Politics and Military

In 1776, Revolutionary War Soldier Lemuel Roberts Laughs Off Smallpox

Life in the Continental Army wasn’t all glory. A soldier bore disease and abominable conditions, indifferent and sometimes ineffective leadership and flat out chaos. Few soldiers left behind detailed memoirs about America’s fight for freedom. However, Lemuel Roberts of Canaan, Conn. His Memoirs of Captain Lemuel Roberts, published in 1809, provide a detailed account of a soldier’s life in the Revolutionary War.

bunker-hill

Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle.

From 1775 until 1778, Roberts belonged to several regiments fighting in New England, New York, New Jersey and Canada. He took part in the siege of Boston and the Battle of Saratoga. Blunt, opinionated and strong (he began his working life as a lumberjack in northern Vermont), Lemuel Roberts’ story reads like an adventure novel.

Lemuel Roberts Tells All

While the officers dined in the better houses and had the best food and drink available, ordinary soldiers experienced a grittier side of army life. Roberts tells how they battled diseases that took the lives of more American soldiers than the enemy did. A smallpox epidemic from 1775 to 1782 ravaged North America.

In April of 1776, Roberts served in a regiment of the Massachusetts Line dispatched to Quebec. He contracted smallpox as his regiment retreated.

Roberts and many others got themselves inoculated. That may have saved them from the worst effects of the disease, but not all.

continental-army-soldiers

Continental Army foot soldiers.

At first, Roberts failed to see the potential devastation of smallpox. He just noticed that people seemed pale.

“The occurrences which ensued shocked me exceedingly; a group of exceeding pale faces appeared around me, on receipt of the news (to retreat), we were ordered to swing our packs immediately and join the Army,” he wrote. “The symptoms of the small pox, or some other symptoms, operated too extensively to suit my feelings. One cried, ‘I cannot carry my pack,’ another, ‘I must leave clothes,’ etc. In short, all was bustle and confusion, and according to my conception the pale symptoms were rather more evident in the officers than among the men. I could not refrain from laughing at some, bantering others, and scolding at as many, to excite to motion.”

Smallpox

Few evils have no benefit, he wrote. “And it happened here with respect to myself.

“Though I was somewhat weakened by dieting for the small pox, my pack was too valuable for me to abandon,” he wrote.  “And while I was preparing to swing it, our ensign offered me two good shirts if I would carry a third for him.” He packed them up and a captain then asked him to take a pair of his shoes and  and a pair belonging to his son.

“I obliged him, and kept receiving from one and another, till my pack weighed about 70 pounds,” wrote Roberts.

“I used much persuasion to induce others to follow my example, so far at least as to save their own clothes. Laughing some at their plea of inability, I swung my pack and started with them on our march for the bank of the river St. Lawrence, to join our retreating army.”

Roberts would soon learn firsthand, however, not to laugh at smallpox. He later reported “on the progress of his disorder.”

smallpox

A smallpox victim in 1912.

“The pock had come out upon me very thick, especially upon my feet, legs and seat. … Before we reached Sorel, my pock had become so sore and troublesome, that my clothes stuck fast to my body, especially to my seat.”

To bear his disorder and help managing the boat became “a severe trial to my fortitude,” he wrote. “Yet I was supported and carried through.”

He billeted for a few days at Sorel. There he grew well fast, while a great many of  his companions died.

Relapse

Yet Roberts would suffer more relapses, reporting later:

“During this night I was so much out of order, and my head was so peculiarly affected, that I knew very little that passed,” he wrote.

The next day, however, he took a good dose of Bohea tea and some other simple medicines of his own. “I felt quite relieved,” he wrote. He slept well the next night when the army reached Chambly.

The come-and-go nature of disease and sickness among the men also led to dissent. Those who suffered a relapse faced accusations of malingering. And the disputes could extend beyond simply laughing. Roberts recounts one occasion where he was the accused rather than the accuser.

“On the day this retreat commenced I was taken exceeding severely with the dysentery, and being on the rear guard, I was obliged to drop behind the whole, and was most severely put to it to regain my place. Endeavoring to do it, however, I came up to an imperious young officer, stationed in the rear. This man, feeling the importance of his commission, used me with very rough language,  for straggling behind with intention, as he suggested, to be taken by the enemy.

“I resented his insult with spirit, and he, furnishing himself with a heavy club, threatened me with loud sounding words and told me how he would serve me if I did not run. I told him I was unable to run, and he came at me with apparent fury, but having a Tomahawk in my hand with a long handle, which I had used as a staff, I stood my ground and he was careful not to come within my reach.

This story was updated in 2021. 

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