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“Undistinguished Destruction”: The Effects of Smallpox on British Emancipation Policy in the Revolutionary War


In 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to any African American who fought for the British cause against the colonial rebels in his province. Dunmore's plan to reconquer Virginia with his “Ethiopian Regiment” ended in failure, not due to a lack of willing volunteers but because of a familiar eighteenth-century killer: smallpox. Five years later, similar proclamations were issued in South Carolina. Yet smallpox again hindered British designs, devastating the eager African Americans who flooded to their lines. This paper uses primary source material and research on smallpox to analyze the experiences of African Americans who actively sought freedom with the British during the Revolutionary War. Focussing on the differing regions of Virginia and South Carolina this paper will assess the impact of smallpox on British military designs for runaway slaves while also evaluating the reasons why the disease had such a devastating effect on African Americans during the period. Overall, this paper will show how smallpox, so common in eighteenth-century Europe, put a fatal end to the first widespread push for emancipation on the American continent and helped derail one of Britain's best hopes for turning the tide in the Revolutionary War.

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1 Both Variola major and Variola minor viruses can cause smallpox, though the former was the most deadly and caused the symptoms modernly attributed to the disease, including blindness, scarring and deformity. Variola major was epidemic during the Revolutionary era and thus is discussed in this paper. See Ryan, K. J. and Ray, C. G., eds., Sherris Medical Microbiology, 4th edn (Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 525–29.

2 In a letter written after the war referring exclusively to Cornwallis's campaign in Virginia in 1781, Thomas Jefferson estimated that some 30,000 slaves had escaped to the British lines, and that some 27,000 of these had succumbed to smallpox or camp fever while there. Even if these numbers are exaggerated, it is clear that smallpox killed several thousand runaway slaves. See Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Gordon, 16 July 1788, in Livermore, George, An Historical Research Respecting the Founders of the Republic: On Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens and as Soldiers (Boston: A. Williams and Co., 1863), 137–38. For a good discussion on the numbers quoted by Jefferson see Pybus, Cassandra, “Jefferson's Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 62, 2 (April 2002), 243–64.

3 The recruitment of white loyalists, particularly in provincial and militia units, was also critical to British plans for the reconquest of the American colonies. This was particularly the case with the British strategy for the southern campaign, and was one of the deciding factors for the British decision to move south. For more on British strategy towards white loyalists, particularly in the southern theatre, see Buchanan, John, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997).

4 Morgan, Philip D. and O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson, “Arming Slaves in the American Revolution,” in Brown, Christopher Leslie and Morgan, Philip D., eds., Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 184 .

5 Ibid., 187.

6 The role of African Americans has now been explored substantially, as has the impact of the war on the lives of slaves. Some of the many works on the subject are Frey, Sylvia, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Gilbert, Alan, Black Patriots and Loyalists (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); Nash, Gary, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Pybus, Cassandra, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Books, 2006); Schama, Simon, Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British and the American Revolution (London: HarperCollins, 2007).

7 For more on the study of smallpox during the Revolutionary War see Fenn, Elizabeth, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic, 1775–1782 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002). For a broader look at disease, particularly mosquito-borne illnesses in the Caribbean region throughout the age of revolution, see McNeill, J. R., Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Finally, for a local study of disease in the region and era that will be analyzed in this paper see McCandless, Peter, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

8 Morgan and O'Shaughnessy, 191.

9 Lord Dunmore to Lord Dartmouth, 1 May 1772, Public Record Office, CO5/1350, ff. 46–47.

10 For more on the situation in Virginia in 1775 and the issuance of Dunmore's Proclamation see Ragsdale, Bruce A., A Planters’ Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); Holton, Woody, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Gilbert.

11 Lord Dunmore, Proclamation, 7 Nov. 1775, University of Virginia Library Online Exhibits, at, accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

12 Ibid.

13 “Near 500 Souls,” Virginia Gazette (Purdie), 19 July 1776. The exact number of slaves who had escaped may have been higher than this, the British only recording those who made it to their lines on the banks of the James. See also Gilbert, 22; Pybus, “Jefferson's Faulty Math,” 250.

