Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the Navy in Vietnam. He practiced law as a litigation partner with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati, Ohio, defending psychiatric malpractice cases and litigating business cases. In June 2010 he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal Retirement Homes. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award for “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser”, a story that appeared in Issue 37 of Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award winning collection of short stories in December 2009. For more information, please visit his website,

The Battle
an excerpt from Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol

posted Sep 20, 2011

Read more of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol:
The District of B*** | The Lovers Meet | Jealousy | Separation | The Battle | Moscow Burns, the French are Defeated, and the Lovers are Reunited

Across the black line that separated the Russian and French campfires, another late supper was being served. The man who could cross Eurasia on a whim or desert an army in Egypt without a thought was musing on the great events of the morrow— or so his sycophants thought. His dispositions were set, his troops exhorted, the battle ready to be joined. Now the world awaited an aphorism, but all the world received was a frown. For the very day that brought the happy news that Kutuzov had halted his retreat and straddled the Moscow Roads brought other news. In the late afternoon, just as the last orders for the coming battle were given, a specter appeared from the West. Disheveled, exhausted, forlorn after a six-weeks ride from Spain, a dispatch rider appeared with a message for Napoleon’s ears alone: a month after the Grande Armée crossed the Vistula, the Duke of Wellington had crushed Marshal Marmont at the Battle of Salamanca.

The French Emperor was not a religious man, but he could recognize a portent. So would the Grande Armée, if only it knew. So, passing his finger before his lips to ensure silence, he sent the messenger to enjoy his first hot meal in weeks. A victory tomorrow will erase yesterday’s defeat, the great man thought. Deep in his chest something turned inward, and he knew he would not sleep until the battle was over. At the last supper many of his soldiers would ever enjoy, the Emperor raised a glass of Chambertin to the bitch goddess victory. All about him his ignorant army changed into fresh underwear to prepare for battle, as if clean linen were a talisman against bullets, and cleanliness a guarantee of survival.

From the entrance of his tent, the campfires of the hostile camps reminded Napoleon of a burning city. But which one? Smolensk? Moscow? Paris? What was a burning city to a man like himself? So another brandy, another glance at a hastily drawn map in the yellow candlelight, a last wave to his page, and the great man lowered himself onto his cot. He arose at eleven and again at midnight and walked about the camp to convince himself that his army had not vanished when he closed his eyes. And no, the wily Kutuzov had not decamped secretly in the dark, leaving him to face another empty field. Across the black Kolcha the Russian campfires glimmered, and one far away balalaika soothed their souls with memories of lost loves.

The Emperor covered his ears. No Circe would draw him from his course. At three he rose again, when only the stars were awake. Finally he drifted into the half sleep of the damned, to awaken with the trumpets to a sour mouth and a dread only he could conceal. Years later his ecstatic biographers would applaud him for his sang froid before an audience that had never heard Russian wolves howling in a storm or felt cold so severe it freezes thought.

When his pages appeared at dawn to carry out his urine in a porcelain urn and pull on his boots, he brooded no longer. Breakfast of bread and cheese and grilled steak, a glass of Rhone wine, and the day was his. An orderly drew back the tent flap, and the great man appeared to his staff like a tragedian on a Paris stage just as the lamps are lit.

“Gentlemen,” Napoleon announced his presence to the assembled glitterati.

He did not look at the marshals and generals; he looked through them at the rising sun and the Russian formations lining the hillocks across the Kolcha.

“It is a trifle cold, but the sun is bright.”

Like all great actors, he paused to set off the next line.

“It is the sun of Austerlitz!”

A three months march across Russia was too small a price to hear such a speech. No one who survived the awful months ahead would ever forget it. Cheers and applause could not do it justice. Tears flowed from eyes hardened by dozens of battles, and every chest swelled. In the last silence before the battle, there was a soft tinkling as decorations brighter than the icons of Byzantium quivered on those noble breasts. Even contemptuous history, which mocks every grand design and gesture, turned from her journey to the broken morrow to watch her subjects tremble. Casually, like a schoolmaster declining a verb, the great man gave the orders for the cannonade to begin.

Above the redoubt Dmitri Baklanov and Count Anton C*** sat on their horses looking over the field. Through his steel rimmed spectacles, Mitya could see for the first time two armies preparing for battle. It was to be a set piece; French reason and élan against a fixed Russian mass. As the sun rose behind them, the two Russian colonels saw the color of the campfires change from pink to yellow.

What are they thinking to light candles for the dead so soon, Baklanov wondered.

Then he saw the artillerymen in the great redoubt standing with their glowing tapers beside their guns, awaiting the order to fire. The nauseous sparks embittered the fall air, as incense would embitter the churches at their funerals.

“You must go to your regiment before the barrage begins,” Baklanov said to the Count.

