Is it Honorable to Poison the Enemy?

One of the nicest features of the early nineteenth century newspapers in the University of Texas collection is the letters that they print.  Letters were, of course, one of their major sources of current news:  these letters now give us information that never made it into the history books.  The two letters following let us in on a moment of history.

Extract of a letter from Col. Parker, to the Adjutant General.
Wicomico Church, July 24th [1814]

The base and unmannerly conduct of the enemy, has united every one here, and called down upon them the curses of every honest man.  Besides burning the houses I mentioned to you in my letter of the 22nd, they took from every other within their reach every article they could carry away, destroyed what they could not, and broke the windows, doors, &c. and cut up the floors of the houses.  Add to this the wheat-stacks they burnt, the stock they killed, the tobacco and negroes they took away (of whom there were not less than 150) and you may well imagine the distress and ruin of the inhabitants on the Nominy.  Some persons were left without one single dollar on earth.  . . . .  Mr. Spence a citizen of this county, was taken a prisoner from his house, and carried to their camp.  He was told their force was greater than I made it, and that they intended to lay the country waste–that those who remained at home, would be treated well and their property respected, but all who fled, or joined the militia, should become the peculiar objects of their vengeance.  To several old negroes too, they stated, that . . . they burnt Mrs. Thompson’s houses, because she left them and because she placed poisoned spirit in her porch.  The truth is, in her hurry to get away, she had left some spirit and water in her porch, of which General Hungerford and myself, and the troopers who attended us, drank afterwards, and neglected to throw away.  The savages seeing it, pretended to imagine we were as void of honor as they are, and seized it as a pretence to do what they would have done at all events.  To repel this imputation and to supply Mr. Pierce with cloths, I sent early yesterday morning a flag aboard with a letter on the subject.  Capt. Lomax has not returned.”

Letter from John Tayloe Lomax to Lt. Col. R. E. Parker:

“Dear Sir–Your letter addressed to the Commander of his Britannic Majesty’s force in the Potomac, which I was ordered to carry, I delivered to Adm. Cockburn, whom I found to be the commander on board the Albion 74.

            The subject of the poisoned spirit was the first to which he directed his conversation, it appeared to have made a considerable impression on his feelings.  He remarked with much propriety on the horrors of such a mode of warfare, was glad to understand from you, that you received it in the same light, and alluded to the suggestion in your communication, that I was possessed of facts which would repel the imputation.  I remarked that the character of Virginians was a strong assurance that none of them could be found so base as to practise means so vile.–That the particular facts which you had directed me to state to him, were–that the spirit had been brought out by Mrs. Thompson for the refreshment of a gentleman who had gone to her house upon the approach of the barges, of which he drank–that when the forces landed, Mrs. Thompson hurried from her house leaving the spirit, glasses &c. standing out–that you and some other officers entered the house as she retired, meeting her at the gate, and discovered the liquor, of which you all partook–that you continued there until the nearness of the forces rendered it unsafe longer to remain–that upon retiring, some of the company, and I believe yourself, again drank–that it was quite impossible, in the short interval between your leaving your house, and the arrival of the British at it, that any poison could have been infused in the spirit.  . . . That although not particularly instructed by you to say what course you would yet take, I felt no hesitation in saying, that as a Virginian, and an Officer, you would feel equally interested to institute a rigid examination into the affair–such as should be satisfactory to him and to the world.  He alluded to a similar occurrence in Maryland, as having excited a suspiciousness of such practices.   I could not forbear remarking, that the honorable and prompt manner in which an individual had come forward on that occasion, to arrest the fatal effects, was a strong assurance of our abhorrence of the means, and that they would not be practised or countenanced.  He had stated that the information had come from a prisoner, but could not tell of what description.  I observed, that I had learnt on board the Albion, since my arrival, that a negro had given the information.  That it would be hard if credit were given to such testimony, to fix an imputation upon our people, which, for the honor of human nature, was almost incredible.  That it was very probable that a slave in the moment of his liberation, might wish to excite as angry and vindictive a spirit as possible, in the bosoms of the enemies of his former masters; and that no suggestion would be more effectual than the one under consideration.  He said he knew not before that it was a prisoner of that description, and sent an officer to enquire in the ward- room, if it was known what prisoner had given the information.  The officer returned and said, that the officers stated, they received the information, or heard it as coming from a negro.  The conversation concluded upon that subject with my expressing my readiness and my wish, to receive any information from him, which could aid in an investigation.  Mr. Pearce, he would no consent to liberate.

            A search was ordered through the fleet for the books, &c. which Mr. Douglas wanted.”

But the story does not end there.  Colonel Parker’s superior, General Hungerford, wrote the following letter to Admiral Cockburn, on August 5, 1814:

“Sir–Being called into command of the forces in this quarter, Col. Parker reported to me the correspondence which had taken place between you and himself, and the proceedings connected with it.  At the same time he claimed it as due to the command which he had held, and as due to the character of our people, that a court of enquiry should be constituted to investigate the imputation that poisoned spirit had been left in the way of your troops in their attack upon Nominy.  Altho’ well assured as I was, that no citizen cold have perpetrated a deed so base, and disdaining too a charge coming from a deserted slave, I have condescended to wave, for the purpose of a fair adjudication, my confidence in the former, and my distrust in the latter, and ordered the court which Col. Parker solicited.  A copy of their proceedings and decision, I have thought proper to enclose you.  I am, sir, with due consideration, yours, J. P. Hungerford, B. G. Commanding.”

 Admiral Cockburn, on H. B. M. S. Albion, in the Potomac, replied on August 11.

“Sir–I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, bearing date the 5th August, accompanying the report of a court of enquiry, which you inform me you had ‘condescended’ to order respecting the spirits reported to have been poisoned and left in the porch of a house at Nominy.  As this ‘condescension’ on your part has certainly not proceeded from any enquiries of mine, and as the tenor of your letter admits not of other reply from me, I beg to decline any further discussion with you on the subject.  I have the honor to be, sir, your most obedient servant, C. Cockburn.”

            Following is the report of the court, summoned by Brigadier General Hungerford:

                                                   H. Q. Yeocomico Church, August 3

            “The court, after the most mature deliberation upon the evidence, hesitate not to declare to the commanding general, and to the world, their decided opinion, that the charge ‘of poisonous matter having been infused in any spirit left in the house at Nominy, on the evening of the 20th July,’ is utterly without foundation and, they rejoice at the opportunity which this investigation has afforded them, to declare their abhorrence of so dishonorable an act.

Vincent Braham,
President.  Jno. W. Jones,
Judge Advocate.”

So, by all evidences, British and American, it is NOT honorable to attempt to poison the enemy.

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About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden