Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

I am writing this on February 20, a week (or more) before you are reading it. I was amused to learn this morning that it is National Clean Out Your Bookshelf Day, a “holiday” that has been celebrated each 20th of February since 2014 by, well, I don’t quite know who.

It is also the last day that I am writing a post inspired by trying to find room on my shelves for the books I used in writing The Dragon from Chicago. I can’t claim I cleaned out my bookshelves in the process, though I did move a handful along to the giveaway box in the basement. (I suspect I will suffer sorter’s remorse and pull a few of them back out.)

With one last hurrah before Women’s History Month starts, I bring you Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Count Phillipe-Paul De Ségur.

This is a much better cover than the one on the edition I own, but this edition doesn’t have an intro by Peter Gay. Which I think is better than a cool cover.

The Count de Ségur was an eyewitness of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. He was a member of a French noble family that had come through the French Revolution impoverished but alive. He was struggling to make a living writing theater skits when he first saw Napoleon riding through the streets of Paris at the head of his cavalry escort. De Segur, whose father was Minister of War under Louis XVI, succumbed to his family’s military tradition and applied for a commission on Napoleon’s staff. He served as one of the general’s aides de camp from 1800 through the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He was, in his own words, “less an actor than a witness, never leaving the Emperor’s side for more than a few feet, and then only to deliver several of his orders and see that they were carried out.”

De Ségur published his account in 1824. The two volumes were an enormous success: ten editions sold out in three years. Later, various one-volume editions appeared that left out technical military details about supply depots and marching schedules and instead concentrated on the dramatic story at the heart of the book. The edition I own was abridged by de Ségur’s grandson and includes an introduction by historian Peter Gay.

I suspect I would have enjoyed the supply train info, but there is no doubt that the book as it stands is an enthralling account of Napoleon’s hubris in marching to Moscow and the tragedy of the French army’s retreat, told from the perspective of a man who was there. De Ségur opens with Napoleon walking down the lines of his soldiers, who were massed for the great march to the east, asking his men about their thoughts and needs. It ends with him abandoning his men in the field as he raced toward Paris to raise new troops. From beginning to end, de Ségur keeps the reader at his side with a judicious use of the first person plural. The first chapter ends “We had to press on in pursuit.” And we, the readers, press on too, as if we were part of the Grand Army.





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