The term social distancing is increasingly familiar to us in these times of anxiety over an infectious disease. The Continental Army in the summer of 1776 faced a similar issue, but with a more immediate and deadly threat. Smallpox, a virulent, painful, and extremely contagious disease was the bane of the Continental Army heading into 1776. The mid-1770s saw an epidemic of smallpox that was exacerbated and spread by the movement of people as a result of the Revolutionary War. From Boston to the Pacific Ocean, smallpox ravaged the continent in the late 18th century.
One of most dangerous outbreaks came during the American invasion of Canada. American authorities authorized an invasion of the colony of Québec in the summer of 1775 following the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and their naval control of Lake Champlain. After capturing St. Jean (St. Johns), Chambly, and Montréal American troops were poised to conquer the colony and prepared for an attack on the capital, Québec city. The assault on the city, in a blinding snowstorm on December 31, 1775, was a disaster. General Richard Montgomery in overall command of the Continental forces was killed almost instantly, Benedict Arnold was wounded, and many Americans were captured. The weary Americans, daily reduced in number by troops leaving for home at the end of the year, prepared for a long siege of the city with inadequate tools, artillery, and equipment.
British reinforcements eventually relieved the besieged city in May of 1776 and in roughly two months the American forces were pushed back over 250 miles from the gates of Québec to the southern end of Lake Champlain. The retreat was harrowing, ill-equipped and harried by British regulars, the American forces suffered immensely before consolidating at the old fortress of Crown Point in early July. Throughout the winter and the demoralizing retreat, it was not a human enemy that caused the most havoc and fear. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in June of 1776 and explained: “The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together.”
He explained to her that ”This was the Cause of our precipitate Retreat from Quebec, this the Cause of our Disgraces at the Cedars.” The Canadian campaign had brought soldiers together in close quarters from as far south as Virginia and as far north and east as Maine. In this dense and diverse human environment, the disease spread quickly among soldiers who had not received immunity by surviving a bout of the disease earlier in life. Rates of illness crept up to almost 50% of the American forces outside Québec by May, making them unable to resist the influx of Fresh British troops, even if they had the supplies, food, and clothing they needed. In their wake the Americans left a trail of dead and dying men, suffering from smallpox, who could not match the speed of the withdrawal.
The disease spread in the American camps, and reinforcements joining the army were often disabled when they arrived and contracted the disease themselves. The horror of the epidemic peaked at Isle aux Noix in the Richelieu River, just north of Lake Champlain, where American forces consolidated before heading to Crown Point. The unhealthy, low lying ground and the massive numbers of sick men combined in an excruciating scene of misery. Too many men to tend to, the rapid spread of the disease, and the hasty pace of retreat left men in agony, with scores dying daily and being hastily buried in mass graves. The disease had matched the British in killing another American commander, General John Thomas, who died of smallpox on June 2, 1776.
What was to be done? Americans knew about one possible solution: inoculation. Inoculation was a well-known treatment by 1776. By cutting the skin and inserting the contents of a smallpox sufferer’s pustules patients contracted a milder form of the disease, and when recovered received the benefit of immunity as if they had survived a full outbreak. The practice was well known and treatises on it went through multiple editions in both England and America by the time of the Revolutionary War. Despite is potential, inoculation was still dangerous. Poorly conducted inoculation could result in spreading the disease, those who were inoculated were incapacitated for weeks, and inoculation could still be deadly, if not to the same percentages as the full illness.
Inoculation was known as a potential way to protect large groups of people, like an army, from the deadly disease. Smallpox had broken out in Boston during the British occupation at the same time. The British army had higher rates of immunity within their ranks due to endemic exposure to the disease in Great Britain, but General Howe had recommended that British soldiers who did not have immunity should be inoculated. While it was not mandatory, troops who were being inoculated, or didn’t have immunity, were segregated to prevent the spread of the disease and to preserve the fighting ability of the army.
