The recent attempts to infect people with anthrax have introduced Americans to a type of terrorism most people believe is modern in concept, but the use of germ warfare is as old as conflict itself.
In the United States, we view terrorist attacks as outside the repertoire of acceptable military practice. Yet diabolical efforts to infect the enemy’s military and civilian populations with disease occurred in America as early as the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and by our side.
Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British army in North America, wrote to his senior officer in the field, Col. Henry Bouquet, “Could it not be contrived to send Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Bouquet saw that blankets taken from a smallpox hospital fell into Indian hands, but whether they had the desired effect is unclear.
The most concerted effort to employ terrorism against civilians in the United States occurred during the Civil War. The Confederacy, outmanned and outgunned by the North, resorted to a variety of strategies late in the war that went beyond the pale. Among those efforts was a plan to introduce yellow fever into the Northern population in the hope of creating a deadly epidemic that would sweep through the North and demoralize the people and end their will to continue fighting.
Today we know that yellow fever, like anthrax, is not contagious, but those responsible for the yellow-fever plot during the war believed it could be spread by contact with clothing taken from people who had died of the disease. The plan involved collecting the clothing and bed coverings of patients and shipping the items to Northern cities, where they would be dispersed through public auction, which would ensure the widest possible distribution.
The perpetrators of the plot were successful in distributing contaminated clothing, but they failed in unleashing the dreaded yellow fever. The plot would have gone unknown had it not been for one of its key figures, who decided to expose it to Northern officials.
On April 5, 1865, four days before Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender and nine days before Abraham Lincoln was shot, a Confederate agent named Godfrey Joseph Hyams walked into the office of David Thurston, U.S. consul in Toronto, and made the American representative an offer he couldn’t refuse. Hyams told Thurston that he had valuable information concerning clandestine Confederate operations originating in Canada that he would divulge for both a pardon and remuneration.
Before the government could respond to Hyams’ assertions, however, John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. The government believed Confederate President Jefferson Davis had engineered Lincoln’s murder through his network of agents in Canada and also thought Hyams’ information provided important evidence linking Davis to Lincoln’s death. Hyams suddenly became one of the government’s star witnesses. He received his pardon and remuneration. In exchange, he was required to testify before the special military commission trying those accused of Lincoln’s assassination.
Through Hyams’ testimony, the prosecution tried to show that if Davis could sanction a scheme to murder civilians through germ warfare, he just as easily could sanction the murder of Lincoln.
The man responsible for initiating and carrying out the yellow-fever plot was a Kentucky physician (and later governor of Kentucky) who had made his way to Canada as one of Davis’ special agents. His name was Luke Pryor Blackburn. He was recognized widely as an international authority on yellow fever and also was known for his humanitarian efforts to quell several epidemics that had ravaged Southern coastal cities before the Civil War.
Blackburn’s plot was initiated in April 1864, when a major yellow-fever epidemic hit the Island of Bermuda with devastating force. While the epidemic raged, Blackburn left Halifax, Nova Scotia, and arrived in Bermuda, where he offered his medical skills to the Bermudan government.
Welcomed by government officials, Blackburn set about carefully collecting the clothing and bedding of victims who had died from yellow fever. Packing the items into eight large trunks, he had them shipped back to Halifax. Before leaving for Bermuda in April, he had hired Hyams to take charge of the trunks and safely import them into the United States.
Blackburn’s plan was for Hyams to take the trunks to Washington, Norfolk and New Bern, N.C., where he would arrange for the clothing to be sold at auction. As the clothing was spread among the civilian population, Blackburn believed, so would the deadly yellow fever.
Included with the trunks was a small black valise that contained several expensive dress shirts that Blackburn had packed previously with the yellow-fever clothing. Blackburn instructed Hyams to take the valise, along with a letter he had drafted, to the White House and present them to Lincoln as a special gift from an anonymous benefactor. Blackburn believed that even if Lincoln did not wear the shirts, their mere presence would infect him and his family with the deadly disease.