14 Fenn, 28; McNeil, 200.

15 Lord Dunmore to Lord Germain, 26 June 1776, CO 5/1373, National Archives. Estimates suggest that upwards of a thousand runaway slaves were members of the Ethiopian Regiment during this period but that smallpox and camp fever, a combination of numerous ailments, killed or incapacitated many at any one time, limiting the number of active troops in the regiment. The illnesses also affected the many women and children who fled to the British despite the stipulations of Dunmore's proclamation. See also Gilbert, 25.

16 Captain Andrew Hamond to Hans Stanley, 16 May 1776, Virginia Historical Society, Mss 10, No. 150. A slightly greater number, of three hundred black soldiers active for duty, was given by a visitor to the fleet a month later. See Clark, William Bell, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume V (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1970), 1344–45.

17 Ibid.

18 Andrew Hamond to Hans Stanley, 10 June 1776, Virginia Historical Society, Mss 10, No. 150. See also Fenn, 58–61; David, James Corbett, Dunmore's New World (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 122–24.

19 Unknown Patriot officer, “Extract from an officer's Journal, who was at the late cannonade at GWYN'S ISLAND,” Virginia Gazette, 20 July 1776, 3. This article provides a Patriot account of the final battle between the Patriots and Dunmore's flotilla, including the wounding of Dunmore. It also explains the situation found on Gwynn's Island besides the condition of the black soldiers. See also Clark, Naval Documents, Volume V, 1135.

20 Morgan and O'Shaughnessy, “Arming Slaves,” 190.

21 This account was given by an eyewitness who recalled, “the negroes from Virginia, inveigled by Lord Dunmore, in the Revolution, were encamped. They got the smallpox, died in great numbers, and were buried in the negro ground, in the rear of Chambers Street.” See Watson, John Fanning, Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State in the Olden Time (Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 1846), 362 .

22 The majority of the wealthy in South Carolina were slaveholders, and Charlestown district had the greatest accumulation of wealth in any of the American colonies. The average private citizen in Charlestown district had an accumulated wealth of £2,337, more than three times greater than the next-closest district, Anne Arundel District in Maryland. See table of wealth in Edgar, Walter, South Carolina: A History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 152 .

23 Similar proposals to use black troops in the southern colonies were quickly dismissed by southern politicians who feared slave uprisings by enacting such a policy. The most vocal proponent in South Carolina was John Laurens, son of prominent South Carolinian Henry Laurens, who called for the creation of slave regiment much like Dunmore's Ethiopian model. It was approved by the Continental Congress, but rejected twice by the South Carolina Assembly and so never established. For more on Lauren's attempts to arm slaves see Massey, Gregory D., John Laurens and the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000). See also Chesnutt, David R., ed., The Papers of Henry Laurens: September 1 1782 – December 17 1792 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), xx .

24 Henry Clinton, Phillipsburg Proclamation, 30 June 1779, Henry Clinton Papers, Clements Library, Proclaiming Emancipation: Online Exhibit, at, accessed 24 Oct. 2014.

25 Ibid.

26 Unknown to Captain Russell, 22 Dec. 1779, Cornwallis Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Reel RW3145, Volume 1, Doc. 33. It is estimated that up to five thousand slaves (roughly a quarter of Georgia's slave population) ran to the British lines. See Frey, Water from the Rock, 86. A more modest number of 620 slaves was given in a recent article; see Pybus, “Jefferson's Faulty Math,” 253. Whatever the true number, it is clear that the British struggled to cope with the inundation.

27 David George, “An Account of the Life of Mr. David George from S. L. A. given by himself,” Canada's Digital Collections, Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People, at, accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

28 Henry Clinton to Lord Cornwallis, 20 May 1780, Cornwallis Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Reel RW3145, Volume 2, Doc. 39.

29 Ibid.

30 While there was no official crown policy towards the recruitment of black troops, several regional commanders did recruit them. This was particularly the case in the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This was not, however, a popular policy in the southern colonies. For more on black recruitment by the British see: Gilbert, Black Patriots; Frey.

31 Clinton, Henry, The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775–1782 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954), 161–62. Clinton commented in his memoirs about the use of blacks employed by the Patriots during the siege, stating, “I found the enemy were drawing all their force from the surrounding country to Charleston and seemed determined to rest the fate of both Carolinas in the defense of that capital, which they strove to render as strong as a happy situation and the labor of a vast multitude of Negroes under skillful engineers could possibly make it.”

