An epidemic ripped through the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Caleb Haskell lived to write about it

In September 1775, less than five months after the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War, the newly formed Continental Army invaded the British Province of Quebec, in modern-day Canada, with three objectives: to persuade French-speaking Canadiens to join the revolutionary cause, to take control of strategically important sea routes, and to drive the British out of Canada. Toward the end of the year two separate military expeditions, led by Colonel Benedict Arnold and Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, two officers in the Continental Army, approached Quebec City from the east and the south, joined forces, and set up camp outside the city. There, more than a thousand exhausted and weakened soldiers, packed into close quarters, lived in squalid conditions—a veritable Petri dish for smallpox infections.

By December 31, when Montgomery launched the attack that became the Battle of Quebec, the soldiers under his command were already fighting on borrowed time. The British troops they faced, on the other hand, were protected from smallpox by herd immunity. Montgomery died in the attack, as did 30 of his men; more than 400 others were taken prisoner by the British. 

The smallpox outbreak in the American army was documented by Caleb Haskell, a member of the fife and drum corps from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who contracted the disease. Haskell survived, and in 1881 his wartime journal was published as Caleb Haskell’s Diary: A Revolutionary War Soldier’s Record before Boston and with Arnold’s Quebec Expedition, from which the following excerpt is drawn.

A year after the disaster in Quebec, General George Washington ordered all American soldiers who had never been sickened with smallpox to be inoculated as protection against the virus—the first mass government-financed immunization campaign in American history.

Brigadier General Richard Montgomery was killed in the Battle of Quebec. “Thus we were defeated,” wrote Jacob Haskell, “with the loss of our General and upwards of 400 of our officers and men killed or taken.” (Yale University Art Gallery)
Brigadier General Richard Montgomery was killed in the Battle of Quebec. “Thus we were defeated,” wrote Jacob Haskell, “with the loss of our General and upwards of 400 of our officers and men killed or taken.” (Yale University Art Gallery)

December 6th, Wednesday.—Most of the army has arrived. We are getting in readiness to lay siege to Quebec. The small-pox is all around us, and there is great danger of its spreading in the army. There are Spies sent out of Quebec every day, and some taken almost every day, both men and women. We have a strong guard set around the city, and last night we took a small schooner that was bound for Quebec loaded with provision.

December 7th, Thursday.—To day we took 15 prisoners. We had several cannon shot fired upon our guards. A bad snow storm.

December 8th, Friday.—This morning we carried two field pieces down to St. Roche’s suburbs, against the city gates to prevent the enemy coming out.

December 9th, Saturday.—Employed in getting cannon and mortars ready to carry to St. Roche’s, in order to cannonade the city. In the evening the guard was doubled. Thirty-­two men out of our company on fatigue. At one o’clock at night…our battery threw about thirty shells into the city. We had a number of shells and some shot thrown at us. We had one man wounded. We are throwing up breastworks in different places. I am on guard at the Nunnery.

December 10th, Sunday.—This morning at daylight we moved our cannon and mortars from the suburbs. All still at sunrise. In the forenoon the enemy began to play upon us who are on guard and fatigue with cannon and small arms. About noon the enemy came out of the city and set fire to St. Johns suburbs which burned the rest of the day and part of the night. Our guards took two of those who came out. At night we went down to St. Roche’s with five mortars and threw forty shells into the city. The enemy kept up a continual fire upon us with cannon, and threw a number of shells out to us but did no damage.

December 11th, Monday.—We have kept the enemy busy playing upon us from one part of the city, whilst we have been fortifying in another part. We have got our works almost completed. Today we had a man wounded, and a woman killed by a shot from the city. We have got our breastworks finished on the plains. We threw thirty-­five shells into the city in the night.

December 12th, Tuesday.—Exceedingly cold. Our guards were moved down towards the city; but little firing on either side today. At night I was on guard. We moved our cannon down to our batteries; getting in readiness to storm the city.

December 13th, Wednesday.—Today the enemy kept a continual firing with cannon and small arms. At night we were employed mounting our cannon on our breastworks. We had a number of shells thrown at us in our breastworks. At midnight we were beat off by the snow.

