DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – To Moscow

Continuing The March Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


To Moscow
The Battle of BorodinoThis time, the Russian withdrawal was less organised. The retreat, covered by the cossack commander Matvei Platov, proved ineffective in slowing up the French chase. As a result, on 10 September the Russian rearguard clashed with Murat’s vanguard. The Russian troops, unable to retreat in good order, were forced to leave many of their wounded and sick in Moshaysk. Napoleon remained in Moshaysk until 12 September. The problem of Moscow reared its head again: no longer a question of pitching battle en route, the Russian forces headed back to the capital of Old Russia. Kutuzov was far more attached to Moscow than Barclay de Tolly was (as a Baltic Protestant, Barclay de Tolly’s allegiance lay primarily with the tsar and the empire, rather than the city of Moscow) and initially saw its loss as the end for Russia. However the previous battle had convinced him that the Russian army needed time and space to recover. A further engagement so soon after Borodino was not high on his list of priorities. At 4pm on 13 September, the day after the Russian army had arrived in Fili (a small village on the western outskirts of Moscow), a council of war was held. There, it was made clear that any attempt to hold the city would result in the destruction of the Russian army, the fall of Moscow and the likely end of the Russian Empire. Kutuzov may have come to that decision already, but as Lieven points out, the agreement (or at the very least a shared blame) had to be reached before he could call the retreat. In attendance were Bennigsen and Barclay de Tolly. Bennigsen was charged with preparing and choosing the battleground for the defence of the city, and he made it clear in later correspondence that he saw Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov as the culprits behind the decision. Barclay de Tolly supported Kutuzov in his argument: not only would a defeat in front of the gates of Moscow have lost the city, but any subsequent retreat would be severely hampered by having to withdraw – probably hastily – through Moscow. At the end of the meeting, Kutuzov declared: “I know that I am going to have for the breakage, but I sacrifice myself for the good of the fatherland. I order the retreat.” (quoted in Marie-Pierre Rey, op. cit., 2012, pp. 168-169) By the evening of 13 September, the decision had been announced. Despair, shame and anger swept through the army (to be replaced by grim resolve), whilst fear took hold of the civilians all too aware of the Grande Armée’s imminent arrival. Although some inhabitants had started to leave the city before the decision had gone public, there was little time to complete a full civilian evacuation. Archives were hurriedly boxed up, treasures covered, hidden or dispatched from the city. Carriages and carts were requisitioned for transport. At 11pm, the artillery began moving out of the city. The infantry began a few hours later, at 3am on 14 September. That day, as the Russian army passed through, the city descended into absolute chaos. As early as 3 September, however, Fyodor Rostopchin, the governor of Moscow, had begun removing not only all inhabitants considered “foreign” enough to harbour pro-French or pro-Napoleon sympathies (including Germans, Swiss and French) but also all civil servants and local elites, intent as he was to deprive Napoleon of any opportunity to liaise with or develop a relationship with the Russian authorities. Sacking a landed estate, by V. N. Kurdyumov. As Napoleon’s advance guard under Murat approached the city walls, the Russian general in charge of covering the Russian retreat was a certain Mikhail Miloradovich, who succeeded in securing a one-day truce in order to evacuate the army in good order. Murat obliged, and the Russians were able to withdraw unmolested. Murat’s troops did not reach the Dorogomilovo District, in the west, until 2pm on 14 September.

map_of_war_1812_fThe night of 13/14 September, Rostopchin also evacuated the 2000-odd members of the fire brigade and nearly one hundred water pumps from the city. What followed remains uncertain. There is evidence to suggest that Rostopchin gave the order to set fire to the city once the army had left. It may have also been part of the general scorched earth policy of the Russian army ever since the Grande Armée had crossed the border. It equally could have been brought about from looting on both sides. All that is known is that no orders for such an act were given by Napoleon or Alexander (irrespective – in the case of the former – of later Russian propaganda). Whatever the case, early on 15 September Napoleon entered an almost completely deserted Moscow. The population, about 262,000 in 1812, had left, with only 10,000 (some of whom were wounded soldiers) remaining. By midday he had set up his headquarters in the Kremlin. The nature of the evacuation had left a large quantity of food and drink in the city. Yet by the end of the day, the first fires had broken out within the city walls. Between 10.30pm and midnight, the fire spread further, leaping quickly between the closely packed buildings and warehouses. As the wind picked up, controlling the fire became more and more difficult. By the morning of 16 September, the fire had intensified. The Arbat – the historical centre of the city – was destroyed and the University of Moscow’s library had gone up in flames. At midday that day, Napoleon was encouraged to evacuate the Kremlin. Refusing, he remained in the palace until 5.30pm when, “besieged by an ocean of flames” (in Ségur’s words), he was obliged to flee.   He and his officers set up camp in the Petrovski Palace, a few kilometres north-west of Moscow, on the St Petersburg road. The remaining French troops, being completely without the means to bring the fire under control, left the city at the same time. Eugene de Beauharnais lead his troops out on the road to Zvenigorod (to the west). Ney headed north-west towards St Petersburg. Davout took the road to Smolensk. The French forces remained outside of the city limits until 20 September when, as the rain came to fall, the fire was extinguished. Returning to the city that day, the army – officer and common soldier alike – descended into a frenzy of pillage.

