Second Decade

A historical show examining the fascinating events and people of the second decade of the 19th century (the 1810s), hosted by historian Sean Munger.
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Now displaying: January, 2017
Jan 23, 2017

Despite being warned repeatedly—by his enemy, Tsar Alexander, and even by some of his own generals—Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-proclaimed Emperor of France, made one of the costliest and most lethal mistakes in the history of warfare by invading Russia in the summer of 1812. Though it’s usually the harsh Russian winter that’s credited with crushing the French Army, in reality Napoleon and his troops were in deep trouble long before that, from literally the moment they crossed the Niemen River in Poland. It almost didn’t matter that the Russian Army kept retreating and refusing, for the most part, to fight. The half-million men of the Grand Armée had to fight dusty roads, sticky marshes full of mud, freezing rain in June, blazing heat in July, mosquitoes, dysentery, starvation and dehydration without having to worry about tangling with the Russians in battle. When the inevitable clash did finally occur at a town called Borodino, it led to an even more epic disaster: a man-made firestorm that virtually wiped Moscow off the map.

Historian Sean Munger seeks to dispel the myths and misconceptions of Napoleon’s Russian boondoggle, and to get inside the heads of the people who made it happen. In this episode you’ll learn about the man who burned down Moscow (and why he did it), how Napoleon’s badly-timed cold and bladder infection affected the course of world history, and you’ll learn just how desperate a man has to be to willingly drink horse urine. You may have heard the story of the French invasion of Russia before, but you’ve probably never heard it told quite like this.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Jan 16, 2017

In the summer of 1812 Napoleon’s France invaded Russia, ruled by Tsar Alexander I, with the largest army ever assembled in pre-modern times. Leo Tolstoy famously called this conflict “an event opposed to human reason and human nature.” How and why did it happen? In the first of three parts, the complicated political backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars comes into focus through an examination of the lives and personalities of the two men most responsible for it, Napoleon and Alexander. After becoming unlikely friends at an intimate summit meeting on a river raft in the summer of 1807, a series of missteps, misunderstandings and divergent destinies eventually brought these two fascinating people into direct conflict with each other—with millions of their citizens’ lives at stake. The result was world-shaking history with far-reaching consequences.

In this series, Sean Munger cuts through the usual historians’ clutter of maps and army formations with a close look at the actual people behind this incredible event. In this episode you’ll come to appreciate Napoleon’s humble origins, learn why he divorced the woman he still loved, and how and why his mind just wasn’t as sharp in 1812 as it had been at the height of his power. You’ll also become familiar with Alexander’s insecurities, his bold but unrequited dreams and his receding hairline. Sean will also take you on a rather unpleasant march with Napoleon’s Grand Armée, already sinking into a hopeless fiasco of bloated horses, hungry soldiers and broken wagon wheels even before they ever caught sight of a single Russian soldier. This is history as it should be: the real story of real people.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Jan 9, 2017

On New Year’s Eve, 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, First Lady of South Carolina and daughter of former U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr, boarded a ship bound for New York City and was never seen alive again. More than 50 years later, in Nag’s Head, North Carolina, an old woman gave a doctor a painting, as payment for medical services, that the doctor came to believe was a portrait of Theodosia. But was it, and if so, how did it get there? These two unsolved mysteries bookend the unusual life and personality of Theodosia Burr Alston, an educated, talented woman, outspoken feminist, who was utterly devoted to her father Aaron Burr, the “gadfly” of the Early Republic, a controversial man accused of murder and treason, who ultimately lost both of the women he held most dear in his life.

In drilling down into the twin mysteries of Theodosia Burr, historian Sean Munger sets the stage with colorful examples from her life and her father’s. In this episode you’ll not only meet various members of the Burr family, but you’ll encounter coastal pirates and unscrupulous beachcombers, two unidentified women buried in different places along the Atlantic coast who may or may not have been the real Theodosia, and follow in the footsteps of New England maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow as he tries (not entirely successfully) to solve the mystery in the 1940s. You can be the judge of whether the woman in the “Nag’s Head Portrait”—she is pictured on the far right of the image collage header for Second Decade podcast—really is Theodosia Burr Alston.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).