J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

The Continental Officers Inoculated in May 1776

On 24 May 1776, Dr. Isaac Foster of the Continental Army discovered that Dr. Azor Betts had inoculated four officers against smallpox, and also against Gen. George Washington’s orders.

Those men were identified in the commander’s papers as “Lt Colonel Moulton, Capt. Parks, Doctor Hart and Lieut. Brown.”

It might be no surprise those all appear to be Massachusetts officers. Not only did Massachusetts supply the bulk of the Continental Army in early 1776, but its officers still tended to follow their own counsel.

Lt. Col. Johnson Moulton (d. 1793) came from York in the district of Maine. He gained the rank of captain during the French and Indian War, and on 21 Apr 1775 he led a militia company south toward Boston. When he and those men returned home after four days, Moulton discovered that James Scamman had already started to recruit a regiment from the area, which proceeded to the siege of Boston.

In May, Moulton presented Gen. Artemas Ward with a letter from some neighbors suggesting he should be colonel and Scamman his second-in-command. Instead, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress went with Col. Scamman and Lt. Col. Moulton. Then Scamman behaved embarrassingly at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Though acquitted of the charge of “backwardness,” he left the Continental Army at the end of the year.

Moulton remained with the army, but he also remained a lieutenant colonel, assigned to the 7th Continental Regiment under Col. William Prescott. Immediately after the British evacuated Boston, Washington ordered that regiment to head to New York and start fortifying the city. On 7 April they were assigned to build breastworks on Governor’s Island.

(There was another lieutenant colonel named Moulton in the New York campaign: Stephen Moulton of Stafford, Connecticut, captured at White Plains. But in May he was representing his town in the Connecticut assembly, so he couldn’t have been getting inoculated in New York.)

Warham Parks (1752–1801) of Westfield and the Harvard College class of 1773 was a captain in Col. Ebenezer Learned’s 3d Continental Regiment. He became a major in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment at the start of 1777.

After being wounded at the Battle of Saratoga, Parks resigned his commission the following March. Washington personally asked him to remain, but he replied, “I am bound in Conciense & honor to Resign my Small Command to those who have health of Body & firmness of mind Sufficient to Carry them through the hardship and dangers of a Soldiers Life.”

Parks returned to his home town, married, and started to win elected and appointed offices. In 1782 he became the brigadier general of the Hampshire County militia and also presided over the court-martial that Col. Paul Revere requested after the Penobscot expedition. His second wife was a daughter of Nathaniel Gorham, president of the Continental Congress in 1786. Parks’s grave marker appears above.

Dr. John Hart (1751–1836) was born in Ipswich and moved to Maine for medical training and his early practice. He became surgeon in Col. Prescott’s regiment in May 1775 and served in that and other Continental regiments until June 1784. After the war he settled in Reading, served in the state senate, and was active in the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

(Again, it’s possible this patient was Dr. Josiah Hart of Connecticut instead, but the surgeon in Prescott’s regiment seems more likely.)

As for “Lieut. Brown,” that man is impossible to identify with certainty. As of January 1776 Prescott’s regiment contained:
  • 1st Lt. Benjamin Brown (1745–1821) of Myrifield (later incorporated as Rowe), who later became a captain and served until July 1779.
  • 1st Lt. Joshua Brown (1742-1817) of Stow, a veteran of the last war and another captain until mid-1779.
  • 2nd Lt. Samuel Brown (1752-1819) of Concord. (Not be confused with Lt. Samuel Brown [1749-1828] of Acton, who was a prisoner at Québec at this time.)
What does identifying those men tell us about their choice to inoculate? First, most of them (or all, if the lieutenant was Benjamin Brown) came from parts of Massachusetts remote from Boston. They were thus less likely to have been exposed to smallpox or had a chance to be inoculated against it.

Second, these were officers, not enlisted men. One was a second-in-command of a regiment. Another was a doctor himself. They had all reenlisted in the Continental Army and would continue to serve on many campaigns. They were clearly committed to the cause. There’s little doubt they sought inoculation so as to be more useful for the army, not less.

Third, none of these four men died from the inoculation. At the end of June they were healthier than before.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there’s no record that these men were punished for convincing Dr. Betts to inoculate them. Some were promoted in the next couple of years. Gen. Washington even asked one to remain in the army. Even though they had disobeyed the commander-in-chief’s order, the commander-in-chief appears to have forgiven them.

TOMORROW: Who took the blame.

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