Burning of Moscow In the absence of police or any sort of authority, many Russians still in the city joined in. Napoleon returned to the Kremlin. A third of Moscow’s houses were utterly destroyed, whilst only 122 out of 329 churches remained standing after the fire and destruction.   Meanwhile, Kutuzov and the army had evacuated the city on 13/14 September. Initially heading out towards Ryazin’, they had passed through Lyubertsy on 16 September and continued south-east. Then, Kutuzov suddenly turned west and passed back in front of Moscow at high-speed. Fortunately for the Russians, the Grande Armée was to prove too exhausted to follow the withdrawal. On 18 September Kutuzov was in Podolsk, before continuing on to his encampment near Tarutino, about 100km to the south-west of Moscow. This position not only allowed him to harass the French lines of communication, but also stay in contact with the Russian forces under Tormasov and Chichagov, commander of the Army of the Danube. He was also well placed to watch over the workshops and arms factories in nearby Tula and Briansk, and receive supplies which came up to Kaluga from the fertile lands to the south, in modern-day Ukraine. map_of_war_1812_g Napoleon was left with a few choices. He could make his winter quarters in the ravaged city of Moscow. He could head south towards the breadbasket of The Ukraine. Or he could make for St Petersburg. This latter option would have been feasible had he the men and the material, but as it was, he would be forced to march through the winter-ravaged land with the possibility of being cut off by the remaining troops under Kutuzov. Napoleon however seemed convinced that an approach to treat from Alexander was imminent. Nor was a great deal of coordinated effort made to organise winter equipment and supplies. Napoleon, by various means, sought to engage Alexander, but each one remained ignored. On 20 September, Napoleon wrote to Alexander: “The beautiful and fine city of Moscow is no more: Rostopchin has had it burnt down. Four hundred arsonists have been caught in the act; they all declared that they were lighting the fire on the order of this governor and the director of police: they have all been shot. The fire now seems to have abated. Three-quarters of the houses have been burnt, one-quarter remains. […] How is it possible to destroy one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the work of centuries in the achievement of such a weak aim? […] The fire has opened the way to pillage, in which the soldiery is competing with the fire for the remains. If I once for a moment imagined that such things had been done on Your Majesty’s order, I would not be writing this letter; however I am convinced that it is impossible, given your principles, your spirit and your enlightened ideas, that you ordered such excesses, unworthy as they would be of so great a sovereign and so great a nation. […] I made war against your majesty without bitterness; one word from you, whether before or after our recent battle, would have stopped my advance and I would even have agreed to forgo the advantage of entering Moscow.” [20 September, 1812, Correspondance générale, Fayard/Fondation Napoléon, 2012, n° 31,736, p. 1,103] 470px-Napoleon_watching_the_fire_of_Moscow_01 Upon learning of Kutuzov’s movements, he dispatched Bessières to observe the Russian movements. Poniatowski and his force reached Podolsk on 24 September.   By 4 October, Napoleon knew that a decision had to be taken. Macdonald’s siege of Riga was threatened by the arrival of Governor of Finland Faddey Steingell at the head of 10,000 men. Although Macdonald successfully repelled the threat, Steingell linked up with Wittgenstein, still in the area. To the south-west, Chichagov and Tormasov threatened Schwarzenberg, based near Brest-Litovsk. There were over nine hundred kilometres between Riga and Moscow, and more than a thousand kilometres between Napoleon and Brest-Litovsk. Any further advance would simply increase these distances. In the end, Napoleon was to stay in the Moscow about a month. What was the plan there? The mounting of an attack on St Petersburg was apparently mooted; huge amounts of stores were amassed with the idea of wintering in the Russian capital; reinforcements were on their way from Smolensk. But the situation in Moscow was not good. The city was half burnt and the troops had plundered much. And not far to the south-east, the Russian army, by no means out of action, was preparing to counterattack. Furthermore, partisan units were successfully harrying transport columns, and, as the encounter at Taroutino would show, despite their chaotic approach, the Russians were still a force to be reckoned with. Kutuzov was later to boast that he had played the French emperor, dragging out negotiations with Napoleon because the Russian knew that the French in Moscow were stuck in a trap. It is possible however that, taking into account the fact that he said this in December 1812, this assertion was made with the benefit of hindsight. And in the same conversation, Kutusov also convincingly remarks that he thought that Napoleon had waited too long, letting himself be obsessed with obtaining a peace treaty instead of continuing to be belligerent. Be that as it may, Napoleon’s actions in Moscow seem to imply hesitation, and in the mental and strategic void, the emperor took the fateful step of heading, too late, back west.

