Thursday, October 28, 2010

Medical Department #37 - Civil War Chemical Weapons

Below you will find my "Medical Department" from the November 2010 issue of The Civil War News. Enjoy!

By James M. Schmidt
The Civil War News – “Medical Department” – November 2010

“It is well known that there are some chemicals so poisonous that an atmosphere impregnated with them, makes it impossible to remain where they are…by filling larges shells of extraordinary capacity with poisonous gases and throwing them very rapidly into [Fort Pickens], every living soul would have to leave in double quick time — it would be impossible to breathe there.”

- “A novel Method of taking Pickens” – Richmond Daily Dispatch – June 4, 1861

It is impossible to separate weaponry from medicine in the Civil War, as ordnance of many types were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and many more thousands of wounds on the battlefield. While patent activity actually decreased in the first two years of the war before picking back up in 1863, there was an early and unmistakable increase in the proportion of inventions in the military arts during the war years.

Many of these inventions were improvements on conventional weapons, but the war also unleashed some unconventional – even “mad” – genius among inventors, North and South. “The attachment of knives to cannon balls in such manner as to be closed when the ball is placed in the gun, and thrown out when the ball is discharged” (actually an old notion) or an “arrangement of reflectors and lenses which would send a focus of light and heat two or three miles…so that it would set objects on fire with the same facility as an ordinary sunglass,” were but two such ideas proposed during the war.

Of special note is the emergence of ideas for chemical weapons from the minds of aspiring inventors. Examples of those ideas – many described for the first time in the historical literature - are the subject of the excellent article, “Proposals for Chemical Weapons during the American Civil War,” Military Medicine, May 2008, pp. 499-506, by Guy R. Hasegawa, Pharm. D. He describes weapons based on plant-based irritants, chloroform, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, arsenicals, sulfur, acids, and other compositions. He also describes the medical implications – effects and treatment - if such weapons had been employed as well as the era’s conventional wisdom on the ethics of using chemical weapons.

Readers of this column are no stranger to Guy, as his work has been the subject of several “Medical Department” columns over the years, including Civil War pharmacy (Dec 2000), medical cadets (Oct 2001), and quinine substitutes in the Confederacy (Sept 2007), and with good reason: his scholarship is always marked by an interesting subject, impeccable primary research, and an engaging writing style, and his chemical weapons article is no different in this regard.

Guy is a senior editor at the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy and is on the board of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Society of Civil War Surgeons. Recently, Guy was co-editor of and contributor to the book Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine (Edinborough Press, 2009), a collection of invited expert essays. All royalties from the book are being donated to Civil War medical heritage preservation.
Guy was kind enough to answer some questions about his interesting research on chemical weapons during the Civil War and the medical implications of their use.

“This is another example of stumbling across something that leads to a research idea,” Guy told me, describing how serendipity inspired his Military Medicine article. “I was looking at the service record of Confederate Surgeon Joseph Jones for information about quinine substitutes and came across a letter in which he recommended using prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) against enemy vessels.” Guy had heard of people suggesting cayenne pepper and chlorine as chemical weapons but not prussic acid, so he started looking for other ideas for chemical weapons that had not been described before in the Civil War literature.

In addition to the Official Records, period newspapers, and classic works such as Robert Bruce’s Lincoln and the Tools of War, Guy made extensive use of primary records, especially those of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, kept at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
He found letters from aspiring inventors proposing the use of everything from scalding water as a means of defense, cayenne pepper fired from artillery shells to irritate and blind the enemy (“and make them sneeze so as they can’t steady their musket), chloroform to “produce insensibility,” chlorine gas as a deadly poison, to mortar shells and “stink-balls” containing “odiferous matter.”
As interesting as the ideas are the people who proposed them, some of whom must have been clinically maniacal; one claimed “As a Field General or Officer you Will not find my Superior in the World.”

“My favorite ‘find’ was the hydrogen cyanide idea of Jones,” Guy told me. “He was certainly correct about the lethality of the poison, and his method of producing it - by mixing two safer chemicals - duplicates the technique used in gas chambers.” Jones proposed putting two chemicals (hydrochloric acid and potassium cyanide) in separate glass containers in artillery shells. “The concussion caused by firing the shell would break the containers and allow the chemicals to mix and form the lethal compound in flight,” Guy explained. The same idea has been used in modern artillery projectiles meant to deliver nerve agents.

Still, Guy was surprised at how utterly impractical some of the ideas were. “There was a suggestion to release cayenne pepper from kites or balloons that were flying over enemy positions,” Guy told me. “The pepper was to be released by pulling a string from afar, which would remove a stopper from the pepper-containing bag, and all this was to be done at night so the enemy would not be able to tell what was happening. It's hard to imagine any of this working, yet someone was absolutely serious in proposing it.”

While some of the ideas may seem futuristic and far-fetched — even comical — some, such as using cyanide or arsenic, would certainly have had serious medical consequences if put into play. Civil War surgeons — faced with treating victims of chemical warfare — would have been mostly empty-handed. Added to the battlefield casualties would be the inherently dangerous industrial environment as laboratories and manufactories engaged in production.

Aspiring inventors and advocates of these types of weapons “described the toxic effects of the agents fairly accurately,” Guy declares in his article, but adds that “physicians were ill-prepared to treat them effectively.” Indeed, even today, “treating toxic exposure to most of the agents would consist primarily of supportive care,” he writes.

That the weapons were not used can be attributed to several factors, including practical and ethical considerations. “Most of the ideas in my research came from people who had no concept of how to develop a weapons system that would allow the safe production and effective use of their ideas,” Guy told me. He also notes that the aspiring inventors rarely mentioned how to protect friendly troops. (Although not mentioned in the article, Civil War soldiers might have been able to take advantage of the era’s growing arsenal of respirators and artificial breathing apparatus to protect themselves from the weapons).

“I doubt that ethics would be much of a concern with the weapons meant for temporarily disabling the enemy, but for the lethal agents, I think the ethical issue would have been raised.” Guy told me. “It was widely considered dishonorable to use land mines, for example, so I suspect that employing deadly chemical agents - another situation in which the targeted combatant cannot fight back - would have met with resistance,” he added.

In the article, Guy points out that the Union's “Lieber Code” of 1863 barred the use of poisons, yet notes that this opinion was by no means unanimous. During the Crimean War, Britain’s Lord Playfair objected to the prohibition against chemical weapons, declaring “It is considered a legitimate mode of warfare to fill shells with molten metal which scatters among the enemy, and produced the most frightful modes of death. Why a poisonous vapor which would kill men without suffering is to be considered illegitimate warfare is incomprehensible.”

In his research, Guy discovered wartime correspondence that demonstrates that the belligerents during the Civil War held similar opinions as Playfair. A Vermont man declared that “any mode of Warfare is honorable in putting down open rebellion,” and a Mississippian wrote that using poisons was justified against a foe “whose whole and sole aim is our destruction.”

Though some of the ideas described above were not yet practical in the 1860s, they did anticipate some of the weapons used in later wars, including World War I, also known as the “chemists’ war.”

George Bernard Shaw’s oft-quoted lament that “In the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine,” certainly held true during the Civil War.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The National Archives and Records Administration have a video we would like to share with your readers on our Civil War Exhibit.

Here is the link