8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

Larry Holzwarth - November 2, 2017

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
Plague traveled through Europe in the wake of armies, driven by refugees. Wikimedia

Great Northern War

In the early 18th century Russia and Sweden were both infested with the plague and at war with each other. The Swedish city of Reval (now Tallinn) in the region of Estonia was attacked by a Russian force of over 5,000 men. Reval was a walled city on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. It was overcrowded with refugees who had fled behind its walls to escape the approaching Russian Army, which had merrily destroyed all the villages and farms it had encountered during its approach.

By the time the Russian Army arrived before Reval’s gates, the walls of the city were sheltering nearly 20,000 people, with limited sanitation facilities available, overcrowded and unprotected. To make their presence and intentions clear, the Russians catapulted the bodies of many of the Swedes they had encountered during their march to Reval, and many of these were victims of the plague. The infected dead thus added to the strained conditions, (they probably didn’t help morale much either) and the lice and fleas carried in the clothing and hair of the dead soon found new living bodies on which to feed, spreading the disease within the overcrowded city.

Reval surrendered to the Russians before they launched a full attack, on the 30th of September. The Russians then chose to remain outside of the city which they had deliberately bombarded with disease. Within 10 weeks, the living population of Reval was reduced to less than 2,000 with more than 15,000 having succumbed to the plague.

Those who had been allowed by the Russians to leave fled to other cities in Europe, in many cases taking the plague with them to their destination. A large number of these fled to nearby Finland, which was soon being ravaged by the disease, with over 60% of the population of Helsinki dying of the disease before the end of the year.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
Idyllic Lake George was the scene of a massacre following the fall of Ft William Henry on 1757. The rampaging Indians contracted smallpox from their victims. Wikimedia

French and Indian War

During the siege of Fort William Henry, later chronicled by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans, the English and American defenders of the post suffered a recurrence of smallpox. Many Americans had been inoculated against the disease, and many more had survived it after contracting it at an age in which they were strong enough to survive its symptoms.

George Washington, who was not present at the siege of William Henry, was one such survivor of smallpox and bore the pockmark scars on his face for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, smallpox was one of the terrors of 18th century life and frequently fatal, especially when children or the elderly became afflicted.

When the fort was surrendered to the French Army and its Native American allies, many of them from the Abenaki and Huron tribes, the English and Americans left behind their sick and wounded to French care. The native Americans, not considering themselves party to the arrangements made by the English and French leaders, massacred the helpless and looted the encampments taking whatever caught their eye but especially blankets, always useful on the frontier.

Many of these items were infested with smallpox which had sickened their previous owners. According to Major Robert Rogers of Roger’s Rangers fame, the Huron even dug up some of the graves to obtain scalps for which they would be paid a bounty by their French allies. In doing so they further exposed themselves to smallpox for which they had no natural immunity and the idea of inoculation was to them totally unknown.

The French, English, and Americans had limited immunity to smallpox but the natives did not. By the following winter, after many of the warriors had returned to their villages, smallpox ran rampant through the tribes. The distance to the encampment of their French ally precluded the natives from reaching help in time. Whole villages were wiped out by the disease before it ran its course, and those that did survive were severely weakened, less able to resist the raiding parties dispatched against them by Ranger companies and the American militia. Although there is no evidence of an organized effort at William Henry to cause smallpox infestation, the Americans were certainly aware of the potential havoc it would cause and did nothing to stop it. They and their allies also took note of its effect for future use against their enemies.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
During a Treaty Conference the English gave the Native Americans smallpox infected blankets, leading to an epidemic among the tribes. Library of Congress

Pontiac’s Rebellion

Following the victory of the British Empire over the French in North America, many Native Americans viewed with growing alarm the encroachment of colonial settlers on what they viewed as their lands. Pontiac was an Ottawa war chief who built a fragile coalition of tribes along the edges of the Ohio Country and the area of the Great Lakes. Many of these tribes were historical enemies, creating an uneasy alliance.

The American colonists and settlers were officially proscribed from settlement west of the Allegheny mountains, but growing numbers ignored the King’s edicts and as the tribes felt the growing pressure they responded with open warfare. Lord Jeffrey Amherst commanded the King’s troops in the region and sought a quick solution to the problem.

Serving under Lord Amherst was one Colonel Henry Bouquet, a veteran of the French and Indian War who had served in the Swiss Guards in Europe before being acquired for British service as a mercenary. Bouquet was familiar with the events surrounding Fort William Henry and its aftermath. In response to a request from Amherst, who was also familiar with the earlier events, Bouquet suggested that an infection of smallpox among the “…Indians by means of blankets which may fall in their hands…” was not only possible but desirable.

A parley was arranged under the guise of preventing conflict and the opportunity was taken to present the arriving chiefs with “gifts”, including smallpox-infected blankets and other clothing and leather items. These the chiefs took home to their villages.

Modern-day estimates claim nearly a half-million Native Americans died of smallpox during Pontiac’s Rebellion – the number could be much higher – reducing Pontiac’s forces in the field and devastating the non-combatants in their villages. In the end, concerned with the cost of protecting the frontier, the British issued the Royal Proclamation which largely closed the Ohio country to settlement, and became a major contributor to the causes of the American Revolution.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
The Old Burying Ground in Cambridge is the final resting site of many smallpox victims of 1775-76. Flickr

The American Revolution – The Siege of Boston

Following the opening shots of the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British Army remained holed up in Boston surrounded by an American militia army. When George Washington arrived to take charge of this new “Continental Army” it was still made up of largely New England troops, famous for their intransigence towards authority of all types.

Boston itself was steadily reduced by starvation rations and disease, and British guards denied passage in and out of the city, with few limited exceptions. When smallpox broke out in the town the British were largely immune – most of their troops had been inoculated against the disease. Not so the New England troops outside of the town. British commanders attempted to take advantage of this by releasing some Bostonians infected with smallpox to the Americans outside of the city, weakening Washington’s army.

Washington was aware of the vaccination process – called inoculation – and that it still made the individual receiving it sick, but only for one or two days and with much milder symptoms. He organized and required participation in a plan to inoculate his entire army against the British attempts to spread the disease.

When Washington, was made aware by evacuees from Boston that a major British attempt to release victims of the disease – particularly slaves – into the American lines was forthcoming he redoubled his efforts. Washington’s program worked to some extent, but the overcoming of suspicious New England minds to inoculation led to numerous disciplinary problems for the American troops.

The British made several other attempts to spread disease in American camps as the Revolutionary War progressed, perhaps unsurprisingly since they had used similar operations in preceding wars. In 1781 in Virginia, en route to Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis was informed by a subordinate of a plan to release “700 Negroes” infected with smallpox among the plantations and towns of the Tidewater region. Another British officer by the name of Robert Donkin published a pamphlet suggesting the use of smallpox-infected arrows against the American troops.

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