part II

[Follow Ups] [Post Followup] [Our Discussion Forum]

Posted by Lilly from D007115.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Friday, November 29, 2002 at 3:19PM :

In Reply to: Biological Warfare in 1700's US posted by Lilly from D007115.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Friday, November 29, 2002 at 2:52PM :

Other Accusations and Incidents

Eighteenth-century biological warfare is at best a slippery topic of inquiry. (The term "biological warfare" is itself anachronistic, but it remains well suited for describing what eighteenth-century Americans clearly viewed as a distinctive category of acts and allegations.) The long-standing debate over the Fort Pitt episode—easily the best-documented incident in the period - reveals how very treacherous the historical landscape can be. Even contemporaries could rarely prove culpability beyond refute in a suspicious outbreak of disease; for historians, the task is next to impossible. Accidents happened, and unintentional contagion was common, particularly in wartime. Moreover, in those rare cases where malicious intent was evident, as at Fort Pitt in 1763, the actual effectiveness of an attempt to spread smallpox remains impossible to ascertain: the possibility always exists that infection occurred by some "natural" route.

While all of this complicates the historian's task, it may nevertheless have enhanced smallpox's appeal as a weapon. For unlike rape, pillage, and other atrocities in which the intent and identity of the perpetrator could be made clear, the propagation of smallpox had the advantage of deniability. In the honor-bound world in which eighteenth-century military officials lived, this may well have been biological warfare's greatest attribute. It is possible, given the dearth of ironclad evidence, that biological warfare did not occur beyond the Fort Pitt incident. But another perspective also seems warranted, particularly when smallpox's deniability is taken into account: the shortage of conclusive documentation may simply indicate that perpetrators did not record their deeds.

The surviving evidence is rife with ambiguity. Some accusations served propaganda purposes in situations of social or military stress.(24) Others come from oral traditions, at times recorded long after the alleged incidents took place. Many allegations are unsubstantiated, and some are weakly substantiated at best. Nevertheless, the sheer weight of the evidence that follows points to the distinct possibility that eighteenth-century biological warfare was more common than historians have previously believed.

It may well have been Indians, not whites, who used the strategy first. In his voluminous History and Description of New France, Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix recounts an Iroquois act of biological sabotage against the English during Queen Anne's War in the early 1700s. The English army, Charlevoix writes, "was encamped on the banks of a little river; the Iroquois, who spent almost all the time hunting, threw into it, just above the camp, all the skins of the animals they flayed, and the water was thus soon all corrupted." The army, Charlevoix continued, suspected nothing. Soldiers "continued to drink this water, and it carried off so many, that Father de Mareuil, and two officers . . . observing the graves where the dead were buried, estimated the number at over a thousand." This account is remarkable not only because it seems to be the only eighteenth-century American incident that did not involve smallpox but also because the perpetrators were Indians. In this regard, the fact that smallpox was not the weapon of choice is hardly surprising. Already decimated by repeated epidemics, American Indians everywhere more likely viewed smallpox as a enemy in its own right than as a weapon that might bring down their adversaries.(25) The years that followed would show how true this was.

Amherst aside, smallpox seemed to be everywhere during the Seven Years' War. D. Peter MacLeod has demonstrated elegantly how Indian participation in the conflict with the British waxed and waned according to their simultaneous struggle against smallpox. In 1755-1756 and again in 1757-1758, the disease wreaked havoc among the Indians allied with the French. After the Lake George campaign of 1757, the French-allied Potawatomis suffered greatly in a smallpox outbreak that they believed stemmed from deliberate infection by the British. In July 1767, the British Indian superintendent William Johnson interviewed a man named Cornelius Van Slyke, held prisoner among the Chippewas and the Potawatomis for four years. Van Slyke told Johnson the Potawatomis believed "that the great Number they lost of their People at & returning from Lake George in 1757, was owing to ye. English poisoning the Rum, & giving them the Small Pox, for which they owe them an everlasting ill will." The innuendo here is that the infection was willful, and it is possible that biological warfare occurred. But it is far more likely that the source of the contagion that ravaged the Potawatomis was the famous attack (fictionalized in James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, 1826) on unarmed prisoners leaving Fort William Henry on August 10, 1757.(26) Many of those prisoners were sick with smallpox.

