General Rayevski bravely leading his men into combat at the battle of Saltanovka.
A battle fought between the 2nd (Russian) Western Army and Marshal Nicolas Davout’s forces in the early phase of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow in 1812, Mogilev is also known as the Battle of Saltanovka. As Napoleon’s forces invaded Russia, Prince Peter Bagration’s 2nd Western Army eluded their enveloping maneuvers and hastily retreated eastward to join General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly’s 1st Western Army. Threatened by the forces under Jérôme Bonaparte from the rear and Marshal Louis Davout’s corps from the north, Bagration moved by forced marches toward Mogilev, where he intended to cross the Dnieper River and join Barclay de Tolly.
However, Davout beat him to the town, arriving with some 28,000 men on 20 July. The Russians approached Mogilev on the twenty-first, and their advance guard under Colonel Vasily Sysoev engaged Davout’s advance troops near the village of Dashkovka, south of Mogilev. Bagration then decided to attack Davout with only the 7th Infantry Corps under General Nikolay Rayevsky: If Mogilev proved to be held only by Davout’s advance troops, Rayevsky was strong enough to drive them out, move to Orsha, and cover the route to Smolensk. However, if Davout were there in force, Rayevsky was to fight a delaying action to keep the French on the right bank of the Dnieper, while Bagration crossed the river with the army to the south of Mogilev.
Davout’s forces, reduced by fatigue from marching, were still further weakened by the strategic situation. The effective forces at his command to oppose Bagration’s army amounted to only 22,000 infantry and some 6,000 cavalry. Taking into account the numerical superiority of the Russians, Davout positioned his troops at Saltanovka. His left was deployed on the marshy bank of the Dnieper and was unassailable. A stream flowing in a difficult ravine, spanned from the village of Saltanovka by a wooden bridge, covered his front. Dense forest surrounded the village, especially on the northern bank of the stream.
Davout reinforced these positions with additional earthworks. His soldiers cut the bridge at Fatova, fortified the buildings on the high road, and established strong batteries there. Davout deployed five battalions of the 108th Line and one battalion of the 85th Line here. Behind them he placed four battalions of the 61st Line in reserve between Fatova and Selets. On the left wing, at Saltanovka, Davout arranged three battalions of the 85th Line and an independent company of voltigeurs (light infantry operating as skirmishers). Finally, he deployed battalions of the 85th and 61st Line, respectively, and several cavalry units.
Around 7:00 A.M. on 23 July the advance guard (6th and 42nd Jägers) of the Russian 7th Corps led the attack on Davout’s left wing at Saltanovka. Pushing the French outposts back, it reached the bridge over the Saltanovka stream at 8:00 A.M. Despite the fierce fire, the Jägers under the command of Colonel Andrey Glebov overran the defenders on the bridge and continued their advance. Davout immediately counterattacked with the 85th Line. The Russian advance was halted by heavy artillery fire and musketry, but their infantry then stood stoically for several minutes, allowing themselves to be shot down rather than yield ground. Rayevsky then launched almost simultaneous assaults on the French positions at Saltanovka and Fatova.
The 26th Infantry Division under General Ivan Paskevich was ordered to march on a narrow path through a forest to attack the French; this maneuver would serve as a signal for the main forces of 7th Corps to attack. Paskevich deployed his division in extended column and attacked the village. In fierce fighting the Russians overran the 1st battalion of the 85th Line, forcing its retreat. To support the 85th Line, Davout sent a battalion of the 108th Line with a few guns. Both French battalions took up a position on the heights to the south of Fatova and repulsed the Russian attack. Paskevich rallied his troops on the edge of the forest and, supported by a 12-gun battery, launched another attack that carried the village. However, after passing Fatova, the advancing Russian battalions were suddenly counterattacked by four battalions of the 108th Line, concealed by Davout in the wheat fields behind the village. The French inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians and forced their retreat.
Despite this setback, Paskevich rallied his troops and counterattacked. At first the attack was successful and he captured the village again. Davout, however, moved the 61st Line to strengthen his defenses. The French repulsed the Russian attack and drove them back; on the right flank, two French battalions overwhelmed the Orlov and Nizhniy Novgorod regiments and crossed the brook.
Paskevich was compelled to move the Poltava Regiment to contain the French advance and prevent the Russian right wing from being turned. Meanwhile, the main effort of 7th Corps was focused on Saltanovka. Rayevsky led the Smolensk Infantry Regiment to seize a dam and cover the approach of the main forces. This column was to be supported by the 6th and 42nd Jäger regiments and artillery deployed on the heights on both sides of the road. It was agreed that the attack would be launched simultaneously with Paskevich’s advance on Fatova.
Yet, Rayevsky did not hear the cannon shots that signaled the advance, and so his attack started too late. Russian units endured devastating artillery fire and suffered heavy casualties. At one point, seeing the confusion in his troops, Rayevsky held the hands of his two sons, Alexander (sixteen) and Nikolay (ten), and, yelling “Hurrah!” led the attack. Notwithstanding this inspiration, the charge was repulsed. Learning from prisoners that Davout had gathered reinforcements, Rayevsky ordered a general retreat and withdrew his troops to Dashkovka.
Following the engagement at Mogilev, the 2nd Western Army completed construction of a bridge at Novy Bikhov and crossed the river toward Smolensk. The Russians acknowledged 2,548 killed and wounded in the battle and claimed the French lost 4,134 dead and wounded. Although Davout admitted to only 900 casualties, the French losses were close to 1,200. Mogilev is often acknowledged as a French victory, though in reality Bagration achieved his goal of eluding the French envelopment and breaking through to Smolensk, where the Russian armies united.
References and further reading Afanas’ev, A. 1992. 1812–1814: Lichnaia perepiska Nikolaia Rayevskogo. Moscow: Terra. Davout, Louis Nicolas. 1885. Correspondance du maréchal Davout, prince d’Eckmühl, ses commandements, son ministère, 1801–1815. Paris: Plon, Nourrit. Gallaher, John. 1976. The Iron Marshal: A Biography of Louis N. Davout. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Girod de l’Ain, Felix Jean. 1873. Dix ans de mes Souvenirs militaires (de 1805 à 1815). Paris: N.p. Inostrantsev. 1914. Otechestvennaya voina 1812 goda, Operatsii 2-oi Zapadnoi armii kniazya Bagrationa ot nachala voini do Smolenska. St. Petersburg: N.p. Kharkevich,V. 1901. Voina 1812 goda. Ot Nemana do Smolenska. Vilna: Izd. Nikolaevskoi akademii general’nago shtaba. Mikaberidze, Alexander. 2003. “Lion of the Russian Army: The Life and Military Career of General Prince Bagration.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University.