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.