By the nineteenth century, intentional smallpox infection turned up regularly in Native American oral histories. The Ottawa Indians suffered from smallpox after the 1757 campaign, and their tradition held that the disease came from Montreal, ironically in the possession of the Indians' French allies at the time of the outbreak. "This smallpox," according to Andrew Blackbird's account, "was sold to them shut up in a showy tin box, with the strict injunction not to open the box on their way homeward." When they arrived at their village on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Indians opened the box only to find another box and then another inside. In the end, Blackbird says, the Ottawas "found nothing but mouldy particles in this last little box." Many inspected it, and shortly thereafter, smallpox broke out. According to the story, an enormous Ottawa village, extending for miles west of Mackinac, "was entirely depopulated and laid waste." It is unlikely that the French would have knowingly passed smallpox on to their Indian supporters at this crucial juncture in the Seven Years' War. But the accusation may well reflect a Native American perception that since they had caught the disease while fighting for the French, the French were therefore responsible for the devastation it caused. Eager to retain and appease their Indian allies, French officials laid the blame for the epidemic in the British camp.(27) If further documentation for this alleged incident exists, it remains undiscovered. Nor is it clear how, if at all, this tradition might be linked to the Fort Pitt episode six years later.

Other accusations of deliberate contagion surfaced among the Ottawa Indians' Ojibwa neighbors. Around 1770, according to an Ojibwa account related by John J. Heagerty, traders at Mackinac infected visiting Indians with a contaminated flag presented to the Indians "as a token of friendship." After the homeward-bound Ojibwas unfurled the flag among friends at Fond du Lac on Lake Superior, smallpox broke out. Some three hundred reportedly died at Fond du Lac alone. Writing in 1928, Heagerty noted that the account still remained in circulation: "The Indians to this day are firmly of the opinion that the small-pox was, at this time, communicated through the articles presented to their brethren by the agent of the fur company at Mackinac." William Warren included another version of the same tradition in his History of the Ojibway Nation (1884), implying that it took place later, launching the region's devastating smallpox epidemic of 1780-1782. It is worth noting that Warren, the son of an Ojibwa woman and a fur trader, discredits the account after he relates it, saying that the Ojibwas, Crees, and Assiniboines picked up the infection in a raid on a Hidatsa village on the upper Missouri.(28)

Not all accusations of biological warfare in this period came from Native Americans. In September 1757, vessels carrying some three hundred paroled British prisoners sailed from Quebec to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Some of the parolees were survivors of the massacre at Fort William Henry just over a month before. Some of them, moreover, were sick with smallpox. Four died in transit, and another twenty showed symptoms by the time they reached their destination. French motives in shipping the sick prisoners drew suspicion. "This was said," according to an unnamed accuser, "to have been an attempt to introduce the small-pox into Halifax, many men being ill of the disorder on their embarkation. Providence, however, frustrated this benevolent design."(29)

The next great conflict to shake the continent was the Revolutionary War. Once again, smallpox erupted repeatedly, and once again, those on the receiving end believed that the outbreaks were not all accidental. Allegations of biological warfare arose in the course of confrontations at Quebec, Boston, and Yorktown, as well as during the mobilization of the Earl of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment on the Chesapeake. At Boston, charges of deliberate smallpox propagation by the British cropped up even before the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord. "The [British] soldiers try all they can to spread the smallpox," wrote an unnamed Bostonian in January 1775. "One of their Officers inoculated his whole family without letting any person know it, - there was a man, his wife, and seven children, under the same roof, and not one of them ever had it." When the American siege of Boston began in April, the disease became epidemic among British soldiers and other residents of the city. "The small pox rages all over the Town," wrote George Washington from his headquarters in nearby Cambridge on December 14. "Such of the [British] Military as had it not before, are now under innoculation - this I apprehend is a weapon of Defence, they Are useing against us."(30)

In fact, Washington already suspected that the British, in an effort to infect the vulnerable Continental Army, had inoculated some of the refugees leaving the city. On December 3, 1775, four deserters had arrived at the American headquarters "giving an account that several persons are to be sent out of Boston, this evening or to-morrow, that have been lately inoculated with the small-pox, with design, probably, to spread the infection, in order to distress us as much as possible." It was, according to Washington's aide-de-camp, an "unheard-of and diabolical scheme." Washington at first regarded the report with disbelief. "There is one part of the information that I Can hardly give Credit to," he wrote. "A Sailor Says that a number of these Comeing out have been inoculated, with design of Spreading the Smallpox through this Country & Camp."(31)

A week later, however, as the pox erupted among the refugees, the American commander in chief changed his mind. In a letter to John Hancock on December 11, 1775, he explained his reappraisal: "The information I received that the enemy intended Spreading the Small pox amongst us, I coud not Suppose them Capable of - I now must give Some Credit to it, as it has made its appearance on Severall of those who Last Came out of Boston." The Americans controlled the outbreak through careful quarantine and disinfection of both refugees and their effects. In the aftermath, the Boston Gazette carried a sworn declaration from one refugee, a servant, saying that he had been inoculated and then, as the pustules broke out, ordered by his master to embark on a crowded vessel leaving the city. There he could not avoid communicating the infection to "A Number of said Passengers," as the boat's departure was delayed more than two weeks. According to another report, a Boston physician named Dr. Rand had admitted "that he had effectually given the distemper among those people" quitting the city.(32)

Both accusations and evidence of biological warfare dwindled as the siege of Boston continued in the opening months of 1776, but in March, as the British intent to evacuate the city became clear, American fears escalated once more. On March 13, watching British troops prepare to leave, Washington ordered "that neither Officer, nor soldier, presume to go into Boston" without his permission, "as the enemy with a malicious assiduity, have spread the infection of the smallpox through all parts of the town." That very evening the American commander received word "by a person just out of Boston, that our Enemies in that place, had laid several Schemes for communicating the infection of the small-pox, to the Continental Army, when they get into the town." Deliberate or not, smallpox exploded in Boston after the siege, infecting troops and civilians alike.(33)

Boston was not the only city besieged by American troops through the winter of 1775-1776. At Quebec another siege was underway, and here again, smallpox emerged as a major player in military affairs. While the American efforts to keep the Continental Army free of smallpox were generally successful at Boston, they failed dismally at Quebec. Here the disease erupted almost immediately upon the Americans' arrival outside the walled city in late November and early December of 1775. What followed was one of the great disasters in American military history. An American attempt on the city failed in a blizzard on the night of December 31, and the army settled in for a miserable, snowbound siege that lasted until the first week of May 1776, when British reinforcements arrived. Riddled with smallpox, the Americans retreated, first to the town of Sorel, where the Richelieu River joins the Saint Lawrence, and then, in midsummer, southward to Ticonderoga and Crown Point. "Oh the Groans of the Sick," wrote one soldier during the retreat, "What they undergo I Cant Expres." At Crown Point, according to the physician Lewis Beebe, death became "a daily visitant in the Camps. But as Little regarded as the singing of birds."(34)

Many accused the British general, Sir Guy Carleton, of willfully infecting the American camp during the wintry siege of the Canadian city. In the deathbed diary he dictated in 1811, the Pennsylvania rifleman John Joseph Henry recalled that smallpox had been "introduced into our cantonments by the indecorous, yet fascinating arts of the enemy." The Continental Congress held hearings on the debacle even as the Northern Army still suffered from smallpox at Ticonderoga. Thomas Jefferson's abbreviated notes of the testimony reveal that several of the witnesses believed the epidemic was no accident. Capt. Hector McNeal, for example, said "the small pox was sent out of Quebeck by Carleton, inoculating the poor people at government expence for the purpose of giving it to our army." Likewise, according to another witness, it "was said but no proof that Carleton had sent it into the suburbs of St. Roc where some of our men were quartered." The testimony of a Dr. Coates reiterated the theme: "Was supposed Carlton sent out people with it," Jefferson noted in his shorthand. Jefferson, for one, found the testimony credible. "I have been informed by officers who were on the spot, and whom I believe myself," he wrote to the French historian François Soulés, "that this disorder was sent into our army designedly by the commanding officer in Quebec. It answered his purposes effectually."(35)

Smallpox was present at Quebec when the American army arrived, and it seems probable, as they mingled with habitants outside the city, that the troops would have picked up the Variola virus regardless of any actions on Carleton's part. "The small pox is all around us, and there is great danger of its spreading in the army," wrote the soldier Caleb Haskell on December 6, 1775, shortly after the siege began. "We have long had that disorder in town," observed a British officer on December 9, as the disease made its first appearance among the Americans. Carleton's humane treatment of American smallpox victims taken prisoner when the siege ended would seem to undermine the argument that he deliberately infected the American lines.(36) Nevertheless, it remains possible. By providing a ready supply of inoculees and other contagious patients, the ongoing presence of smallpox in Quebec might in fact have made deliberate infection easier to disguise.

