A pox-centric history of the American Revolution.
If not for variola major, the virus that causes smallpox, the American colonies may have achieved independence from Britain a lot sooner. Fenn (History/George Washington Univ.) contends that the sickness, especially in the early days of the Revolution, was one of General George Washington’s worst enemies. In two major battles at the outset of the war—in Boston and Quebec—it almost ruined the Continental Army, which was composed of American-born recruits who had not developed immunity to the Old World virus. British troops and German mercenaries, on the other hand, were almost always immune. The author deals with the enormous organization required to handle soldiers who contracted the disease. Inoculation was proven to work in the late-18th century, but it knocked out those inoculated for a few weeks, hardly the best situation for an army on the move. When Washington finally ordered mass inoculations—rubbing a bit of flesh from a smallpox sufferer into a healthy person’s open wound—it was the first such mass public-health campaign in American history. Loyalist forces suffered also, however, including the British-backed Ethiopian Regiment, a force of freed slaves who, if they hadn’t been laid low by the pox, might well have turned the tide of the Revolution in the South. Fenn also uses smallpox to show how interconnected the world was in 1776: A pox epidemic that probably came from infected material or people from New Orleans started in Mexico City in 1779. Colonists moving throughout New Spain then spread it across North America, with cases cropping up in traders in the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. The real losers in the battle against smallpox were Native Americans, who were particularly susceptible to the virus because of their close genetic similarities. Most tribes had already suffered from smallpox before the Revolution, however, with at least one tribe dwindling in number from 100,000 to 17,000 between 1600 and 1680.
An excellent study that complicates the heroic portrayal of the Revolution.
Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-823.82 · Rating details · 1,086 Ratings · 89 Reviews
The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth
A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the American Revolution began, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lThe astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth
A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the American Revolution began, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone in North America.
By 1776, when military action and political ferment increased the movement of people and microbes, the epidemic worsened. Fenn's remarkable research shows us how smallpox devastated the American troops at Québec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston. Soon the disease affected the war in Virginia, where it ravaged slaves who had escaped to join the British forces. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops. In 1779, while Creeks and Cherokees were dying in Georgia, smallpox broke out in Mexico City, whence it followed travelers going north, striking Santa Fe and outlying pueblos in January 1781. Simultaneously it moved up the Pacific coast and east across the plains as far as Hudson's Bay.
The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-health crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this mega-tragedy was met and what its consequences were for America....more
Paperback, 384 pages
Published October 2nd 2002 by Hill and Wang (first published 2001)