The most effective general in the history of Russia is probably General January. The horrible cold, the snow and the ice have defeated invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler when the peasant armies could not. No matter the size of your army, the quality of its guns, or even the size of its artillery, General January has always been the ultimate victor.
Less well-known, however, is that there is an equally formidable military protagonist in North America: General Yellow Jack.
Ships coming into harbor carrying yellow fever would anchor off-shore and would hoist a yellow flag or "jack" to warn off other ships. This self-imposed quarantine had devastating consequences for the isolated crews--sometimes the entire crew would perish.
Yellow Fever is a viral disease that killed one out of five people stricken with the mysterious illness. Victims complained of intense headaches, fevers, chills, and frequent vomiting. The patient’s skin turned yellow as the liver slowly ceased to function. Dark bruises appeared on the victim’s skin and the more severely afflicted began to cough up what looked like coffee grounds—in reality coagulated blood as the victim began to drown in his own blood.
Every year, successive yellow fever epidemics would sweep across the US and some cities suffered almost annually, devastating the population. Between 1693 and 1901, ninety-five epidemics swept the country. Poor Philadelphia was hit eleven times, with one epidemic killing one out of ten people in the city.
Unfortunately, how the disease spread, what caused it, and even any means to effectively treat it were completely unknown. The most popular theory was that the disease was caused by an "imbalance of humors" and the result of "bad air". A common prevention was to open more windows and let in more good air (and a few more mosquitoes). It is the blackest ironic humor to consider that this disease (like malaria and several others) probably came to the new world in the water barrels of slave ships. The Amazon rainforest was not a mystery well into the twentieth century because travel to it was difficult--it was because travel in the mosquito-infested wetlands would kill you with the diseases that the Europeans had brought there.
The disease has, indeed, been a powerful force in military history. In 1793, a slave revolt broke out against the Grand Blancs who were quite literally working their slaves to death in their sugar camps. The riot was brutally violent, with horrible atrocities committed on both sides. Napoleon, then the emperor of France, sent a large army to put down the rebellion.
Napoleon's army arrived in Haiti just in time to meet General Yellow Jack in a full-blown epidemic. Of the 25,000 troops sent there, only 3,000 survived. Among the dead was Napoleon's son-in-law, General LeClerc. Shortly after this, diplomats from the United States showed up, wanting to buy the port city of New Orleans. Napoleon, still reeling with the loss of his army in Haiti, had just heard that a fresh yellow fever epidemic had broken out in New Orleans. Disgusted with the entirety of the pestilent New World, he decided to sell to the American ambassadors all of Louisiana for roughly the price the diplomats were willing to pay for just New Orleans. General Yellow Jack had just doubled the size of the United States.
Back in Haiti, the French abandoned the island. Because of General Yellow Jack, Haiti had the only successful slave revolt in history to result in an independent state.
Almost 50 years later, the United States was at war with Mexico. General Winfield Scott was to lead an Army to Mexico City, capture the capital, thus ending the war. To do this, he had to capture the port city of Veracruz. The city was almost impregnable due to heavy fortifications on an island in the harbor. The fort's guns pointed toward the city, while the city's guns faced the harbor. Enemy ships sailing between the guns would be destroyed long before they could reach the docks in order to unload.
General Scott landed his troops south of the city, marched them north and inland, and then used his artillery to shell Veracruz from the inland. After a full day of barrage, the town was ablaze, the hospital destroyed, and more civilians than soldiers had been killed. European diplomats left the town under a flag of truce, to plead with General Scott to stop the bombardment, but Scott refused.
The next day, the shelling continued for hours, until the town finally surrendered. By this time, over 6,700 rounds had been fired into the city. These artillery rounds were far, far from being smart bombs: they had killed over 1500 people, over a third of whom were civilians.
General Scott had a reason to commit what was, at best, an act of total warfare, and, at worst, a war crime. No one knew why, but the city experienced annual yellow fever epidemics starting in spring--roughly in the middle of April. Scott had landed in late March, and knew that if he could get off the beach and move his army farther inland fast enough, he could save the army by moving across the "fever line" on a map. What Scott did not know, was that that line on the map indicated where the terrain became too high and dry for mosquitoes.
Within months, Scott's army took Mexico City, Mexico surrendered, and it sold half its territory to the US for a pittance. While Mexico shrunk by half, the United States--with the aid of General Yellow Jack--grew by a third. The cost of this conquest was high: 1,192 men were killed in action, but 11,155 more soldiers died of disease.
General Yellow Jack--in cooperation with his colleague, General Malaria--easily defeated the French attempt to dig the first Panama Canal. After successfully completing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to build a 75 mile-long canal across the swamps and mountains of Central America. In 1884, 500 young French engineers began supervising what was thought to be a project of three years. None of the engineers lived long enough to collect their first month's paycheck.
When the Panama project was inspected by the crew of a British warship, the entire crew died of yellow fever.
The European work force, which eventually numbered over 20,000, battled insects as much as they did the mud and dirt. The legs of tables, chairs, and beds were placed into pots of water to prevent the insects from crawling up the furniture. The disease-carrying mosquitoes didn’t really need these improvised breeding grounds as the Europeans also left the windows open wide for the ventilation they believed would prevent disease.
After the mosquitoes had killed a third of the work force, the French (predictably) surrendered and sold the construction rights to the United States. Armed with the knowledge we had acquired from fighting in Cuba, the US finally knew what caused the disease. After a tremendous effort where the U.S. Army declared war on General Yellow Jack, the canal was completed in 1914.
Some of the battles were still close. A yellow fever epidemic in 1904 killed so many of the workers that their coffins stacked up faster in the railroad depots along the canal than the trains could haul them away.
Many people believe that General Yellow Jack has been retired, no: he and his fellow veterans--General Malaria and Field Marshall Plague--are just waiting in the reserves for an opportunity to do fresh battle. While they wait, they have welcomed new recruits: Lieutenant Ebola and Captain Lassa have joined the ranks. We win battles, eventually they win the wars.