CROSSING THE NIEMEN
On May 10th., 1812, the Moniteur published the following note: "The emperor has left to-day to inspect the Grand Army united at the Vistula." In France, in all parts of the Empire, the lassitude was extreme and the misery increasing, there was no commerce, with dearth pronounced in twenty provinces, sedition of the hungry had broken out in Normandy, the gendarmes pursuing the "refractories" everywhere, and blood was shed in all thirty departments.
There was the complaint of exhausted population, and loudest was the complaint of mothers whose sons had been killed in the war.
Napoleon was aware of these evils and understood well their gravity, but he counted on his usual remedy, new victories; saying to himself that a great blow dealt in the north, throwing Russia and indirectly England at his feet, would again be the salvation of the situation.
Caulaincourt, his ambassador to the Tzar, had told him in several conversations, one of which had lasted seven hours, that he would find more terrible disaster in Russia than in Spain, that his army would be destroyed in the vastness of the country by the iron climate, that the Tzar would retire to the farthest Asiatic provinces rather than accept a dishonorable peace, that the Russians would retreat but never cede.
Napoleon listened attentively to these prophetic words, showing surprise and emotion; then he fell into a profound reflection, but at the end of his revery, having enumerated once more his armies, all his people, he said: "Bah! a good battle will bring to reason the good determination of your friend Alexander."
And in his entourage there were many who shared his optimism. The brilliant youth of that new aristocracy which had begun to fill his staff was anxious to equal the old soldiers of the revolution, the plebeian heroes.
They prepared for war in a luxurious way and ordered sumptuous outfits and equipages which later on encumbered the roads of Germany, just as the carriages of the Prussian army had done in 1806.
These French officers spoke of the Russian campaign as a six months' hunting party.
Napoleon had calculated not to occupy the country between the Vistula and the Niemen before the end of May, when the late spring of those regions would have covered the fields with green, so that the 100 thousand horses marching with the army could find feed.
He traversed Germany between a double lane of kings, and princes bowed in an attitude of adoration.
He found them at Mainz, at Wuerzburg, at Bamberg, and his advance might be compared to the royal progress of an Asiatic potentate.
Whole populations were turned out to salute him, and during the night the route over which the imperial carriages passed was illuminated by lighted piles of wood - an extensive line of fire in his honor.
At Dresden he had the attendance of an emperor (that of Austria) and of kings and reigning princes, who were present at his levees, together with their prime ministers (the better to catch, to report, the words he said, however insignificant) while high German dignitaries waited on him at the table.
The Emperor and the Empress of Austria had come at their own desire to salute their daughter and their son-in-law and to present their good wishes for the success of the great expedition.
Twelve days in succession he had at dinner the Emperor and Empress of Austria, the King and Queen of Saxony, the Saxon princes, the Prince Primate of the Confederation of the Rhine - even the King of Prussia was present; he offered his son for adjutant, which offer, however, Napoleon was tactful enough not to accept.
All the kings and reigning princes from the other States of Germany presented their best wishes and pledged faithfulness to Napoleon in his war against Russia.
Around the French emperor and empress at Dresden there was a court the like of which Europe had never seen and never will see again.
A Te Deum was sung to thank heaven for his arrival; there was a magnificent display of fireworks, but the climax of all was a great concert with an apotheosis showing, as the principal figure, the sun with the inscription: "Less great and less beautiful than He." "It appears that these people take me for very stupid," said Napoleon to this, shrugging his shoulders.
In speaking to one of his intimates he called the King of Prussia a sergeant instructor, une bete, but openly he treated him with great courtesy.
He made rich presents: gold and enameled boxes, jewelry and portraits of himself enriched with costly stones. During the happy days of Dresden he enjoyed for once an intimate family life.
On one occasion he held a long conversation with his father-in-law, during which he developed his plans of the Russian campaign, with minute and endless military details of which the emperor of Austria, being no strategist at all, understood nothing and said afterward: "My son-in-law is alright here," pointing to the heart, "but here" - pointing to the forehead - he made a significant gesture.
This criticism of Napoleon by the Emperor of Austria became popular and has been accepted by many writers. All reproaches about Cesarian insanity which were cast at the great man and his whole life date from that time. Some have said that he wanted to conquer England and Russia because these two he considered the arch enemies of Europe, that he foresaw the threatening growth of these two countries as dangerous, and if he did not take advantage of the good opportunity the future of Europe would be at the mercy of Russia and England.
The conquest of Russia was the keynote of his universal policy.