“The good Cossacks were playing with him…”

Despite finding themselves facing off against him in one war after another over the years, the Cossacks gained a great admiration for Murat. His dashing courage on the battlefield, combined with his garish uniforms and towering plumage, which made him an easily distinguishable target in any encounter, left them captivated. During the 1812 campaign, they had many opportunities to interact with him in non-combat situations as the Russian army continuously drew back towards Moscow, and these encounters delighted Murat. He chatted with them amiably, gave them his pocket-watch and money (and the watches and money of all the members of his staff), and, unfortunately, allowed all of their flattering of his vanity to temporarily blind him to the fact that he was falling into a ruse.

General de Caulaincourt chronicles Murat’s (mis)adventures with the Cossacks in 1812 below.

[Source: With Napoleon in Russia: The Memoirs of General de Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza. 1935 English translation. Full text available on HathiTrust.org.]

***

Step by step the King of Naples followed the retreat of the enemy’s rear-guard, and the Russian officer in command could not speak highly enough of his courage, though he protested against His Majesty’s temerity. ‘Such is our admiration of you,’ he said, ‘that our Cossacks have passed word round that no one is to fire a shot at so brave a Prince. However, one of these days,’ he added, ‘you will meet with misfortune.’ He urged the King to be sparing of courage so fine as his. A certain amount of time was gained in the exchange of such compliments, and they were dispensed all the more lavishly as the King seemed to welcome them. Wishing to make some gift to so courteous a foe, His Majesty asked his staff if one of them could not lend him some piece of jewelry. M. Gourgaud, the orderly officer who was attending him in order to carry out the Emperor’s scheme of liaison, offered his repeater which the King hastened to present to the Cossack officer. (page 111)

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The King always saw the Russian army in flight along the Kazan road, the men deserting, disbanding the troops, the Cossacks ready to leave the army, some even disposed to make common cause with the victorious French. The Cossack chieftains overwhelmed the King of Naples with continual flattery, and he never ceased to give them tokens of his munificence. The vanguard had no need to fight; the Cossack officers took instructions from the King as to the direction in which he wished to march, and where he desired to establish his headquarters. From the moment his outposts arrived they were practically taken care of, to see that nothing went amiss. Out-and-out blandishments were resorted to, to gratify the King, and those marks of deference delighted him greatly.

Accordingly the Emperor put small faith in his despatches; those marks of deference looked suspicious to him. He saw that the King was being made a fool of, and he told him to distrust Kutusof’s pretended march on Kazan. The Emperor could not fathom this movement of the enemy. This affectation of regard for the King–these exaggerated accounts of the enemy’s breakdown and the discontent of the Cossacks–appeared to him as proofs of underhand work. Although such circumstances–if true–would have delighted him, he saw them for what they were: blinds to deceive the King as to what was really afoot, or baits to draw him into some trap. (pages 123-4)

***

The King of Naples, who finally had recognized his error, began to carry out the movements on Kaluga ordered by the Emperor. Up to this time he had kept in constant touch with the Cossacks. Having given them his watch and his jewels, he would even have given them the shirt off his back, had he not discovered that the good Cossacks were playing with him and keeping him on the Kazan road while the Russian army, masked by their maneuvers, had been on the Kaluga road for five days. They had made their march at night, lit up by the flames of the burning capital. (page 136)

***

By September 23 our convoys were already somewhat disturbed; the pourparlers between our advance-guard and the Cossacks were still being carried on; and the Emperor was so displeased that he forbade their continuance. (…) ‘These communications,’ said the Emperor, ‘are made for no other purpose than to alarm the army about its remoteness from France, and the climate, and the winter. I know that it is being said that this is an unjust war, that it is impolitic, and my attack on the Russians an act of iniquity. My soldiers are being told of the peaceful aims of the Tsar, of his moderation and his liking for the French. By their smooth speeches the Russians are trying to turn our brave fellows into traitors, to paralyze the courage of stouthearted men, and to gain partisans for their cause. Murat is the dupe of men far more astute than himself… I will have the first man who speaks with the enemy shot, even if he be a general.’

Indeed, orders were promulgated absolutely forbidding any intercourse with the enemy sous peine de mort; and to spare the susceptibilities of the King of Naples this order was addressed to General Sebastiani. (pages 136-7)

***

(The King of Naples, despite all orders to the contrary, continued to treat with the enemy…. The Cossacks were accustomed to notice him on account of his singular uniform, and, seeing him the bravest man in the midst of his gallant skirmishers, they always refrained from shooting in his direction. Their officers came to compliment him, assuring him, as before, that so highly did they admire his bravery that they were resolved never to fire on him but to content themselves with making him prisoner. One day, however, a Cossack who had evidently been imperfectly coached in this new system of advance-guard politics, fired a pistol almost point-blank at him while His Majesty was chattering and strolling about. Happily he was not hit. Instantly an officer came up to offer excuses and to assure His Majesty that this disloyal enemy would be punished. One good resulted from this incident. The King lost something of his confidence, and was less inclined to believe in the pacific dispositions of these gentry.) (pages 144-5)

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