Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army

Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army

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by Stephan Talty

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“Gripping . . . a compelling story of personal hubris and humbling defeat.”
—Jack Weatherford,author of the New York Times bestseller Genghis Khan and the Making of the
Modern World

In a masterful dual narrative that pits the heights of human ambition and achievement against the supremacy of nature, New York TimesSee more details below


“Gripping . . . a compelling story of personal hubris and humbling defeat.”
—Jack Weatherford,author of the New York Times bestseller Genghis Khan and the Making of the
Modern World

In a masterful dual narrative that pits the heights of human ambition and achievement against the supremacy of nature, New York Times bestselling author Stephan Talty tells the story of a mighty ruler and a tiny microbe, antagonists whose struggle would shape the modern world.

In the spring of 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte was at the height of his powers. Forty-five million called him emperor, and he commanded a nation that was the richest, most cultured, and advanced on earth. No army could stand against his impeccably trained, brilliantly led forces, and his continued sweep across Europe seemed inevitable.

Early that year, bolstered by his successes, Napoleon turned his attentions toward Moscow, helming the largest invasion in human history. Surely, Tsar Alexander’s outnumbered troops would crumble against this mighty force.

But another powerful and ancient enemy awaited Napoleon’s men in the Russian steppes. Virulent and swift, this microscopic foe would bring the emperor to his knees.

Even as the Russians retreated before him in disarray, Napoleon found his army disappearing, his frantic doctors powerless to explain what had struck down a hundred thousand soldiers. The emperor’s vaunted military brilliance suddenly seemed useless, and when the Russians put their own occupied capital to the torch, the campaign became a desperate race through the frozen landscape as troops continued to die by the thousands. Through it all, with tragic heroism, Napoleon’s disease-ravaged, freezing, starving men somehow rallied, again and again, to cries of “Vive l’Empereur!”

Yet Talty’s sweeping tale takes us far beyond the doomed heroics and bloody clashes of the battlefield. The Illustrious Dead delves deep into the origins of the pathogen that finally ended the mighty emperor’s dreams of world conquest and exposes this “war plague’s” hidden role throughout history. A tale of two unstoppable forces meeting on the road to Moscow in an epic clash of killer microbe and peerless army, The Illustrious Dead is a historical whodunit in which a million lives hang in the balance.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephan Talty
A fast-paced sketch of this disastrous campaign, The Illustrious Dead is a military history that treats typhus as an invisible army on the battlefield, silently slaughtering hundreds of thousands of French soldiers, frustrating Napoleon's ambition, weakening his reign and changing the course of European history.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, typhus ravaged his army, killing hundreds of thousands and ensuring his defeat, according to this breathless combination of military and medical history. After summarizing the havoc this disease wreaked on earlier armies and sketching Napoleon's career, the book describes his invasion of Russia with more than 600,000 men. Almost immediately typhus struck. Infected lice excrete the microbe in their feces, and victims acquire the disease by scratching the itchy bite. Talty (Mulatto America) describes the effects in graphic detail: severe headache, high fever, delirium, generalized pain and a spotty rash. Death may take weeks, and fatalities approached 100% among Napoleon's increasingly debilitated, filthy, half-starved soldiers. Talty makes a good case that it was typhus, not "General Winter," that crushed Napoleon. Readers should look elsewhere for authoritative histories of Napoleon's wars and of infectious diseases, but Talty delivers a breezy, popular account of a gruesome campaign, emphasizing the equally gruesome epidemic that accompanied it. 12 maps. (June)

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Library Journal

As much a history of typhus as it is a history of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, this book presents both subjects in graphic detail, leaving the reader with no illusions of the "glory" of 19th-century warfare. In the spring of 1812, Napoleon assembled the largest army seen in Europe up to that time for the invasion and conquest of Russia-690,000 men under arms, most of whom would actually cross into Russian territory, followed by approximately 50,000 civilians. That's more people than lived then in Paris; this moving population would have ranked as the fifth-largest city in the world. Some 500,000 of them would never return, less than a quarter of them dying as a result of combat; the reason for most of the deaths is the subject of this book. Using contemporary sources, Talty (Empire of Blue Water) presents the whole horrifying experience as lived by the common soldier, the doctors, and officers up the ranks to the generals. He makes his case for the typhus being transmitted by the body louse. Strangely enough, the disease was no longer prevalent in Europe after 1814. Strongly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/09.].
—David Lee Poremba

Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Talty (Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, 2007, etc.) examines how typhus became the primary killer in Napoleon's disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia. Drawing on the legions of soldiers from nations that he had conquered, Napoleon had amassed a huge army by the spring of 1812-690,000 strong, Talty estimates. Alexander I of Russia, in contrast, had only about 162,000 on the front line. Driven by "dry calculation" and the need for fresh victories, Napoleon and his troops crossed the Niemen River on June 24, and were soon struck by an ancient microbe transmitted by the common body louse. By the attack on Smolensk in mid-August, Napoleon's effective fighting force was reduced to 175,000, with the vanishing of the army attributed more to deprivation and the heat than to the dreaded "war fever." After the bloodbath of Borodino in early September, the hospitals for the sick and wounded became incubators for the epidemic, even though, notes Talty, "a germ theory of disease had been in place for almost two hundred years." Retreating from Moscow in November, Napoleon had lost nearly 400,000 men, as many as 200,000 from disease. By the time the army limped back into Germany, there were only a few thousand left, who would go on to infect their homes as "fatal messengers" of the doomed Russian campaign. Talty speculates on the outcome if typhus had not ravaged Napoleon's forces, and shows how French doctor Charles Nicolle's isolation of its transmission helped avert the decimation of European troops in World War I. Dark, intriguing military history. Author events out of NewYork
From the Publisher
“An eloquent and vivid portrait that includes a view through the telescopes of rear-echelon commanders, the rifle sights of front-line skirmishers, and the clouded spectacles of field surgeons laboring in candlelit abattoirs . . . the finest kind of popular history.”
—William Rosen, author of Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire

Praise for Empire of Blue Water
“A swashbuckling adventure . . . [the] characters leap to life.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Reeking of authentic blood and thunder, and as richly detailed as a work of fiction . . . dramatically evokes the rough and tumble age when pirates owned the seas. A thrilling and fascinating adventure.”
—Caroline Alexander, author of The Endurance

“Stephan Talty’s vigorous history of seventeenth-century pirates of the Caribbean will sate even fickle Jack Sparrow fans. A pleasure to read from bow to stern.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Serves up swashbuckling history at its briny, blood-soaked best, with enough violence and passion to keep the pages flying by.”
—Tom Reiss, author of The Orientalist

“Talty’s delicious new book succeeds where other volumes of history fail. . . .A ripping yarn, worthy of its gaudy subject.”
Dallas Morning News

From the Hardcover edition.

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