Meanwhile, farther south, more accusations of willful contagion surfaced in Virginia, where some eight hundred African American refugees from slavery had rallied to the British cause in response to a promise of freedom from the colony's royal governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. Written on November 7, 1775, and issued a week later, Dunmore's limited emancipation proclamation inspired African Americans and terrified the slaveholding revolutionaries who spearheaded the American revolt. By May 1776, however, smallpox had infested the governor's little band of freedom fighters in their precarious waterfront camp near Norfolk. Dunmore decided to move to a safe spot and inoculate his men. "His Lordship," according to a rumor in the Virginia Gazette, "before the departure of the fleet from Norfolk harbour, had two of those wretches inoculated and sent ashore, in order to spread the infection, but it was happily prevented."(37)

In the end, it was Dunmore's black regiment that suffered most from the disease, dwindling under its impact to 150 effective men and eventually withdrawing from Virginia entirely. "Had it not been for this horrid disorder," wrote Dunmore, "I should have had two thousand blacks; with whom I should have had no doubt of penetrating into the heart of this Colony." When the American rebels questioned one eyewitness to the ravages of smallpox and to Dunmore's final withdrawal, they broached the topic of biological warfare directly: "How long were they inocul[ated] & was it done to communicate it to the People on shore[?]" asked the interrogators. "By no means," was the vague response, "every one in the Fleet was inoculated, that had it not."(38)

A year later, in the spring of 1777, rumors of a Tory conspiracy to propagate smallpox swept the state of New Hampshire. "There are great numbers of people bound together by the most solemn oaths and imprecations to stand by each other and to destroy the persons who betray them," wrote Josiah Bartlett, one of the state's delegates to the Continental Congress; "besides ruining the paper currency it seems their design is, this Spring to spread the small pox through the country." Many patriots had expressed concern, he added; "we have reason to think most of the Tories in New England are in the plan." There is no further evidence that such a plan existed, although smallpox did erupt in Exeter in the spring of 1778.(39)

Additional accusations surfaced in 1781, as Gen. Charles Cornwallis's southern campaign came to a close. The British retreat to Yorktown in many ways echoed Lord Dunmore's Virginia campaign five years earlier. Again, African American slaves flocked to British lines seeking freedom from their revolutionary masters. And again smallpox cut them down, for African Americans, like all other Americans, were far more likely to be susceptible to the disease than were troops from Europe.(40)

As early as June 1781, American soldiers in Virginia suspected Cornwallis's army of using smallpox-infected blacks to propagate disease. "Here I must take notice of some vilany," wrote Josiah Atkins as his regiment pursued the British near Richmond. "Within these days past, I have marched by 18 or 20 Negroes that lay dead by the way-side, putrifying with the small pox." Cornwallis, Atkins believed, had "inoculated 4 or 500 in order to spread smallpox thro' the country, & sent them out for that purpose." A Pennsylvania soldier, William Feltman, found a "negro man with the small-pox lying on the road side" on June 25, supposedly left by a British cavalry unit "in order to prevent the Virginia militia from pursuing them." By October, with surrender looming on the horizon, Cornwallis had become desperate. "The British," noted James Thacher in his diary, "have sent from Yorktown a large number of negroes, sick with the small pox, probably for the purpose of communicating the infection to our army." Writing three days after the capitulation, Robert Livingston hoped that reports of such conduct would sway Europeans to the American side. "In Virginia," he wrote, "they took the greatest pains to communicate the Small Pox to the Country; by exposing the dead bodies of those who had died with it, in the most frequented places." Benjamin Franklin later reiterated the charge in his "Retort Courteous."(41)

It may be tempting to dismiss such accusations as so much American hyperbole. But evidence indicates that in fact the British did exactly what the Americans charged. At Portsmouth, Virginia, in July 1781, Gen. Alexander Leslie outlined his plan for biological warfare in a letter to Cornwallis. "Above 700 Negroes are come down the River in the Small Pox," he wrote. "I shall distribute them about the Rebell Plantations." Even if they pardoned their actions by saying they could no longer support so many camp followers, the fact that sick African Americans might communicate smallpox to the enemy could not have been lost on British commanders.(42)

(article continued in next post)

-- Lilly
-- signature .

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup

E-Mail: ( default )
Optional Link ( default )
Optional Image Link ( default )

This board is powered by the Mr. Fong Device from