“My honor will not permit it,” the Count replied.

“You must keep them safe until the charge,” Baklanov said. “All Russia is depending on you.”

Count C*** was one of our few aristocrats to whom an appeal to country was stronger than an appeal to honor.

“When the barrage lifts,” he said, saluting Baklanov and turning his horse back up the slope.

Dismounting, Baklanov handed the reins to Yakov and took his place before his ghosts. In the adjoining regiments, men shuffled and shifted, sergeants and junior officers straightened the ranks, and colonels strained to hear the order to advance. Kutuzov was no Wellington; no Russian general would position his troops on the far sides of the hills away from the enemy, protected from the artillery until it was time to advance. Like a poseur the Russian army must show its bravery by its stance instead of strategy. As the dawn spread over that mellow landscape, thick rows of infantry appeared against the pale eastern sky. On their flanks were squads of cavalry packed closer together than on the parade ground. It was impossible that any human force could move them, but the force in the West was not human.

The only opening was in the center, where Baklanov waited, his Cossack and his banner behind him and the District of B*** regiment dug in on the slope above. On each side of the redoubt the ground dropped into shallow ravines with streams at their bases that ran down into the Kolcha. Across the stream the French were massing, bayonets sparkling in the rising sun. Several of our lightly armed Jäger regiments had crossed the stream to hinder their advance. Kutuzov was so confident that he had left the bridge over the Kolcha intact to reinforce them.

The sky was just turning pink, silhouetting the Russian positions, when the French artillery began the battle with a tremendous roar. Immediately the Russian guns thundered back, flashing like heat lightening over the massed regiments. The infantry stood like wraiths in a nightmare, bobbing their heads as the shells streaked past, and then suddenly collapsing in bloody clusters. Typhoons of mud erupted from the redoubt, and huge cannons toppled over like toys, while the gunners scampered around them like ants swarming from a hole.

Everything was in reverse: first the rip and splat of canister and the cries, then the whoosh of the shells, then the discharge of the cannons. The guns were so loud Baklanov could not hear the trumpets and watched the battle like a spectator in a slowly turning panorama.

I shall leave it to Baron Le Jeune and other notables to name the corps and divisions that scuttled like human millipedes among the low hills south of the redoubt. Such authors speak of bravery and glory, and never mention the anguish of the wounded, the awful features of the dead, or the decades-long nightmares of the survivors.  Mitya Baklanov saw the battle not as a historian but as a man who had witnessed Austerliz in a fog and now saw clearly the terrible fragility of human flesh caught in a lightning storm of bursting iron.

Sometimes huge blocks of men shifted and stopped like chess pieces, waiting for their invisible opponent to make the next move; sometimes regiments and whole divisions broke off from massed formations and rushed away with as much logic as cooking oil separating in water. Cannon balls plunged into the redoubt’s mud walls, throwing up geysers of mud and overturning cannons like an angry child with too many toys. And always our infantry stood motionless, facing the red-spurting mouths of two hundred guns, holding their positions even when dead. The sky was yellow like the sky over a burning city, and gray-black smoke rolled up the long slope toward the redoubt. Masses of men in blue and white appeared, surging after the tricolor, rising and falling over the shallow hills. Fire spit from their muskets before they disappeared into the smoke again. Wild cheers rose and fell, shells streaked into the blue and white and exploded, but the French ranks filled again and again, as if Satan had sewn the field with dragons’ teeth.

They toppled our Jäger regiments like toy soldiers and drove the survivors across the Kolcha Bridge. Too late to tear down the bridge; the French were swarming onto it while their engineers threw pontoons into the river for the rest of the army to cross. Our gunners lowered their sights and plumes of water pink with blood erupted from the shallow stream.

A moment to reform, then blue and white rushed toward the redoubt like surf rushing over a rocky shore, rolling up the ravines and breaking into red eddies around the mud embankment. The smoke parted, and Baklanov saw the whole French army sweeping toward him. Now they were close enough our infantry could fire, and muskets cracked like thunderclaps for the damned. With each volley the bullets swooshed toward the invaders through the resisting air and splattered into them, flinging them down screaming. The French fired back, their bullets ripping into our ranks before we heard their volleys, and all the air was sliced by the rushing bullets. In such a fire even Baklanov’s ghosts recoiled, and Hetman Yakov tried to remember a prayer he had heard at his father’s funeral.

Something flickered at the edge of Mitya’s vision. Tossed by the updrafts and down drafts of the bullets, a white summer butterfly staggered through the afternoon air. So beautiful, so fragile, so helpless, he reached out to take it in his hand. Just as it touched his finger, a bullet snatched it way, scattering the delicate white wings like ashes. Mitya started to remove his glasses.

