Did the British use Smallpox as a Weapon During the Revolutionary War?

On Dec. 4, 1775, Washington informed Congress that the British were sending civilians infected with smallpox out of the city:

“By recent information … General Howe is going to send out a number of the inhabitants. … A sailor says that a number of these coming out have been inoculated with the design of spreading the smallpox through this … camp.”

British officer Robert Donkin suggested, as cited in a book published in 1777:

“Dip arrows in matter of smallpox, and twang them at the American rebels. … This would … disband these stubborn, ignorant, enthusiastic savages.”

Quebec would have been captured by Americans in December 1775, and Canada possibly would have become part of the United States, had it not been for smallpox.

American Captain Hector McNeal told a Congressional Committee investigating the failure of the army’s expedition to Canada:

“Smallpox was sent out of Quebec by (British) Governor Guy Carleton, inoculating the poor people at government expense for the purpose of giving it to our army.”

General Benedict Arnold reported that nearly 1,200 American troops at Montreal were also suffering from smallpox:

“From the 1st of January to the 1st of March, we have never had more than seven hundred effective men on the ground, and frequently not more than five hundred.”


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