We often associate the emergence of American black operations (black ops) with the CIA and its post war atrocities. However, the tradition is well documented from the Civil War with some interesting cases from the Confederate States of America involving biological warfare which brought war into its modern phase.
Edward Steers, though not a professional academic historian, has produced some of the best material on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln starting with his scholarly Blood on the Moon which we recommend for, if for no other reason, its debunking of the many ridiculous Lincoln legends associated with his assassination on April 14, 1865. If you still harbor any suspicions that Booth escaped or that Mary Surrat or Samuel Mudd was innocent, then please read Steers’ book.
When we say that the Civil War propelled war into its modern phase, we mean to say that the chivalrous ideals, even if acknowledged only in word, evaporated into smoke in the prosecution of this war. Steers documents how emancipation triggered a sequence of actions leading to covert terrorist activities against civilian populations.
The Confederates maintained two prison camps outside of Richmond whose conditions were deplorably inhumane, due in part to the South’s declining ability to feed itself. When Lincoln discovered from his generals that Richmond was lightly defended, he ordered them to undertake a raid against the camp at Belle Isle, south of the city, to liberate the suffering prisoners.
Colonel Dahlgren, operating under orders from Major General Benjamin Butler and his subordinate Brigadier General Isaac Wistar, led 500 men around the Confederate troops to execute a surprise raid against the prison. Unfortunately Dahlgren’s raid failed in an ambush costing the colonel his life. The Confederates discovered orders on him, in Dahlgren’s hand, whose mission included the killing of CSA president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.
The CSA made much political hay of this including incensed outrage that anyone would include civilian leadership in such a despicable deed. The North under General Meade strongly denounced the orders in a bid to exculpate his command and president. Steers argues that Meade and Lincoln were certainly aware of the raid and more likely than not to have known about the assassination attempts on southern leadership.
This episode of warfare may have possibly signaled the next major act of aggression by the South which, under the operational direction of Luke Pryor Blackburn, planned a Yellow Fever infection of the populations of Norfolk, VA, New Bern, NC, and President Lincoln.
During the mid 19th century, medical science believed that Yellow Fever was highly contagious, with Blackburn regarded as one of its foremost authorities who was hailed for saving certain southern communities from Yellow Fever epidemics. Fortunately for the targeted victims, this “medical fact” turned out to be false, in much the same way as the farce about HIV causing AIDS.
When one epidemic broke out in Bermuda, Blackburn was dispatched there to assist in the quarantine efforts but also to gather infected garments to be sold in the above named localities in order to precipitate Yellow Fever outbreaks. Union troops were stationed in these areas, thus they were deemed suitable targets.
The trunks of clothing were sequestered until the time to unleash the menace was ordered from either Secretary of War Seddon or Secretary of State Judah. The plot was brought to light during the trial of Lincoln’s murderers and by a Canadian court case in which that nation’s neutrality had been violated by the operations of the CSA's secret service on Canadian soil. The trunks had been shipped through Nova Scotia but was outside Canadian jurisdiction at the time, resulting in a dismissed case.
The key man in both trials was Godfrey J Hyams who was the runner for the trunks who first appeared in the Lincoln trial. His testimony, according to Steers, has been dismissed as unreliable in connection with other Union witnesses who were discovered to be known perjurers during testimony. However, the Toronto case and subsequent correspondence from an Episcopal minister turned spy, Kensey John Stewart, corroborates his story. On December 12, 1864 Stewart notified Jefferson Davis in writing of the plot involving Blackburn. Furthermore, payments owed Hyams and others operating in Canada were specified in gold, a transaction requiring Davis’ explicit authorization.
Thus we see that the Southerners had envisaged, even if on bad medical advice, acts of mass terrorism involving the murder of civilians in an effort to win the war. However, the burning of Georgia and other parts of the South was not a gentleman’s war act either, so we do not claim that either side held the moral high ground.
But the more interesting revelation is that the Civil War was by no means confined to the battle field, a perception which prevails in certain quarters due to the well documented and published narratives of the campaigns and battles fought in the bloodiest American war. We find it interesting that in many ways the war brought the art into the modern age where rifled and automatic weapons gained prominence as did covert operations with spooks operating on Canadian soil for sanctuary. War would never be the same but always hell.
Blood on the Moon, Edward Steers
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