Hyams, apparently afraid of the risk of taking such a “gift” to the White House, declined. The trunks were another matter, however, and Hyams would see to their transport. He carried out his assignment using the alias of J.W. Harris. He shipped five of the trunks through Boston to Washington, where he contracted with the auction house of W.L. Wall and Co. to dispose of the infected clothing. Because Norfolk and New Bern were within the military lines of the Union Army, Hyams had to contract the services of an army sutler to dispose of the infected clothing in those two cities.
Completing his task, Hyams returned to Canada, where he reported back to Blackburn. Blackburn had promised Hyams he would be paid substantially for his work but had yet to give him any money other than a nominal sum to help carry out his grisly mission.
Because Blackburn was scheduled to leave the next day for a return trip to Bermuda, he turned Hyams over to Jacob Thompson, the man Davis had placed in charge of his Confederate operation in Canada. Thompson agreed to pay Hyams $100 as an advance but never paid him what he had been promised. Hyams, disgruntled at not being paid for his work, blew the whistle on Blackburn and several others involved in the Confederacy’s clandestine operations. He decided that if the Confederates wouldn’t pay, maybe the Yankees would.
In Washington, the trial of Lincoln’s assassins began with an unsuccessful attempt by government prosecutors to link Davis and his agents in Canada with organizing the assassination plot. When prosecutors failed to provide evidence that Davis had approved or even had known about Blackburn’s diabolical plot, they lost interest in extraditing Blackburn to the United States.
Blackburn eventually faded from history, a minor figure whose role in germ warfare was circumstantial at best.
Had the U.S. government and subsequent historians been more diligent, they might have found the evidence they sought to confirm Davis’ knowledge, and therefore sanction, of the yellow-fever plot. The evidence lay among Davis’ official papers, which the government was in the process of collecting from the scattered archives in Richmond. Among these papers was a letter written to Davis by an Episcopal minister-turned-Confederate-agent by the name of Kensey Johns Stewart.
After serving the Confederacy in a variety of roles, Stewart accepted an assignment from Davis that took him to Toronto in 1864.
Soon after arriving there, Stewart wrote to Davis complaining about the “miserable failures” and “useless annoyances” in which some of Davis’ other agents were engaged.
Stewart then called Davis’ attention to one especially “inhumane & cruel” activity he believed Davis should order stopped immediately:
“As our country has been and is entirely dependent upon God, we cannot afford to displease him. Therefore, it cannot be our policy to employ wicked men to destroy the persons & property of private citizens, by inhumane & cruel acts. I name only one. $100.00 of public money has been paid here to one ‘Hyams,’ for services rendered by conveying and causing to be sold in the city of Washington at auction, boxes of [yellow fever] clothing.”
Stewart’s letter not only confirmed Blackburn’s plot and supported Hyams’ claim that Thompson had paid him, but placed the whole affair squarely on the desk of Davis.
If Davis had no knowledge of Blackburn’s activities before Dec. 12, 1864, he certainly knew about them after receiving Stewart’s letter.
Four months after Stewart’s letter to Davis, Blackburn’s trunks were still intact and the plot was still going forward despite Stewart’s plea to Davis to order an immediate halt to the project.
Blackburn’s motives, and those of his superiors, were best summed up by Hyams when he testified that the yellow-fever plot was “directed against the masses of Northern people solely to create death.”
The Confederate leaders’ ignorance of infectious disease in no way mitigates their guilt in attempting to unleash biological warfare against civilian populations.
Indeed, they believed Blackburn’s trunks of infected clothing were responsible for a yellow-fever epidemic that killed more than 2,000 persons in the coastal town of New Bern at the same time the clothing arrived there.
Blackburn’s small valise of gift shirts designed to infect Lincoln and his family with a deadly disease show that Lincoln was indeed a target of the Confederate operation in Canada, as Union prosecutors had believed.
Black-flag warfare had come of age.
Edward Steers Jr. is retired from the National Institutes of Health. His book “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” was reviewed on this page last week. He lives in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.