The Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Texas, 02 Aug 1905
In late March, early in the coronavirus pandemic, Rhode Island became one of the first states to consider a ban on out-of-state travelers. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) contemplated authorizing state police to stop cars and collect information about motorists with New York license plates at a time when New York City’s coronavirus cases were skyrocketing.
The Rhode Island National Guard was to be stationed at its airport, Amtrak and bus stations to question passengers about their travel plans, as well as help state troopers conduct house-to-house searches to find people who traveled from New York and demand 14 days of self-quarantine.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) responded by threatening a lawsuit if Raimondo implemented the proposal, saying “I don’t think the order was called for, I don’t believe it was legal, I don’t believe it was neighborly.” Raimondo instead chose to broaden the policy to include all other states. Later in the pandemic, Cuomo also ordered interstate travel restrictions.
While the New York/Rhode Island dispute was short-lived and concluded in a relatively neighborly fashion, the March 2020 interstate conflict has a much more heated antecedent during another epidemic. In 1905, Yellow Fever surged throughout the Gulf States, an outbreak culminating in the mostly forgotten Quarantine War between Mississippi and Louisiana.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the summertime Yellow Fever frequently swept through the southern states, bringing death and sometimes disorder in its wake. The outbreaks led to very aggressive state stances on its power to quarantine. For example, at times Louisiana had especially strict quarantines, ones upheld by a 1902 Supreme Court decision — a decision that would have worked in Rhode Island’s favor had litigation with New York ensued.
During this era, infected people or people suspected of infection with the “Saffron Scourge” were sometimes confined to Quarantine Camps, patrolled by armed guards. The harsh terms of detainment were referred to as Shotgun Quarantines. Ironically, African-Americans were less affected by quarantines because of the mistaken belief that black Americans were immune to yellow fever and did not necessarily need to be quarantined.¹
Three years after the Supreme Court decision, in summer 1905, another epidemic ravaged the Gulf States, leading to the most dramatic Shotgun Quarantine of the era. Mississippi quarantined itself against travelers from Louisiana as armed volunteers and State militia patrolled the border. Mississippi Governor James K, Vardaman and Louisiana Governor Newton C. Blanchard were the Cuomo and Raimondo of their times.
Historian Jo Ann Carrigan says of the dispute:
One of the most intense conflicts in relation to the quarantine problem arose between the sovereign state of Louisiana and the sovereign state of Mississippi, a conflict in which the two states reached a point just short of war.²
“War” may be too strong a term. (Although, in a 1988 monograph, Marshall Scott Legan calls the conflict the “War of the Waters” and the “Quarantine War.”)³ Nonetheless, contemporary accounts frequently referred to Mississippi’s “armed invasion” of Louisiana.
On July 26, 1905, Mississippi Governor Vardaman accused the health authorities of Louisiana of attempting to conceal the existence of yellow fever from neighboring states; Louisiana Governor Blanchard vehemently denied the charge. Nonetheless, Mississippi enacted a tight quarantine against all visitors by land or water. Under Adjutant General Arthur Fridge, Mississippi military personnel were sent to the Gulf Coast and Louisiana borders with orders to maintain the quarantine “at the point of a bayonet.”³ — a more dramatic version of Rhode Island National Guardsmen sent to airports, bus and train stations.
Not unlike our pandemic, opposition to quarantines focused on imposed economic hardships — today the refrain is “the cure is worse than the disease.” For example, Mississippi fishermen were prevented from landing with their catch on Louisiana soil; during the crisis over a hundred Louisiana fishing vessels were detained by Mississippi quarantine boats. The disruption of fishing prompted the Louisiana press to demand that Mississippi “call off the sea dogs and give Louisiana oystermen a chance to earn a living.”³ Unlike our times, oystering was not considered an essential business.
The Mississippi quarantine caused particular concern to New Orleanians since many of them sent their families to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the summer and whose absence had a negative impact on Mississippi businesses As Marshall Scott Legan says, “Within two days the Mississippi Coast’s hotels and cottages were empty.”³ In this case, it was Mississippians who complained against disrupted livelihoods.
At one point, the Mississippi press reported that Coast citizens “have almost threatened to secede from the state if the Health Board does not permit citizens of New Orleans to visit their families in Coast towns”³ — and support hotels and cottages. Think shuttered vacation destinations on the Jersey Shore.
In our own times, as seen in “What You Need to Know About the Mac’s Public House Controversy,” (New York Magazine, 12/3/20), a popular bar in Staten Island, chafing at unpopular restrictions, declared itself to be “an autonomous zone” — perhaps hoping to reignite the Staten Island secession movement from the other boroughs.
