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

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  658 ratings  ·  125 reviews
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
Hardcover, 315 pages
Published June 2nd 2009 by Crown (first published January 1st 2009)
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Dec 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-military
I found this a very interesting look at what disease did to Napoleon’s Army during his invasion of Russia in 1812. Starting with how the discovery of the mass graves in Vilnius in 2010 piqued his interest, Mr. Talty looks at how disease in general and typhus in particular affected Napoleon’s army. In doing so, he takes on the common understanding that it was the cold of the Russian Winter that destroyed that army. His hypothesis is that disease had so weakened Napoleon’s Army that the cold of th ...more
Idril Celebrindal
Feb 19, 2016 rated it it was ok
I did not enjoy this. Napoleon's invasion of Russia is very interesting and typhus is very interesting, but this book is under-reasoned and over-written.

To start with "over-written": holy crap. Anthropomorphize typhus once, yeah sure fine whatever. But Talty writes endlessly and repeatedly about the bacteria "planning" and how clever it was to choose lice as a vector, so much so that I became convinced that he forgot that the bacteria didn't choose anything, they don't collude; they're bacteria.
Jill Hutchinson
Dec 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is a military/health book all wrapped into one. The author tells the story of Napoleon's ill-fated decision to attack Russia in 1812....not necessarily militarily ill-fated since he could well have won this war. But it was something else of which no one gave much thought, that doomed this foray from the beginning. It was not unknown since it had stalked armies for centuries but it was misidentified as death by starvation, overexposure, thirst, etc. But the source of this death was Rickettsi ...more
'Aussie Rick'
This is an enjoyable and interesting book covering Napoleon's ill-fated 1812 campaign against Russia. The author offers the opinion that the invasion was doomed from the start due to the spread of Typhus throughout the troops of Napoleon's invading host. Its a good story covering the military aspects of the campaign along with some medical history thrown in. Overall it was an easy to read account full of interesting facts and stories from the participants and survivors from this massive human tr ...more
Oct 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
While the title led me to believe this would be more of a medical exploration of Napoleon's Grande Armee, it focuses far more on the battle tactics (or lack thereof) that led to the failure of his Russian Expedition. But this didn't prevent me from enjoying the book, although enjoy is a strange way to put it, especially since this book contains graphic accounts of many types of tragedies, from torture and battlefield slaughter to the misery and psychological torment of the diseased and survivors ...more
Jun 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, 2000s, war-1800s
Interesting, informative ... along with the horrifying images the writing generated, and appalling statistics of medical madness, I particularly appreciated Talty's depiction of Napoleon.

Quote: "The emperor rose from his desk and watched the city burn. To him, the blaze was a symbol of the utter foreignness of the Russian mind. 'It was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrific sight the world ever beheld!' he would later write. Torching one's own capital was something no Frenchman
Aug 02, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommended to Stephen by: Angie
I am torn over this book. First, I enjoyed the interesting tidbits of the Grand Armee Napoleon assembled to invade Russia. The army was larger than the city of Paris, when it left France. Mr. Talty did a fine job explaining the complex politics of Napoleonic Europe, as well as the Byzantine politics of the Russian army. The battle scenes were epic and exciting reading, and the disease was eating the army by the thousands.

The ostensible subject of the book was typhus. He did discuss typhus some,
Feb 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The Illustrious Dead is well written and completely absorbing, but somewhere along the line I missed the thesis of typhus being responsible for all of the devastation that was wrought. The author even says at one point that Napoleon seemed bored and tired during his Russian campaign, so I sort of had difficulty buying his later assertion that typhus changed the course of world history forever, Russian Revolution wouldn't have happened in the same way, France would still be in charge, etc etc. Th ...more
Todd Martin
Jan 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Napoleon's withdrawal from Russia
In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia backed by his 650,000 man Grande Armée, which was considered at the time to be one of the greatest fighting forces ever assembled. The crux of the conflict centered around which nation would control Poland. Seemingly, nothing could stand in the way of Napoleon’s advance. The Russians retreated again and again losing major battles at Smolensk and Borodino, eventually abandoning Moscow to Napoleon on September 14 setting fire to the city as they did so.