December 14th, Thursday.—The enemy keep up a continual firing upon us in our breastworks. We had three men killed and seven wounded in our fort. Employed tonight in getting in readiness to play upon the city in the morning.

December 15th, Friday.—Early this morning a hot cannonading began on both sides, which lasted several hours. We sent a flag [of surrender] to the city, but were refused. The firing began again and lasted till dark. We had one of our carriages cut down, and one man killed on our breastworks.

December 16th, Saturday.—Had but little firing today. We had one man killed with grape shot. I am unwell, and have been for three days unfit for duty.

December 17th, Sunday.—I was ordered to the hospital. A bad storm; could not go.

December 18th, Monday.—Myself and four more of our company were carried to the Nunnery hospital. All still on both sides.

December 19th, Tuesday.—Today three of those who came to the hospital with me broke out with the small-pox; I have the same symptoms.

December 20th, Wednesday.—This morning my bedfellow, with myself, were broke out with small-pox; we were carried three miles out in the country out of the camp; I am very ill.

December 21st, Thursday.—The small-pox spreads fast in our army.

December 22nd, Friday.—Poor attendance; no bed to lie on; no medicine to take; troubled much with a sore throat.

December 23rd, Saturday.—My distemper works very bad. Does not fill out.

December 24th, Sunday.—I feel much better today; am able to sit up much of the day.

December 25th, Monday.—Christmas; a pleasant day. We have nothing from the camp.

December 26th, Tuesday.—There were two men brought here today with the small-pox.

December 27th, Wednesday.—A man in our room died today with the small-pox. I am getting better every day.

December 28th, Thursday.—All the houses in the neighborhood are full of our soldiers with the small-pox. It goes favorably with the most of them.

December 29th, Friday.—We have nothing from the camp.

December 30th, Saturday.—My distemper leaves me fast. I went to the door today.

December 31st, Sunday.—Heard from the camp that General [Richard] Montgomery intended to storm the city soon. A bad snow storm. One of our company died of small-pox about twelve o’clock tonight.

January 1st, 1776, Monday.—About four o’clock this morning we perceived a hot engagement at the city by the blaze of the cannon and small arms, but could hear no report by reason of the wind and storm, it being a violent snow storm. We supposed that General Montgomery had stormed the city. Just after daylight all was still. We are fearful and anxious to hear the transactions of last night. This morning I took my clothes and pack on my back, being very weak and feeble after the small-pox. Returned to the camp. Found all my officers and three of my messmates and almost all the company taken or killed, and the rest in great confusion. Could get no particular account of the siege till the afternoon, when we received the following:

This morning about four o’clock, the time appointed to storm the city, our army divided into different parts to attack. General Montgomery was to storm the upper town and scale the walls, while Colonel [Benedict] Arnold was to cut the pickets leading from the walls to Charles river and enter the lower town as soon as the signal was given. They proceeded; it being dark no discovery was made. They got near the walls, when a heavy fire of cannon and small arms began from the enemy, they being prepared and expecting us this night. Here a number of our men were killed and wounded. The rest not being disheartened rushed on; came to the walls, cannon roaring like thunder and musket balls flying like hail. Our men had nothing for cover. Our General and his Aide-camp and Captain Cheese­man [Jacob Cheesman] were killed by a charge of grape-shot from the walls, which put this party in great confusion. There appeared no officer to take command. Colonel Camrael came up and ordered them to retreat. Colonel Arnold was wounded and brought off and a number of his men killed or wounded. The rest advanced and cut the pickets, so that with great difficulty they entered the town and took possession of the battery and secured themselves to wait till daylight. Hearing a great shout and the firing cease, and not knowing the occasion, concluded that the General had got in and the city had surrendered. After it was light, to their great disappointment, they found it otherwise. They found themselves surrounded and no retreat, and that they must fall into the hands of their enemies. Thus we were defeated, with the loss of our General and upwards of 400 of our officers and men killed or taken. Every Captain in Colonel Arnold’s party was killed or taken, and but four of his men escaped and they invalids.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Experience | Pox Americana

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