8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

Larry Holzwarth - November 2, 2017

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
The Old Burying Ground in Cambridge is the final resting site of many smallpox victims of 1775-76. Flickr

The American Revolution – The Siege of Boston

Following the opening shots of the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British Army remained holed up in Boston surrounded by an American militia army. When George Washington arrived to take charge of this new “Continental Army” it was still made up of largely New England troops, famous for their intransigence towards authority of all types.

Boston itself was steadily reduced by starvation rations and disease, and British guards denied passage in and out of the city, with few limited exceptions. When smallpox broke out in the town the British were largely immune – most of their troops had been inoculated against the disease. Not so the New England troops outside of the town. British commanders attempted to take advantage of this by releasing some Bostonians infected with smallpox to the Americans outside of the city, weakening Washington’s army.

Washington was aware of the vaccination process – called inoculation – and that it still made the individual receiving it sick, but only for one or two days and with much milder symptoms. He organized and required participation in a plan to inoculate his entire army against the British attempts to spread the disease.

When Washington, was made aware by evacuees from Boston that a major British attempt to release victims of the disease – particularly slaves – into the American lines was forthcoming he redoubled his efforts. Washington’s program worked to some extent, but the overcoming of suspicious New England minds to inoculation led to numerous disciplinary problems for the American troops.

The British made several other attempts to spread disease in American camps as the Revolutionary War progressed, perhaps unsurprisingly since they had used similar operations in preceding wars. In 1781 in Virginia, en route to Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis was informed by a subordinate of a plan to release “700 Negroes” infected with smallpox among the plantations and towns of the Tidewater region. Another British officer by the name of Robert Donkin published a pamphlet suggesting the use of smallpox-infected arrows against the American troops.

Advertisement
Advertisement