In 1777, George Washington signed an order to vaccinate his troops for smallpox. While some historians consider this a response to a normal outbreak, others point to a more sinister cause…a biowarfare campaign waged by the British during the Revolutionary War.
Biological Warfare during the Revolutionary War?
According to Wikipedia, Biological warfare is defined as “the deliberate use of disease-causing biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or biological toxins, to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war.” Biowarfare has a long sordid past. Hittite texts from as far back as 1500-1200 BC report the use of plague victims to spread disease into enemy territory.
According to a recent article entitled, British used Bioweapon in US War of Independence, smallpox was a particularly brutal disease back in the 1700s. In 1776, “more than half of all people caught smallpox at some point, and a third of those died.” Since a proper vaccination was still twenty-two years away, smallpox itself was used to immunize people. By deliberately infecting people with a less deadly strain, doctors managed to reduce casualty rates to just 1-2%.
However, people who had recently received the vaccination were capable of spreading the more deadly strain to others, making them, in effect, human bioweapons. British troops used this method to spread smallpox among North American Indians back in the 1760s and among Boston rebels in 1775. A year later, they supposedly infected prostitutes with smallpox and sent them behind American lines, causing 5,000 casualties.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Clearly, General Washington had reason to fear smallpox outbreaks during the Revolutionary War. It stands to reason that his order to send troops to Philadelphia to receive the primitive vaccination was due, at least in part, to concerns over human bioweapons. Later, he even “set up special clinics to inoculate all new recruits.”
These days, many people glorify the past as a simpler and more noble time. However, Britain’s biowarfare campaign serves as a stark reminder that this just isn’t the case. The weapons were less effective during the Revolutionary War. But the desire to cause mass enemy casualties, both military and civilian, was just as strong as it is today.