I generally don’t like making assumptions about what someone in the past would think or do today. But sometimes it’s pretty obvious.
Within days of taking command of the army at Cambridge, Massachusetts during the summer of 1775, Washington wrote to assure the President of the Continental Congress that he had been “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Small Pox,” quarantining anyone suspected of having the disease in a special hospital. Washington further promised that he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”
Washington had all the same problems with smallpox inoculation we have today with COVID-19 vaccination.
- Inoculation was a local matter and he couldn’t oversee everything.
- Congress lacked the authority and will to enforce anything.
- Some men were so eager to get inoculated they purposely exposed themselves by creating open sores.
- Other men were far more resistant to the point of desertion.
- Medical care was scarce or non-existent, despite pretty good science behind smallpox inoculation.
- Still, Washington had to make painful decisions about who to treat and when.
In his diary in 1776, Washington wrote, “Few people know the predicament we’re in.”
Washington ordered smallpox inoculations for new soldiers who were being equipped to join the army but forbade it from time to time for existing soldiers to preserve the force. One such order came in the summer of 1776 when the spread was relatively low and he judged the threat from the British to be of more significant concern. Washington himself was inoculated from having contracted the disease in Barbados when he was 19, on his first and only international trip.
In other words, he took things in balance despite severe shortages of everything, a lack of authority, issues with quarantines, political forces, and individual wishes.
By 1778, Washington’s cure-all was to handle inoculations when soldiers were in camp where it was easier to enforce, not at enlistment. But it was also more difficult to care for them in the field. The recovery period lasted about a month, and men would need blankets, lodging, food, and water.
Surely, if Washington could have inoculated everyone in contact with his army without sacrificing responsiveness, he would have.
And if someone told George Washington he needed to wear a mask to protect against airborne disease and his troops should too, I’m guessing he’d have ordered masks. Assuming enough thread and fabric could be found. He understood the value of each person. But I’m also willing to bet that at the time of battle he would have discarded them so he and others could whisper, yell, and move as efficiently as possible. Then again, they would be outdoors, so maybe that would have been fine.
Much of our approach to COVID-19 right now seems unbalanced. On one end, masks are almost a cartoonish example of ‘the least you can do’. And on the other end, political disagreements about authority and liberty. I’m guessing few men questioned Washington about liberty and freedom when he told them to literally form an open wound on their arm.
Still, 25,000 Americans died in the Revolution. Eight thousand from fighting and the rest came from disease, starvation, or freezing to death. Of the 171,000 British soldiers in the colonies at the time, 17,000 would die from battle, and 18,000 would die from disease—primarily scurvy.
The Revolution would stand as America’s deadliest war until the Civil War. In many respects, it was less a war against the British than it was a war against nature. One percent of the population died in the Revolution when we had only 2.5 million people in the country. A similar war today would mean about 3.3 million deaths.
The US currently has 623,000 recorded deaths from COVID-19 as of August 2021, or about .2% of today’s population. In 1776, .2% would have been about 5,000 people. There were times by the winter of 1776 Washington had fewer than 3,000 troops, total. I’m willing to guess if they knew something as simple as a mask could reduce the spread of a disease at a time when disease was visibly everywhere, Washington would have personally drawn up the order within the hour.