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Book and Media Reviews
November 25, 2009

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

JAMA. 2009;302(20):2263-2264. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1736

Talty's subtitle is not sensationalist hyperbole. This is a truly terrifying story that will challenge readers who might be overwhelmed by revelations of the most gruesome details of “total war.” Overcoming revulsion at vivid descriptions of agonizing human experience is rewarded, however, by Talty's captivating narrative and plausible thesis about events that profoundly changed 19th-century history. The story of Napoleon's ill-fated 1812 invasion of Russia has been analyzed from almost every historiographical angle, making all the main events of the campaign and its historical consequences well known. But Talty's talented recounting of two interweaving actors, total warfare and bacteria, turns this familiar story into a charismatic suspense thriller unfolding a futile tragedy that nevertheless dramatically reconfigured the 19th-century structure of European political and colonial power.