Early American warfare has always seemed — to me, at least — rather quaint. Men in uniforms line up in a grassy meadow. They march toward one another. They fire, reload, and fire again. Whichever army shoots the most people wins. I never assumed the battles ended with handshakes and backslaps, but they still seemed rather sportsmanlike.
So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a 2004 paper in the Colonial Williamsburg journal titled “Colonial Germ Warfare.” Germ warfare? In the 1700s?
As a matter of fact, yes. It turns out biological weapons have a long and sordid history dating back to way before colonists were killing redcoats (or vice versa). I learned that Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander best known for leading an army over the Alps atop an elephant in 218 B.C., used to catapult pots filled with snakes toward enemy ships. A little more digging led me to a paper enticingly titled, “The History of Biological Warfare,” which contains gems like this:
In 1495, Spanish forces supplied their French adversaries with wine contaminated with the blood of leprosy patients during battles in Southern Italy. In the seventeenth century, Polish troops tried to fire saliva from rabid dogs towards their enemies.
Both methods seem, at best, an incredibly inefficient way to spread disease. Symptoms of leprosy, a disease that is not all that infectious under the best of circumstances, can take as many as 20 years to develop. Early attempts at biological warfare were often stymied by an incomplete understanding of infectious diseases. For example, a Confederate doctor named Luke Blackburn tried to fell Union soldiers by handing them blankets off the beds of men with yellow fever, a disease spread by mosquitoes.
The blanket trick worked much better for smallpox. In 1763, an Ottawa chief named Pontiac led a band of Native Americans in attacks against the British. At Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania, Pontiac’s men laid siege. After nearly a month, two Native Americans approached the fort and urged the Brits to abandon their post. The British refused. According to the account of one man, William Trent, British soldiers “gave them blankets and a handkerchief out of the Smallpox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect,” he wrote. Smallpox hit the Native Americans hard that summer, although no one has yet proven that the blankets caused the outbreak.
If it’s efficacy you’re looking for, then anthrax is a good bet. During WWII, British researchers tested the potential of anthrax as weapon on Gruinard Island, just off the coast of Scotland. They placed a small bomb filled with anthrax on the ground and tethered a flock of sheep downwind. When they detonated the bomb, a cloud of anthrax spores drifted over the animals, which sickened and then died. Rumor has it that at least one sheep carcass washed into the sea and floated to the mainland, sparking an outbreak there. The island was uninhabitable for decades. (There’s a great article here).
The award for most gruesome form of biological warfare goes to the Tartars. In 1346 they laid siege to Caffa, a bustling trading post on the north coast of the Black Sea. The relationship between Caffa’s Italian settlers and the Tartars, who inhabited the region, had recently soured, and the Tartars were out for blood. When their men began to die of the Black Death, they loaded the corpses into catapults and flung them over the walls of the city. Or so the story goes. The only account of this atrocity comes from Gabriele de’Mussis, a lawyer who heard the tale secondhand. He writes:
The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone. No one knew, or could discover, a means of defense.
Never again will I make the mistake of thinking that warfare used to be less barbaric than it is today.
Thanks to Christopher Albon of the fascinating blog Conflict Health for pointing me to the Colonial Williamsburg paper.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons