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ineffectual struggles only served to inflame the passions of their violators. Many of our soldiers fell victims to their own rapacity, which induced them to brave every danger. Excited by the love of plunder, they rushed into the midst of the fire and smoke, wading in blood, and trampling on the dead bodies, while the ruins and pieces of burning wood fell upon their murderous hands. Perhaps all would have perished, had not the insupportable heat at length compelled them to take refuge in their camp.”
“ The French troops, as they poured into the devoted city," says Porter, “had spread themselves in every direction in search of plunder; and in their progress they committed outrages so horrid on the persons of all whom they discovered, that fathers, desperate to save their children from pollution, would set fire to their places of refuge, and find a surer asylum in the flames. The streets, the houses, the cellars, flowed with blood, and were filled with violation and carnage.”
“Part of our troops," continues Labaume,“ took up their quarters (Sept. 17) at the castle of Peterskoe; and on their march, they overtook crowds of inhabitants carrying off their infirm parents, with all they had rescued from their burning houses. Their horses having been taken from them by the troops, men, and even women, were harnessed to the carts which contained the wrecks of their property, and the dearest objects of their affection. Those interesting groups were accompanied by children who were nearly naked, and whose countenances were imprinted with a sorrow uncongenial to their age. If the soldiers approached them, they ran crying to throw themselves into their mothers' arms. Without assistance or shelter, they wandered in the fields, or took refuge in the woods.
“ After the lapse of more than a month from our entrance into Moscow, the order for retreat was given; and on the 22d of October, Moscow was completely evacuated. On the 24th, the Russians attacked us at Malo Jaroslavetz; and the battle, which began at four o'clock in the morning, lasted till nine at night. The next day, the town was no longer standing, and we could discover the streets only by the heaps of dead bodies with which they were strewed. On all sides we saw human heads and scattered limbs crushed by the artillery that had passed over them. Many of the sick and wounded had quitted the fight to take refuge in the houses, which were now reduced to heaps of ruins, and under the burning ashes appeared their half-consumed remains. The few who had escaped the flames, having their faces blackened, and their clothes and hair burnt, presented themselves before us, and in an expiring tone uttered cries of the deepest anguish. On seeing them, the most ferocious were moved with compassion, and, turning away their eyes, could not refrain from tears.
6 As we advanced, (Oct. 30,) the country appeared yet more desolate. The fields, trampled by thousands of horses, seemed as though they had never been cultivated ; and the forests, thinned by the long residence of the troops, partook of the devastation.
But the most horrible sight was the multitude of dead bodies, which had been fifty-two days unburied, and scarcely retained the human form. My consternation was at its height on finding, near Borodino, the 80,000 men who had been slaughtered there, lying where they fell. The half-buried carcasses of men and horses covered the plain, intermingled with garments stained with blood, and bones gnawed by the dogs and birds of prey, and with the fragments of arms, drums, helmets and cuirasses.
“Were I to relate all the calamities that sprung from this atrocious war, my narrative would be too long; but if I wished from one instance to convey an idea of the rest, it would be from that of the three thousand prisoners we brought from Moscow. During the march, having no provisions to give them, they were herded together like beasts, and were not allowed on any pretext to quit the narrow limits assigned them. Without fire, perishing with cold, they lay on the bare ice. To appease their ravenous nunger, they seized with avidity the horse-flesh which was distributed to them, and for want of time and means to dress it, ate it quite raw; and I have been assured, though I dare not believe it, that when this supply failed, many of them ate the flesh of their comrades who had sunk under their miseries.
“ Whilst the retreating army drank the cup of unmingled gall, its course was marked by outrages of unrestrained cruelty and vindictive rage. The first division, on leaving the quarters where they had slept the preceding night, generally consigned them to the flames, as well as the towns and villages through which they passed. The few houses that escaped their ravages, were burnt by the second division; and in the ruins were entombed soldiers and peasants, children wantonly murdered, and young girls massacred on the spot where they had been violated. For one hundred and fifty miles from Moscow, not a single building was left undemolished !”
