now the Russians moved as fast as they could to avoid Napolon's trap. Day after day, rear-guard actions were fought with Russian desperation to stave off the desperate trap that Napolon was eager to spring.

After abandoning the Drissa camp on 14 July, Barclay de Tolly moved the 1st Western Army to Vitebsk intending to join forces with Bagration and give a battle to Napoleon.[2] To delay the French advance, he dispatched 4th Corps under Count Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy, who fought a fierce battle on 25-27 July at Ostrovno. Suffering considerable casualties [3] , Osterman-Tolstoy was finally forced to retreat, although he had accomplished assignment and halted the Grand Army for two days. Meanwhile, Barclay de Tolly surveyed positions at Vitebsk, waiting for the news on Bagration's advance. Late in the night on 27 July, Bagration's aide-de-camp Count Nikolay Menshikov brought news of the battle of Saltanovka and Bagration's long detour to join the 1st Western Army at Smolensk. [4] Relieved of the immense responsibility to give a battle, Barclay de Tolly ordered the retreat. He argued that the only reason he did so was to prevent Marshal Davout's march to Smolensk. He wrote to the Tsar that "I am compelled to leave Vitebsk against my will. [5] It is still disputed whether Barclay de Tolly indeed intended to fight Napoleon at Vitebsk. One can consider the fact that when the armies were finally united at Smolensk, he ordered the withdrawal. Barclay tenaciously followed the policy of retreat and evading the major battle and he was not ready to give it at Vitebsk. [6]

On 27 July Barclay de Tolly decided to abandon Vitebsk and withdraw to Smolensk through Porechye, thus ensuring safety of the heavy transports loaded with provisions, food and ammunition. On the night of 27 July the Russian army resumed its march with the most remarkable unity of action, silence, and precision. The watch fires were left burning and rearguard was left on the banks of the Loutcheza River to deceive the enemy. [7]

On the next day Barclay de Tolly received news that Napolon had moved his troops through Rudnya and Moghilev to Smolensk in order to prevent the merger of the Russian armies. [8] This news, later proved to be false, forced Barclay to order General Dokhturov to rush through Rudnya to Smolensk and prepare to defend the city. He wrote, "salvation of the fatherland entirely depends on Smolensk. Remember Suvorov's marches and move with the same speed. [9] Dokhturov immediately marched to Smolensk with his detachment and arrived to Smolensk on 31 July. Meanwhile, the first and second columns of the 1st Western Army united at Porechye and moved southward to Smolensk, arriving in the evening of 1 August. The headquarters was set up at the Smolensk Governor's house in the St. Petersburg suburb (outside the city walls) on the right bank of the Dnieper. Barclay de Tolly bivouacked army on the same bank, facing the road from Vitebsk, with left flank on the Dnieper and the right flank on the road from Porechye. He also deployed advance guard under Count Pahlen at Kholmy and another under General Shevitz - at Rudnya. [10] Meantime, Ataman Platov joined the 1st Western Army and his Cossack Corps was deployed on the road from Rudnia to Smolensk. Platov was ordered to secure the left flank of the 1st Western Army and cover the road from Porechye to Dukhovshina, where the supply trains were located. [11] It seemed Barclay de Tolly intended to concentrate forces and prepare for battle at Smolensk. He wrote to Bagration :

"I intend to anticipate the enemy [at Smolensk] and prevent him from penetrating deeper into our country. I am firm in my decision not to retreat under any circumstances and will fight a battle despite the united forces of Napoleon and Davout. I think nothing could now prevent your advance to Smolensk. The future of our state depends on your movement. [12]

Meanwhile, Bagration out-marched Davout by crossing the Dnieper at Novy Bykhov and proceeded to Smolensk. [13] On 30 July he informed Barclay de Tolly that the 2nd Army would arrive at Smolensk on 3 August. [14] Despite a hard, intense march, the 2nd Western Army was in good spirits, soldiers willing to attack and fight. The chief-of-staff of the 1st Western Army, General Alexander Ermolov recalled,

