On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 July 1812

18Napoleon enters Vitebsk

Just before the French entered the city, the Russians had left. ‘There appeared more order in their defeat than in our victory,’ noted Comte de Ségur. Napoleon spent 16 days in Vitebsk, seriously considering ending the year’s campaign there. He said to Marshal Murat, ‘The first Russian campaign is over. 1813 will see us in Moscow, 1814 in St. Petersburg. The Russian war is a war of three years.’ Had he stayed, he could have established ammunition magazines and hospitals, reorganised Lithuania politically and replenished his army, one third of which had been wiped out by the hardships of constant marching, typhus and dysentery. ‘Here I stop,’ Ségur heard him say. ‘Here I must look around me, refresh my army and reorganise Poland. The campaign of 1812 is finished, that of 1813 will do the rest.’

It was far too early in the year to think of winter quarters, however. ‘We are having unbearable heat, 27 degrees. This is as hot as in the Midi,’ Napoleon wrote to Marie-Louise. Besides, he had not yet forced the decisive battle he so longed for. ‘Alexander can only negotiate after a great battle,’ Napoleon said. He chose to advance after the Russian Army, believing that the Tsar would sue for peace before he saw any more Russian land ravaged. He had no way of knowing that Alexander swore he would never make peace, saying, ‘I would sooner let my beard grow to my waist and eat potatoes in Siberia.’

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