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GENERAL SIR ROBERT WILSON'S RUSSIAN JOURNAL.*
THE name of Sir Robert Thomas Wilson is alone a sufficient guarantee for the sterling value and historical importance of any work, apart from all criticism. Few men, in his day, had better opportunities of becoming acquainted with the secret as well as the public history of the leading nations of Europe; and none was better qualified than he to put them on record for the information of posterity. It is, therefore, with the highest satisfaction that we hail the timely publication of his "Narrative of the Invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812," and the announcement that there are in the editor's hands materials for a full memoir of his private and political as well as of his military life," which it is intended to publish hereafter. It is not too much to say that, as long as these documents remain in MS., the world will be deprived of the invaluable testimony of one of the most intelligent, truthful, and honourable witnesses to a period of its history than which none was more eventful. In future, it will not be possible to study the story of the march to Moscow and the terrible retreat, apart from Sir Robert Wilson's personal narrative, and we may safely venture to predict the same of the materials which are yet unpublished.
It appears from Mr. Randolph's introduction that "the fact of Sir Robert's Wilson's employment in the mission to Constantinople in the year 1812, his presence and authorised action at S. Petersburg, and at the head-quarters of the Russian army through a large portion of the operations, his well-known military capacity and personal energy and intelligence, and, finally, the celebrity of his previous writings, raised a general expectation that he would be the historian of the campaign.” Indeed, as early as January, 1813, before the work was compiled, he was offered a thousand guineas for it by a chief London publisher. The offer was declined at the time for various reasons. "I answered," he wrote to England, in a private letter, dated at Plosk, on the Vistula, that "I was a public servant, and could not publish without the sanction of his Majesty's government, which I should not ask for, nor deem it expedient to make use of if granted. The events of this campaign can never be traced by me for the public during my life; a variety of considerations imperatively forbids the communication of my view of the past." Among these, it would seem a principal one was that he had been in close personal intimacy with the Emperor Alexander, highly trusted and honoured by him," and "the disclosure of facts and opinions, to which he could only have access through this confidence of a generous friendship, would have prejudicially affected the relations of the emperor with his great nobility."
It was not till the year 1825 that Sir Robert revised and arranged his
* Narrative of Events during the Invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Retreat of the French Army, 1812. By General Sir Robert Wilson, K.M.T., Baron of Austria, &c. &c., British Commissioner at the Head-quarters of the Russian Army. Edited by his nephew and son-in-law, the Rev. Herbert Randolph, M.A., of Balliol College, Oxford. London: John Murray, Albemarle
papers, and cast them in their present form for posthumous publication; and now, after an interval of five-and-thirty-years, the narrative, so long kept from us for the best and wisest motives, comes to us with all the vigour and freshness of a work of yesterday. It was written, "at his points of mission, in camp, in quarters, or on battle-fields," by his own pen, and it bears in every part the living impress of the memorable and moving scenes which it was designed to record.
We do not propose in our present brief notice to analyse this book. The leading events of the campaign of 1812 are known to all; and it is not in the framework of Sir Robert's work that its great value consists, but rather in the light which is everywhere thrown upon events imperfectly understood and inaccurately reported hitherto. The eye-witness is seldom deceived himself; and, if he be a man of honour, he never deceives others. But the historian who is not an eye-witness of the events which he records, though he may be free from all political and party bias, which is seldom the case, is always tempted-as Sir Henry Ellis tells us in his preface to his "Original Letters"-to degenerate into a mere writer of romance. One genuine original letter is worth half a chronicle; and one page of such a journal as this is worth a volume of any historical compilation extant.
We shall, therefore, leave it to our readers to ascertain for themselves the manner and general matter of the book, assuring them, the while, that no library having the smallest pretensions to completeness can be considered complete without it; and we shall present them with one or two extracts, which will enable them to see that we do not exaggerate its great importance as a strictly original work.
Our first extract is a lengthy one, but it is of remarkable interest. It belongs to the period when Sir Robert Wilson joined the Russian army; and is an admirable illustration of the devotion of the whole Russian people, and their patriotic determination to give no quarter to the invader. It is encouraging, too, to see how mighty and irresistible is the will of a great people in times of national danger, and how they follow, at such crises, the guidance of their leaders only if they are prepared to lead them on to victory or to destruction in repelling unprovoked aggression. Few, we think, will read the story of the "loyal rebels" without sympathising with them to the uttermost, and breathing a secret prayer that the spirit which has been roused in our own country in these perilous times, may be the fruitful seed of a like glorious spirit with those Russian patriots if ever England has to defend her shores against a foreign foe:
When Sir Robert Wilson reached the Russian army he found the generals in open dissension with the commander-in-chief, General Barclay, for having already suffered the enemy to overrun so many provinces, and for not making any serious disposition to defend the line of the Dnieper. Some wished that General Beningsen should have the command, others Prince Bagrathion; and General Beningsen, fearing that he might be forced into the command by a military election when it was known that Smolensk was to be evacuated, left the army and withdrew several marches to the rear, that the emperor's orders for the appointment of a new chief might arrive during his absence. Before his departure for S. Petersburg, however, it had been resolved to send to the emperor not only the request of the army "for a new chief," but a declaration in the name of the army, "that if any order came from S. Petersburg to suspend hos
tilities, and treat the invaders as friends (which was apprehended to be the true motive of the retrograde movements, in deference to the policy of Count Romanzow), such an order would be regarded as one which did not express his imperial majesty's real sentiments and wishes, but had been extracted from his majesty under false representations or external control; and that the army would continue to maintain his pledge and pursue the contest till the invader was driven beyond the frontier." Since the execution of such a commission might expose a Russian officer to future punishment, and the conveyance of such a communication by a subject to the sovereign was calculated to pain and give offence, when no offence was proposed, it was communicated by a body of generals to Sir Robert Wilson, "that under the circumstances of his known attachment to the emperor, and his imperial majesty's equally well-known feelings towards him, no person was considered so properly qualified as himself to put the emperor in possession of the sentiments of the army; that his motives in accepting the mission could not be suspected; and that the channel was one which would best avoid trespass on personal respect, and prevent irritation from personal feelings being humiliated."
