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Encamped near Vienna – Letters from Russia, Part 2

Letters from Russia: Dossier page, April 6, 1812
Letters from Russia: Dossier page, April 6, 1812

April 6, 1812
Encamped near Vienna, Austria

Cher Genevieve,

I have only been gone for less than two weeks but already I miss you more than I thought I would after many long months!  We can only hope my duty goes quickly so to return to you soon.  For this, we’ll trust Napoleon’s judgement.

After the hurried wagon trip, I’ve met up with my unit in a beautiful part of Austria. I’ve attempted a sketch to give you a sense of place.  With the high mountain altitude come waves of late blooming wildflowers of every lavender and purple, gold, orange & the lovely blue of your eyes – glowing like patina on copper.  Soaring peaks frosted with the immaculate sheen of ice.

As it is, there is little evidence of recent or impending war.  The towns are lively and efficient and the people cordial considering the manner in which the French arrived!  At the camp, there is a methodically, tense routine of preparing equipment & provisions of all manner.  You know I do not fit well into routine and early mornings but I will make do.

Letters from Russia: Camp cabins (pencil)
Letters from Russia: Camp cabins (pencil)

As for my unit, I’ll be traveling with a supply wagon along with a few others, a tailor Maurice; he tends to all uniforms for officers, both mending and outfitting.  He somehow doesn’t look the part – stout and chubby-fingered.  He has a cynical wit and an easy wink.  He remembers names and tells stories about fishing in rowboats with his uncle, a preacher in Arles.  Besides M. is Eugenio, wiry and always smoking.  He is also older than most everyone I’ve seen in camp and turns out he fought with Italy against Napoleon but now is conscripted as a painter, obliged to produce portraits of corpulent generals and grand scenes of battle.  He knows well the history of the each campaign and seems unimpressed by the eager anticipation of orders.

Everyone assumes we are soon bound for Russia, combining with the northern troops to form one Grand Army.  This alone should be enough for Russia’s Czar Alexander to come to terms – ending this campaign and sending me back to your arms in just a few months of spring and summer.  Even if we move into Russia, we will surely be returning well before winter.

Such a schedule will give me time to open up a cobbler shop of my own and marry you next Spring.  I am glad we told your parents of our plans before I left – though they weren’t as surprised as we thought!  (Of course send my regards and best wishes to them.)  But for now, I am bound by the wishes of Napoleon through the orders written for the day.  The soldiers never question and maintain a sense of urgency to seize their place history.  This is Napoleon’s skill, a genius ability to motivate the troops with promises of glory, the causes of the revolution, importance of spreading French culture and our civil code throughout a united Europe.

I must admit some reservations about the need of bringing Russia into our Grand Republic but I will leave such decisions to more seasoned minds.  I can only trust the motives are not driven by ego.  We can only hope for sound judgement and that the state does not exceed the bounds of what can be expected from a citizen.

You and I (and so many others) will be the harvesters of the rich new, country. Rich in spirit, filled with light and truth.

I am eager to live in this France – a France as ideal as we believe it can be – where the unjustness of class and privilege at birth is eradicated.  Where fair courts and laws bring sense and equality from the arbitrary whims of unfit monarchs.  A country where virtue is celebrated and honesty replaces corruption. Please know that when I return, you, your family and our community will know I did my part to build this Republic – for us and our children and grandchildren.

Yours, Henri

Preamble – Letters from Russia, Part 1

Letters from Russia: 3 Iterations of dossier (with Underwood typewriter)
Letters from Russia: 3 Iterations of dossier (with Underwood typewriter)

Letters from Russia: Note to Readers

What follows is a collection of letters (albeit ostensibly) written by Henri LaFleur – a cobbler in the French army during the Russian campaign of 1812 – to Genevieve Vaschon, his fiance in Paris.

Henri’s fourteen letters offer his observations on the physiology of war, as well as discourse and personal sentiments on love, war, society, politics, and meaning of self. The accompanying landscapes give a sense of his search for solace and release in the surrounding chaos of war.

The letters were sent over an eight-month period beginning in Austria and moving through Prussia, Poland and into Russia.   First with battles in Smolensk and Borodino, then fires and pillaging in Moscow, and finally the well-documented November retreat.

The final letter in the correspondence was sent on retreat near the Berezin Bridge at which location during three days, much of the remaining French army perished into the icy river while attempting crossing of the bridge.  Others were stranded in on the Russian side with the pursuing Cossack troops when the retreating French army destroyed the bridge behind them.

As it were … the collection of letters, along with a variety of sketches and paintings, was found bound and stored in an attic trunk, as per Henri’s written request before leaving Moscow.  There is no further verifiable historical information to confirm Henri’s return home though regional folklore contends that he indeed survived and lived a long life in a small village near the sea with his dear Genevieve.

-Dave Olson
Summer 2004
Lake Cresent, Washington & Manzanita, Oregon

Letters from Russia: Reading Tolstoy in Manzanita
Letters from Russia: Reading Tolstoy in Manzanita