How George Washington dealt with British bioterrorism

Washington at Rushmore

Over 130,000 Americans died from smallpox during the War of Independence. Documents released by the National Archives show evidence that the British may have used smallpox as an insidious biological weapon against the colonists.

In a report to Congress, General George Washington warned that the British were deliberately infecting people with smallpox and sending them to various American cities. Washington wrote:

"A Sailor Says that a number of these Comeing out have been innoculated, with design of Spreading the Smallpox thro’ this Country & Camp. I have Communicated this to the General Court & recommended their attention thereto." Washington's letter to John Hancock, President of Congress. Source: National Archives

Washington would go on to mention the bioterrorism threat in a series of similar letters. In the end, he was convinced that smallpox was "a weapon of Defense they Are useing against us."

Washington did not panic, nor did he use this as an excuse to grab more power. Instead, he took decisive action to inoculate his troops. Inoculation involved intentionally giving healthy individuals a mild case of smallpox to prevent them from getting the more deadly strains later. It was a risky gamble, given that inoculees could unintentionally spark outbreaks and, of course, possibly die during the inoculation.

Despite the risks it was the right move. Historian Elizabeth Fenn explained:

"Washington's unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war. The general had outflanked his enemy." Source: Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn

The results were indeed dramatic:

"After the inoculations were complete, the Continentals were able to fight at full strength without fear of the epidemic. This was critically important in the Southern campaign in the final years of the war. Irregular militias refused to march on Charleston, South Carolina, to retake the town because smallpox was loose there. But an inoculated army of soldiers paid to fight was able to engage in battles that had scared off the militias---and to withstand the British attempts at biological warfare that preceded the surrender at Yorktown." Source: Washington Monthly

Today, smallpox is still considered a serious biological weapon that poses a threat to our national security. Iraq's possible possession of smallpox was even used as a justification for war.

We are often told that we have to curtail our freedoms because we live in extraordinary times. The next time you are asked to exchange your freedom for security, remember that our freedoms were once forged by men of less means and more character, who lived in times that were no less extraordinary than our own.

"We are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were, for the moment, unpopular." Edward R. Murrow.

Washington Today

Photos by hawleyjr and Pearbiter.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

Great article. And I love the quote on the end. I've been reviewing some of your posts, Will. Good job on keeping it meaty.

Guest's picture

I remember reading of the use of smallpox during the Revolution many years ago, I think in Kenneth Roberts' fascinating historical novel Oliver Wiswell, and appreciate the reminder of that incident, and that it's time to re-read the book.

But the implied comparison to Bush's conduct in this war is too heavily influenced by political blinders. Otherwise you would not so readily brush off the infringement of civil liberties that you recognize Washington engaged in - intentionally infecting healthy men, many of whom had been forcibly conscripted by their states, with a deadly disease for which there was no cure and little effective treatment.

Personally, the threat that Bush might engage in a warrantless interception of my international phone calls with Al Qaeda should I ever have any (for which a warrant undoubtedly would be justified if time allowed for it to be obtained) seems less egregious than that.

In fact, if you look up the infringements to civil liberties alleged to have taken place since 2001 on the ACLU's website and cut through all the hyperbolic rhetoric, it boils down to conduct taken, often far more aggressively, by every U.S. president in times of war in our history, and most egregiously by Lincoln, Wilson and FDR. And yet the very biggest war-time infringement of civil liberties, forcible conscription, has been avoided entirely by this administration.

Rabid hyper-partisanship and a total lack of historical perspective have persuaded many people, including you apparently, that wars must be fought with armies of lawyers, full due process rights extended to every enemy combatant, full free speech rights extended to every enemy propagandist, perfect command and control, and no mis-steps by one single soldier.

Washington would have thought this was crazy. He understood quite well that the first priority in war is to prevail over your enemies. In order to do that, he permitted disease and starvation to afflict his own troops, and far more so his POWs. And he did nothing to stop the harsh treatment of loyalists throughout the states:

Dissidents were (literally) tarred, feathered, and expelled from their homes and communities. Committees of Safety were established and some communities passed laws allowing the indefinite detention of any citizen who would not swear allegiance to the revolution and was deemed dangerous to it. New Hampshire had a law that made simply believing in the authority of the Crown treason and punishable by death. Loyalist lawyers were disbarred. Loyalist citizens were barred from access to the courts. Their property was expropriated and they were forced from their homes. Debts owed them were cancelled.

Since there was no central government to speak of, most of this bad stuff was done by state and local authorities, but it was little protested by Washington. His instructions on the treatment of prisoners was that they should be treated "with as much humanity and kindness as may be consistent with your own safety and the public interest," obviously recognizing a potential conflict that is today resented or denied.