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25 June 2017
Evening Sedition

The Greatest Statistical Graph, Ever

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Minard's Chart of Napoleon's 1812 Russian Campaign

Charles Joseph Minard (27 March 1781 — 24 October 1870) was a brilliant engineer and graphic designer, and is famous for many things. Yet one single piece of work stands above all the others, and has achieved widespread fame. That work is his chart depicting the fate of Napoleon's Grand Army during the truly disastrous 1812 Russian campaign. (Be sure to look at the large version.)

The chart (see above) is 22 inches by 15 inches and uses two colors. Edward Tufte, the undisputed maestro of chart design, called it "Probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn." I think that observation is spot on. As Tufte explains:

Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.

Edward Tufte

The beauty of this chart is how it conveys the whole sense of the doomed campaign, from it's utter futility to the death of the soldiers, but explaining where the losses ocurred and, to some extent, the reasons why. It is, literally, ten pounds of information in a one-pound box.

Here he uses the same proportional line to track Napoleon's Grand Armee as it made its was across the Russian plains toward Moscow. We see a fraction of the troops splitting off from the main group and pausing at Polotzk (known in English as Polotsk in the modern country of Belarus). Although the thickness of Napoleon's army diminished somewhat by the time it arrived at Moscow, it was still formidable. Unfortunately for Napoleon and his troops, Czar Alexander I and the residents of Moscow had fled and burned the city, leaving little for Napoleon to conquer. Up to this point, Minard's map bears many of the same qualities as the Hannibal map. But an additional, tragic chapter of the campaign enabled Minard to add even more depth to his already incredible map.

Like a scorned groom whose bride never showed up at the altar, a frustrated Napoleon had little choice but to return back to the part of Europe he controlled for food, shelter, and supplies. Minard now traces the remnants of the Grande Armee as it makes its way back toward the Neiman River. In doing so, the parallel tracks of the advancing and retreating army are set next to one another, making the continuing deterioration of the army all the more visible and heartwrenching. As the army slowly made its way across barren earth (the Russians had burned food along this path while blocking other escape paths), one of the worst winters in recent memory set in. Minard tracks the plummeting temperature against this trek on a horizontal axis at the bottom of the page, even more profoundly capturing the dire straits that the retreating army found itself in. Not surprisingly, the pitiful band of troops that returned from Russia marked the onset of the collapse of Napoleon's Continental Empire.

Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon's March, 1861. By John Corbett

Minard was able to do this because the chart is:

[A] narrative graphic of time and space which illustrates how multivariate complexity can be subtly integrated so that viewers are hardly aware that they are looking into a world of four or five dimensions.

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

But it is so much more than that; it is also a magnificent testament to the folly of war.

Together, the maps of these two campaigns provide a visual lesson to historians and generals, which might have been subtitled, “Some things to avoid in planning a military campaign.” In fact, I believe there is a more personal and more emotive meaning, as an anti-war statement by an engineer who had witnessed the horrors of war in his youth and who, in his final year, was forced to flee his home.

Chevallier (1871, p. 18) says, “Finally, as if he could sense the terrible disaster that was about to disrupt the country, he illustrated the loss of lives that had been caused by Hannibal and Napoleon. The graphical representation is gripping; it inspires bitter reflections on the human cost of the thirst for military glory.” It may well be, for this reason, that Minard’s most famous graphic defied the pen of the historian.

Re-Visions of Minard By Michael Friendly

A beautiful poster — printed on heavy archival stock — is available from Edward Tufte for $14. (A framed copy of these prints, purchased from Tufte, has adorned on my wall for nearly two decades.) No, I don't get a kickback; I just think Tufte sells quality products.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Tufte, E. R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, Cheshire, CT, 1983.
  2. Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon's March, 1861
  3. Geovisualization Illustrated by Menno-Jan Kraak
  4. Re-Visions of Minard By Michael Friendly

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