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Drop Poision Gas from a Balloon - August 1997 Civil War Times Feature

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1997 
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Drop Poison Gas from a Balloon
Drop Poison Gas from a Balloon

Bombing enemy positions from aircraft during the Civil War? That's exactly what one Confederate soldier proposed as a way to overcome a Yankee fort in Florida.

BY BELL I. WILEY

As various historians have observed, the American conflict of 1861-1865 was the last of the old-fashioned and the first of the great modern wars. It was old-fashioned in that men wielding muzzle-loading weapons charged in mass formation with the generals out in front, and between battles opponents fraternized freely, even to the extent of exchanging visits, trading coffee for tobacco, swapping newspapers, swimming together, singing together, drinking together, and gambling together. It was modern in that repeating weapons were introduced to a limited extent on both sides, along with land mines, hand grenades, torpedoes, rockets, and flame throwers. It was also the first war in which a submarine sank an enemy vessel and ironclad warships were engaged in battle. References of Confederates to shooting down "moving bushes" in the Atlanta Campaign indicate the use of camouflage by Union troops. On September 11, 1862, germ warfare was proposed when R. R. Barrow, a Louisiana planter, wrote to Duncan F. Kenner of the Confederate Congress: "I have been surprised that nothing has been done to carry the yellow fever into New Orleans. It could be done so easily by sending a man that had already had the disease to some yellow fever town & there procure fever corpse, wrap the dead body in Blankets & put in a metallic coffin. Bring into N. O. Thus started the fever would soon become an epidemic throughout the city." Evidently nothing came of this suggestion. Barbed wire was not developed until after the Civil War, but a Pennsylvania soldier describing an encounter with Confederates near Winchester in June 1863 stated: "It was by a small woods. The Rebs were in there. They had wire around the trees so our men couldn't get near them…. They fought like demons. Our cavalry run like forty."

Recently a letter was found in the National Archives which suggested a startling innovation. This letter proposed dropping on Fort Pickens and Federal ships at Pensacola, Florida, bombs containing poisonous gas. The bombs were to be dropped from a Confederate balloon anchored above the fort. The letter, written to Confederate Secretary of War L.P. Walker by Private Isham Walker of the 9th Mississippi Regiment, was accompanied by a sketch giving details of the proposal. Letter and sketch were filed in the Confederate War Department and apparently no attempt was made to implement Private Walker's suggestion of aerial bombardment with poison laden missiles. Records in the National Archives show that Walker was honorably discharged by General Braxton Bragg's special order Number 251 of October 3, 1861. Nothing is known of his subsequent career.

Camp Magnolia Near Pensacola, Florida, June 4th /61
Hon. L. P. Walker
Secretary of War

Hon Sir about one month ago the undersigned addressed his Excelency Jefferson Davis, proposeing to donate his Skill and body in an adventure to distroy the fortress Pickens and the fleet adjacent.

I am now informed that I must address you Hon. to get my Scheams propperly noticed, inclosed please find a rough Sketch of my plan for Bombarding Pickins and the fleet from balloon held in equilibum by 4 copper wires anchored as Shown and at an altitude of two miles, drop Poisonous Bombs into the fortress and fleet, which will be more effective than all of our batteries also Shown in the Sketch, the adventure is Practicle, Safe and Sure, endangering no lives in [the] confederate army, and the whole cost only Twelve Hundred Dollars for Balloon, wire, and chimicals, after the reduction of Pickins I offer my cirvices with the Balloon as a araunatic reconnoiter, takeing Photographic positions of U.S.A. the undersigned is a practical Balloonist, also a native of Tennessee and now a citizen of Holly Springs Miss. a private in Company, D, better known as the Jef Davis Rifles Hon Saml Benton Captain 9th Rigment Miss volinteers.

An adventure of this kind would greatly facilitate the opperations of the confederate army, and I desire to be engaged in this branch of the cirvice, with or without any rank as it may please his Excellency the Prisident of C. S. of A. I would most respectfully call your attention to the fact, that Louis Napolion employed my old friend, mon Goodard in his last campaign against Austra–Goodard before an attact would asend from the reare of napolions army and Sketch the position of the Austrans and the result was he won every Battle, for the attact upon Pickins I propose to place in the Bombs along with the Power a powerfull Subtile Poison perfectly innocent until ignited but deadly and awfully distructive when fired, Poisoneing the atmosphere for Several rods in every direction produceing the Same effect upon the Surounding air on the Bohon Upas Tree of Africa.

From the Sketch you Hon will readaly See the practibility of Reducing Pickins and the fleets near this camp nearly every day we have a perfect Calm in the evening, and in the morning a gentle breeze from the Redoubt toward Pickins thus favouring my Scheame for gently ascending from near the Redoubt two miles high then Slackening on the land cables until I shall reach the position of rite over Pickins and then drop those deadly Bombs, with more unerring aim than can be had from any morter, they decending with accillerated motion for two miles would pass cleare through any covering on any fortress and when they exploded death would be the cirtin doom of every liveing creature near, I wish to take Pickins and Monroe by this Stratigem I will risk my life in the adventure and if Successfull Save the life of many of my friends and relatives eager to attact Pickins. I could come to Montgomery or Richmond and make the Balloon and get ready for the ascention in Six weeks, I send you a cirtificate of my Standing at Home which you will please mail back to me. I would also most Respectfully inform you that Abe Lincoln has accepted the offer of a Balloonist to take Photographic Observations of the positions of the Confederate Troops in Virginia. I most humbly ask to be engaged by his Excelency to give them a heave over at Pickins and at fort Monroe.

Anxiously awayateing your Reply I Subscribe myself your most Humble Servant

Isham . . Walker
Jeff Davis Rifles
9th Rigment miss Volinteers
Ceare pf Saml Benton

To the Officers and Breathern of the Independent Order of Good Templers.

In Compliance with a resolution passed in Phoenix Lodge No 35 of the I. O. of T. T. at Holly Springs Missi. May 2d 1860, We take great pleasure in recommending to your favoravle Consideration Our worthy brother Prof. I. Walker, Who is an able eloguent & Fearless Lecturer, a gentlemen of Sciantific research and unexceptionable moral character and whose whole sole is enlisted in the cause of Temperance. Prof. W. is about starting on a tour throughout the state of Mississippi as a commissioned D. G. W. C. Templer he having received his commission from the Rev. H. Paine G. W. C. Templer of the Grand Lodge of Mississippi.

In witness whereof we assign our names and affix the Seal of this Lodge May 3d 1860.

E.A. Thomas W.C.T.
Charles L. Brackin, W. S.



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