Science and Nature

Fighting for Independence During a Smallpox Epidemic: Lake Champlain in 1776

Throughout the first six months of 1776, the soldiers of the American Northern Army in Canada fought against two deadly enemies: smallpox and the British military. The British turned out to be the less lethal of the two.

Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga. Photo courtesy of the author.

Development of a vaccine has now largely eradicated the highly contagious smallpox virus. But the disease could be so virulent it was known as the ‘speckled monster.’ Symptoms began with vomiting and high fever, followed a few days later by pustules in the mouth and on the tongue before spreading across the body. Recovery could take up to three weeks. Once infected, a person had about a one in three chance of dying.

The American army did not beat those odds.

The Invasion of Canada

In September 1775, the Continental Congress sent two expeditions to invade Quebec. One initially consisted of 2,000 men commanded by Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery. They sailed up Lake Champlain toward Montreal, where they captured Fort St. John. Then they marched to Quebec, where they joined the second expedition led by Col. Benedict Arnold.

Arnold’s forces had dwindled to 600 men from the 1,100 that started out in Cambridge, Mass. It had taken months to reach Quebec through the Maine wilderness, and a third of Arnold’s men turned back during the grueling trek.

Map of the invasion of Canada.

Quebec

Montgomery’s forces joined Arnold’s in Quebec in early December. They launched an attack on the British fort in a howling snowstorm on New Year’s Eve – a disastrous mistake. Montgomery died in the battle, as did 50 men. Another 34 were wounded and 431 captured. The British lost only five killed and 14 wounded.

The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, Dec. 31, 1775, by John Trumbull

Smallpox had already begun to kill soldiers. The remaining forces under Arnold besieged the city for the next few months as the smallpox spread.

When reinforcements bolstered the British in May, the Northern Army began a disordered retreat. The army moved west from Quebec City toward Fort Ticonderoga, hindered by a staggering number of soldiers debilitated by smallpox.

Smallpox Misery

Dr. Lewis Beebe of Sheffield, Mass., arrived in Quebec in May. He kept a journal about his time in the army. In his entries we can see firsthand the misery caused by the epidemic. From Chambly, outside of Montreal, he wrote on May 26, “If ever I had a compassionate feeling for my fellow creatures… I think it was this day, to see Large barns filled with men in the very heighth of the small pox and not the least thing, to make them comfortable…”

Fort Chambly today. Photo courtesy of the author.

On June 17, as the army moved south toward Lake Champlain, Beebe wrote from Isle aux Noix:

Scarcely a tent upon this Isle but what contains one or more in distress and continually groaning, & calling for relief, but in vain! Requests of this Nature are as little regarded, as the singing of Crickets in a Summers evening. The most shocking of all Spectacles was to see a large barn Crowded full of men with this disorder… one nay two had large maggots, an inch long, Crawl out of their ears, were on almost every part of the body. No mortal will ever believe what these suffered unless they were eye witnessess.

Inoculation

Smallpox had no cure. But those who survived an infection would be immune. This led to soldiers seeking inoculation — intentional infection through the blood. This involved making an incision in the skin and applying pox to the wound. Those who were inoculated usually came down with a milder — though still harrowing — case of the disease with a much lower mortality rate. When recovered, those soldiers would have an immunity to future infections.

But inoculation violated regulations. Officers feared that inoculated soldiers would spread the disease to their comrades. If the soldiers all inoculated at one time, they would be too weak to defend against the enemy.

Nevertheless soldiers were surreptitiously inoculated. In May of 1776, Josiah Sabin served with the Green Mountain Boys at Quebec. Later in life Sabin recalled inoculating himself with smallpox. Then he also inoculated some of his comrades, blindfolded so as not to know who administered the inoculation. Nevertheless, Sabin was found out and only saved from severe punishment by the intervention of his commanding officer, Seth Warner.

Soldiering On

Finally, Benedict Arnold, in temporary command, issued an order allowing for inoculation. That lasted one day. Then Gen. John Thomas arrived, sent by Congress to take command of the army in Canada. He threatened execution for anyone performing or receiving inoculation. Thomas himself died of the disease in early June and the surreptitious inoculations went on.

Benedict Arnold

Later that summer, George Washington approved inoculation for the Continental Army.

Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin, an army engineer from North Brookfield, Mass., took inoculation on May 17, 1776. He described the progress of the disease in his journal. In six days he began to suffer symptoms including headache and pox. Over the next three weeks he suffered more headaches, sore throat, chills and, of course, painful pustules on his skin. But Baldwin continued to do his job the best he could, helping the retreat.

