Popular culture has given us the idea that war used to be less vicious and more orderly. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the American Revolution, I can’t help but picture soldiers standing in straight single-file lines on either side of the battlefield waiting for the command to fire. It’s always been depicted as being so proper.
It turns out the British army may well have been using smallpox as a weapon against the Continental Army.
Smallpox would have been the obvious disease of choice for a redcoat germ warfare campaign. In Europe, the disease was common, and most British troops had already been exposed to it at an early age, and developed antibodies to protect themselves from it. Most American soldiers probably hadn't been exposed to smallpox, though, and wouldn't have developed an immunity.
Washington could have inoculated all his troops, giving them a mild infection and building up their resistance, but that would have laid up all his soldiers for a few days at the same time. Instead, he ordered new recruits who hadn’t been sick with smallpox to get inoculated between training and deployment. This got the army on its feet for the most part, but left gaps in the protection of some veteran troops.
At first, Washington did not seem to believe that the British would turn to biological weapons. While the colonials laid siege to Boston in 1775, the British in the city were busy inoculating their troops. British deserters reported to the Continentals that “‘several persons are to be sent out of Boston ... that have been inoculated with the small-pox’ with the intention of spreading the infection.” According to Gill, both Washington and his aide-de-camp initially thought the reports weren't credible, but Washington quickly changed his mind and wrote to John Hancock a week later when diseased deserters and civilians made their way into his camp.
That same year, the defenders of Quebec reportedly used a similar tactic. As Gill explains:
"It was rumored that General Guy Carleton, British commander in Quebec, sent infected people to the American camp. Thomas Jefferson was convinced the British were responsible for illness in the lines. He later wrote: ‘I have been informed by officers who were on the spot, and whom I believe myself, that this disorder was sent into our army designedly by the commanding officer in Quebec.’ After the defeat at Quebec the American troops gathered at Crown Point, where John Adams found their condition deplorable: ‘Our Army at Crown Point is an object of wretchedness to fill a humane mind with horrour; disgraced, defeated, discontented, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with vermin; no clothes, beds, blankets, no medicines; no victuals, but salt pork and flour.’"
It wasn’t just the rebel army the British were targeting, either. In one of a few cases of explicit evidence of germ warfare tactics, General Alexander Leslie revealed he had no reservations about infecting civilians. He told General Cornwallis in 1781 that he planned to bring “above 700 Negroes…down the River with the Small Pox,” and send them to various “Rebell Plantations.” Similarly, before Virginia's royal governor fled Norfolk in 1776, he was said to have intentionally infected two of his slaves with smallpox and then released them into the colony to spread the disease.
Atrocity, this reminds us, is not an invention of the modern era. The weapons may have been cruder and a little less effective, but the goals behind them – complete destruction of the enemy, collateral damage be damned – are something we can easily recognize from modern acts of war and terror.
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For more on colonial germ warfare, see Colonial Williamsburg. Hat tip to Christopher Albon and his awesome blog Conflict Health for putting the story on my radar.