Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


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An Imperial Quandry

Suvorov's Disciple: Kutuzov

A Loyal Servant Humiliated

A Loyal Georgian


"The Mutiny of Generals

Part VIII: Kutusov: the Final Choice

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS


An Imperial Quandry

Meanwhile, Alexander was in St. Petersburg and watched military events cautiously. The reports he received from the army were far from cheerful. Despite the successes of General Wittgenshtein at Klyastitsy and Polotsk, and of General Tormasov at Kobrin, the loss of Smolensk and Napoleon's march on Moscow overshadowed all of that. The panic in society grew by the hour and the reports about Napoleon's further advance only intensified it. Meanwhile the news from the army was so disturbing that no more time could be wasted in finding a commander-in-chief. On August 17 Prince Peter Volkonsky brought to Alexander a letter from General Count Shuvalov, the Tsar's personal friend and intimate adviser. Shuvalov painted a devastating picture of grumbling, demoralized and ill-fed army, blaming Barclay de Tolly for indecision and mismanagement.

"If Your Majesty would not give both armies a single commander, then I must attest on my honor and conscience that everything may be irrevocably lost.... The army is so dissatisfied that even the rank-and-file openly complain. The army has not the least confidence in the present commander The supply system is badly organized, the soldiers are often without food, the horses have been without oats for days. The commander-in-chief is entirely responsible for this state of affairs; he plans the marches so badly that the l'intendant general cannot do a thing. General Barclay and Prince Bagration do not get along; the latter is justly dissatisfied. A new commander is necessary, one over both armies and Your Majesty should appoint him immediately; otherwise, Russia is lost[1]

Although the letter showed a certain bias in favor of Bagration (Shuvalov was his distant relative), it reflected the sentiments of most senior officers in the Russian armies and stimulated Alexander to make a decision. On 17 August, he called a committee composed of Field Marshal Count Alexander Saltykov, the chairman of the State Council, the State Council members, Counts Peter Lopukhin and Victor Kochubey, Minister of Police Balashov, and Military Governor of St. Petersburg, Count Sergey Vyazmitinov. The Tsar was represented by the head of the imperial chancellery, General Aleksey Arakcheyev. After examining Barclay de Tolly's report and those of Bagration and other generals, the committee proceeded to discuss the question of a new commander-in-chief. First, the members considered candidacies of Generals Bagration, Bennigsen, Tormasov, Dokhturov and Pahlen[2]. But none of them was supported unanimously and finally members discussed Kutuzov's candidacy. It was a delicate question. Though the nobility and most of the army had long been talking of Kutuzov's appointment, the members of the committee were well aware that after 1805 campaign and disaster at Austerlitz, the Tsar could not endure Kutuzov and that the general fully reciprocated his feelings. For several hours the committee hesitated to make this proposal to the Tsar, but finally steeled its courage and presented to the Tsar a final report. Alexander hesitated for three days and, finally reconciling himself to this decision, signed the decree on 20 August.[3] On the same date special orders were sent to Barclay de Tolly and Bagration announcing the appointment of the new commander-in-chief. Alexander informed both commanders that:

"Various grave complications coming after the two armies united, have impelled me to appoint one commander above all others. I have chosen for this post the General of Infantry, Prince Kutuzov, under whose command I place all four armies.[4]

Suvorov's Disciple: Kutuzov

Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov was 67 years old in 1812 and was considered one of the best Russian commanders. "The last of Catherine's [the Great] eagles[5], Kutuzov earned great reputation under Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov and later proved his military skills in numerous campaigns against Ottomans. He possessed a diplomatic talent and all the virtues necessary for success in the court intrigues. "He is crafty and very shrewd! No one will fool him!, Suvorov once said about him[6].

The difference between Kutuzov and Barclay was that the latter knew that with the increasing discontent of the Russian people, a commander-in-chief would not be allowed to yield Moscow without battle. After his arrival with the army, all his talk, ruses and commands were all but propaganda, whose value was brilliantly demonstrated. The fact that he was a native-born, noble Russian while Barclay de Tolly was of alien extraction, made him a more suitable choice in the moment of national urgency, when all foreigners were suspected of treason. In the words of Clausewitz,

"Kutuzov no longer possessed either the activity of mind or bodyHowever he knew Russians and how to handle them. He could flatter the self-esteem of both populace and army, and sought by proclamation and religious observances to work on the public mind[7]

Bagration perceived Kutuzov's intention at the very beginning. Bagration and Kutuzov had known each other for a long time. Both had fought under Alexander Suvorov and later distinguished themselves in campaigns against the Ottomans; the soldiers loved and trusted them as no one else. Yet, their personal relations were complicated. Bagration often criticized Kutuzov's defensive strategy and emphasized that "his excellency [Kutuzov] has an exceptional talent for choosing an unsuccessful [defensive] strategy.[8] Bagration was irritated by Kutuzov's appointment since he perceived that Kutuzov would continue to retreat.[9] In the letter to Rostopchin on 28 August, he observed, "a fine goose [he is], called the prince and the commander-in-chief! If he does not have certain instructions to attack, I can assure you he would bring him [Napoleon] to you as Barclay intended to do.[10] In another letter to Rostopchin, Bagration complained, "I endeavor to serve [my country], my heart is torn, but hands are tied as before.[11]

