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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Friday, May 21, 2021

“No Person whatever, belonging to the Army, is to be innoculated for the Small-Pox”

This being the two-week anniversary of my second vaccination against Covid-19, I’m going to celebrate by looking at a controversy around inoculation in 1776.

By then it was no longer controversial that inoculation programs helped protect individuals and communities against smallpox. But people still had reasons for fear.

Inoculated people developed the disease—a mild, non-fatal case, they hoped—and were infectious for several days, including some days before visible symptoms. Furthermore, doctors worried that clothing and other goods might be contaminated and spread the pox. Therefore, people wanted any inoculation program to keep its patients strictly isolated until they had fully recovered, and to take other measure to prevent uncontrolled infection.

On top of that, for an army commander, the benefits of having troops inoculated against smallpox had to be weighed against the risk of taking large numbers of men out of action for about four weeks, leaving the force vulnerable to a non-viral attack.

Gen. George Washington didn’t have to worry about smallpox personally. He’d contracted the disease in the “natural way” as a teenager and was therefore immune. But he worried about his troops and the general population, even accusing the British commanders inside Boston of sending out infectious people during the siege.

Smallpox was already damaging another part of the Continental Army. After Gen. Richard Montgomery failed to take Québec at the end of December 1775, the Continental Congress responded by sending even more soldiers into Canada, with Gen. John Thomas to command them. But that American army was steadily disintegrating, and the worst foe wasn’t the small royal force in Québec but the smallpox epidemic.

Meanwhile, Gen. Washington had moved his larger portion of the Continental Army from Massachusetts to New York. He worried that the British would attack that city before his defenses were ready. As usual, he feared he didn’t have enough troops, and he didn’t want to lose any to either epidemic or inoculation.

On 20 May, Washington’s general orders therefore declared:
No Person whatever, belonging to the Army, is to be innoculated for the Small-Pox—those who have already undergone that operation, or who may be seized with Symptoms of that disorder, are immediately to be removed to the Hospital provided for that purpose on Montresors’-Island. Any disobedience to this order, will be most severely punished—As it is at present of the utmost importance, that the spreading of that distemper, in the Army and City, should be prevented.
Montresor’s Island sat at the mouth of the Harlem River to the east of Manhattan, far enough from the city to serve as a smallpox hospital. Since 1772 it had been the property of Capt. John Montresor, the chief engineer of the British army in North America. (After the war Montresor’s Island was renamed Randall’s Island, and in the twentieth century it was connected to two other islands nearby.)

It took only four days for the authorities to hear about men in the Continental Army disobeying Washington’s order.

TOMORROW: A suspicious doctor.

1 comment:

Les Haskell said...

My 4th great grandfather, Caleb Haskell, part of Arnold's force from Cambridge, wrote in his diary in 1775:

December 6th, Wednesday. The most of the army has arrived.
We are getting in readiness to lay siege to Quebec. The small pox
is all around us, and there is great danger of its spreading in the army.

December 16th, Saturday. Had but little firing today. We
had one man killed with grape shot. I am unwell, and have been for
three days unfit for duty.
December 17th, Sunday. I was ordered to the hospital. A
bad storm; could not go.

December 18th, Monday. Myself and four more of our company were carried to the Nunnery hospital. All still on both sides.

December 19th, Tuesday. Today three of those who came to
the hospital with me broke out with the small-pox; I have the same

December 20th, Wednesday. This morning my bedfellow, with
myself, were broke out with small-pox; we were carried three miles
out in the country out of the camp; I am very ill.

December 21st, Thursday. The small-pox spreads fast in our army.