The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

By Elizabeth A. Fenn

Hill and Wang. 370 pp. $25 All of a sudden the American Revolution is flavor of the month. In the movies, on television and in books -- most notably, of course, in David McCullough's astonishingly popular biography of John Adams, and most egregiously in Mel Gibson's film "The Patriot" -- men and women of the 1770s and 1780s are back in the public eye. In the hands of Hollywood, if not of the biographers and historians, this all-too predictably means that the Revolutionary period is oversimplified and romanticized, if not outright distorted, made almost as pretty as Colonial Williamsburg, "restored" to a condition that surely would come as a surprise to Americans of the late 18th century.

"Pox Americana" is a useful corrective to all that. A scrupulously detailed account of a smallpox epidemic that swept across North America between 1775 and 1782, killing an absolute minimum of 130,000 people, it reminds us that there was nothing pretty about the Revolution at all. Though the ends it achieved were lofty, it was a brutal, bloody conflict on the battlefield, and it was all the more so because there was a third party to the war: Variola, commonly known as smallpox, the virulently contagious disease that caused suffering, disfigurement, terror and death wherever it went.

A central argument advanced by Elizabeth A. Fenn -- who teaches history at George Washington University -- is that wartime was an ideal spawning ground for smallpox, because "political turmoil and military upheaval enhanced the circulation of microbes." Men and women "were traveling as never before, meeting, dispersing, and regrouping, silently exchanging pathogens at every turn." Vaccination, which eventually would erase smallpox from the Earth, would not be developed until 1796, when Edward Jenner successfully immunized an 8-year-old boy. Inoculation was available, but it was risky and expensive, and it didn't always take. Persons thus exposed to the disease who survived it were immunized for life, but large numbers of Americans -- especially black slaves and Indians -- lived in communities that had never been exposed to smallpox and thus were far more vulnerable to it than Europeans and the British. Fenn writes:

"Any army containing large numbers of native-born Americans might be easily brought down by smallpox. . . . In a tumultuous time characterized by a mobile and susceptible populace, Variola was very likely to find its way into any large group of people gathered in one place. For the British, this was not a major concern beyond the native-born loyalists (including African Americans and Indians) who joined their ranks. But for General Washington and the Continental army, it was a significant obstacle with dire military implications."

For Washington and his command staff, smallpox presented "a thorny dilemma." The disease could decimate the army if not resisted, but inoculation "would take months, and if just one inoculee was released too early -- if the virus escaped quarantine -- a full-blown epidemic could result." Finally, in the winter of 1777, Washington decided that "the small pox has made such Head in every Quarter" that he had no choice but "to inoculate all the Troops." This, Fenn quite persuasively argues, had a decisive effect in the Southern theater. Continental troops there were mostly native-born and thus highly vulnerable, but "the high level of immunity that had resulted from inoculation" permitted them to fight at full strength, "Washington's unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces," she writes, "must surely rank among his most important decisions of the war."

The epidemic did not end when the war did. Instead it spread west, south and north, into what was then called Alta California, the Pacific Northwest, Mexico and Canada. It followed the trade routes, Fenn writes, and had especially devastating effect on Indian tribes, which were utterly defenseless against it. Here she describes its legacy among the Indians of the Northwest:

"Were records of Native American life more complete, they might well show significant cultural voids, the loss of generations of unrecoverable knowledge. They would show other changes as well: households combined, kinship alliances annihilated, religious convictions altered or abandoned. As smallpox squeezed the life from thousands of victims, it extinguished the accumulated wisdom of generations, leaving those who survived without the familiar markers by which they organized their worlds and leaving the generations that followed with a mere shell of their former heritage."

As all of this should make clear, "Pox Americana" is far more than a footnote to history. It is clear, telling evidence that there is far more to history than political struggles and military strategies. We commonly assume that our enemies in the Revolution were the British and the Hessians who fought in their employ, which is what the textbooks have taught us for generations, but "Pox Americana" shows us that the struggle was far more complicated, and dangerous, and painful. It also shows us that smallpox is, to the modern mind, an almost unimaginably painful, destructive disease, leaving us -- in present circumstances -- to pray that it is not deliberately deployed as a weapon of hatred.