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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 204-211



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Of Smallpox and Empire

Carol R. Byerly


Elizabeth Anne Fenn. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. 320 pp. Notes and index. $25.00.

The horrific scene appears over and over: British soldiers in 1776 pursue the American Continental Army in retreat from the siege of Quebec and encounter scores of patriot soldiers dead or dying of smallpox; American soldiers land on Gwynns Island, Virginia, later that year, to find hundreds of dead and dying former slaves who had joined the British army to be free, only to die of smallpox; and in 1781, Blackfeet fur traders enter an oddly quiet rival Shoshone camp in Alberta, Canada, and discover it inhabited only by those dead and dying of smallpox. This is the story of smallpox and empire, of disease and war, as told by Elizabeth Anne Fenn in Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.

Fenn's rigorously researched and powerfully written book brings to life a hitherto neglected epidemic that swept the continent in the late eighteenth century. American smallpox can now join the ranks of well-known epidemics such as the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia that J. H. Powell captured in Bring Out Your Dead (1949), and the nineteenth-century cholera epidemics that Charles E. Rosenberg so vividly described in The Cholera Years (1962, 1987). Moreover, Fenn's work is a welcome addition to a small cadre of books that recognizes the power of disease during war. Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice, and History (1935), William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples (1976), and Alfred Crosby's America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (1976, 1989), have shown that over the millennia infectious diseases have killed more soldiers than enemy troops have, often spreading to civilian populations as well. Zinsser, a Columbia bacteriologist and reserve army medical officer, described human warfare as but "the terminal operations engaged in by those remnants of armies which have survived the camp epidemics." 1 In the past two centuries alone, the power of disease in war has been prodigious: Napoleon feared typhus more than other European armies; gastrointestinal diseases such as typhoid and dysentery killed more Union soldiers than did the Confederates; during World War I typhus killed two to three million people on the Eastern Front, and the Western Front gave rise to an influenza [End Page 204] epidemic that swept the globe killing 20 to 40 million; and during World War II, malaria paralyzed entire U. S. divisions in the Pacific theater.

Fenn's study, while not as melodramatic as Zinsser's, is equally broad, spanning topics from the microscopic virus to the fates of nations. Smallpox, she argues, "was a virus of empire. It made winners and losers, at once serving the conquerors and determining whom they would be." The epidemic of 1775-82, she continues, "reshaped political and military relations across the continent, even as the Revolution reshaped such relations around the world" (p. 275). But in addition to examining the role of smallpox in the Revolution, Fenn also casts the smallpox virus as a marker of human commerce and behavior, and thereby a powerful historian's tool that tells a "story of connections between people" (p. 6). This tool enables her to reveal a complex human network throughout the continent that broadens our understanding not only of the American Revolution but also of the eighteenth-century North American geographic and demographic landscape.

Fenn provides an introductory chapter on the etiology and historical medical context of smallpox itself, and then devotes three chapters to the Revolutionary War, tracking the smallpox epidemic through three key events, the 1775-76 Siege of Quebec, the 1776-77 Siege of Boston, and the British campaign in the South. In the next four chapters, however, she leaves the battlefield to follow smallpox across the continent from Boston to New Orleans and on to Mexico City, the Hudson Bay, and finally to the Columbia River Basin. After mapping the epidemic's deadly advance across the continent...


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