“I can see no more,” he cried as the bullets swept past him, seeking to kiss the life from his lips.

The French tide was unstoppable, the stakes around the Russian guns quivered, and the blue and white wave poured into the Russian works. There was no escape except death. Dmitri lowered his hand and stared at the sharp-edged bayonets through his spectacles. He would not look away from the enemy again. They had restored his courage.

“We have them!” Marshal Ney cried to Murat.

Of all the officers in that gilded semi-circle around the great man, only Ney and Murat dared break his concentration. Throughout the cannonade and the charges and counter-charges, he had sat at his camp table contemplating the map and the bloody landscape, as if parchment held the secret of the maelstrom.

“They’re broken,” Ney said, stepping forward. “Send in the Young Guard, and the day is ours!”

Napoleon looked up from the map to the churning field. Where was the silver sprite of victory hovering? The Russian center was taken, but the flanks held, and their cannons thundered unceasing. Raising his spyglass, he peered into the void above the redoubt, where a lone Russian officer stood beside his Cossack. Half a dozen shells burst around them, flashing over rank upon rank of grenadiers with eyeless skulls for faces. Have I said that the ghosts of dead soldiers are best seen when the campfires are first lit and in the angry red bursts of shells? The great man snapped his spyglass shut.

“Before I commit my reserves, I must see more clearly on my chessboard,” he said, looking away from the battle to his map.

Ney glanced at Murat; where had such caution been at Austerlitz? Saluting, they stepped back to repeat the great man’s words as signs of genius to the breathless assembly. Even without turning the actor, Bonaparte knew that he would loose his audience without a dramatic gesture.

“Gentlemen!” he cried, standing up. “It is time to survey the field.”

Orderlies rushed forward with the horses, and the finest cavaliers in Europe mounted as happily as for an afternoon hunt.

Colonel Baklanov stood perfectly still as the hot breath of the shells touched his face, and shrapnel whizzed through the ranks of the dead.

How many times can a man die, he wondered.

When he looked at the strained features of Hetman Yakov, he understood that once was more than enough. But who had time to die, when the enemy was in the works before him? Unlike the great man at his chessboard, Baklanov realized that the day was lost unless he committed his reserves.

“My compliments to Count C***,” he said to the Cossack. “Ask him to bring up his regiment.”

Like disinterred corpses, the terrified volunteers from B*** rose from their trenches. Aged generals staggered along the front, forming the regiment into line. When the fiery wind blew the smoke again away, a wall of musketeers, arquebusiers and pike men were looking down at the great redoubt.

“Now give me a good volley!” cried the Count, riding behind the line on his hunter as happily as if he were in his preserve.

Inside the redoubt, the last of the Moscow Militia heard the order and ducked under their guns. Diving over the walls the French plunged after them, seeing too late the flashing muskets. Startled, the victors of the preceding moment were knocked into the mud by the bullets.

“Now at them!” cried the Count, trotting forward until a shell burst in his horse’s chest and flung him onto Baklanov as bloody as if he had been disemboweled.

The tottering line stumbled past the two colonels and up and over the parapet, and Russian pikes crossed French bayonets in the bloody mud. While the finest assault troops in Europe grappled with men who could have been their grandfathers, Russian staff officers galloped among our reserves, ordering every spare regiment forward. Rank after rank poured into the redoubt until it was filled with Russians again, howling like the damned at the harrowing of hell.

“Get up!” Baklanov said to the Count. “We’ve retaken it!”

The two colonels staggered to the redoubt and climbed the parapet that protected the rear. When they saw their two blood soaked colonels above them, every member of the B*** regiment crossed himself. What other apparitions might appear out of the smoke of this battle?

A hot afternoon wind drew back the smoke like a stagehand drawing a curtain. Across the valley Baklanov saw gold braid shimmering around a little man on a gray horse. Followed by his staff officers, Napoleon rode up a hillock and opened his brass spyglass. For an instant Baklanov felt the evil eye touch his. It stopped his breath, and an awful urge to turn away and run gripped him. Forcing himself to breathe, Baklanov stared back into the tiny brass entrance to hell. Then the telescope snapped shut, and the gray monster pointed straight at the opening behind the redoubt. Officers wheeled their horses and galloped across the field.

“Back to your post!” Baklanov shouted at the regiment from B***.

While the remnants of the Militia pushed their guns back into position, and the reserve regiments crouched behind the mud piles, the ancient warriors from B*** staggered back exhausted to their trenches. Count C*** walked after them as coolly as if he were returning from an afternoon in the field. At Baklanov’s position, he turned and offered Dmitri his hand

“I fear we have forgotten lunch,” he remarked and strolled back up the slope.

