The Combat of Möckern
5th April 1813
The terrible retreat of the Grande Armée, that had started in Moscow, had not halted at the Russian frontier. Instead, successive defensive lines were abandoned as wavering allies, civic unrest and enemy movements made them untenable. The latest of these retrograde movements in March 1813 brought the French army, under the command of Eugène de Beauharnais, into defensive positions behind the Elbe.
Meanwhile, Prussia and Russia had made a new alliance against Napoleon and were advancing in two broad columns. In the North, Wittgenstein led a mainly Prussian force which liberated Berlin on March 11th. On March 18th a raiding party under Colonel Tettenborn entered Hamburg, sparking a revolt amongst the Hanseatic cities. In the South Blücher led the advance followed by the Russian main army under the ailing Marshal Kutusov. Also, a Swedish army was assembling in Pomerania under Bernadotte.
Napoleon, working in Paris to build a new army for the upcoming campaign, was furious at the abandonment of so much of his empire. Writing to his stepson he demanded that a fortified camp be established in front of Magdeburg on the right bank of the Elbe. Consequently, Eugène began to concentrate his strength in Magdeburg, detaching Davout to recapture Hamburg.
On the allied side, Wittgenstein had received orders to move South and unite with Blücher on the right bank of the Elbe. Protesting that such a move would expose Berlin to attack, he proposed that the two columns unite at Rosslau and move on Eugène's right. Before he could complete this movement, Eugène began to recross the Elbe, the combat of Möckern had begun.
The countryside to the East of Magdeburg was marshy and low-lyuing, criss-crossed by rough tracks and small settlements. A more substantial road ran eastwards to Möckern before turning north-east towards Berlin. A second road ran southeast through Zerbst (not shown on map) towards Rosslau and Wittenberg. Of the many streams that intersected this area, the most major was the Ehle, a river neither deep nor wide but whose marshy banks made it nonetheless hard to pass.
Eugène began his advance from the Magdeburg bridgehead on April 2nd. Facing him was the weak Pomeranian Division led by Generalmajor von Borstell. Lauriston's V Corps, the vanguard of the French army, quickly pushed the Prussian advanced guard out of Königsborn and into Nedlitz. The following day XI Corps and I Cavalry Corps took up the advance, pushing Borstell further back out of Möckern. By April 4th, Eugène had moved 50,000 men across the Elbe and occupied a position behind the Ehle river.
When news of this advance reached von Bülow in Brandenburg he force-marched his Corps to Borstell's support. Meanwhile Wittgenstein turned aside from his march on Rosslau towards Eugène's right. His intention was to engage Eugène's attention along the Berlin road with Borstell & Bülow before striking him in the flank with Yorck's and Berg's corps. Though he intended to make this attack on April 6th, a (false) report of Eugène's withdrawal caused him to move a day early.