Crown Point

The army moved south on Lake Champlain to Crown Point and the large, damaged fort built by the British following the French and Indian War. Beebe arrived on the 26th of June. “The Regiment is in a most deplorable Situation,” he recorded in his journal, “between 4 & 500 now in the height of the small pox. Death is now become a daily visitant to the Camps…”

Crown Point today. Photo courtesy of the author.

Three days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote a letter to Abigail in which he reported on affairs in the north. “Our Army at Crown Point is an Object of Wretchedness, enough to fill a humane Mind, with Horror,” he wrote. “Disgraced, defeated, discontented, dispirited, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with Vermin—no Cloaths, Beds, Blanketts, no Medicines, no Victuals, but Salt Pork and flour.”

This army was charged with defending the newly minted United States of America from the 8,000 fresh British troops preparing to move south on Lake Champlain. The Americans had one advantage. The previous year, after capturing Fort Ticonderoga, they had also captured some gun boats. If the British tried to move south on the lake, the mini American navy could blow their troop ships to smithereens. Before the invasion could continue, the British needed to build their own war ships. This gave the Americans time to heal and prepare.

Philip Schuyler

From his headquarters in Albany, Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler had command of the entire Northern Department, including this ravaged army. In early July he traveled to Crown Point to get a firsthand look at conditions there. With the consent of his general officers, Schuyler drew up a plan to handle the situation.

philip-schuyler

Philip Schuyler

First they needed to separate the fit soldiers from the ill, otherwise reinforcements would refuse to mingle with the infected. The sick were transported to Fort George at the southern end of Lake George.

Next Schuyler and his officers decided it would be a mistake to try to defend Crown Point. They did not have a large enough force to cover the long, narrow peninsula. It would be too easy for the British to sail cannon around the deep bay to the west and get the Americans in a crossfire. And it would be much more difficult to bring supplies and reinforcements.

But where to make a stand?

On July 12th, Schuyler answered that question in a letter to George Washington. “I am just returned from Crown point,” he wrote,

to which place I accompanied General Gates — On our Way to that place we stop’d at Tyconderoga and left Colonel Trumbull to take a View of the Grounds opposite to it and on the East Side of Lake Champlain… 

Trumbull returned with a favorable report, wrote Schuyler, and on July 9 he and his general officers checked out the ground. They found it, “so remarkably strong as to require little Labour to make it tenable against a vast Superiority of Force, and fully to answer the purpose of preventing the Enemy from penetrating into the Country to the South of it.”

Mount Independence

The strong ground Schuyler referred to would soon be named Mount Independence, a 300-plus acre peninsula projecting northward from the Vermont shore. As a keystone to the defenses that included Fort Ticonderoga, the Mount would in a few short weeks buzz with activity as the Americans prepared to meet the British head on.

View of Mount Independence by By Zeph77 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Meanwhile, the steps taken by Schuyler paid off. The smallpox epidemic waned. By the end of August, Gen. Horatio Gates — in command of the Lake Champlain forces — could report to George Washington that the smallpox “is now perfectly removed from the Army.”

Dr. Beebe returned home at the end of July to recuperate from dysentery. He traveled north again at the end of August, intent on rejoining his regiment. he passed by Fort George, the smallpox hospital set up by Schuyler in early July.

“Visited the hospital,” he recorded on the 28th. [He] “found the number of sick to be about 700, viewed the burying place counted upwards of 300 graves… the appearance of which was melancholy indeed, to see such desolation made in our army.”

Bibliography

Cubbison, D. R. (2010). The American Northern Theater Army in 1776. McFarland.

Dann, J. C. (1999). The Revolution Remembered. University of Chicago Press.

Fenn, E. A. (2002). Pox Americana. Macmillan.

Frederic R. Kirkland, ed. “Journal of a Physician on the Expedition Against Canada.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. (Volume LIX, Number 4). October 1935.

Wickman, Donald. (2017) Strong Ground: Mount Independence and the American Revolution, Mount Independence Coalition.

Zeoli, Stephen. (2015) Mount Independence: The Enduring Legacy of a Unique Historic Place, 3rd Edition. Self published.

Stephen Zeoli spent two summers in his younger days as caretaker at Mount Independence State Historic Site in Orwell, Vt. Today, Steve is the president of the Mount Independence Coalition, the friends group working with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation to interpret the historic site. He is also the author of the self-published book Mount Independence: The Enduring Legacy of a Unique Historic Place.

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