Smallpox was a serious threat to the success of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The disease had the potential to claim more soldiers than combat. George Washingon, the general of the Continental Army, was very aware of the importance of slowing the spread of smallpox. He quarantined soldiers that showed the earliest signs of the affliction so that they would not inflict others. Washington, who had the disease as a young adult, understood that after contracting the disease, you were immune. After the British left Boston in the midst of an outbreak, he sent his immune troops to defend the city.
During the years of the Revolution, there was a primitive inoculation remedy for smallpox. They would cut the skin of a soldier and infect him with a small amount of the germ from an infected soldiers sores. In this way, the soldier would build up an immunity, but would be sick for several weeks. The illness would render the soldier useless for those weeks. Washington instituted a program that when soldiers enlisted, they would be inoculated. So in addition to receiving your gear, guns, and boots, you would be welcomed with smallpox for a couple of weeks. Sounds like good times.
Smallpox was a deadly epidemic during the American Revolution. In 1776, it killed more members of the Continental Army than combat, and it was particularly virulent in army camps. The camps made for fertile breeding grounds for the disease; conditions were crowded and many of the recruits had no resistance to the disease (as they came from rural areas). Working with Dr. William Shippen, the medical director of the Continental Army, George Washington, who had inoculated himself and his family against the disease, made the decision to inoculate the entire Continental Army at Morristown in 1777 and in Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Washington believed that the British had deliberately tried to infect his troops, but his decision to conduct a mass inoculation effort saved the troops from future epidemics and marked the first public health initiative on a grand scale in the new country.