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

Stephan Talty, Author . Crown $25.95 (315p) ISBN 978-0-307-39404-0

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. (June)

Reviewed on: 04/20/2009
Release date: 06/01/2009
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