Friday, February 22, 2019

Booknotes: The Confederate Yellow Fever Conspiracy

New Arrival:
The Confederate Yellow Fever Conspiracy: The Germ Warfare Plot of Luke Pryor Blackburn, 1864-1865 by H. Leon Greene (McFarland, 2019).

My introduction to the Blackburn yellow fever plot was the article (or articles) published way back when during the good period of North & South magazine. If memory serves, that periodical published a number of interesting pieces on various Confederate covert operations, including the boat burnings on the Mississippi, the plot to torch New York, and the infamous coal bomb that blew up a large part of the City Point waterfront. One author even suggested (she would say proved!) that the Sultana boiler explosion was an act of sabotage. As far as I know, H. Leon Greene's The Confederate Yellow Fever Conspiracy: The Germ Warfare Plot of Luke Pryor Blackburn, 1864-1865 is the first book-length study of that particular operation.

From the description: "Defeat was looming for the South—as the Civil War continued, paths to possible victory were fast disappearing. Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn, a Confederate physician and expert in infectious diseases, had an idea that might turn the tide: he would risk his own life and career to bring a yellow fever epidemic to the North. To carry out his mission, he would need some accomplices. Tracing the plans and movements of the conspirators, this thoroughly researched history describes in detail the yellow fever plot of 1864-1865."

Though not an epidemiologist or specialist in tropical diseases, Greene is a cardiologist and emeritus professor of medicine so it's probably safe to say that the medical aspects of the book are in safe hands. Some Blackburn supporters have asserted that many of the accusations lodged against the good doctor were grounded more in partisan political wrangling (particularly during Blackburn's 1879 gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky) than established fact, but Greene claims to have found more than sufficient evidence that the plot was very real. His book also delves deeply into the life of co-conspirator Godfrey Joseph Hyams and looks at the activities of other Canada-based Confederate agents as well.


  1. Drew: I vaguely recall that N&S issue. What was the good doctor's plan to spread yellow fever (since the only vector is mosquitoes and it's not contagious, although none of that was known at the time)? It seems to me that Amherst and other Brits were on to something more alarming with smallpox-dosed blankets in the F&I War and the AWI.

  2. The plan was to send trunks of clothing from infected people to be given to the poor in major cities. Blackburn believed that the disease would remain contagious in the clothing, apparently.


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