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How Did British Forces Use Smallpox to Their Advantage?

The Invasion of Quebec was the first military initiative by the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The goal during this time was to gain military control of the British Province of Quebec, which is now part of modern-day Canada. They wanted the French-speaking Canadians to join the revolution as well. But did you know that the British used smallpox to their advantage?

During the American Revolution, the British forces deployed civilians and prostitutes infected with smallpox to US forces. The ploy was highly effective, killing and wounding 5,000 American soldiers, including Major General John Thomas. 

What Started It All?

The American Revolution started in the spring of 1775 with the Batter of Lexington and Concord. The American military aimed to take control of the British province of Quebec. The region was often referred to as Canada in 1775. Today Quebec is a part of Canada. The military took immediate possession of St John’s, Montreal, and any other part of the country and pursued other missions in Canada that would promote peace between the colonies. (Source: The History of Canada under British Rule)

The Beginning of the Biological Warfare

Due to the failed siege in Quebec, the British Army intentionally sent out smallpox-infected civilians and prostitutes down American lines. These infected individuals killed and infected 5,000 American soldiers, including the physician Major General John Thomas. The British then sent several thousands of men, including General John Burgoyne and other allies, to reinforce the province in 1776. General Carleton then launched an attack that ultimately drove the smallpox-weakened troops back to Fort Ticonderoga. (Source: New Scientist)

The Spread of Smallpox in America

The Variola major virus that causes smallpox can only spread from one person to another. It would take two weeks before the virus even shows symptoms in the host. The telltale signs of smallpox are; headaches, body pain, fever, and a distinct rash. Survivors would often describe their experience to be extremely difficult. Death often comes after the second week, but those who survive the illness would need at least a month to recover fully. They are left with scars from the rash and a lifetime immunity from smallpox.

The Europeans introduced smallpox to the Americas in the 16th century. The outbreaks of the disease in the United States appeared sporadically. By the 18th century, smallpox became endemic in Europe, and only children would get sick. This simply meant that the adult population was virtually immune to the virus.

When the British used smallpox against the American troops, President George Washington struggled with the question of inoculation since doing so would not only risk an outbreak, but it would also leave a large portion of the army unfit for the battle while they recover. After weeks of indecision, Washington finally issued the order to have all the troops inoculated on February 5, 1777.

Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated. This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects. Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence, we should have more to dread from it than from the Sword of the Enemy.

Dr. William Shippen Jr. 

(Source: Mount Veron)

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