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The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army Hardcover – June 2, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (June 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307394042
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307394040
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,372,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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 NapoleonÖs 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 NapoleonÖs 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 NapoleonÖs 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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

“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

Customer Reviews

Very interesting book -- well-written and offering a substantial notes section.
M. Heiss
As Talty notes near the end of the book, "General Winter" has stereotypically been assumed to have been the great wrecker of Napoleon's Grand Armee in Russia.
S. J. Snyder
"The Illustrious Dead" is a gripping mix of narrative military history, science and detective story.
William Holmes

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes VINE VOICE on June 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As other reviewers have pointed out, "The Illustrious Dead" is hard to put down. At one level, the book tells the military history of Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812, from the June day when the Grand Armee crossed the Nieman River into Russia until the end of its catastrophic retreat from Moscow in December of the same year.

But Talty's book also tells the history of a disease that has been plaguing soldiers and civilians for thousands of years. Napoleon's deadliest enemy. Talty claims, was not "General Winter," or Tsar Alexander, or the Cossacks--it was the microbe Rickettsia prowazekii, which causes typhus, aided by the body louse. In Talty's version of events, Rickettsia began to kill before the Grand Armee even crossed the border, passing with body lice among the densely packed, unwashed body of men. By the time Napoleon began to engage Russian forces in earnest, his army was so depleted by the disease that he was no longer able to make the decisive maneuvers that might have forced the Russians to sue for peace. As it was, the Russians held on, suffering huge casulaties but denying Napoleon the knock out blow that might have changed history, ultimately forcing Napoleon to retreat. After Napoleon returned to Paris, it was only a matter of time before his enemies took advantage of the fact that typhus had deprived France of its most experienced and effective soldiers.

"The Illustrious Dead" is a gripping mix of narrative military history, science and detective story. Talty does an excellent job of weaving the broad story of the campaign with the words of the men who fought the battles and endured the hardships.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on June 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is the story of an army and a microbe. The microbe wins.

That's a bit of an understatement, like saying that Napoleon was somewhat short, or that Moscow gets a bit cold in the winter, or that book reviewers tend to be too fond of lame similes. The microbe went up against Napoleon's Grand Army --- the greatest assemblage of military might since antiquity --- and beat the living whey out of it, all the way to Moscow and all the way back.

On the surface, it looks like such a mismatch. Napoleon had put together nearly half a million front-line troopers, many of them hard-bitten veterans of his victorious Italian and Austrian campaigns, and had significant cavalry and artillery to boot. They had the best training of their times, and some of the best generalship, and were impressively well-organized for the pre-microchip era. And yet, the army, as grand as it was, was beaten overwhelmingly, thoroughly and comprehensively by something it couldn't even see, something without a brain, nothing more than a collection of a few strands of DNA, designed to do little more than survive --- and kill.

To be sure, the microbe had powerful allies in its campaign to stop the French in their drive into Russia, such as the Russian army (or at least the rank and file of that army, considering its poor leadership). Then there was the scorched-earth tactics that denied provender to Napoleon's polyglot army. There was Napoleon's own imperial hubris in starting the conflict in the first place, and his failure to plan for the Russian winter or the possibility of infectious disease. There were even other microbes in the mix --- dysentery and the like.

All of these factors combined to bog down Napoleon's advance to Moscow and complicate his retreat.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Competent military commanders have known for centuries that disease will take away more of their soldiers than cannonballs or bullets will. There was no truer case of this than that of Napoleon's Grande Armée, a multinational force of more than half a million men issuing from various nations in Europe with the mission of conquering Russia in 1812. Sure, most people know that the vicious Russian cold froze away any chance Napoleon had for victory, but his losses to typhus had cut his forces drastically long before the winter set in, and typhus kept killing. In _The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army_ (Crown), Stephen Talty has given the story of how the microbe conquered the army, within the larger story of the brutal and futile Russian campaign. Talty alternates military history and epidemiology, examining the battles but also looking into the command tent and the medical tents. His book contains battlefield descriptions that are often all the more ghoulish for being taken directly from the words of participants on the scene, and presents a vivid picture of the insanity of war.

Napoleon had little trust for his doctors, and the doctors were hindered by having little idea of the causes of disease. There was no germ theory, and no realization that it was a bad idea to put, say, wounded soldiers right next to infected ones, and no understanding that stripping the dead of their literally lousy uniforms for reuse was to send the disease to the next wearer. The agonizing disease caused by the microbe _Rickettsia prowazekii_ carried by lice was agonizing, causing multiple symptoms like blinding headache and nausea, incapacitating body pains, fever and chills, ravings, gangrene, and death after around ten days.
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More About the Author

Stephan Talty is the NY Times bestselling author of six acclaimed nonfiction books, as well as two crime novels, "Black Irish" and "Hangman," set in his hometown of Buffalo. He's written for the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Playboy, the Chicago Review and many others. Talty's ebook, "The Secret Agent," was a #1 Amazon Kindle bestseller in nonfiction.

Talty lives outside New York City with his wife and two children. You can visit his website at www.stephantalty.com.