Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Wicked Dr. Blackburn

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on August 24, 2010

I’ve just finished Andrew McIlwaine Bell’s Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever and the Course of the American Civil War. It’s a wonderful book, and while I’ve had a good idea of how the spread of yellow fever affected events on the Texas coast, it’s revealing to see how widespread the problem was and how fundamentally it shaped operations during the war. Early in the war, Winfield Scott had cautioned against hasty and ill-prepared operations in the South, and instead urged General McClellan to wait for “the return of frosts to kill the virus of malignant fevers below Memphis.” In this, as so much else, the old general proved prescient.

One of the great stories Bell reveals is the Confederacy’s attempted use of biological warfare — specifically yellow fever — against the North.

Luke Pryor Blackburn (left; 1816-1887) was a Kentucky physician who had gained an international reputation as an expert on the treatment of yellow fever. Although no one, including Blackburn, recognized mosquitoes as the vector by which the disease spread, by the early 1860s Blackburn was famous for his knowledge and understanding of the disease. With the outbreak of the war, Blackburn held a number of offices supporting the Confederate government before, in late 1863, he relocated to neutral Canada to help in making arrangements for blockade runners.

Like another well-known native of a border state, John Wilkes Booth, Blackburn harbored a deep and smoldering hatred for the Union cause and, in particular, Abraham Lincoln. Like Booth, Blackburn never quite managed to find a way to get into a gray uniform during four long years of hard war. And like Booth, Blackburn would channel his anger and intellect into an improbable scheme that would, in his own mind at least, topple the Union government and its president.

In December 1863 Blackburn met in Toronto with Godfrey Hyams, an English-born Arkansas cobbler who’d skeddadled to Canada to get out of the way of the war, but who subsequently decided he needed to do something more substantial to support his adopted home. Like Blackburn, Hyams seems not to have been interested in military service, so the two Southern expats instead cooked up a plot to spread yellow fever throughout Northern cities, where the disease was less common than in the South, and where they believed the population would be far more vulnerable to it. Now all the pair needed was an epidemic, from which they could “harvest” the disease in a transmissible form.

In the spring of 1864 an outbreak of yellow fever occurred in Bermuda. Blackburn offered his services to officials there who, aware of his reputation as an expert on the disease, quickly agreed. Blackburn ministered to the sick and, in the process, accumulated a large collection of clothing from the dead and dying. The idea was that the (supposedly) infectious clothing could be easily and widely distributed, spreading the disease silently and without a trace to its origin. Blackburn returned to Halifax in July 1864 with eight trunks packed with yellow fever victims’ clothing, along with a fine new valise packed with expensive new shirts. The trunks were to be delivered to New Bern, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia (both cities at the time being under Federal control) and Washington, D.C. The valise was special, Blackburn told his accomplice; he had previously stored fever victims’ clothing in it, and Hyams was to deliver it directly to the Executive Mansion in Washington, where he was to leave it as a personal gift for the president. Hyams flatly refused to deliver the valise, but took the rest to Washington, where he sold five trunks of clothing at a local auction house, and arranged to have the others sent on to Norfolk and New Bern. Hyams then returned to Toronto, where he found Blackburn preparing for another “collecting” trip to Bermuda.

This time Blackburn collected three trunks full of clothes stained and soiled with the infamous “black vomit” — actually half-digested blood from internal hemorrhaging — and other excretions of yellow fever victims, and made arrangements for them to be shipped to New York. By this time, though, it was fall and Blackburn decided to delay the shipment until the following spring, when rising temperatures would aid in the spread of the disease. Blackburn left his trunks full of clothing with a shipping agent named Swan, and boarded a steamer for Canada.

In the meantime, Hyams had gotten tired of cooling his heels in Canada, waiting for the $100,000 payoff that Blackburn kept promising but never came through on. He crossed the border to Detroit, strode into the U.S. attorney’s office there, and told all he knew in return for immunity. About the same time, local informants in Bermuda tipped off authorities about the trunks in storage there, and Blackburn’s game was up.

There is ample evidence to show that while Blackburn and Hyams were operating on their own initiative, they did so with the full cognizance of the Confederate government. Hyams revealed that funds for his Washington trip had been provided by Colonel Jacob Thompson, a Confederate operative who was involved in other covert operations to sow destruction and unrest in the North. Thompson’s secretary, a man named Cleary, was a close confidant of Jefferson Davis and revealed that the Confederate president was aware of the plot, although not directly involved in it. Davis and Blackburn had been friends before the war, and Davis had received two letters from a mutual acquaintance who told Davis of the plot, and urged him not employ such tactics against their enemy. Davis ignored the letters and did nothing to discourage Blackburn.

In April 1865 Blackburn was charged by the U.S. Bureau of Military Justice with conspiracy to commit murder, but he remained in Canada, outside the reach of military authorities. The Canadian government tried him for violating their neutrality laws, but he was acquitted and allowed to remain in Toronto. He returned to his native Kentucky, which had never been placed formally under congressional control during Reconstruction, in 1872 and gradually rebuilt his prewar medical practice. He successfully ran for governor of Kentucky, serving from 1879 to 1883.

Upon his death in 1887, Luke Pryor Blackburn was buried beneath a monument bearing a bronze relief depicting the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

h/t: Jane Johansson’s Trans-Mississippian Blog.


