CROSSING THE NIEMEN
The much calumniated blocus, say other writers, would finally have been the greatest blessing for continental Europe; its aim had already been attained in so far as many London houses failed, and famine reigned on the British islands in consequence of the high cost of living.
And these writers say Napoleon had by no means become insane, but, on the contrary, frightfully clear. Another explanation given was that he worried about his dynasty, his child, entertaining fear that his empire might fall to pieces after his death, like the empire of Charles the Great.
Although he was enjoying good health, he had been warned by his physician, Corvisart, of cancer of the stomach, from which Napoleon's father had died. Some suspicious black specks had been observed in the vomit. Therefore no time was to be lost, all had to be done in haste.
The rupture originated with Russia, for at the end of the year 1810 the Tzar annulled the blocus and even excluded French goods or placed an inordinate duty on them - this was, in fact, a declaration of war. Russia wanted war while the Spanish campaign was taxing France's military forces.
The only reliable report of Napoleon's communications at St. Helena has been given by General de Gourgaudin the diary which he kept while with the Emperor from 1815 to 1818, and which has been published in the year 1898. Here is what Napoleon said on this subject:
On June 13th., 1816, he remarked in conversation with Gourgaud, "I did not want the war with Russia, but Kurakin presented me a threatening note on account of Davout's troops at Hamburg. Bassanoand Champagny were mediocre ministers, they did not comprehend the intention which had dictated that note. I myself could not argue with Kurakin. They persuaded me that it meant declaration of war. Russia had taken off several divisions from Moldavia and would take the initiative with an attack on Warsaw. Kurakin threatened and asked for his passports. I myself believed finally they wanted war. I mobilized! I sent Lauriston to Alexander, but he was not even received. From Dresden I sent Narbonne, everything convinced me that Russia wanted war. I crossed the Niemen near Wilna.
"Alexander sent a General to me to assure me that he did not wish war; I treated this ambassador very well, he dined with me, but I believed his mission was a trick to prevent the cutting off of Bagratian. I therefore continued the march.
"I did not wish to declare war against Russia, but I had the impression that Russia wanted to break with me. I knew very well the difficulties of such a campaign."
Gourgaud wrote in his diary a conversation which he had with Montholon on July 9th., 1817. "What was the real motive of the Russian campaign? I know nothing about it, and perhaps the Emperor himself did not know it. Did he intend to go to India after having dethroned the Moscowitic dynasty? The preparations, the tents which he took along, seem to suggest this assumption."
Montholon answered: "According to the instructions which I, as ambassador, received I believe that His Majesty wanted to become Emperor of Germany, that he aimed to be crowned as 'Emperor of the West'. The Rhenish Confederation was made to understand this idea. In Erfurt it was already a foregone conclusion, but Alexander demanded Constantinople, and this Napoleon would not concede."
At another conversation Napoleon admitted "I have been too hasty. I should have remained a whole year at the Niemen and in Prussia, in order to give my troops the much needed rest, to reorganize the army and also to eat up Prussia."
All these details, Napoleon's admission included, show that nobody knew and nobody knows why this gigantic expedition was undertaken. Certain is, however, that England had a hand in the break between Napoleon and Alexander.
When Napoleon called on the generals to lead them into this expedition they all had become settled to some extent, some in Paris, others on their possessions or as governors and commanders all over Europe, which at that time meant France; in consequence there existed a certain displeasure among these officers, especially among the older ones and those of high rank.
The high positions which he had created for them and the rich incomes which they enjoyed had developed their and their wives' taste for a luxurious and brilliant mode of living. Besides, most of them, as well as their master, had attained the age between forty and fifty, their ambition gradually had relented, they had enough; and the family with which they had been together for very brief periods only between two campaigns, clung to them now and held them tightly.
Notwithstanding these conditions, they all came when the Emperor called; after they had shaken off wife and children and had mounted in the saddle, while the old veterans and the young impatient soldiers were jubilant around them, they regained their good humor and went on to new victories, the brave men they always had been.