Next: Retreat

[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812,

[5] Art of the Russias, Figurative, 1812, Part 10,

5 thoughts on “DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – To Moscow

  1. Very good summary!

    Minard was making a point about winter temperatures, subscribing to the theory that “the Generals Janvier and Fevrier (January and February) defeated Napoleon.” By omission, he misrepresented the main reasons of Napoleon’s defeat, which you mention in your narrative, and which are illustrated by Mr Yankey’s map: Russian “scorch earth” and small actions tactics during summer retreat, disease, casualties, and the need to leave troops to protect supply depots decreased French fighting army from 420K to 130K before Borodino Battle on September 7th; he lost 30K during the battle; Moscow fire after Napoleon entered it destroyed remaining food supplies; after overstaying in Moscow,and then losing the battle of Maloyaroslavets to break to the more southern road, Napoleon lost the war. French troops had to retreat using the same road they used during invasion with no supplies, while Russian army was using the road to the south going through untouched land. The cold was definitely a major factor in French losses during the retreat, but Russian army was travelling in the same weather.

    To add to your illustrations: There is a famous painting depicting council of war in Fili Note Kutuzov and his aide-de-camp behind him opposing other generals.

    1. Hi Laura:

      Thank you for your comments. As shown on Minard’s map, as well as Mr. Yankey’s map, the cold weather played a significant part in Napoleon’s defeat. But, your point about traveling the same roads they came into Moscow on, not allowing them fresh resources along the way back to Paris, was indeed devastating to what remained of Napoleon’s army. The continued large lost of life up to the Battle of Berezina can be attributed to the lack of new resources and the weather compounded it.

      I will share your Council of War image as I begin to discuss the retreat from Russia and note that I received it from you.

      I would appreciate any thoughts you have as I discuss the retreat.

      Best Regards,


      1. Michael,

        Your version of Minard map has wrong dates. Retreat took place in November – December. His temperatures are listed for after Napoleon abandoned Moscow, he provides no temperatures for the summer and early fall, which in Russia are not that cold (it is actually warmer than in New England), so the cold had nothing to do with events up to the Moscow fire. The invasion started in June, the Battle of Borodino was in September. After the Moscow fire that destroyed most supplies, Napoleon could not winter in Moscow – the city was destroyed and empty. His only chance was to break to the south and reach unspoiled lands – he lost Maloyaroslavets battle. The war was lost, it was just the question of how many troups Napoleon would be able to bring back.

        The cold was a factor in retreat from Moscow not because it was cold, but because the French army could not deal with it. The weather was exactly the same for Russian and for French armies, they were very close actually all the way to Berezina..

      2. Hi Laura:

        Thank you for pointing out the discrepancies on the map. Ironically, I found it on the European History Wiki.

        I have revised all instances in my blog where that map was used and updated the reference. The new map is an English translation directly from Minard’s original map.

        The temperatures in the original map are shown in Réaumur temperature scale. The Réaumur temperature scale, which was established in 1730 by the French naturalist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683–1757), had zero set at the freezing point of water and its 80° mark at the boiling point of water at normal atmospheric pressure. Use of the Réaumur scale was once widespread, but by the late 19th century it had been supplanted by other systems.

        The map shown uses Celsius on the left and Fahrenheit on the right. You will also note the dates of the temperature are from October 18th – December 7th. As I begin to discuss the retreat I will make sure to discuss all of the factors that worked against Napoleon and what was left of his Grand Armee.

        Thanks again for your feedback and your sharp eye for detail.


  2. You are most welcome. BTW, The Arbat is not the historical centre of Moscow. It is an important street in the central part of Moscow.

    You may also be interested in (In Russian, but translate functionality works). This site provides the size of Russian army before and after each major battle. it would be very interesting to augment Minard’s map in two ways:

    1. Fix the French army retreat route between Moscow and Smolensk.
    2. Overlay French army graph with a similar graph showing the route and size of Russian army.

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