In Smallpox in Washington's Army: Disease, War and Society during the Revolutionary War , the author argues that smallpox played an integral role in military affairs for both the British and Continental armies, and impacted soldiers and civilians throughout the War for American Independence. Due to the Royal army’s policy of troop inoculation and because many British soldiers were already immune to the variola virus, the American army was initially at a disadvantage. Most American colonists were highly susceptible to this dreaded disease, and its presence was greatly feared. General George Washington was keenly aware of this disadvantage and, despite his own doubts, embarked on a policy of inoculation to protect his troops. Use of this controversial, innovative, and effective medical procedure leveled the playing field within the armies. However, by 1777, smallpox spread throughout America as soldiers interacted with civilian populations. Once military action moved south, American and British auxiliary troops and the enslaved Southern population all succumbed to the disease, creating a disorderly, dangerous situation as the war ends. Washington’s implementation of isolation policies as well as mass troop inoculation removed the threat of epidemic smallpox and ultimately protected American soldiers and civilians from the dangers of this much feared disease.
Ann M. Becker is professor of history at SUNY Empire State College.
Chapter 1“The Most Terrible of All Ministers of Death”: Smallpox in the Atlantic World
Chapter 2“Send ye Small pox Into ye Army”: The British and the Double-Edged Sword of Smallpox
Chapter 3“Able and Willing to Bear Arms”: Dunmore in the South
Chapter 4“Vigilance against this most dangerous Enemy”: Smallpox at the Siege of Boston
Chapter 5“Ruined with Smallpox”: The Canadian Campaign
Chapter 6“Disobedience … will be most severely punished”: New York and the Health of the Troops
Chapter 7“Nothing but death … before me”: Smallpox in Revolutionary War Prisons
Chapter 8 “To Stop the Progress of the Small Pox”: Washington Inoculates His Army
Chapter 9“The Seeds of Small Pox”: Smallpox on the Road to Yorktown and Beyond
An extremely important book not only for military historians but also for those concerned with the role of disease in history.
Ann M. Becker's new book, Smallpox in Washington's Army: Disease, War, and Society during the Revolutionary War, is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive account of the subject and the disease itself. The medical literature is well explained to enlighten those unfamiliar with it. While smallpox remains controversial, this new book is a valuable contribution to the history of the revolutionary era.
In this well-researched study, which skillfully incorporates both primary sources and statistical data, scholar Ann Becker turns a sharply focused lens on the pivotal impact of smallpox on military strategy during the American Revolutionary War. Although inoculating his troops was a slow and agonizing decision, General George Washington clearly understood the danger that the devastating disease, with its high rate of contagion and mortality, posed to his war effort, including to American prisoners of war. Becker ably demonstrate that Washington’s inoculation orders against “this most dangerous enemy [smallpox]” served as a key strategical factor in the ultimate American victory. At the same time, she shows how the disease affected both the American and British armies at different junctures and locations in the war effort. Beck offers a finely detailed, yet readable account of an important aspect of the Revolutionary War that has previously received only cursory attention. Smallpox in Washington's Army helps broaden our understanding of this pivotal event in American history.
Before the twentieth century soldiers were more likely to die of disease than in battle. As a general background factor, military historians have well understood that disease was capable of weakening armies. What is strikingly original about Ann Becker’s book is an effort to explore the strategic implications of different experiences of disease in opposing armies. Not all diseases, and not all military efforts to control disease, are the same however. In her careful and nuanced study of the American revolution, Dr. Becker shows how varying efforts to control and manage smallpox could tip the balance between the contending forces and affect strategic outcomes. Dr. Becker’s work will force military historians to reassess the role of disease in warfare.
"Smallpox in Washington's Army is readable and accessible, providing a focused and detailed account of the disease's impact on the American Revolution. I am more convinced than ever by the evidence provided here."
Nearly three fourths of American soldiers who died in the War of Independence perished from disease. Smallpox was among the great killers of militiamen and soldiers in the Continental army, a disease so virulent that it threatened America’s ability to wage war. Ann Becker’s Smallpox in Washington's Army tells this story in an engaging and illuminating manner, showing how America’s civil and military leadership succeeded in controlling and largely overcoming the threat. This is a book that should be read by all who wish to understand the Revolutionary War and the American victory that secured independence.
In Smallpox in Washington's Army: Disease, War and Society during the Revolutionary War, Ann Becker provides an invaluable account of smallpox's multi-faceted role in this key period of American life. Using an impressive array of primary sources, Becker demonstrates just how deeply this terrifying disease shaped the military strategy of all parties to the conflict from its beginning to its end. Filled with interesting details and compelling stories, this study is a welcome contribution both to American medical and military history.