"The 1st Army was exhausted by the continuous withdrawal and soldiers began to mutiny; there were cases of insubordination and agitation. At the same time, the 2nd Western Army arrived [at Smolensk] in entirely different state of mind. The music, joyful songs animated [the souls of the] soldiers. These troops showed only the pride for the danger they escaped from and readiness to face and overcome a new jeopardy. It seemed as if the 2nd Western Army did not retreat from the Nieman to the Dnieper, but covered this distance with a triumph [15]

Another contemporary remarked that "the difference in spirits of the armies, was that the 1st Army relied on itself and the Russian God, while the 2nd Army also trusted Prince Bagration. Bagration's presence, his eagle-like appearance, cheerful expression, keen humor inspired soldiers [16]


[1] Napoleon to Alexander Balashov, Minister of Police of Russia, 30 June, 1812, Vilna. Balashov's notes on the meeting with the Emperor Napoleon, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, 31 .

[2] While staying at the Drissa camp, Alexander became convinced of the faults of General Phull's strategy. He could no longer ignore the pleadings of his courtiers (Aleksey Arakcheyev, Alexander Balashov, Alexander Shishkov) and his beloved sister Catherine to leave the army and appoint a commander-in-chief. They very tactfully emphasized that Alexander had to lead the nation, and remaining at the front would inevitably make him responsible for errors and military setbacks. Alexander left army, but he did not appointed neither Barclay de Tolly nor Bagration as the commander-in-chief. Though, Barclay, being the Minister of War and commander of the largest Russian Army was acknowledged to have full authority. Tarle, Eugene, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, (New York, 1941), 80-82; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia (Moscow 1988) 86-87.

[3] The Russians lost some 4,000 men (3,764 rank and files) Russian military archive, f.474, op. 1, d. 96, p. 9; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, 96; Ermolov, Alexander., Zapiski A.P. Ermolova [Memoirs of A.P. Ermolov], (Moscow, 1865) I, 10-11; The French casualties amounted to some 3,000 killed and wounded. Smith, Digby, The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book (London, 1998), 382; Nafziger, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, (Novato, 1988) 177.

[4] Kharkevich, From the Nieman to Smolensk, 189.

[5] Otechestvennaia voina 1812 g.: Materiali Voenno-Uchebnogo arkhiva Glavnogo Shtaba [Patriotic War of 1812: Materials of Military - Academic Archive of the Headquarters, hereafter cited as Headquarters archives,], (St. Petersburg, 1900-1914). XIV, 136-37.

[6] Later Barclay de Tolly wrote "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). Barclay de Tolly, Opravdanie v deistviyakh ego vo vremia Otechestvennoi voini s frantsuzami v 1812 godu [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, (St. Petersburg, 1911) VI, 1.

[7] The Army moved in three columns - 1st column, composed of the 2nd (General Carl Baggovut) and 4th (General Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy) Corps advanced to Yanovichy; 2nd column (3rd Infantry Corps of General Nikolay Tuchkov and 2nd Cavalry Corps of General Baron Feodor Korff) went to Kolishki, and finally the 3rd column (5th Grenadier Corps of Grand Duke Constantine, 6th Corps under General Dimitry Dokhturov and 3rd Cavalry Corps of Count Peter Pahlen) moved through Liozno and Rudnya. Muratov, N. 1812g. - istoricheski obzor Otechestvennoi voini i eie prichin [The year of 1812 - Historical Survey of the Patriotic War and it's Reasons], (Tambov, 1912) Annex I, VII; V.M. Vorontsov, Otechestvennaya voina 1812 g. v predelakh Smolenskoi gubernii [The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya], (St. Petersburg, 1912), 75-76.

[8] Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 75.

[9] Ibid., 76.

[10] Ibid., 78-79.

[11] Vorontsov, The Patriotic War in Smolensk Gubernya, 79.

[12] Ibid., 79; also Bagration P.I. Sbornik dokumentov i materialov [Compilation of Documents and Materials, hereafter cited as Correspondence of Bagration], (Moscow, 1945), 214.

[13] The 2nd army moved through Propoysk - Cherykov - Krychev - Mstyslav - Khyslavichy.

[14] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 30 July, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 213.

[15] Ermolov, Memoirs,I, 155.

[16] Gribanov V. Bagration v Peterburge [Bagration in St. Petersburg] (Leningrad, 1979), 185.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2001

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