Skip main navigation

Military Health System

Clear Your Browser Cache

This website has recently undergone changes. Users finding unexpected concerns may care to clear their browser's cache to ensure a seamless experience.

Gen. George Washington Ordered Smallpox Inoculations for All Troops

Image of Old photo of George Washington in battle. George Washington rallies his troops at the Battle of Monmouth in a painting by Emanuel Leutze, 1857 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

In late 1776, as Gen. George Washington led his troops through the opening battles of the American Revolution, it was not necessarily the enemy fighters who posed the biggest risk to the fledgling U.S. Army.

An estimated 90% of deaths in the Continental Army were caused by disease, and the most vicious were variants of smallpox, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

That's why Gen. Washington made the controversial decision to order the mass inoculation of his soldiers, an effort to combat spread of the disease that was at the time a major deterrent to enlistments and posed the risk of debilitating his army and tipping the balance of power against America's first warfighters.

According to the U.S. Library of Congress's Science, Technology, and Business Division, the smallpox inoculations began Jan. 6, 1777, for all of Washington's forces who came through the then-capital of Philadelphia, and through Morristown, New Jersey, following the Battle of Princeton.

Smallpox is a potentially fatal disease that starts with fever and vomiting and an outbreak of ulcers in the mouth and a skin rash. The skin rash turns into highly contagious fluid-filled blisters. The fatality rate was very high.

Inoculations were far more primitive - and dangerous - than today's vaccinations. The most common method was to cut a person's skin and rub the minor incision with a thread or cloth contaminated with a less-virulent version of smallpox, which in this case was a strain known as "variola."

At the time, most English troops were immune to variola, and their immunity gave them an "enormous advantage against the vulnerable colonists," according to the library. By contrast, less than a quarter of the American colonial troops had ever had the virus.

Washington knew a mass inoculation campaign could backfire and might cause more disease than it prevented. He also feared the mandatory inoculations would harm recruitment.

Nevertheless, after weighing the odds, Washington informed Congress on Feb. 5, 1777, of his plans for a mass inoculation. The general's plans contraindicated a 1776 proclamation by the Continental Congress prohibiting inoculations.

A Feb. 6 letter to Dr. William Shippen from Washington states: "Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our Army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated. This expedient may be attended with some inconvenience and some disadvantages but yet I trust its consequences will have the most happy effects. Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence, we have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy."

Throughout February, the inoculations across the entire force were carried out in the model of the initial efforts in Morristown and Philadelphia.

Washington's strategy was largely successful.

"The isolated infections that sprung up among Continental regulars during the southern campaign failed to incapacitate a single regiment," the Library reported.

You can read more on the first mass military inoculation at the Library of Congress's Science section.

You also may be interested in...

Infographic
May 25, 2022

Spread Facts, Not the Flu

Graphic with ways to prevent the flu

Suggested Social Media Message: Spread Facts not Flu! #GetVaccinated Learn more about Flu Vaccination here: https://www.tricare.mil/flu

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Flu Symptoms

Graphic about flu symptoms

Suggested Social Media Message: Learn the symptoms of the flu, and #GetVaccinated to #FightFlu! https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2022-2023.htm

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Getting the Flu Vaccine - Active Duty Service Members

Flu vaccine infographic for service members

Suggested Social Media Message: Service members have 3 options for getting their mandatory #Flu vaccine each year. Remember, Service members who get the flu vaccine outside of a military hospital or clinic need to make sure to record the shot in their military medical record! #GetVaccinated to #FightFlu! Learn more about the flu vaccine at: TRICARE ...

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Symptoms of the Flu

GIF with text about flu symptoms

Suggested Social Media Message: TAKE ACTION! #Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu, and reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/prevention.htmCDC webpage Getting the flu vaccine reduces doctor visits, missed work, and school, as well as prevents flu-related hospitalizations. Everyone 6 ...

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Preventing the Flu

Infographic about preventing the flu

Suggested Social Media Message: The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year. Other ways of minimizing the risk of getting or spreading the flu include practicing good health habits like avoiding people who are sick, covering your cough or sneeze, washing your hands (using alcohol-based hand sanitizer if washing is not ...

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Take Action Against the Flu

Take action against the flu graphic

Suggested Social Media Message: TAKE ACTION! #Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu, and reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/prevention.htmCDC webpage Getting the flu vaccine reduces doctor visits, missed work, and school, as well as prevents flu-related hospitalizations. Everyone 6 ...

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?

Infographic about who should get vaccinated

Suggested Social Media Message: For the 2022-2023 flu season, CDC recommends specific flu vaccines for adults 65 years of age and older. These include the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent, Flublok Quadrivalent, and Fluad Quadrivalent flu vaccines. Any of these are recommended for people 65 years and older. Talk to your provider if you have questions ...

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Getting the Flu Vaccine - All Beneficiaries

Flu vaccine infographic for all

Suggested Social Media Message: There are 3 options for getting the Flu Vaccine. Recent sciences shows that getting a #flu shot reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% for most people. #GetVaccinated Learn more about the flu vaccine at: TRICARE webpagehttps://www.tricare.mil/flu

Infographic
Mar 8, 2021

Is it the Cold or the Flu?

Graphic comparing cold and flu symptoms

Suggested Social Media Message: Is it a cold or flu? Signs and symptoms differ between the flu and a cold. #GetVaccinated Learn more about Flu Vaccination here: TRICARE webpagehttps://www.tricare.mil/flu

Skip subpage navigation
Refine your search
Last Updated: July 11, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery