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Wednesday, August 13, 2014
News--Did A CSA Agent Target Northern Cities in 1864 For A Yellow Fever Epidemic?
Yellow Fever Plot of 1864 Targeted Lincoln, U.S. Cities, Mathew W. Lively, Civil War Profiles Weblog, July 13, 2014. Excerpt: In the summer of 1864, Dr. Luke P.
Blackburn, a Kentucky-born physician turned Confederate agent, allegedly
instituted a bioterrorism plot against United States cities and
President Abraham Lincoln. Blackburn’s goal was to “release” Yellow
Fever through the distribution of infected clothing, with specific
articles being sent directly to Lincoln. The plot was unsuccessful,
however, mainly due to a 19th century misunderstanding of how
Yellow Fever is transmitted, but also because a disgruntled fellow
conspirator revealed the plot to U.S. authorities.Yellow Fever, also known as “Yellow
Jack,” after the flag that was flown from quarantined ships in harbors,
was a deadly disease in U.S. coastal cities during the 1800’s (an 1853
outbreak in New Orleans, Louisiana, produced 9,000 deaths – 28% of the
city’s population). The disease was notorious for causing “black vomit,”
an ominous clinical sign resulting from hemorrhage in the stomach.
Today we know that Yellow Fever is a
virus that is spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes. But during
the Civil War, which occurred prior to the discovery of germs being the
source of disease, medical science and the lay population believed
Yellow Fever could be contracted from direct exposure to those who were
infected, primarily through contact with “black vomit.” It was this
belief that led Blackburn to “contaminate” clothing for distribution.
The island of Bermuda was a major base
of blockade running for the Confederacy and when a Yellow Fever epidemic
occurred there in the summer of 1864, Dr. Blackburn, who had extensive
experience treating the disease in the Deep South, traveled from Canada
to Bermuda to lend his expertise in controlling the outbreak. While on
the island, Blackburn took the soiled bedding and clothing of infected
patients and packed them into trunks with new shirts and coats in an
effort to “infect” the unused garments with Yellow Fever particles.
Blackburn then traveled to Halifax,
Nova Scotia, in June 1864 with five trunks and one valise of infected
clothing. Once there, he offered a man named Godfey Hyams the sum of
$100,000 to smuggle the trunks into “Washington City, to Norfolk, and as
far South” as he could go “where the Federal Government held possession
and had the most troops.” He instructed Hyams to dispose of the new
clothing by auction with the exception of the valise, which was to be
delivered by express to President Lincoln as a gift. Blackburn also
specified the contents of the largest trunk were to be sold in
Washington, D.C., callously remarking: “It will kill them at sixty
Mathew W. Liverly's online article is continued atCivil War Profiles July 13, 2014 Image Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, provided by Matthew Lively.
Professor, Waynesburg University, Director of Eberly Library, Adjunct instructor in U.S. history. Member: Ninth Pennsylvania Reserves, Pennsylvania Reserves Division; Chesapeake Volunteer Guard.
Areas of study: Civil War medicine, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Army Signal Corps, antebellum politics.