He had just ducked back into his trench when tons of jagged metal ripped into the earth around him. Every French gun was firing at the redoubt, braising the earth with bursting shells. Again the brass telescope snapped opened, and an eye that had seen Europe burn searched for its last victory. Yes, the bear was wounded, staggering back toward its filthy cave. Another surge and the field and the war were his. The fools had not filled the gap in their line: one mad Colonel and his Cossack were taking the place of a whole regiment.

“The guard?” Ney cried, recognizing the great man’s expression.

“The Saxon Guard du Corps,” the Emperor intoned instead.

At the high point of the battle, he would commit his German cavalry but not his fine French infantry to charge emplaced guns. Ney stood up in his stirrups, removed his hat with a sweeping gesture that encompassed the field, and sent a staff officer galloping to the doomed Germans. Yellow tunics spattered with the blood of fallen comrades, the Guard du Corps had waited for this moment since the first Russian salvo had ripped into them. All morning they sat hunched in their saddles while Russian shells sliced through their ranks, gutting Europe’s finest horses and bravest cavaliers. Now glory, now revenge! Ah, the moment before the trumpet, when the general rides along the line, saber flashing, followed by his standard bearer. Then forward at a walk, at a trot, at a canter, and then the charge to get under the guns and hack the damned Russians to pieces!

As the yellow-jacketed riders with the huge brass helmets trotted across the pontoon bridges, Baklanov wondered how they could thread their way through the bodies that littered the slopes. Rank after rank of infantry had assaulted the redoubt, and rank after rank lay sprawled in the blood-soaked earth. But they were not all dead. As the horses moved faster, Hetman Yakov crossed himself as at the resurrection of the dead. The men in the mud were turning and twisting like worms flushed out by the rain. For the horses were not turning; they were cantering over their fallen comrades.

The Russian gunners fired into the writhing mass, disemboweling horses and flinging the Guard’s beautiful helmets in bloody spires into the afternoon sun. Sloshing through gore, the cavalry slowed, faltered, and then galloped forward, sabers slicing the air.

“They’re under the guns!” Ney cried to Napoleon. “The field is ours!”

A last volley from the redoubt, and the exhausted Russians were surrounded.

“Form a firing line!” Count C*** cried, and the brittle regiment from B*** stood up again, the last frail barrier to Moscow.

The men in the redoubt were not running away in blind panic. Instead of their backs, the cavalry faced infantry packed so tightly they could not be broken. The proud charge disintegrated as horsemen hacked their way over the mud ramparts into a forest of bayonets.

“Send in the Old Guard!” Ney shouted to his Emperor through the screams and the shot.

Napoleon was raising his finger to give the order that would break an empire, but again he could not see. Led by a blood soaked officer, a skirmish line of Russian infantry emerged above the redoubt and fired a volley at the Saxons, smothering the hillside with smoke. Then the Emperor saw for the second time the eyeless skulls of the Austerlitz dead climbing over the palisade.

In their memoirs, Napoleon’s officers could not find the metaphor to express the horror on his face.

“I will not have my Guard destroyed when I am eight hundred leagues from France!” he cried. “You do not wreck your last reserve.”

Shuddering, he turned his horse and left the field. Gilded horsemen, who had been joking about dinner in the Kremlin, followed silently.  What proud soldier can speak when caution replaces courage, and the doors to the temple of victory swing shut?

Another gilded horseman watched the Guard du Corps charge and feared the glory of the day would go to the Saxons. Standing up in his stirrups, Marshal Murat saw the empty space behind the redoubt and sent his cuirassiers careening toward it. Ahead of the French infantry, ahead of the wind, they charged up the valley, silver helmets and breastplates rippling beneath the sulfur-streaked sun

On their flank another impetuous cavalryman watched the Saxons buckle against the earthworks and smelled glory. All the long day he had sat waiting for orders, while the horses pawed the ground and his lancers grumbled and the shot streaked overhead. Vassily Ivanevich could not let the sun set without tasting action. To hell with orders, to hell with the delicate balance of battle! He raised his saber, kissed the hilt and charged the cuirassiers’ flank with his lancers. He did not hear the trumpets calling him back, did not see the messenger galloping after him with the order to turn around. All he saw was another laurel that would make him invincible to Natalia. As they galloped across the valley, the French infantry shot them out of their saddles. Survivors told of his happiness hacking toward Murat until he was impaled on the French sabers.

The second French cavalry charge was not broken by the Russians but by the piles of bodies and horses around the collapsed redoubt. Out of ammunition, out of hope, our infantry tried to hold back the bloody hooves rearing over the mud walls with their bayonets. Then slowly, like dough squeezed through a baker’s hands, our infantry was forced back through the palisades toward the ghost regiment. The surviving artillerymen and Militia pulled their guns from their emplacements and dragged them back to the to the Moscow Road.

Read the conclusion