The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army
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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
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.
immensely at the siege of Saragossa in the summer of 1808, when 54,000 of the city’s 100,000 citizens died of the disease, along with 18,000 of the 20,000 Spanish soldiers within its walls, forcing the city to surrender. After Austerlitz, a bout of the illness struck that Dr. Larrey described in the complex nosological formulation of the day as “a malignant, nervous and putrid hospital fever (adynamicoataxic).” During the epidemic, a Polish officer, Heinrich von Brandt, caught the disease and was
during the Great Famine in 1845-49, earning the disease another name, “the Irish ague.” It was in the Middle Ages that typhus arrived in Europe. Recent evidence points toward the New World as the source: For decades, scientists had believed that the explorers carried the louse and Rickettsia to the Americas. But the discovery of lice in 1,000-year-old mummies recently found in Peru reverses that migration; typhus was most likely not the explorers’ curse on the New World. Instead, it was
epidemics led by plague and other diseases. It was often unrecognized as a separate illness and classed instead with other “pestilential fevers” that seeded the length and breadth of Europe. Christian culture must bear some of the responsibility for its widespread success in those early centuries. The Catholic Church frowned upon bathing, which was considered “an indulgence, an invitation to illness, or even a sin.” Female saints were praised for never washing, as being naked for even a moment
“monotonous, melancholy, dirge-like yet not unpleasing” national songs that each remembered from home. Other soldiers discussed in low voices the ominous names of the towns and streams that surrounded Borodino: Ognik (“Fire”), Stonets (“Groans”), Voya (“War”), and Kolocha (“Stab”). ON SEPTEMBER 7, a cold dawn broke. The final Russian positions came clear through the mist. The enemy were arrayed in four ranks: First, the jaegers, or light skirmishers, spread along the Kolocha embankment and
treasures. But it was these poor people on whom the burden of Napoleon’s invasion fell. The woman watched as this biblical river of misery passed her by, pausing only to look back once “and seeming to bid farewell to their holy city.” Hidden in various quarters of the metropolis, the firebugs waited for word to begin their work. Napoleon would be allowed to occupy the city, but Rostopchin hoped the city walls would become a trap in which to consume him. TO GIVE THE RUSSIAN army and the