Washington Battles An Invisible Enemy

Until modern times, the great killer of soldiers in all armies was an invisible one. It was not bullets, cannons or bayonets, but the disease called smallpox. In 1775, smallpox had so devastated the American army in Canada that John Adams bemoaned that “…smallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together.”

Washington knew all about this disease because he had survived it as a child. It could kill off the soldiers and destroy a viable army. Plus, just the threat of infection would scare off many of the troops that Washington desperately needed. The success or failure in the war to gain independence from Britain could be determined by this unseen killer. Washington described as a threat greater  “than…the Sword of the Enemy.”

Smallpox continued to plague the Continental Army and civilian populations. Epidemics broke out in Boston and Philadelphia in the summer of 1776.  American forces sent to take Quebec had to retreat because of the high number of soldiers infected with smallpox.

Washington took the bold and controversial move in the winter of 1777 in Morristown New Jersey to have soldiers inoculated against smallpox. Later while in encampment at Valley Forge, he went further and demanded that his entire army be inoculated.

Inoculation would have to be done in great secrecy because inoculated soldiers were unable to fight for a period of time. But Washington eventually put in place a system where new recruits would get the inoculation as soon as they enlisted. They would then have the mildest form of the disease while they were being outfitted with uniforms and weapons. By the time the men left to join, these new soldiers would be completely healed.  

By some reports, death from smallpox in the ranks dropped from 17% to a low of 1% of all reported deaths, a tremendous reduction.

Historian Elizabeth Fenn stated, “Washington’s unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war…”

George Washington’s military genius is undisputed. But American independence may not have happened without his strategy to reduce the loss of men to smallpox with the first mass military inoculation.