In the autumn of 1861 Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan received an unsolicited letter from a naval engineer who recommended the use of poisonous vapors inside artillery shells. Though he declined to provide any detailed schematics of the means with which the shells could carry the poison, First Assistant Engineer Henry Clay Victor, fully believed he had found a way to neutralize enemy artillery positions on the battlefield.
“I fully believe I can so charge a shell, or any other explosive missile, that upon its explosion a smoke or vapor of so poisonous a nature will be exuded that animal life will be destroyed, or at least seriously impaired by its inhalation,” Victor claimed. He believed this would drive “an enemy from their guns preparatory to storming… no men could work when subjected its ordeal.”
Victor admitted he did not know whether his idea was new, but stated that he did not believe it “has ever entered the heads of our unscrupulous enemy, for if it had, they surely would not hesitate to use it.” He made sure to add: “If there is any merit in my suggestion, I wish some credit in common with those aiding me to carry it out.”
At the time Victor served aboard the U.S.S. Michigan, which patrolled the Great Lakes during the war. The engineer addressed his letter from Buffalo, New York.
In hindsight, George McClellan may not have been the best target for a suggestion for a revolutionary new mode of warfare. However Victor had served in the navy since 1855 and found his energies there” restricted and circumvented,” and thus was skeptical about his the idea might be considered there. “I decline making this suggestion to anyone connected with the Naval branch of the service, knowing the purloined spirit prevailing there, and knowing the jealousy with which any suggestion from an officer outside of the ‘line’ would be received.”
Victor even informed McClellan that he was “perfectly willing to enter the artillery branch of the army” to help implement his new idea. McClellan never followed up with Victor, but apparently filed the letter away. It is the earliest example of a proposal for chemical warfare via artillery shells that I have come across from the American Civil War.
Henry C. Victor’s September 30, 1861 letter to George B. McClellan is preserved in the Wiley Sword Collection at Pamplin Historical Park.