PASSAGE OF THE VOP, Nov. 8.—“The bed of the river was choked by the carriages, cannon, and the numerous bodies of men and horses drowned in attempting the passage. The cries of those who were crossing; the consternation of others who were preparing to cross, and were every moment precipitated with their horses down the steep and slippery bank into the stream; the distraction of the women, the screams of the children, and the despair of even the soldiers, rendered this passage a scene so afflicting, that the remembrance is still dreadful to those who witnessed it.
“Our soldiers had scarcely quitted the river, when the Cossacks, no longer meeting any obstacles, advanced to where they found many poor wretches who from the state of their health had not been able to cross the river. Although our enemies were surrounded with booty, they stript their prisoners, and left them naked on the snow. From the opposite bank we saw these Tartars dividing their bloody spoils.
“ The last night had been dreadful. To form an idea of its
rigors, it is necessary to conceive an army encamped on the snow, in the depth of a severe winter, pursued by an enemy to whom it could oppose no effective resistance. The soldiers, without shoes, and almost destitute of clothing, were enfeebled by hunger and fatigue. Seated on their knapsacks, they slept on their knees. From this benumbing posture they rose only to broil a few slices of horse-flesh, or to melt some pieces of ice. They were often without wood, and to keep up a fire, demolished the houses in which the generals were lodged. When we awoke in the morning, the village had disappeared; and in this manner towns that were standing entire in the evening, formed the next day one vast conflagration.”
Nov. 15.—“Whole teams, sinking under their fatigues, fell together, and obstructed the way. More than thirty thousand horses perished in a few days. All the defiles that were impassable for the carriages, were strewed with arms, helmets, cuirasses, broken trunks, portmanteaus, and clothes of every kind. At intervals we saw trees, at the feet of which the soldiers had attempted to light fires, but had expired in making these useless efforts to warm themselves. They were stretched by dozens around the green branches which they had in vain endeavored to kindle; and the number of dead bodies would have blocked up the road, if we had not employed men to throw them into the ruts and ditches.
“ These horrors, so far from exciting our sensibility, only hardened our hearts. Having no longer the power of exercising our cruelty on our enemies, we turned it on each other. The best friends were estranged; and whoever experienced the least sickness, was certain of never seeing his country again, unless he had good horses and faithful servants. Preserving the plunder of Moscow was preferred by most to the pleasure of saving a comrade. Wo heard around us the groans of the dying, and the plaintive voice of those who were abandoned; but all were deaf to their cries, and, if any one approached them when on the point of death, it was for the purpose of stripping them, and searching whether they had any remains of food.
“ The next morning, (Nov. 17,) we left Liadoui before daybreak, and were, according to custom, lighted by the fire of the buildings which began to burn. Among the burning houses were three large barns filled with poor soldiers, chiefly wounded. They could not escape from two of these, without passing through the one in front, which was on fire. The most active saved themselves by leaping out of the windows; but all those who were sick or crippled, not having strength to move, saw the flames advancing rapidly to devour them. Touched by their shrieks, some, who were least hardened, endeavored in vain to save them; but we could scarcely see them half buried under the burning rafters. Through whirlwinds of smoke, they entreated us to shorten their sufferings by depriving them of life; and, from motives of humanity, we thought it our duty to comply with their wishes (!!) As there were some who still survived, we heard them with feeble
voices crying, 'Fire on us! fire on us! at the head! at the head ! don't miss !""
The PASSAGE OF THE BEREZINA, Nov. 27.-" They who from weariness and ignorance of danger, were less eager to cross the river, endeavored to light a fire, and to repose from their fatigues. In these bivouacs we saw to what a degree of brutality excess of misery will lead. We there saw men fighting for a morsel of bread. If any one, benumbed with cold, drew near a fire, the soldiers to whom it belonged inhumanly drove him away; and, if a parching thirst forced you to beg a drop of water from him who had a full bowl, the refusal was always accompanied with abuse. We often heard even men of education, who had been friends, quarrelling for a handful of straw, or for a part of the dead horse they were attempting to cut up. This campaign was the more frightful, as it demoralized our characters, and gave birth to vices till then unknown to us ; they who had been generous, humane and upright, became selfish, avaricious, cruel and unjust.