Continental soldiers received no such orders and fear of smallpox drove many in the northern army to inoculate themselves and their comrades over the winter of 1775 into 1776. Continental Army commanders quickly saw the situation getting out of hand. Between botched inoculations and disabled men who had been inoculated, more of the army was being incapacitated, precisely when they needed to preserve order. Orders were issued to the explicit army prohibiting the practice, which threatened the health and capabilities of the army. Throughout the spring these orders were repeated, with harsh punishments threatened, but as troops retreated and new men joined the army and witnessed the horrors of the disease, haphazard and uncoordinated inoculations continued.
By the beginning of July 1776, American forces had fallen back up Lake Champlain to Crown Point and searched for a place to make their stand against the British, and the disease. The remarkable ability of the virus to survive on textiles and other surfaces meant that anywhere it had been was dangerous. This made contact between people in wartime particularly dangerous. For example, the disease spread into the Great Lakes following the French capture of Fort William Henry in 1757 due to people and possessions brought home by French-allied Native Americans that had made contact with infected people. The survival of smallpox was used to nefarious effect by British officials who infamously sought to spread the disease among Native populations through infected blankets. Stopping the spread of the disease meant getting susceptible people away from it, the Continental army needed to practice Strategic distancing.
Knowing that almost anywhere soldiers went had the possibility to spread the virus, American forces, now under the command of General Horatio Gates, met at Crown Point to discuss the end of the retreat. A Council of War was called on July 7, 1776. They made the decision to make a stand not at Isle aux Noix or Crown Point but at the narrow point in Lake Champlain where the LaChute River empties into the lake, particularly the virgin east side of the lake, where no troops had been stationed. They resolved: “That it is prudent to retire immediately to the strong ground on the east side of the Lake opposite to Ticonderoga, with all the healthy and uninfected troops; and that the sick and infected with the smallpox be removed to Fort George, it appearing clearly to the Council that the post opposite to Ticonderoga will the most effectually secure the country, and removing the infected with the small-pox obviate every objection that may at present retard the Militia (ordered by Congress) from joining the Army.”
By moving the army to Ticonderoga and its eastern shore counterpart (soon to be known as Mount Independence) the army sought to avoid a contagious location. It further separated its already sick men by sending them further south to Fort George at the lower end of Lake George. There, away from the main body of troops, but close enough to re-join the army quickly, the worst cases could recover. The disease continued to afflict the army, but calculated and systematic decisions to move to uninfected areas and formally segregate ill troops may have saved the American Revolution. By the late summer, smallpox was reduced in its virulence across the entire army. From mowing down huge portions of the army in Canada over the winter, when Edmund Munro arrived to reinforce the army at Ticonderoga with militia from Lexington, Massachusetts in mid-August, he was able to report to his wife that, “there is none sick of the small Pox & it is thought there is no Danger.”
Later General George Washington would introduce large-scale inoculation to the entire Continental Army. To be most effective, and to preserve the fighting capabilities of the Continental Army, inoculation needed to be conducted in a systemic fashion, not the haphazard way it was being conducted in Canada in late 1775 and 1776. But the strategic distancing practiced by General Gates in July of 1776 preserved the integrity of the northern army. By October, when the British advanced up the Lake, American soldiers sent to the hospital at Lake George mustered the strength to rejoin the army at Ticonderoga, which had swelled to over 10,000 men strong.
The American troops at Ticonderoga in the summer of 1776 may not have defeated smallpox, but by taking careful, and calculated steps, they mitigated its most harmful effects and preserved their ability to fight. This was a critical step for the American Revolution, allowing them to resist the British advance in October and preserving the army as a fighting force. Many in the army might have echoed John Adams, who in his letters to Abigail reiterated his hope and perseverance in the face of infectious disease and military defeat: “these Reverses of Fortune don’t discourage me. It was natural to expect them, and We ought to be prepared in our Minds for greater Changes, and more melancholly Scenes still. It is an animating Cause, and brave Spirits are not subdued with Difficulties.”