During the first week of August, the Quarantine War dominated the southern press, especially Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as other states stricken by the fever. The story also drew nationwide attention.
Tensions escalated when on August 2nd, as reported by the Louisiana Jennings Daily Times-Record, Mississippi patrol boats were said to be in Louisiana waters. The Daily Times-Record headline, “Vardaman’s Guards Invade Louisiana,” refers to an incident where armed soldiers crossed the Pearl River and were hanging around in Louisiana territory. As the press pronounced, this “armed invasion” of Mississippians thereby violated the Constitution of the United States which forbade an armed force of one state from entering another without first securing permission.
At this point, Blanchard ordered the Louisiana Naval Brigade to take action to protect Louisiana interests in Lake Borgne, the Rigolets, and Pearl River. For a moment, The Vicksburg Herald hyped an anticipated full fledged battle between two flotillas of gunboints. On August 5th, the Herald referred to the Louisiana patrol boats as “Blanchard’s Pirates.”
Not surprisingly, the Louisiana press bristled at the supposed invasion, describing the Mississippians as “Marauders.”
Ultimately, there was no grand clash like that which took place on the Mississippi river during the Civil War.One Mississippi boat did approach a Louisiana boat, demanding its credentials and destination. When it was found to be a boat of the Louisiana Naval Brigade, the Mississippi vessel fled the scene. The highlight of what Carrigan calls a “farcical war” was the capture of one Mississippi quarantine vessel by the Louisiana Naval Brigade and the jailing of its crew in St, Bernard Parish.²
Finally, on August 4th, Governor Blanchard and New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman wired President Theodore Roosevelt asking for assistance. By coincidence, during the “war,” Roosevelt was negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War for which he would win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Readers in Rochester learned that Roosevelt was sending the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service to take charge of the coastal area. Although the situation stabilized, citizens of both Mississippi and Louisiana expressed concern about the threat of federal invasion on states’ rights, reminiscent of Reconstruction resistance to Federal troops on southern soil.
Today, the Quarantine War of 1905 barely registers as a blip in the historical record, not even meriting a wikipedia page. Yet, the brief conflict inflamed the popular imagination. As Carrigan writes:
When reading the newspapers, one might think that Louisiana and Mississippi were actually at war. The Rigolets was termed “the base of operations” in a bombastic description of an “encounter between the war vessels of the States of Louisiana and Mississippi.”²
A week or so after its ending, the Natchez Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi) declared that those who lived through the Louisiana-Mississippi War had lived through “HISTORY.”
I see the heated rhetoric surrounding the The Quarantine War of 1905 as a form of Civil War nostalgia. An August 7th article in the the Jackson Daily News refers to “The Late Unpleasantness” — an overarching term used by southerners to describe the Civil War.
In 1905, the southern states still bristled at their supposed status as a defeated nation, 40 years after Appomattox. The images of the Quarantine War recounted thrilling memories of southern boys — soldiers and sailors — mobilizing for war — even if in 1905 it was two states from the old Confederacy pitted against each other.
Perhaps when Mississippi patrols crossed the Pearl River, newspaper readers could imagine General Robert E. Lee crossing the Potomac en route to Gettysburg or briefly imagine the non gunboat battle as either a reprise of 1862 on the Mississippi river at Memphis or when the Monitor and the Merrimack battled on the James River.
And, of course, African-Americans have no place in Civil War nostalgia, rendered in 1905 as supposedly immune non-participants.
When reflecting upon the the Quarantine War of 1905, I can think of the Rhode Island/New York dispute and the constitutional issues raised by states threatening other states. But, more so, I think of the near violence in Michigan by protesters against masking and other restrictions. Then, Trump told supporters to LIBERATE MICHIGAN with hints of armed resistance.
Thankfully — like Rhode Island and New York — Mississippi and Louisiana resolved their differences relatively amicably. But in 1905 and 2020, we can see how the fearful specter of contagious disease can pit citizen against citizen.
¹ EPIDEMICS, OUTSIDERS, AND LOCAL PROTECTION: FEDERALISM THEATER IN THE ERA OF THE SHOTGUN QUARANTINE, Polly J. Price, 19 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 369 (2016-2017)
² The Saffron Scourge: a History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796-1905., Jo Ann Carrigan, PhD thesis, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College, 1961.
³ “THE LOUISIANA-MISSISSIPPI WAR OF 1905,” Hancock County Historical Society (Mississippi)