Sir Robert Wilson, after that deliberation which such a grave proposition required, agreed to be the bearer of the message, as far as the question of war and peace was concerned; but agreed solely that he might mitigate the unavoidable distress which the emperor must experience during the execution of such a commission.
The dismissal of Count Romanzow was not made a sine qua non; but Sir Robert Wilson was directed to state "that his removal from the ministry could alone inspire full confidence in the imperial councils.”
Sir Robert Wilson on his way deviated a few miles to inform Count Panin of the evacuation of Smolensk, the continued retreat of the army, and the probable arrival of the enemy in a few hours at his residence. The count had not the slightest suspicion of the danger, but immediately ordered off all his papers and valuable effects to Moscow, where they were shortly afterwards burnt in the conflagration of the city! Prudence itself was here in fault, for the French officer who commanded the detachment had the most positive orders from Napoleon "to respect the count's person, house, and property."
Sir Robert Wilson reached S. Petersburg on the 24th of August. The emperor was then at Abo, where he had gone with the English ambassador, Lord Cathcart, to meet the King of Sweden, and where those negotiations were concluded "which rendered disposable the Russian army of Finland and secured the co-operation of a Swedish force, assuring Norway to Sweden under the guarantee of England, with one million sterling as subsidy;" which moreover held out to the king the prospect of ascending the throne of France, Alexander having declared in his presence "that he should consider it vacant in case of Napoleon's overthrow," and having replied to the king's question, "To whom, then, would it be given ?" with a pointed emphasis and accompanying inclination of head,-"Au plus digne."
The information brought by Sir Robert Wilson as to the patriotic spirit, the brave conduct, and effective condition of the army produced a very beneficial effect; and Lord Cathcart, adverting to that arrival, wrote, "Your arrival and conduct in the capital at this very critical moment has rendered important service:" the fact being that so much alarm had then prevailed at S. Petersburg, that all the archives and treasure of the state and palaces were packed up for removal.
Of course the special communication with which Sir Robert Wilson had been charged had been confided only to those whose interests and affections were identified with the interest and welfare of the emperor, and whose co-operation for the attainment of the object had been thought indispensable.
The emperor arrived on the 3rd of September at S. Petersburg, and Sir Robert Wilson was immediately honoured by a command to dine with him, as he had previously done several times with the empresses. His reception was of
a nature to inspire encouragement, and strengthen him in the execution of a purpose to which his word was committed, and on the success of which so many serious interests depended.
When the dinner was over, the emperor withdrew with Sir Robert Wilson to his cabinet, where the conference commenced by Sir Robert Wilson glancing over the subject of his mission from Mr. Liston, the state of Turkey, the condi tion and movements of Admiral Tchichagow's army, and the details of the battle of Smolensk. The emperor, having satisfied himself on all these points, directed the conversation to the dissensions existing among the generals, observing that he had heard that the Hetman Platow had even said to General Barclay, on the evacuation of Smolensk, "You see I wear but a cloak; I will never put on again a Russian uniform, since it has become a disgrace." These expressions having been used in Sir Robert Wilson's presence, he could not pretend ignorance of them. The emperor then asked "whether Sir Robert Wilson thought that Marshal Kutusow (who had been appointed commander-in-chief) would be able to restore subordination ?"
Sir Robert Wilson observed that Marshal Kutusow, whom he had met going to the army, was fully aware of the temper in which he would find the army; that he had thought it his duty to communicate to the marshal the facts with which he was acquainted, and that the marshal had conjured him to conceal nothing from his imperial majesty; that he, Sir Robert Wilson, had undertaken a charge which his affection and gratitude towards his majesty had made a duty under all circumstances; that in incurring the chance of displeasure, he was devoting himself to the emperor's service, and for the protection of his dignity; and then, entering at once into the matter (carefully avoiding the designation of individuals who might be regarded as leaders), he concluded by earnestly imploring his majesty to bear in mind the perilous state of the empire, which might justify patriotic alarm, and which alarm, from the gravity of its cause, extenuated a trespass on authority instigated by the purest motives, and intended for the permanent preservation of that authority itself; that the chiefs were animated by the most affectionate attachment to the emperor and his family; and if they were but assured that his majesty would no longer give his confidence to advisers whose policy they mistrusted, they would testify their allegiance by exertions and sacrifices which would add splendour to the crown, and security to the throne under every adversity.