With his sup
Jason Munson
Dec 19, 2014 rated it it was ok
I feel that with books about history we must be over critical if there is little contributed to the field in which it is attempting to cover. 251 pages, the last 25 are continued ramblings of the author and conspiracy that is not meant for history books. As I thought on this book throughout the entire read, all I could think was "glad someone lended this book to me and I did not buy it" and with the fact that it was highly recommended to me as a history book is discouraging as to how people unde ...more
Jul 31, 2009 rated it it was ok
Talty makes a strong case for the role of typhus in Napolean’s failed 1812 invasion of Russia, but through his account, it’s actually quite apparent that the dominant factor in Napolean’s defeat was not disease but that he had vastly overextended his army and supply lines.

The French succumbed to typhus and other diseases, in part, because they were starving, without adequate clothing or shelter. For further evidence, see Talty’s description of the Imperial Army’s ruinous retreat to France. And,
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As soon as I saw this book I wanted to read it. I read War and Peace way back as a teenager, and fell in love with the story. A good part of that story is based on Napoleon's attempt to attack Moscow and then his retreat. I teach pathophysiology in college, so I'm always on the look out for good infectious disease stories, and this more than fit. You can never underestimate the stupidity of men when they have dreams of glory and especially to expand an empire. Napoleon should have quit while he ...more
Steven Yenzer
Aug 02, 2015 rated it it was ok
I wasn't as interested in The Illustrious Dead as I'd hoped I'd be. Having read and loved Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, an account of how a relative layperson discovered the cause of cholera in Victorian London, I was hoping for a similarly exciting and scientific tale of disease. The Illustrious Dead can't quite decide whether it's an account of Napoleon's failed campaign in Russia or an exploration of the history of typhus. Clearly it was supposed to be both, but neither quite works. It was ...more
Aug 08, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010
This book is an account of Napoleon’s Grand Army’s 1812 campaign into Russia. What this book throws into the story is the effect bacteria from the genus Rickettsia had on the outcome of the campaign and the future of world politics.

I enjoyed learning what the campaign was about, the day to day conditions of the soldiers during the march and during the battles, the political conditions of the world at the time, current military and medical practices used in those days, and many other nuggets of i
Jun 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The author makes a compelling case that rampant Typhus was the cause of Napoleon's defeat in Russia, not the weather. If his army had not been racked by Typhus they would have had enough troops to destroy the Russians at Borodino and force the Tsar to sue for peace. The Russians were the last continental foe. Had Napoleon defeated them, the history of the 19th century would have been much different. ...more
Rick Thompson
Feb 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Amazing! Such a readable account of Napoleon's monomania and the the price paid by he and his armies in that pursuit. I have a geekish fascination with epidemiology and disease vectors, so I was fascinated by the author's recounting of the effect Typhus had on the campaigns. I don't however believe there is so much of that in this book that it would overshadow the story for anyone else. ...more
E. K.
Oct 09, 2011 rated it it was ok
Meh, this wasn't technical enough to please me from a medical/historical standpoint. It also tried for too much shock value. This book felt like an intro to invading Russia for men who still like to read comic books. ...more
M.J. Groves
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
I'm probably the only person I know who would enjoy a book about Napoleon's army dying of Typhus during his last campaign. Having said that, I did enjoy it until the last 70 pgs or so when things just dragged out. Found myself skimming at that point. ...more
Michael Charles
Sep 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Excellent study of the origins and spread of typhus and the role the disease has played in history, particularly its devastation of on the French army that invaded Russia in 1812. Highly recommended for serious students of history and the general reader as well.
David Strasser
Oct 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Covers an aspect widely overlooked in other books. Well worth reading.
Scott Bischke
Mar 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
​​This is a fascinating story about the power of a pathogen to change the course of human history. Talty describes how the Napoleon lost his 1812 campaign to subjugate Russia largely because of the incredible toll typhus had on his troops. Simply fascinating.

