A masterful dual narrative of Napoleon Bonaparte and a tiny microbe that pits the height of human ambition and achievement against the supremacy of nature, from the New York Times bestselling author of Empire of Blue Water
“Gripping . . . Talty brings international politics and science together in 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 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’s progress to a halt. 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 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.
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.