During this exposition the emperor's colour occasionally visited and left his cheek. When Sir Robert Wilson had terminated his appeal, there was a minute or two of pause, and his majesty drew towards the window, as if desirous of recovering an unembarrassed air before he replied. After a few struggles, however, he came up to Sir Robert Wilson, took him by the hand, and kissed him on the forehead and cheek, according to the Russian custom. "You are the only person," then said his majesty, "from whom I could or would have heard such a communication. In the former war you proved your attachment towards me by your services, and you entitled yourself to my most intimate confidence; but you must be aware that you have placed me in a very distressing position. Moi! souverain de la Russie!--to hear such things from any one! But the army is mistaken in Romanzow: he really has not advised submission to the Emperor Napoleon; and I have a great respect for him, since he is almost the only one who never asked me in his life for anything on his own account, whereas every one else in my service has always been seeking honours, wealth, or some private object for himself and connexions. I am unwilling to sacrifice him without cause; but come again to-morrow-I must collect my thoughts before I despatch you with an answer. I know the generals and officers about them well; they mean, I am satisfied, to do their duty, and I have no fears of their having any unavowed designs against my authority. But I am to be pitied, for I have few about me who have any sound education or fixed principles: my grandmother's court vitiated the whole education of the empire, confining it to the acquisition of the French language, French frivolities
and vices, particularly gaming. I have little, therefore, on which I can rely firmly; only impulses; I must not give way to them, if possible; but I will think on all you have said." His majesty then embraced Sir Robert Wilson again, and appointed the next day for his further attendance.
Sir Robert Wilson obeyed his majesty's commands, who renewed the subject almost immediately, by saying, "Well! Monsieur l'ambassadeur des rebelles-I have reflected seriously during the whole night upon the conversation of yesterday, and I have not done you injustice. You shall carry back to the army pledges of my determination to continue the war against Napoleon whilst a Frenchman is in arms on this side the frontier. I will not desert my engagements, come what may. I will abide the worst. I am ready to remove my family into the interior, and undergo every sacrifice; but I must not give way on the point of choosing my own ministers: that concession might induce other demands, still more inconvenient and indecorous for me to grant. Count Romanzow shall not be the means of any disunion or difference-everything will be done that can remove uneasiness on that head; but done so that I shall not appear to give way to menace, or have to reproach myself for injustice. This is a case where much depends on the manner of doing it. Give me a little time-all will be satisfactorily arranged."
During the stay of Sir Robert Wilson at S. Petersburg, his imperial majesty continued to heap distinctions on him, as if anxious to make more mani fest through him his sentiments and feelings towards the parties whom he had represented; and when the emperor sanctioned his return, his majesty, with the greatest solemnity, declared upon his honour, and directed him to repeat in the most formal manner the declaration, that his majesty would not enter into or permit any negotiation with Napoleon as long as an armed Frenchman remained in the territories of Russia. His imperial majesty said "he would sooner let his beard grow to his waist, and eat potatoes in Siberia." At the same time he specially authorised Sir Robert Wilson (who was to reside with the Russian army as British commissioner) to interpose, and intervene with all the power and influence he could exert, to protect the interests of the imperial crown in conformity with that pledge, whenever he saw any disposition or design to com travene or prejudice them.
Each of the empresses, who at that time took an active part in the transac tions that were passing to sustain the emperor in his resolution against subscribing to a peace, severally communicated to Sir Robert Wilson her positive confidence in the emperor's firm adherence to his word, and they directed him to give this their personal assurance to those influential chiefs of the army who had the honour of their confidence. (Pp. 111-119.)
A very important feature in Sir Robert Wilson's book is the light thrown upon the conduct of Kutusow, the Russian commander-in-chief, who was evidently the unwilling instrument of the defeat of Napoleon and did everything in his power to favour his retreat. Whatever doubt we may have entertained hitherto, it is no longer possible to avoid the conviction that Kutusow was at heart a traitor to his country, as he was also in deeds as far as he dared. The following account of Napoleon's mission to Kutusow shortly after the burning of Moscow, and of the means by which the proposed treachery was averted, is of the deepest interest, and forms the natural sequel to the account already quoted of Sir Robert Wilson's interview with Alexander, and the charge given to him by the emperor on parting:
There was a general suspicion that Kutusow did not wish to push the enemy to such extremity; and a corresponding vigilance was exercised over his trans
The English General [Sir Robert Wilson] had gone on the preceding evening to Milaradowitch's bivouac, when early in the morning of the 4th of October a Cossack at speed brought him a summons from Beningsen, in his own name