Germ Warfare & Small Pox During the American Revolutionary War

Siege of Boston

Boston, November 25, 1775: besieged British sent several boatloads of men, women and children, three hundred in all, across the Back Bay. They were left on the shore near Cambridge and the transport quickly departed. Ragged, weak, distraught, many sick and dying, it was a heartbreaking tableau to the rebels who came upon them. “The whole in the most miserable and piteous condition,” wrote Washington. At first it was believed that General Howe was just making room in Boston for the expected reinforcements from Britain.  But rumors spread that they had been sent for other, “diabolical…[reasons]…with [the] design of spreading the smallpox through this country and camp.” It was a charge that Washington expressed firmly but that he could not believe. However, when another one hundred and fifty Bostonians were found along the shore whose condition was similar and “most dreadful,” Washington needed no more proof of Howe’s design. He described the disease as a “weapon of defense they are using against us.”

Portrayal of escaped slaves flocking to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation offering freedom to patriot bondsmen. After the Battle of Great Bridge, several escaped slaves who made the British lines were found abandoned, inflicted with small pox.

A few months later, the besieged Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, was forced to retreat to his fleet in the Norfolk, Virginia harbor. In response to his issuing a proclamation in the summer of ’75 which declared all slaves of patriots who came to him be granted their freedom, and raising an ‘Ethiopian’ Regiment of over 800 blacks, the militia of Virginia answered in arms. After the Battle of Great Bridge, smallpox broke out in the harbored fleet of over a hundred vessels. Some weeks later, rebels discovered that many sickly black men and women were deposited along the shore, especially near populated areas. These “poor, wretched creatures in a most disdainful state,” were all infected with the smallpox disease. Locals were convinced it was done with the purpose of spreading the disease among the populace, especially after repeated “dispositions of poxed bondsmen.”

During the Canadian invasion by American forces, it was purported that several prostitutes in Quebec were intentionally infected with the smallpox disease then sent out among the besieging American troops.

And towards the last stages of the siege of Yorktown, it was reported that a desperate General Cornwallis purposely infected a good number of African Americans. These slaves had attached themselves to him as he made his way across Virginia and some thousands were retained behind the redoubts and barriers of the British army. Under cover of darkness, the infected former slaves were forced past the British lines and left where rebel and French forces would find them with the hope of spreading the disease throughout the camps surrounding the English forces.

Small pox contaminated blankets delivered to Native Americans.
British General Jeffrey Amhurst authorized infecting the Native Americans with small pox.

Smallpox as a weapon in America can be traced back to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War (1756-1763) during the Pontiac Rebellion which broke out after the war. Amherst first posited the opportunity of giving the Indians infected blankets in a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet who would later lead reinforcements to Fort Pitt. Although Amherst’s letter has been lost to history, Bouquet did discuss the letter in a postscript dated July 13, 1763:  “I will try to inoculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands….”  Amherst replied:  “You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets…as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race…”  Bouquet wrote back:  “…received your Excellency’s letters of 16th…all your directions will be observed.”  History does not know if Bouquet actually followed through with the plan. However, the disease had broken out at Fort Pitt some weeks earlier and it is known that the following spring, smallpox decimated the Native Americans in the region.

Smallpox was the scourge of the 18th century, having killed over sixty million in that century alone. First appearing in humans around ten thousand BC, it received its current name of small pox to distinguish it from the Great Pox known as syphilis. The disease has infected all social classes over time and has killed approximately fifty percent  of an afflicted populace. Symptoms began with a high fever, aches, and nausea; a rash would soon appear in the mouth, which rapidly spread over the entire body until the skin was covered in pustules that ‘bubbled’, crusted, and scabbed, which left pitted scars on the survivors who were then referred to as ‘pockmarked.’

Small pox inoculation

Europeans had no way to combat the disease until 1720 when traders brought back the process of variolation from the Middle East. First used by the Chinese, small samples of smallpox pustules were taken from those infected who survived the disease and then placed into healthy people through the nose or scratching the skin. Patients usually contracted a mild case of the disease. Upon recovery, they were immune from smallpox. Nevertheless, during this period they were extremely infectious and had to be quarantined. It was a risky practice as some  2% of patients never recovered.

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner experimented with cowpox and smallpox, comparing their relationship. Cowpox is the milder of the two diseases and is non-fatal. He discovered that inoculation of healthy subjects with cowpox virus made them immune to the more deadly smallpox. He called this procedure of inoculation ‘vaccination’ from vacca, Latin for cow.

Washington visits the sick and injured.

That the American forces during the Revolution suffered from small pox is an understatement. Not two weeks after the rebels entered New York City, smallpox erupted out of control. Rumors spread that the disease was supplanted by the British, but by then sanitary conditions were at their worst after the evacuation of the Tories, which accounted for over half the city’s population.  Shortly after this outbreak, General Washington heeded the call for more troops to be sent to the faltering invasion of Canada, he thought he found a twofold solution. He would save the northern invasion by sending 3,000 regulars presently stationed in New York City to Canada, ten of his best regiments under the command of General Sullivan.  This action would also save these healthy men from the dreaded disease. Unfortunately, once the Americans were stationed along the islands of the Richelieu River, north of Lake Champlain and what is now the Canadian Border, a smallpox outbreak devastated Sullivan’s forces, littering the land with fresh graves and one of the main causes of the army’s eventual retreat to Ticonderoga.

Ill soldier by the road by Edward Penny.

Washington and his generals did not approve of inoculating the army, ordering battalion surgeons to avoid doing so. General Putnam interpreted the order pertinent to all physicians in the city, and he jailed Dr. Azor Betts after  it was reported that he inoculated several officers, including Lt. Colonel Moulton of Connecticut from Wadsworth Brigade. After Betts’s trial, Washington issued an order: “…in endeavoring to prevent the spreading of the Small-pox (by Inoculation or any other way) in this City, or in the Continental Army, which might prove fatal to the army, if allowed of, at this critical time, when there is reason to expect they may soon be called to action.”  The law went on to say:  “Any Officer in the Continental Army, who shall suffer himself to be inoculated, will be cashiered and turned out of the army, and have his name published in the News papers throughout the Continent, as an Enemy and Traitor to his Country.”

Yet as smallpox spread through the city, Washington sent his wife Martha to Philadelphia to be inoculated. Washington is credited for saving thousands of lives later in the war by sending his troops to Philadelphia where they were inoculated by the process of variolation explained previously. Unfortunately, this change of heart was too late for those soldiers who died horrid deaths among the squalor of New York City in the summer of 1776.

Where British commanders used smallpox as a weapon, most did so as a last and desperate act, usually during a siege.  This does not in any way condone their actions, but to suggest that the British hierarchy would not have supported such measures and would have objected to the use of the disease in such a hideous manner remains questionable.  The answer is lost to history.

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Nurse tends to sick and injured soldiers.

Becker, Ann M., Smallpox in Washington’s Army:  Strategic Implementatons of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War.  The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Apr. 2004) pp 381-438

Fenn, Elizabeth A., Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.  2001, Hill & Wang Publishers, New York, NY

McCullough, David  1776.  2005  Simon & Schuster, New York, NY


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