The Confederacy’s “Dirty War”

My book, Civil War Rogues, Rascals, and Rapscallions includes biographies of three men who were key actors in an aspect of the Civil War which many know little about: the “Dirty War.”  Orchestrated by former Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, these tactics included chemical warfare and land mines.  Here are excerpts about Thompson and his fellow dirty warriors from the book, which is available at:

“While still serving in James Buchanan’s Cabinet, Thompson blatantly put his pro-Confederate views into the public domain.  While serving as Secretary of the Interior, he visited his native state of North Carolina to try to persuade it to join the Confederacy.  In a public letter, he wrote that the North was poised to subjugate the South and destroy slavery.  In 1864 Jefferson Davis asked Thompson to create a Confederate Secret Service office in Canada to coordinate a “dirty war” against the Union.  Once there, Thompson recruited Northern agents to perform a variety of acts of sabotage.  These included spreading yellow fever, burning New York city, poisoning that city’s water supply, rescuing Confederate POWs from a prison in Ohio, and possibly assassinating President Lincoln.   Fortunately, in part because of the blundering of the participants and in part because of Northern suspicions of Thompson, all these efforts, except the assassination, failed. “


“Gabriel Rains graduated from West Point in 1827 and served in the army until the beginning of the Civil War.  During his service in the Seminole War, he reportedly experimented with explosive booby traps, experience which would serve him well later.  Rains did not resign from the army until July 1861, but soon afterward he was given a Brigadier General’s commission in the Confederate army.  During the Peninsula campaign in 1862, he experimented with anti-personnel mines and time bombs. 

“Over the next two years Rains would implement development and placement of land mines both in harbors and on battlefields.  He also composed instructional materials for a variety of mines, including submarine mortar batteries and shells, vertical wood torpedoes, dart grenades, torpedo boats, Demi-john torpedoes, copper torpedoes, and magnetic electric torpedoes.  By the end of the war reportedly over 2000 “Rains mines” had been deployed.  The final mission of his bureau was to blow up the White House in April 1865, but that venture failed.”


“In September 1863, Richard McCulloh, a Professor of Physics and Chemistry at Columbia University, resigned his position.  His stated reason was that “It should encite [sic] no surprize [sic] that one born and reared a Southerner, prefers to cast his lot with that of the South.”  Soon afterward he joined the Confederate clandestine operations network and began working on creating chemical weapons, as sanctioned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“McCulloh worked assiduously on a variety of chemical weapons.  At a demonstration for Confederate congressmen in February 1865, he produced a “phial containing a colorless fluid.”  He claimed that if it were thrown from the gallery into the House of Representatives, it would kill them all in five minutes.  However, the war ended before McCulloh’s formula (which has never been found) and poison could be used.  After the war he was hired to be a professor by a former Confederate leader who was a University president:  Robert E. Lee.”

Below are pictures of the book, Thompson, and Rains. 

Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of seven more Civil War books -- with more to come!!

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