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

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  484 Ratings  ·  110 Reviews
“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
Paperback, 336 pages
Published June 1st 2010 by Broadway Books (first published January 1st 2009)
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Dec 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jill Hutchinson
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
Idril Celebrindal
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.
Apr 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
THE ILLUSTRIOUS DEAD: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Naoleon’s Greatest Army. (2009). Stephan Talty. ****1/2.
The extended title of this book gives away what the author wanted it to be about, and he was pretty much on target. Unfortunately, that story would have made for a very short book. What we get instead is an extended study of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 and a history of typhus. Like me, you may have believed what you read in “War and Peace,” and seen in many films, that
'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
Jun 07, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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,
Oct 20, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Todd Martin
Jan 14, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 31, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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,
Steven Yenzer
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 17, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Rick Thompson
Feb 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
E. K.
Oct 09, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
Michael Charles
Sep 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
M.J. Groves
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
David Strasser
Oct 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Covers an aspect widely overlooked in other books. Well worth reading.
May 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Eden P
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars. Interesting material, written well.
Interesting study on Napoleon's debacle in Russia... however, this is not particularly memorable and there's no real originality in it.
Aristae Henricus
Jun 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Terrifying account of how Typhus destroyed Napoleon's army and the role of Typhus in history.

Napoleon vs. Typhus

(Spoiler alert: Typhus wins.)

An interesting combination of medical and military history, The Illustrious Dead's central premise is that huge losses due to illness rather than strategic errors or the onset of winter led to Napoleon's ultimate defeat in his Russian campaign of 1812. The emperor led nearly 500,000 men into Russia but retreated with fewer than 75,000, with more troops succumbing to disease -- most notably typhus -- than were killed in battle. Talty describes the r

Mar 13, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After having read Andrew Roberts' voluminous biography Napoleon: A Life I was glad for the opportunity to dig a little deeper into a major turning point in the history of the French Empire. That's not to say that Roberts didn't do an excellent job of illustrating the sheer depravity of the Russian campaign, but what I most appreciated in Talty's work was the in-depth discussion of the Battle of Borodino. It was truly a butcher shop of an engagement and signaled the end of "Romantic" Napoleonic w ...more
Aug 27, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
I am an avid reader of medical history books, especially the history of diseases. This was not my favorite for a few reasons.

First, this book is more or less a story of Napoleon's attempt to invade Russia. The typhus story is a consistent theme, but it frankly is not the main story. Now, in fairness, I don't think you can adequately explain how typhus was able to ravage the Grand Armee so easily unless you provide context, so in that regard, the Russian invasion narrative was necessary to some
Jenny Karraker
Aug 08, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

This was a very informative, but difficult book to read. I don't know much about the napoleonic wars except some scraps I've picked up from the movies Sharpe's Rifles and Horatio Hornblower. So it was good to read the true history of Napoleon's foray into Russia in 1812. The author's descriptions of typhus were very graphic, and I had to skim his chapter entitled Hospitals-- it was too horrible to take in. And to think that this was carried by lice! It was hard to grasp that Napoleon began this
Jason Munson
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
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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
More about Stephan Talty...