A Loyal Servant Humiliated

Barclay de Tolly received his copy of the imperial decree on 27 August, while his army was marching through Vy'azma, and was deeply hurt by the news. The letter sent to Barclay was not even accompanied by a personal note from the Tsar. This, even more than the decision itself, made the sudden blow particularly painful for Barclay de Tolly. It was more distressing to realize that the decision was made just when Barclay's strategy was at last showing results and Napoleon's superiority in numbers was almost eliminated. No one could more faithfully have respected Alexander's parting warning at Polotsk: "remember that this is my only army and that I have no other.[12] Yet, now at Vya'zma, Barclay was disgraced and humiliated. Barclay wrote back stoically to assure Alexander of his continuing "eagerness to serve the country in whatever post or assignment might be granted to him.[13] To justify his actions, Barclay wrote toward the end of the letter:

"Had I been motivated by blind and reckless ambition, Your Majesty would probably have received a number of reports of battles fought, and nevertheless the enemy would still be at gates of Moscow without encountering sufficient forces able to resist him.[14]

Justice demands the recognition of Barclay de Tolly's achievement in saving the army and handing it over to his successor unimpaired. At the beginning of the campaign, the ratio of forces was against the Russians. It was, perhaps, fortunate for Russia that Bagration and his supporters were not given high command, since a battle at that time would have led to the destruction of both Russian armies and all of Russia would have laid open before Napoleon. Opposing the entire army and all the nobility, Barclay had prevented this from happening by his continued retreat. At the same time, Barclay must be criticized for playing a double game with Bagration and the other generals. For instance, while promising them to attack the French, Barclay informed the Tsar, the same day, of his intentions to abandon Smolensk. Naturally the rumors of Barclay's schemes reached Bagration and others, causing them to mistrust the commander in chief.



[1] Shuvalov to Alexander, August 12, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, pp.71-73.

[2] Alexander Shishkov, Zapiski, mnenia i perepiska [Notes, opinions and correspondence] (Berlin, 1870), I, p.154; it should be noted that the committee members considered only generals. Therefore, the candidacy of Lieutenant-General Wittgenshtein was not deliberated, though after the battles at Klyastitsy and Polotsk he was praised as the savior of St. Petersburg. Also, the committee refused the candidacies of Field Marshals. There were two Field Marshals at that moment, 76 year-old Count Saltykov and 70 year-old Count Gudovich. Zhilin, Destruction of the Napoleonic army in Russia, pp.134-35.

[3] Liubomir Beskrovny, M.I. Kutuzov: sbornik dokumentov [M.I. Kutuzov: Compilation of the Documents], (Moscow, 1954) IV, pp.74-75. In a letter to his sister Catherine, Alexander wrote about his opposition to Kutuzov's nomination. "At first I was against his appointment. But then Rostopchin told me that all Moscow desires Kutuzov as commander-in-chief, considering that Barclay and Bagration are both unable to command. Besides, Barclay made a number of mistakes at Smolensk, and I had to concede to this unanimous request and appoint Kutuzov. Also, Kutuzov is in great favour among the public both here [St. Petersburg] and Moscow. Prince Nikolay Mikhailovich, Perepiska imperatora Alexandra s sestroy velikoi kniazhnoi Ekaterinoi Pavlovnoi [Emperor Alexander's Correspondence With His Sister Grand Duchess Catherine] (St. Petersburg, 1910) pp.82, 87-88.

[4] Alexander to Bagration, August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, p.239; also Beskrovny, Kutuzov: Compilation of the Documents, IV, p.75.

[5] Pushkin, Alexander, Sobranie sochinenii [Compilation of Works], (Moscow, 1981), II, p.204.

[6] Tarle, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, p.170.

[7] Clausewitz, Carl. The Campaign of 1812 (London, 1843) pp.139, 142.

[8] Headquarters Archives, V, p.74.

[9] Some Soviet historians supported official propaganda and claimed close cooperation between two commanders and even called Bagration "the best disciple of Kutuzov. Polosin, P.I. Bagration (Moscow, 1948) 69; Rostunov, General Bagration, pp.3, 123; Gribanov, Bagration in St. Petersburg, p.8.

[10] Bagration to Rostopchin, 28 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.101. Bagration's critique was shared by some Russian senior officers, including General Nikolay Rayevsky, who considered Kutuzov mediocre; general Mikhail Miloradovich, who called new commander-in-chief a "petite courtier; General Dimitry Dokhturov, who regarded him as "coward.

[11] Bagration to Rostopchin, 28 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.101.

[12] Lwenstern, Zapiski [The Notes], Russkaya Starina, 1900, N 11, p.351.

[13] Barclay de Tolly to Alexander, 28 August, 1812, Kharkevich, Barclay de Tolly v otechestvennoi voine: posle soedinenia armii pod Smolenskon [Barclay de Tolly during the Patriotic War: after the junction of armies at Smolensk] (St. Petersburg, 1904) , Annex 11, pp.23-24.

[14] Barclay de Tolly to Alexander, 28 August, 1812, Ibid., p.24.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2002

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