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It is fairly well documented that Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812 was somewhat slowed by the large amounts of civilians following the army. My question is - where did these civilians come from and why did the Grand Army accommodate them? What happened to them when they were captured by the Russians?

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1 Answer 1

They are termed camp followers and have followed armies since before Ramses II at Kadesh. Modern armies travel with long tails of official logistical services - cooks, tailors, smiths, armourers, teamsters, nurses, physicians & surgeons, etc. - that in earlier times were provided by civilian camp followers, but wives, children, mistresses and others have also been present since time immemorial.

American armies has been more prudish than most in their regard (notably only after the Revolutionary War), and European armies in general have usually declined to officially supply comfort women to their troops. However armies have always been a profitable place to find lonely young men with money to burn, especially after a victory. Wives have often found it worthwhile to follow their men to guard their husbands from temptation and share their tribulations, as Martha Washington did at Valley Forge. Marshal Massena's mistress always followed a day or two behind her husband while on campaign, except when accompanying him more directly dressed as a male soldier.

During the Napoleonic Wars camp followers were commonly found behind all armies as at Waterloo. During preparations for the 1812 Russian campaign:

Nor does this take into account the hordes of accompanying civilians. Napoleon’s household alone contained some 100 to 150 civilians–butchers, cooks, vintners, bakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, laundresses…And many of Napoleon’s generals also had large ‘households’ which accompanied them into occupied territory. Then there are the thousands of soldiers who brought their wives and children; there are the bakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, brandy-sellers, and camp followers…some 50,000 people, is the conservative estimate of the number of civilians.

and during the retreat from Moscow (my emphasis):

The Grande Armée was assailed by starvation, extremes of weather and terrifying Russian partisans throughout, and by the end of 1812 only 10,000 soldiers were able to fight. Many of the rest had died in horrible conditions, with the camp's followers faring even worse.

In the Waterloo Campaign Napoleon lost patience with the camp followers, and both authorized and directed (pages 268-272) his Director-Genera of Transport to burn all vehicles which hindered troop and baggage movements:

No. 8.
March Orders [for the Armeee du Nord].

Beaumont, 14 June, 1815. ...
Each division of the III Corps will march complete, namely, accompanied by its battery and ambulance wagons ; but every other vehicle seeking to accompany the column of troops will be burned.
...

The Emperor commands that all transport vehicles found in Infantry, Cavalry, or Artillery columns are to be burned, as well as the vehicles in the baggage column which leave their allotted place and thus change the order of march, unless they have previously obtained special permission to do so from the Director-General of Transport.

For this purpose a detachment of 50 Military Police will be placed under the orders of the Director-General of Transport ; and the latter officer is held personally responsible, as well as the officers of the Military Police and also the Military Police them- selves, for the due execution of these arrangements on which the success of the campaign may depend.

By Order of the Emperor,
....

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