Ornamental Separator

A Revolutionary Fever

The smallpox epidemic in America affected the course of the Revolution

It’s too soon to gauge the long-term effects of the coronavirus on American history. But epidemics have affected the course of history before.

Indeed, the Revolution might have played out very differently had it not been for an epidemic of smallpox that swept through Virginia in 1775 and 1776, and again in 1780 and 1781.

Both dealt devastating blows to British forces and especially to the enslaved people who had escaped behind British lines.

In November 1775, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, issued his famous — to Virginia’s patriots, infamous — emancipation proclamation. Dunmore offered freedom to the enslaved people who would escape from rebel owners and fight for the British. Estimates vary as to how many took up Dunmore’s offer, but they were enough to buttress his forces.

But some of those who escaped contracted the disease, and by early 1776 smallpox was rampant among what became known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Like the coronavirus, smallpox spread via droplets diffused by coughing or sneezing, but it also spread via clothing and other objects contaminated by the scabs and fluid in the sores. It spread most quickly among Africans and African Americans, partly because they were largely segregated from Dunmore’s other troops and partly because many of his English troops had acquired immunity from exposure to the disease during their childhoods.

Dunmore’s army was so “reduced by the small Pox and an epidemic Fever,” wrote a captain of a British ship, that it “was now too weak to resist any considerable force.” In July 1776, Dunmore abandoned his camp on Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay, leaving behind hundreds of sick and dying Blacks and hundreds of corpses.

In August, Dunmore left Virginia entirely.

“Had it not been for this horrid disorder,” Dunmore wrote, “I should have had two thousand blacks; with whom I should have had no doubt of penetrating into the heart of this Colony.”

Washington’s Dilemma

George Washington well understood the suffering smallpox could cause. He caught the disease while visiting Barbados in 1751, when he was not yet 20. Washington’s case was a comparatively mild one, and it gave him immunity. But he knew the disease could blind and maim and kill, and he also knew it had weakened Revolutionary forces in Boston and in Quebec in 1775. Like the Africans and African Americans who joined Dunmore and unlike the British troops, Washington’s troops had mostly not been exposed to smallpox as children and were thus vulnerable.

“We should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy,” Washington wrote in January 1777.

Washington understood that inoculating his troops would, in most cases, induce a milder strain of the disease and protect them against the deadlier version. But inoculation was also risky. Only later did doctors increasingly implant cowpox, a safer procedure than inoculating with smallpox itself. The procedures available to Washington in 1777 would result in the deaths of at least some of those inoculated, while others might infect their fellow soldiers who had not been inoculated, as well as citizens.

Moreover, if the British found out about the inoculations, they could attack while the patriot forces were weakened.

Given the dangers of inoculation at the time, many preferred to try to slow the spread of the disease by isolating its victims. In Williamsburg, for example, guards were stationed at the homes of infected people. When some residents of Yorktown were inoculated in 1767, many feared it would open “A second Pandora’s Box.” In Williamsburg in 1770, the House of Burgesses imposed strict regulations that virtually prohibited inoculation.

Understandably, then, Washington wavered. First, he decided to segregate infected persons from the troops. Then he decided to inoculate his troops, only to change his mind again and order doctors to stop. Finally, he gave the go-ahead, and in 1777 and 1778 thousands of soldiers were inoculated.

That decision turned out to be crucial when, in 1781, Virginia became the main focus of the Revolutionary War.

Cornwallis’ Betrayal

In Virginia in 1781, Lord Charles Cornwallis and his British troops were accompanied by Africans and African Americans who had escaped slavery, just as others had joined Dunmore’s troops in 1775 and 1776. These refugees, men and women, fought for Cornwallis and also performed crucial services for his white soldiers, ranging from fixing equipment to nursing.

But they also brought with them smallpox.

The epidemic worsened when the Continental and French armies besieged the British in Yorktown.

“During the siege,” a Continental soldier wrote, “we saw in the woods herds of Negroes which Lord Cornwallis...in love and pity to them, had turned adrift, with no other recompense for their confidence in his humanity than the smallpox for their bounty and starvation and death for their wages.” Williamsburg’s St. George Tucker wrote that “an immense number of Negroes” died at Yorktown “in the most miserable Manner.” Thomas Jefferson later estimated that of the 30,000 enslaved he believed had joined the British about 27,000 died of smallpox and camp fever, a form of typhus.

Like Dunmore, Cornwallis abandoned the Black loyalists. Unlike Dunmore, Cornwallis did not escape but instead surrendered after what turned out to be the final major battle of the Revolution.

Many patriots suspected that Cornwallis pushed out of his camp the Black loyalists in the hope that they would infect the Continental army. Whether or not that was Cornwallis’ intent, the patriot forces remained healthy, largely as a result of Washington’s decision to inoculate them. “A compelling case can be made,” wrote historian Joseph Ellis, “that his...policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career.”

Historian Elizabeth Fenn, whose 2001 book is the definitive work on smallpox during the Revolution, hesitated to speculate about what would have happened if Washington hadn’t inoculated his troops. Fenn noted that it’s possible that many might have developed immunity anyway.

But, Fenn said, “We know that early in the war, smallpox was devastating to the American invasion of Canada. That certainly suggests it might have been devastating again thereafter.”

Fenn’s work extended beyond the war to cover the impact of smallpox as it spread throughout the continent. Not only did it bring great suffering to Native Americans but it also weakened them, making easier the later conquests of their territories. Fenn estimates that more than 100,000 people died of smallpox during the Revolutionary era.

“Probably half the people living in North America during the Revolution were native peoples,” she said. “For those in the east, the Revolution was a very important event, but for those in the west, smallpox was the defining event of the period. And it had very real consequences down the road. In many respects, epidemic disease and smallpox in particular did the dirty work of colonial expansion.”

Paul Aron
is the author of American Stories: Washington's Cherry Tree, Lincoln's Log Cabin, and Other Tales--True and Not-So-True--And How They Spread Throughout the Land, which was published in August.

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