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  • Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in American Military History by David R. Petriello
  • Paul E. Kopperman
Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in American Military History. By David R. Petriello. ( Philadelphia and Oxford, Eng.: Casemate, 2016. Pp. 263. $32.95, ISBN 978–1-61200–341-2.)

Every historian has the right to publish with a particular audience in mind. Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in American Military History is primarily directed toward readers who seek a quick overview of sickness as it has influenced military aspects of American history. It is not intended for the specialist, nor is it exhaustive, even in terms of particular episodes it examines. In his preface, David R. Petriello explains, "Books could be written alone on each chapter, or subchapter of this work," and Bacteria and Bayonets "should [End Page 181] merely be seen as an overview or snapshot of the impact that disease has had on the nation's development" (p. 8).

By and large, Petriello serves his intended audience well. The narrative is easy to follow, and the style is clear and direct. At no point does the author pursue abstruse arguments couched in academic jargon. He remains on the move, covering a great deal of ground in a slim volume. Chapters 1 and 3 focus on the decimation that European epidemic diseases, particularly smallpox, wrought on Native populations in the New World. Chapter 2, the only chapter set in Europe, examines the role of disease in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Most of the remaining chapters provide a review of disease in American wars. Chapter 4 examines colonial wars through 1748; chapter 5, the French and Indian War; chapter 6, by far the longest chapter, the American Revolution; chapter 7, military episodes in the early republic and the War of 1812; chapter 8, the U.S.-Mexican War, with themes of manifest destiny and a discussion of the Trail of Tears; chapter 9, the Civil War; chapter 10, the Spanish-American War and the struggle for independence in the Philippines; chapter 11, World War I; and chapter 12, World War II, with a bit on the Korean War and Vietnam. Chapter 12 also deals with biological warfare, a theme that is pursued in chapter 13, which reviews the prospect of bioterrorist attacks on the United States.

Not surprisingly, Petriello deals much with episodes of widespread sickness, and he maintains that some epidemics that struck armies affected broader history. He asserts, for example, that the smallpox outbreak that engulfed the American army during its siege of Quebec in the winter of 1775–1776 contributed to its failure to conquer Canada. Petriello likewise maintains that the decimation of a French force in the West Indies influenced Napoleon's decision to sell Louisiana to the United States. In general, however, the author does not claim that disease directed history, merely that it shaped the course of events. Petriello "merely seeks to address one of the many factors in the evolution of various American historical events, not elevate it to primary status" (p. 8).

The scholarship evident in Bacteria and Bayonets, like other aspects of the book, must be evaluated in terms of the author's desire to produce a fairly brief review of a huge subject and to couch it in a way that appeals to a general audience. Petriello enlivens his narrative with numerous quotations from letters and diaries, but many of these can be found in published works. Most of the sources that he cites are secondary and published, in print or, in some cases, online. On the one hand, the author gives no indication of having done archival research. On the other hand, while one might quibble about the omission of certain works, he does refer to a wide range of sources. A researcher who wishes to pursue a project on the intervention of disease in American military history will find that Petriello's bibliography is a useful springboard.

While the bibliography is appropriate to the work at hand, the same cannot be said of the documentation. Petriello routinely provides details without citing his sources. He describes sickness and mortality while discussing Queen Anne...


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pp. 181-183
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