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Dwight D. Eisenhower in Defense of Robert E. Lee

Lee Close-upRobert E. Lee remains one of the most polarizing figures of the Civil War (or War Between the States). Debates and opinions abound in newspapers, books, and social media as to whether Lee is a person to be admired or condemned. Many of the anti-Lee arguments center on his resignation from the U.S. Army to fight for the Confederacy, an act many view as an inexcusable violation of his oath as a West Point graduate and army officer. 

Along those lines, surely an exemplary officer and general like Dwight D. Eisenhower would also regard Lee as a traitor, would he not? Basically, that was the question asked of then President Eisenhower in August 1960. During the Republican National Convention of that year, Eisenhower mentioned that he kept a picture of Robert E. Lee in his office. That prompted a dentist from New York to send the following letter to the White House:

Yellow Fever Plot of 1864 Targeted Lincoln, U.S. Cities

Yellow Jack

Death as a sailor bringing Yellow Fever to New York
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

In the summer of 1864, Dr. Luke P. Blackburn, a Kentucky-born physician turned Confederate agent, allegedly instituted a bioterrorism plot against United States cities and President Abraham Lincoln. Blackburn’s goal was to “release” Yellow Fever through the distribution of infected clothing, with specific articles being sent directly to Lincoln. The plot was unsuccessful, however, mainly due to a 19th century misunderstanding of how Yellow Fever is transmitted, but also because a disgruntled fellow conspirator revealed the plot to U.S. authorities.

Yellow Fever, also known as “Yellow Jack,” after the flag that was flown from quarantined ships in harbors, was a deadly disease in U.S. coastal cities during the 1800’s (an 1853 outbreak in New Orleans, Louisiana, produced 9,000 deaths – 28% of the city’s population). The disease was notorious for causing “black vomit,” an ominous clinical sign resulting from hemorrhage in the stomach.