The fire of Moscow
Napoleon's victory at Borodino had thrown open the road to Moscow. The Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov - backed by Barclay de Tolly - made the heart-rending decision to abandon the city to the advancing Grande Armée in the hope that it would buy them the time needed to recover. As the Russian army marched out over 13 and 14 September, Moscow's governor Fyodor Rostopchin gave the order to evacuate the fire brigade and the city's water pumps. The source of the fire that broke out the evening of 14 September remains uncertain: contemporary accounts blamed Napoleon, whilst there is evidence to suggest that Rostopchin - backed by a group of arsonists - ordered the destruction. In his account of the Russian campaign, Comte Philippe de Ségur blamed the Russians, and wondered what their target had been:
"Had the Muscovites, knowing our reckless and negligent carelessness, conceived of the idea to burn with Moscow our soldiers drunk from wine, fatigue and sleep? Or rather had they dared believe that they would envelope Napoleon in this catastrophe; that the loss of this man was well worth [the loss] of their capital; that such a great result merited sacrificing the whole of Moscow; that perhaps the Heavens, in order to grant them such a victory, had demanded an equally great sacrifice; that, in short, [the destruction of] this immense colossus would require an immense pyre?"
Whatever the cause, the fire engulfed the city, full of exhausted (and drunken, in many cases) soldiers of the Grande Armée who had staggered through its gates just a few hours before. By 20 September, when the rains finally came and extinguished the flames, the fire had destroyed a third of all houses within the walls and over two hundred churches.