“ There were two bridges, one for the carriages, the other for the infantry; but the crowd was so great, and the approaches so dangerous, that the throng collected on the bank of the Berezina, became incapable of moving. In spite of these difficulties, some who were on foot saved themselves by their perseverance; but about 8 o'clock in the morning, the bridge reserved for the carriages having broken down, the baggage and artillery advanced to the other, and attempted to force a passage. Then began a frightful contest between the infantry and the cavalry, in which many of them perished by the hands of their comrades; and a still greater number were suffocated at the foot of the bridge, where the carcasses of men and horses obstructed the road to such a degree, that to approach the river, it was necessary to climb over the bodies of those who had been crushed. Some of them were still alive, and struggling in the agonies of death. In order to extricate themselves, they caught hold of those who were marching over them; but the latter disengaged themselves with violence, and trampled them under their feet. Whilst they contended with so much fury, the following multitude, like a raging wave, incessantly overwhelmed fresh victims.
“ In the midst of this dreadful confusion, the Russians made a furious attack on the rear-guard; and in the heat of the engagement, many balls fell on the miserable crowd that for three days had been pressing round the bridge, and even some shells burst in the midst of them. Terror and despair then took possession of every heart anxious for self-preservation; women and children, who had escaped so many disasters, seemed to have been preserved to experience a death still more deplorable. Leaving their carriages, they ran to embrace the knees of the first person they met, and implored him with tears to take them to the other side. The sick and wounded, seated on the trunk of a tree, or supported on crutches, looked eagerly for some friend that could assist them; but their cries were lost in the air,—every one thought only of his own safety.
“On seeing the enemy, those who had not crossed, mingling with the Poles, rushed towards the bridge; artillery, baggage, cavalry and infantry, all endeavored to pass first. threw the weak into the water, and trampled under foot the sick and wounded whom they found in their way. Many hundreds were crushed under the wheels of the artillery ; and others, who had hoped to save themselves by swimming, were frozen or drowned in the river. Thousands and thousands of hopeless victims, notwithstanding these sorrowful examples, threw themselves into the Berezina, where they nearly all perished in convulsions of grief and despair.
“The division of Girard succeeded by force of arms in overcoming all the obstacles that retarded their march, and, scaling the mountain of dead bodies that obstructed the road, gained the opposite shore, where the Russians would soon have followed them, if they had not immediately set fire to the bridge.
“ Many of those who were left on the other bank with the prospect of the most horrible death, attempted to cross the bridge through the flames; but midway they threw themselves into the river to avoid being burnt. At length, the Russians having made themselves masters of the field of battle, our troops retired; the passage of the river ceased, and the most tremendous uproar was succeeded by a death-like silence.
“ It was now December. The cold was intense; the wind howled frightfully; and, towards the close of the day, the darkness was illumined by the numerous fires of the enemy who occupied the hills of Zembin. At the feet of these heights, groaned our companions, devoted to death ; never had they experienced moments so dreadful as on this disastrous night. All the horrors that can be conceived by the imagination, would convey but a faint impression of what they endured. The elements, let loose, seemed to have combined to afflict all nature, and to chastise man. The conquerors and the conquered were overwhelmed with sufferings. The former, however, had enormous piles of burning wood, whilst the latter had neither fire nor shelter; their groans alone indicated the spot that contained so many unfortunate victims.
“ At every step (Dec. 5) we saw brave officers supported on pine branches, covered with rags, with their hair and beards matted with icicles. Those warriors, once the terror of our enemies, and the conquerors of two-thirds of Europe, having lost their noble mien, dragged themselves slowly along, and could not obtain a look of pity even from the soldiers they had commanded. Their situation was the more deplorable, as whoever had not strength to march, was abandoned; and every one who was abandoned, in one hour afterwards was a dead man. Every bivouac presented us the next day with the appearance of a field of battle. Whenever a soldier sunk from fatigue, his next neighbor rushed on him, and stripped him of his clothes, even before he was dead. Every moment we heard them begging the aid of some charitable