I loved the disease and science aspects of the book. I will admit, however, that for me stepping through the intricate, often gory, ins and outs of every bloody battle grew a little tiring. Reality, yes, but tiring. Some may love this stuff;
Anson Cassel Mills
Jun 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
The story of Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia—perhaps the largest invading force since Xerxes with almost certainly the highest death toll until the Somme—was a suitably large topic for Stephan Talty’s fine pen; and wedding that account with the history of the louse-borne killer typhus was a masterstroke.

It’s certainly reasonable to conclude that disease killed off more of Napoleon’s Grande Armée than did the Russian winter, though how to parcel out causes of death for more than 40
Stu Campbell
Sep 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating military history of Napoleon's invasion of Russia and the role that Typhus and the common louse had in thwarting it. Napoleon stepped off into the Russia with approximately 650,000 men and the ravaged army came back 6 months later with less than 20,000. Nowhere near that number was lost on the battlefield. The significant battle, Borodino, was savagery (the most deaths on the field of battle until World War I) but that accounted for only about 40,000 deaths. Typhus was running ramp ...more
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Perhaps I'm jaded because I read everything about Napoleon I can get my hands on... Having read many accounts of the 1812 campaign in Russia, until now I've seen very little about the attrition within Napoleon's army beyond the battlefield. Why did he "only" have on 100,000 troops with him when he got to Moscow, when only a fraction of the 500,000 he had earlier in the summer were battlefield casualties? This book answers that question in cold, frightening detail. Treatment of specific battles i ...more
Jun 10, 2017 rated it liked it
This was a very educational read. This is the second good book I've read about Napoleon and I'd like to read more. Like other great linchpins in history, I loved the part at the end that talks about how the world likely would have been drastically different had Typhus not decimated his army. The hard part about this book is the excessive discussion of the military action. It's interesting information, but the book loses focus at times and turns into a military book. He does a better job towards ...more
Feb 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: ebook
The rise of Napoleon is chronicled swiftly. Taltry details the relationship of Napoleon and Czar Alexander III. He also chronicles the history of typhus and how it has affected history and, especially, warfare. For some unknown reason, he does not give us a full understanding of the disease itself until almost midway through the book. This is a fine history with lots of interesting details (Taltry claims that it was Napoleon's belief that the vast region which we know as the Louisiana Purchae wa ...more
Amber Ray
Sep 05, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Fascinating story. I do have to wonder what Napoleon was thinking--his planning and actions seem strange at several points! Often this tends to be somewhat gross but as this is a story of disease and an awful one at that I think that cannot be avoided.
To my modern mind it's just so shocking that they couldn't make the correlation between lice and disease or at least combat lice as a sanitation/irritation issue! Accepting lice as just a part of life was bizarre to me!
Feb 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A detailed account of the effect of typhus on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

Well-written history of the disease, typhus, and its devastating decimation of the Grande Armée. Without typhus it is very possible Napoleon would have successfully defeated Russia, with spectacular ramifications both for Russia and for Western Europe.
Timothy Brotherton
Fascinating story that was overwritten

In an attempt at foreshadowing author tried to create tension, but stepped on the story. Research was good, but missed some of the other stories.
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Stephan Talty is the New York Times bestselling author of six acclaimed books of narrative nonfiction, as well as the Abbie Kearney crime novels. Originally from Buffalo, he now lives outside New York City.

Talty began as a widely-published journalist who has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Men’s Journal, Time Out New York, Details, and many other publications. He is the author of t

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15 likes · 5 comments
“Rickettsia denotes the microbe’s genus, placing it in the bacteria family in the planet’s taxonomy; the name derives from the American pathologist Howard T. Ricketts, who studied—and succumbed to—typhus in 1910. Prowazekii pays tribute to the researcher Stanislaus von Prowazek, an Austrian bacteriologist who also died of typhus in 1915 while trying to unlock its secrets.” 0 likes
“The rat, which transported bubonic plague, and the louse, which carried typhus, were despised but accepted presences in almost every human society, although the latter could travel places (such as the Arctic) where even the rat couldn’t survive.” 0 likes
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