Revolutionary War Illnesses

Revolutionary War Health: The Sickness That Almost Ended America

Looking back through the early days of America, there are plenty of places where things could have gone very wrong. But they didn’t, and now we’re here. The Revolutionary War was chock full of these moments. The Battle of Saratoga could have ended everything, for example. However, it was a battle with a sickness that came close to ending everything.

Revolutionary War Health: The Sickness That Almost Ended America

While they didn’t have urgent care centers in America during the Revolutionary War, things might have ended much sooner if they did. If it weren’t for good fortune, George Washington may have never made it be our first president. Luckily things didn’t occur that way, and in celebration of the 4th of July, we’re going to take a look at why. It’s a brief aside in history books, but this is one place where medicine meets history in a very impactful way.

We’ve peeked into our first president’s health briefly before, but this case is a bit more interesting. Not only did it affect George Washington, but it almost wiped out the entirety of his troops. In the early days of the Revolutionary War, a great sickness struck that almost ended everything. What’s worse is that it didn’t end when the war did. Continuing while after the Constitution was ratified, America as we know it might not be here today if it weren’t for medical breakthroughs. This is how doctors saved our young nation.

The Sickness That Almost Ended America

In 1775, the Continental Army saw early signs of a threat more deadly than the British were. Beginning that year and lasting until 1782, an outbreak of smallpox almost ended the Revolutionary War.

Smallpox can take as many as two weeks to appear in a person, and can only be transmitted from person to person. However, the disease does spread quickly. Often, one person infected with smallpox will infect everyone that they come into contact with. You can imagine how much more rampant this can be in wartime. While an average person is separated by several feet and a door from anyone else at home, at war soldiers often sleep only a few feet from each other.

Smallpox leads to many common symptoms, including headaches, body pain, fever, and rash. However, this is not the flu: these symptoms can grow to be extreme, causing immense distress in anyone affected. Witnesses of the disease have described it as unsettling — witnesses. This means that it causes one symptom even in people who aren’t infected: deep, unsettling fear. Smallpox often leads to death, normally in about 2 weeks. Suffers who don’t die can take more than a month to recover, and are often left with deep scars, but also lifetime immunity. That’s a perk, I guess.

How Smallpox Affected The War

George Washington had actually had smallpox well before the war began. In 1751, Washington had come down with a case on a trip to Barbados. If you ever noted his rosy red nose in paintings, this is why: his mild case left him with a scarred nose for the rest of his life. Luckily, it also leads to permanent immunity. In 1775, though, it would start to appear elsewhere in the war. After the Siege of Boston in 1775, many of Washington’s soldiers contracted the disease. However, things got to start much worse when they returned to take back the city in 1776. The outbreak quickly became uncontrollable.

At the time, Washington opted out of vaccination for his army. Inoculating them could have caused an even worse outbreak, which could have been detrimental to the war. The British needn’t have worried about it, though: most British soldiers had already received a vaccination, which allowed them to trudge through infected areas. They would begin to use this to their advantage, using smallpox as an early version of biological warfare. The British did everything to force infected citizens to pass the disease along to the Continental Army. This allowed them to weaken Boston, which forced Washington into a corner. He quarantined infected soldiers and then began to rethink his position on vaccination.

In February of 1777, Washington would order mass vaccination for his troops. Active soldiers and veterans soon received a vaccination, preventing any further loss. Given in secret, these vaccinations ended up winning the war. When Washington needed reinforcements, he found them in a group of soldiers in Valley Forge who had been inoculated or become immune through natural exposure. If he hadn’t ordered the vaccination when he did, though, we might not be here today.

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