Where Armies Go, the Pox Follows: Smallpox in the American Revolution

The Number 1 killer of soldiers and civilians during the American Revolution was smallpox.

Now that this disease has been eradicated the name “Smallpox” no longer invokes the terror it once did. During the American Revolution however, 90% of deaths in the Continental Army were due to disease, and the two strains of Variola smallpox virus were the most brutal of these afflictions. Smallpox was also the target of the first military inoculation campaign in history.

Smallpox is a highly contagious disease characterized first by a rash and then by raised, fluid-filled blisters over the entire body. The mortality rate could be up to 35%. Over 60% of survivors suffered from scarring, and some might experience blindness, arthritis, or even limb deformation. This disease plagued humanity since at least the time of Ancient Egypt, and by the 1700s it was killing hundreds of thousands of Europeans annually. Having had no prior exposure to the disease, and thus no immunity, smallpox devastated Native American tribes when Europeans infected them (sometimes deliberately).

During the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 a smallpox outbreak struck the British garrison in Boston, and threatened to cross the siege lines to infect the American forces. Because of its prevalence in Europe and relative scarcity in the Americas, the British troop population, was less susceptible to the disease than the Americans. A significant percentage of British troops had either survived the disease or been inoculated (exposed to a less deadly strain), and were thus immune. Far fewer colonists had any prior exposure to smallpox, thus they were highly susceptible to infection. The Continental Army was lucky outside Boston, but the pox made its full fury felt among the American troops sent to invade Quebec in 1775. During the Siege of Quebec the British intentionally released numerous sick Canadian civilians, who subsequently infected the besieging Americans. This outbreak seriously weakened the attackers, contributing to the expedition’s ultimate failure. It also served as a loud and clear warning to the Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington.

During a trip to Barbados as a young man, Washington had contracted and survived smallpox, so he was keenly aware of the disease’s effects. He was also aware of the risks of inoculation: not only would inoculated troops be sickened, but some would die. There was also the potential that inoculated troops could actually spread the disease, causing an outbreak. Fear of inoculation was so great that in 1776 the Continental Congress forbade military surgeons from so treating the troops, but in February of 1777 Washington made the momentous decision to inoculate the 75% of the Continental Army who had not previously been exposed to the disease. Currently serving troops would receive the jab, as would new recruits, who would not join their units until healthy and immune. All of this was done in the greatest secrecy; had the British discovered that large numbers of American troops were sick due to inoculation, they might have attacked, dealing Washington’s Army a fatal blow.

In spite of the risks, Washington’s inoculation program, the first in military history, was a complete success. Subsequent to 1777, at no point were the British able to benefit from the ravages of smallpox in American units. In fact, the few smallpox outbreaks that did occur were very localized, and had minimal impact on Continental Army operations. The British and their Hessian allies were not defeated until 1781, but by combining cutting edge medical technology with a daring command decision, Washington won a decisive victory over smallpox in 1777.

Gideon Hawke and Ruth Munroe will witness firsthand the ravages of smallpox in the forthcoming Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

Library of Congress article on George Washington and Smallpox inoculation: https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/GW&smallpoxinoculation.html

Mount Vernon article on Smallpox, including an informative video: http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/smallpox/

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

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