32 Piecuch, Jim, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775–1782 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 165 .

33 Ibid., 168–69.

34 It is estimated that around two hundred slaves fought for the British at the Siege of Savannah in 1778. The British commander at Savannah, Augustine Prevost, had served in the Caribbean and thus apparently had no problem with black troops. These troops were quickly mustered out of service when Clinton arrived at the end of that year. See Piecuch, 169; Morgan and O'Shaughnessy, “Arming Slaves,” 191.

35 Morgan and O'Shaughnessy, 190.

36 Von Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 305 , 30 April 1781.

37 Proceedings of the Board of Police, 14 July 1780, South Carolina Department of Archives and History. This followed Clinton's official insistence that loyalist slaves be returned to their owners. see Clinton memorandum, 20 May 1780, PRO 30/55/23.

38 Ramsay, David, History of South Carolina: From Its First Settlement in 1670 to the Year 1808 (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans & Co., 1858), 190 . See also McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering, 221.

39 Eliza Pinckney to unknown, 25 Sept. 1780, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney Papers, Library of Congress, 1st Ser., Box 5. See also Fenn, Pox Americana, 127–28.

40 Hamond to Stanley, 10 June 1776. See also Pybus, “Jefferson's Faulty Math,” 249; David, Dunmore's New World.

41 In a famous smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1721, when inoculation was still in its infancy, Cotton Mather reported that mortality rates from contracting the disease naturally was 15%, while only 2% of those inoculated died. These figures improved as inoculation became more widely practiced. Inoculation also reduced other effects of smallpox, including blindness and scarring. Fenn, 33. Others seem to suggest that the mortality rate could be as high as 60% for those victims who caught the distemper naturally; see Pybus, “Jefferson's Faulty Math,” 257.

42 Hamond to Stanley, 30 June 1776.

43 The use of the runaway slaves in a non-fighting capacity and the impact of smallpox amongst the blacks who labored for the British army is evident in the records of the British from the time. In the Royal Artillery alone during the siege of Charlestown, of 154 blacks in the unit 92 were laborers, whilst others had equally non-fighting roles such as blacksmiths. Of the 154 men, over a third were ill at the time of this entry and 30 (a fifth of the men) were suffering from smallpox specifically. “A Return of Negroes for the Royal Artillery Dept., Lenings Landing, 28 April 1780, Clinton Papers, Clements Library. Women were also employed in this capacity; see “A Return of Negroes Employed as Artificers, Labourers, and Servants in the Royal Artillery,” 5 Aug. 1786, George Wray Papers, Clements Library.

44 Ralph Izard to Thomas Jefferson, 10 June 1785, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VIII, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 199 . Estimates suggest that over 20,000 slaves fled to the British in South Carolina, and some five thousand did the same in Georgia, one-third of the state's slave population. Fenn, 126–27; Frey, Water from the Rock, 211.

45 Boston King, “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher,” Methodist Magazine, 21 (March 1798), 106–10, 107.

46 Ibid., 108. King did carry messages in his role as servant, but never actively served in the British army. He later made his way to New York, where, joining the surviving members of Dunmore's regiment and other black refugees, he was evacuated to Nova Scotia in 1783.

47 Lord Cornwallis to General Charles O'Hara, 7 Aug. 1781, Cornwallis Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Reel RW3150, Volume 89, Doc. 7.

48 General Charles O'Hara to Lord Cornwallis, 9 Aug. 1781, Cornwallis Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History Reel RW3149, Volume 70, Doc. 16, underlining in original.

49 Lord Cornwallis to General Charles O'Hara, 10 Aug. 1781, Cornwallis Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History Reel RW3150, Volume 70, Doc. 10.

50 St. George Tucker, Yorktown Diary, 2 Oct. 1781, Manuscript Collection, College of William and Mary; Von Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 335–36, 30 April 1781. An account by Patriot physician James Thacher stated, “The British have sent from Yorktown a large number of negroes, sick with the small pox.” Quoted in Fenn, 130.

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