Biological Warfare

Conflict: Civil War

In the midst of the Civil War, plots against the president’s life were perhaps not the only conspiracies stewing. Just after the conflict had ended, a confederate double agent came forward with a surprising story.

"...these goods were carefully infected...with yellow fever?"

The above statement referred to Dr. Luke P. Blackburn, a known confederate supporter famous for his expertise with the yellow fever. With his affirmative, “Yes, sir,” double agent Godfrey Joseph Hyams confirmed that a plan had been formed by Dr. Blackburn to infect clothing and other goods with yellow fever, then distribute those goods throughout the Union with the hope of creating an epidemic.

There was considerable evidence against Dr. Blackburn, though most of it was circumstantial or provided by witnesses with reputations that were questionable at best. He was acquitted by public court, but the sentiment of the people turned rapidly against him after learning of his potential involvement in such a cold-hearted scheme.

"To destroy the armies, to destroy anybody..."

Of course, any effort to destroy the northern population using clothing “contaminated” with yellow fever was doomed from the start; in 1900, it was discovered that the disease was spread through mosquitoes, not by contact. And even today, historians still debate about whether the story is true or false. But if Dr. Blackburn’s plot was real, it is one of the earliest known attempts at biological warfare in history.

Read the complete testimony by Godfrey Hyams and more in the Lincoln Assassination Papers.