After numerous retreats and skirmishes, Kutuzov crosses the Danube and successfully engages Mortier's division of the French forces. Despite the victory, a third of the Russian troops are disabled, with the rest more ill-fed and ill-equipped than before. Kutuzov dispatches Prince Andrey to report the victory to the Austrian court at Brünn. Exuberant from participating in battle, Bolkonsky becomes dispirited when the Austrian war minister receives the news with indifference.
At Brunn, Bolkonsky lodges with Bilibin, an acquaintance of his circle known for his wit and urbanity. From his diplomatist friend, Andrey learns about the behind-the-scenes politicking of the war. The Austrians are dissatisfied, says Bilibin, because Kutuzov allowed most of Mortier's division to escape. Moreover, the Austrians support Russia's troops on their land and Napoleon still occupies Vienna. Bilibin foresees that Austria will make a secret peace with the French and turn against Russia. After Prince Andrey has an audience with the Austrian emperor Francis, he decides to quickly return to fight with the exhausted army, although they will be unable to hold off the French at the next battle. He has seen enough of the gamesmanship attitude of the controlling powers.
At first Kutuzov refuses to allow Andrey to go to the front under General Bagration. We will be lucky if one-tenth of Bagration's men survive, he says. The exhausted army of Prince Bagration must hold off the entire French force while Kutuzov and the main body of men and supplies gain a safe retreat and await fresh reinforcements from Russia. Fortunately, Murat believes Bagration's tiny force to be the whole army and he sues for a three-day truce. Napoleon, however, orders Murat to attack.
As Prince Andrey is first shown around the fortifications, he takes notes in order to make suggestions to Bagration. He overhears a conversation between two officers, one of whom is Captain Tushin, one of the"unsung heroes" of the coming campaign. Tushin expresses Tolstoy's fatalistic view of death. The front lines are so close together that the French and Russian soldiers talk together and share a joke. But their guns and cannon face each other in mute menace.
As Andrey observes Bagration during the barrage, he suddenly realizes the general gives no orders to the officers reporting to him. Rather, he seems to approve of everything they tell him, and the officers return to their men calmer and more cheerful. Marching past Bagration, the troops seem composed and confident, and when the general leads the attack, with a"hurrah" the men gaily plunge down the hill to rout the enemy. This covers the retreat of the right flank. Tushin, whose battery has been overlooked and abandoned in the center, meanwhile sets fire to the town of Schöngraben. The French are kept busy putting out the flames while the Russians gain more time for retreat. Nikolay's regiment, however, is attacked before it can get away. Denisov encourages his hussars, and Rostov joyfully spurs his horse to a gallop. His mount shot out from under him, Nikolay sees the enemy running toward him. He realizes in surprise that they intend to kill him —"me whom everyone is so fond of" — and he races back to his own lines.
Meantime Captain Tushin and his gunners are isolated but they maintain a steady fire until Andrey brings orders to retreat. Bolkonsky fights his panic as he remains to help remove the cannon.
As he gathers his officers' battle reports, Bagration holds Tushin in disgrace for abandoning two cannon in the center. The little captain is too humble to explain there were no troops to reinforce him. Prince Andrey offers explanation, saying how Tushin operated with two-thirds of his men disabled and no troops to back him up. We owe our success to Captain Tushin's steadfastness and bravery, he tells Bagration. Then he abruptly leaves the council, feeling bitter and melancholy.
Meanwhile Nikolay huddles over a fire in the woods, lonely and miserable. He recalls the cheerful faces of his family, sees images of soldiers wounded, unwounded, battling, and forlornly wonders why he came to be here.
Tolstoy uses the Schöngraben engagement as Nikolay's"baptism of fire," a ceremonial rite initiating him into the world of anonymity and death. His happy childhood is a dream of the past as he abandons himself to the grim presentness of war. By contrast, Prince Andrey sees war as the background for self-assertion, and he dreams his life will become significant when he is a hero. Twice he is disillusioned in these chapters. Bringing the news of Kutuzov's victory to the court at Brünn, Bolkonsky's exhilaration vanishes among the cold responses of the politicians for whom war is an instrument of gamesmanship. For the first time he is aware of the gap between the commanders and the men who do the actual fighting. His second disappointment occurs when he bears witness to Captain Tushin's courage, which otherwise would have remained in obscurity. That heroic acts can be undiscovered and unrewarded fills Andrey with bitterness. Bolkonsky has not yet learned that heroism expresses submissiveness and resignation, like that of Captain Tushin, and not egotism and self-assertion. General Bagration understands this, realizing battles are won or lost according to the confidence and tranquility within each soldier and not according to the commander's plans. He does not initiate action himself, but reflects and underscores the best qualities of his men during battle. By submitting to inevitable forces, Bagration, as well as Kutuzov, can gain ultimate victory.
Tolstoy thus states an important idea that he repeats throughout the novel: Heroism and greatness derive from unselfconsciousness, whereas egotism and intellectuality lead to alienation, weakness, and illusion.