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Generals George Washington and Horatio Gates plan troop movements due to smallpox infection in 1777

Generals George Washington and Horatio Gates plan troop movements due to smallpox infection in 1777

During the Revolutionary War, Continental Army Major General Horatio Gates writes to General Washington from Philadelphia to discuss the prevention of spreading smallpox on January 31, 1777. General Gates had consulted with Doctor William Shippen, Jr., famed Philadelphia physician and a Director General of Hospitals of the Continental Army as well as co-founder of the first medical school in the colonies and of the founders of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.


Yesterday Evening I had the Honour to receive your Excellency’s Letter of the 28th. Instant, I immediately consulted with Doctor Shippen & Mr. Morris, upon the best method of preventing the spreading of The Infection of the Small Pox. I have Issued Orders to Oblige all the Troops & Recruits, upon their March from the Westward, to Avoid this City, & take their Route through German Town. Your excellency knows from experience there is no suppressing that diseases in an Army like Ours but by sending the infected to a remote & secure place, cut off from all Communication with The Camp. Some Surgeons for the sake of Gain will endeavor to inoculate privately, One of these I was Obliged to send into confinement at Albany last Summer. The Commanding Officer of Corps cannot be too circumspect in preventing so informal a practice. The Council of Safety will transmit the receipt for the Arms delivered to The Militia agreeable to Your Excellencys desire, & the Committee of Congress in conjunction with them are doing all that is possible to recover the Arms carried off by the Discharged & Deserted Militia.

I am Sir

Your most Obedient

Humble Servant

Horatio Gates

His Excellency

General Washington

Unlike many of the British troops who had been exposed to smallpox as children and were now immune, relatively few Continental Army soldiers from New England and the south had been exposed to the virus. General Washington was especially knowledgeable about the effects of smallpox, having been infected when he was 19 years old, along with his brother Lawrence, while visiting Barbados.

This letter is absent from the U.S. National Archives collection which contains the January 28th, 1777 letter addressing the smallpox and troop movements from General George Washington to General Gates prior to issuance of this letter, and the subsequent January 31st, 1777 reply of General Washington to General Gates following the receipt of this letter.

Horatio Gates (1727-1806) was a Major General during the Revolutionary War taking credit for the American victories in the Battles of Saratoga (1777) and was blamed for the American defeat at the Battle of Camden (1780). General Gates was also cognizant of the effects of smallpox on troops. Gates had been given command of the Canadian Department and was quite disorganized with the retreat from Quebec. At this time, disease, especially smallpox, had taken a significant toll on his army. Congress gave General Gates command of the Northern Department on August 4th, 1777. He led the army during the defeat of British General Burgoyne's invasion in the Battles of Saratoga. The famous and historic Painting of the Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull shows Major General Horatio Gates is in the center, with arms outstretched. General Gates stands front and center in John Trumbull's painting of the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, which hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Contributed by anonymous