Civil War Troops Used ... Chemical Weapons?

Both sides developed weapons, but rarely used them

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 31, 2014 6:16 PM CDT | Updated Apr 5, 2014 8:00 AM CDT

(Newser) – The US Civil War foreshadowed World War I in important ways—like trench warfare, new technologies, and violence against civilians—but few of us know about its forays into chemical warfare, the New York Times reports. For one thing, leaders on both sides saw the importance of disease before scientists fully knew how germs worked. Union leaders blockaded Southern ports, cutting off medical supplies and widening the spread of malaria. Meanwhile, Southerners planned to send clothing from yellow-fever patients to Union units, or ship dead patients to Union-occupied New Orleans. Neither plan went into action, but other innovations arose:

  • A Southern sympathizer in Kentucky planned to lace clothing with smallpox and sell it to Union men in Washington; one Union lieutenant may have gotten sick that way.
  • Confederate troops retreating from Vicksburg drove animals into ponds and shot them, apparently to contaminate drinking water.
  • Union troops employed various kinds of Greek fire—incendiary mixes that gave off noxious fumes and sometimes floated on water. Long-range shells with incendiary compounds were used to limited effect.
  • Confederates had various chemical-weapon plans, such as raiding the Monitor ironclad with chloroform, or firing a shell with chemical agents, but neither were used.
For more on the Civil War, Business & Heritage Clarksville reports on a new documentary series, Civil War: The Untold Story, which looks at the Western theater and little-known roles played by African Americans.

A depiction of the Battle of Chickamauga, 1863.   (Wikimedia Commons)
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