The Great Comet of 1811

Illustration for article titled The Great Comet of 1811

Napoleon’s comet. From War and Peace.

At the midpoint of War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the character of Pierre observing this “enormous and brilliant comet [...] which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world”. The comet was popularly thought to have portended Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (even being referred to as “Napoleon’s Comet”) and the War of 1812, among other events.

The year 1811 turned out to be particularly fine for wine production, and merchants marketed “Comet Wine” at high prices for many years afterwards. The film Year of the Comet, a 1992 romantic comedy adventure film, is based on this premise and tells the story of the pursuit of a contemporarily discovered bottle of wine from the year of the Great Comet, bottled for Napoleon. The film stars Penelope Ann Miller, Tim Daly and French film actor Louis Jourdan (his last film before retiring).


When the steamboat New Orleans made her way down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811-1812, it marked a turning point in the Transportation Revolution. After the New Orleans showed that it could be done, steamboats proliferated on the Ohio and the Mississippi and their tributaries. Steamboat traffic helped create a national economy, opening markets for farm goods and drawing people and commerce to cities along the rivers.

The Great Comet of 1811, first observed in March and easily visible in the night sky during September and October, made a dramatic backdrop for the first weeks of the trip. More information on the Great Comet of 1811 is available from astronomer Gary W. Kronk.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter