If President Joe Biden ordering US military service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 seems un-American, it is not unprecedented.
General George Washington – later the first President of the United States – did much the same during the Revolutionary War on January 6, 1777. Smallpox raged across North America and threatened the effort of independence from Great Britain.
Washington himself, about to turn 45, had been vaccinated against the virus by contracting it while in Barbados when he was 19. His face bore the scars of the disease, said David Head, a history professor and author at the University of Central Florida.
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“Smallpox is one of those devastating diseases of the 18th century. Really, it goes back to ancient times,” Head said in an interview. “It’s been eradicated today, but it’s one of those things we used to deal with. It was highly contagious, with debilitating pustules on the victim’s body.”
Her symptoms also included fevers, headaches, body aches and severe fatigue, and it could be deadly.
In a much-cited 2004 article for The Journal of Military History, Ann Becker, associate professor at SUNY Empire State College, quotes British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay: “This disease … was then the most dreadful of all ministers of death The ravages of the Plague had been much more rapid, but the Plague had surrendered…once or twice and the smallpox was still present,…tormenting with constant fear all whom it had not yet struck, leaving on those whose lives she spared the hideous traces of her power.”
The UCF leader said there was a controversial inoculation technique available at the start of the Revolutionary War.
A surgeon or physician would scrape a pustule off a sick person and smear pus on a small cut in a patient’s arm.
“It’s totally disgusting to think about that,” Head said. “It’s a live virus, so the person will get sick.”
Back then, soldiers were unaware of the germs and spread of smallpox. Many people in the 18th century still believed in “mysterious and ancient ideas about humors”, a system of thought about medicine dating back at least to ancient Greece and rooted in the belief that pain and disease were caused by an imbalance of the four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, Head said.
“They don’t know how this disease actually spread, but they can see the effects everywhere.”
Inoculations through the skin, rather than droplets from sneezes, generally caused a weaker virus. Still, it was random.
“You may get sick and die from the inoculation. It was a lot riskier than anything we’re used to seeing,” Head said.
Washington has changed its mentality
At the start of the war in 1775, Washington prohibited soldiers from being vaccinated.
Those who did were punished, including being kicked out of the military and having their “names published as traitors,” Head said.
Washington’s opposition has focused on the month-long recovery and quarantine period that has put much-needed troops out of action for a time. This produced a risk that the American Revolution might have been suppressed.
But as the war continued in 1776, disease emerged as the greatest danger, accounting for 90% of Continental Army deaths. Smallpox was the main scourge.
Worse still, the British were largely immune to smallpox, giving them a decisive advantage.
Winter: it’s time to act
Maurizio Valsania, a professor of American history at the University of Turin in Italy, who is working on a biography of Washington, described Washington’s decision-making process in an email to The News-Journal.
“At first, Washington himself was uncertain about the procedure; he feared his troops would be crippled for too long and the British would take advantage of the situation,” Valsania wrote. “He later realized that mass inoculation was the only sensible solution.”
Thus, on January 6, 1777, Washington ordered vaccinations for all forces passing through Philadelphia. He ordered it to be kept secret from the British.
In a letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., Washington wrote: “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to demand measure, for if disorder should infect the army…we should have more to fear from it than from the sword of the Enemy.”
Washington took the risk that the British would delay further attacks for a few weeks.
“Winter is traditionally the time when there is not a lot of fighting. Weapons, muskets, don’t work as well in wet rain and snow, so fighters usually take a break during winter quarters,” Head said.
In reaction to Washington’s order, some American generals and officers balked, writes Valsania.
“There was a sort of pushback but also the fact that the troops were performing the procedure on their own, without medical supervision,” he wrote. “Overall, inoculation helped recruitment.”
“With the threat of smallpox having diminished, the Continental Army saw a surge of new recruits in 1777,” he added, citing a highly researched article on the National Parks Service website.
Importance in winning the War of Independence?
Although they seem to agree that Washington’s inoculation warrant was important to the cause of independence, historians have differing views on its significance.
Valsania called Washington’s decision a “pivot to ensuring military success,” while Head argues it was part of several key factors that led to the victory.
“It certainly helped to have more men to build a bigger and more effective fighting force,” Head said. “It was certainly possible that they had inoculated all the troops and still lost. … It was very useful and without it I don’t know if they could have won the war. It makes it a lot more difficult if smallpox continued to rage in the army, it would have made it much more difficult, much more difficult to win without it.
Roger Smith, St. Augustine historian, author and assistant professor at Flagler College, called vaccinations “the single most important thing” Washington did to win the war.
Not only did he protect the Continental Army for six years the rest of the war, but he was instrumental in a turning point the following year.
Smith cited “Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82”, a 2001 book by Elizabeth Fenn, as “the bible” on the period. In 1778, the British Army was considering a “Pearl Harbor-style attack on New Orleans from Pensacola,” Smith said.
“It didn’t happen because when they sent 1,000 troops into Pensacola to launch this invasion, it was called off. Five hundred of the troops were British and 500 were (King George’s) loyalists from Maryland.
A good number of members of the Maryland Loyalist battalion contracted smallpox and about half of them died, Smith said.
This failure kept intact the Spaniards who controlled the territory of Louisiana and allied themselves with the American revolutionaries.
Washington’s decision to vaccinate his troops highlighted his strength as a leader, Head said.
“That’s where I think Washington is most impressive. That ability to make those decisions. Imagine the burden of command, constantly having to make decisions with imperfect information.
“What Washington is doing here is balancing the pros and cons very well,” Head said. “He understands the compromises.”
In his letter informing Congress of his decision to vaccinate, Washington writes that he took it “after careful deliberation”.
He underlined that sentence, mature deliberation, concluding, “I think that really characterizes Washington’s style.”
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