6 Responses

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  1. TheRaven said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:22 am

    The Jan 2, 1864 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper carries this front page story (with illustration)….

    In The Ladies Saloon of the Steamer Welcome

    The dastardly character of the war on the part of the South has evinced itself in a thousand ways. Torpedoes on the rivers, on the roads, in works they lacked means or courage to hold, have been used on one side only, and history will record, with stern condemnation, on which side.

    Barbarism shows itself, too, in the constant attack on passenger boats and unarmed conveyances. The sketch portrayed by our Artist give recent instance of this spirit. The guerrillas have become very troublesome on the Mississippi. The Welcome, Capt. Bryan, from St. Louis to New Orleans, with a cargo of western produce and cattle, as well as a number of passengers , including several ladies, among others Mrs. Crocker, wife of the General in charge of Natchez, was attacked by guerrillas about eight o’clock on Sunday, Nov. 22, when passing a place called Waterproof, below Vicksburg. Without warning, and regardless of the lives of women and children, these wretches poured volley after [volley] into her. In the short time she was exposed she received 11 canon balls and 160 Minie bullets. One shell burst in the social hall or ladies cabin, tearing away the flooring and two doors and scattering the passengers in dismay. The wheel was struck and the pilot so alarmed that, but for the presence of Gen. Benton, who stood by, and, regardless of a severe wound he received, directed his movements, the steamer would have been taken.

    According to Wikipedia, FLIP was known to be “patriotic” and this example of front page news was clearly written to outrage and moralize. A cowardly Southern attack, on the Sabbath, made against women, with disaster averted only by the bravery of a northern general. Still, another example of the South’s war on civilians. To be sure, not nearly as colorful or forward-looking as Dr. Blackburn, but of a piece.

    At least Sherman had the decency to burn Atlanta and South Carolina. He must of fumigated a few million mosquitoes in the process.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 24, 2010 at 4:08 am

      Thanks for this. Western River steamboats were something of a research focus of mine. Welcome was a 214-foot-long sidewheeler built at Shousetown, Pennsylvania in 1863, so she was a new boat at the time. Perhaps because of this incident, she advertised in March 1864 for a trip from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana Territory — no Confederate guerrillas there. She burned at St. Louis in July 1864 and was subsequently rebuilt. Sold in 1871 for service between New Orleans and the White River; burned for good in August that year.

      A 449-ton, 214-foot boat is a hell of a big boat to run to Fort Benton, but they sometimes did it if the water was high enough. Would have drawn 3-4 feet normally.

      Question for you: do you have a good link to access FLIP? I use this for Harper’s Weekly, which comes in handy (images and text), with the same caveats re: bias.

  2. Ron Baumgarten said, on August 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks to you and your reader for sharing these stories. Just goes to show that terrorrist-style tactics are not limited to our day. These types of episodes do much to remove romanticism from the remembrance of the Civil War. Too often, the American memory is clouded by images of heroics on the conventional battlefield and the honor of the surrender at Appomattox. But there were evil people, as today, who would try to kill innocent civilians in the most unconventional ways. Sherman’s tactics were also shocking, but resemble more the military bombing of cities in WWII than current-day terrorism.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 24, 2010 at 2:12 pm

      Ron, thanks for taking time to post. Your point about terror-style tactics during the ACW — and more specifically, the never-ending cycle of retribution and retaliation — is something that I think doesn’t get its due attention in most discussions of the war. I recently came across a letter from a white officer in a USCT regiment, who describes an incident where his unit had been harassed, shot at, and had mounts stolen by a gang of Confederate guerrillas. He describes how troopers from another USCT cavalry regiment tracked them down, and when they caught them, shot them dead on the spot, explicitly in retaliation for Fort Pillow. The officer concludes his letter with something like (paraphrase), “I do not like this kind of warfare, and believe it to be wrong, but at the same time, I cannot blame them.” A lot of that sort of thing went on, and added immensely to the suffering of soldiers and civilians alike.

      I would quibble with the analogy of Sherman’s tactics in Georgia and the Carolinas with the bombing of cities during WWII. While Sherman was relentless is destroying property that could be used to support the war, he assuredly did not indiscriminately and willfully cause mass civilian casualties in the same way that, say, the firebombing of Japan did. The September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War has a feature on the exchange of messages between Sherman and Hood, in response to the former’s order for all civilians to evacuate the city. Also recommended, the essay “The Hard Hand of War” in MacPherson’s collection, This Mighty Scourge.

      • Dick Stanley said, on August 25, 2010 at 3:37 am

        Uncle Billy burned many civilian homes that had little to nothing to do with directly supporting the war. He said quite specifically that he was out to break civilian morale.

  3. Ron Baumgarten said, on August 24, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    I’d like to read more about the guerrilla aspects of the war. I have heard that “A Savage Conflict” is a good place to start, but have not yet had a chance to read it. The types of stories you mention remind me of the events we may more commonly associate with 20th century civil wars in Latin America or Africa. But they happened here, just as in all civil wars.

    With respect to Sherman, I see your point about avoiding civilian casualties and did not mean to imply that Uncle Billy was trying to indiscriminately kill non-combatants. Nevertheless, his destructive tactics are in a way a forerunner to the large-scale bombing that sought to bring war to the enemy’s very economic centers.

    Thanks for your recommended reading!


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