DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 5

Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

Charles Minard's Flow Map of Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812
[Click on map to see full size version]
The chart above also tells the story of a war: Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. It was drawn half a century afterwards by Charles Joseph Minard, a French civil engineer who worked on dams, canals and bridges. He was 80 years old and long retired when, in 1861, he called on the innovative techniques he had invented for the purpose of displaying flows of people, in order to tell the tragic tale in a single image. Edward Tufte, whose book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” is a bible to statisticians, calls it “the best statistical graphic ever drawn”. [SOURCE]

Minard’s chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army’s movement, and the number of troops remaining. The widths of the gold (outward) and black (returning) paths represent the size of the force, one millimetre to 10,000 men. Geographical features and major battles are marked and named, and plummeting temperatures on the return journey are shown along the bottom.

The chart tells the dreadful story with painful clarity: in 1812, the Grand Army set out from Poland with a force of 422,000; only 100,000 reached Moscow; and only 10,000 returned. The detail and understatement with which such horrifying loss is represented combine to bring a lump to the throat. As men tried, and mostly failed, to cross the Bérézina river under heavy attack, the width of the black line halves: another 20,000 or so gone. The French now use the expression “C’est la Bérézina” to describe a total disaster.

In 1871, the year after Minard died, his obituarist cited particularly his graphical innovations: “For the dry and complicated columns of statistical data, of which the analysis and the discussion always require a great sustained mental effort, he had substituted images mathematically proportioned, that the first glance takes in and knows without fatigue, and which manifest immediately the natural consequences or the comparisons unforeseen.” The chart shown here is singled out for special mention: it “inspires bitter reflections on the cost to humanity of the madnesses of conquerors and the merciless thirst of military glory”.

What does the map show us [1]

  • Forces visual comparisons (the upper lighter band showing the large army going to Moscow vs. the narrow dark band showing the small army returning).
  • Shows causality (the temperature chart at the bottom).
  • Captures multivariate complexity (size of army, location, direction, temperature, and time).
  • Integrates text and graphic into a coherent whole.
  • Illustrate high quality content (complete and accurate data, presented to support Minard’s  argument against war).
  • Place comparisons adjacent to each other, not sequentially (people forget if they have to go from page to page ).
  • Use the smallest effective differences (i.e., avoid bold colors, heavy lines, distracting labels and scales).

Let’s look at the map in detail

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an Englsh language version for us to use as we discusss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


Crossing the Niemen River – So It Begins

5-26-2013 8-37-35 AMAs Napoleon concentrated his enormous coalition army in preparation for the invasion of Russia,  three Russian armies were positioned to guard the western frontier: the 1st Western Army, under Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the 2nd Western Army, under Prince Pyotr Bagration, and the 3rd Western Army, under Alexander Tormasov. In June 1812, the 1st Western Army was stationed along the frontier with East Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw. The 2nd was placed further south in modern Belarus. The 3rd stood yet further south, but still in Belarus. The overall commander of these three armies was Alexander himself, who was installed in Barclay de Tolly’s headquarters near Vilna.

On 23 June, the Prussian major (and later military theorist) Karl von Clausewitz, who had recently entered Alexander’s service, reached the Drissa camp (northwest of Polotsk on the Dvina, near modern Verkhniadzvinsk in Belarus) to inspect the site and report on the progress being made on its defensive works and fortifications. He remained unconvinced of its defensive qualities and said so to Alexander on 28 June. Despite the fact that the camp had appeared central to Russian strategy pre-invasion, it would prove of little worth once the Russian forces had withdrawn from the western frontier.

News of the Grande Armée’s advance guard crossing the Niemen (24 June, 1812) reached Alexander and Barclay de Tolly that same day, late in the evening. The order to withdraw to the Drissa camp was issued shortly afterwards, and Barclay’s units fell back.

Between 26 and 27 June, the order to retreat back from borders spread to each of the Russian corps commanders. Although most of the 1st Western Army’s withdrawal was relatively untroubled, General Dokhturov’s 6th corps, stationed between Lida and Grodno, was almost cut off by the Grande Armée’s crossing of the Niemen and Davout’s troops making for Minsk. Only by force marching did the 6th corps avoid the advancing French troops and reach Drissa unmolested. It was also on 26 June that Alexander dispatched a letter proposing talks with Napoleon, provided that the French emperor retired back over the border. The messenger was held up by Davout and only succeeded in reaching Berthier and Napoleon at the end of the month. The evacuation of Vilna began late on 26 June: by the time Napoleon received Alexander’s messenger and letter, Vilna had been occupied by the Grande Armée. Barclay de Tolly left the city early on 28 June, having destroyed the remaining depots as well as the bridge across the Dvina. Napoleon’s advance troops arrived about an hour later.

Next: The March Continues


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,


    1. Hi Larry:

      Let me research this. There is a book out specially about the map, so I am planning on ordering it and see if it tells me how long in there. I have been wanting to order it anyway.



      1. Hello Michael and thank you for your reply. I called Tufte’s office and no one on his staff knows the answer and they inferred that Tufte does not know

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