Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fellow's Perspective: Small Pox and Slaves in Revolutionary Charleston, SC

In this installment of Fellow's Perspective, Ph.D. candidate Melissa Amy Maestri of the University of Delaware showcases the value of the David Library's printed sources. While many researchers come to consult portions of our 10,000-reel microfilm collection, the Library also sports over 7,000 books, pamphlets, and other printed works, including original manuscripts, reprints of primary sources, and scholarly accounts. The Library boasts a complete set of the Arno Press reprints of primary printed accounts, released during the bicentennial and seldom found concentrated together in one archive. Moultrie's Memoirs are available here as part of this collection.


After visiting Fort Moultrie this past September, I was eager to read William Moultrie's first hand accounts surrounding South Carolina during the American Revolution while at the David Library of the American Revolution in November. William Moultrie was born in 1730 and died in 1805. He served as governor of South Carolina from 1785-1787 and 1792-1794. He was a general from South Carolina during the American Revolution. In 1776, Moultrie and his troops defended a fort on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Moultrie prevented Sir Henry Clinton from attacking and taking over the important city of Charleston at that time. As a result of his tactful military defense, the fort on Sullivan’s Island was later named Fort Moultrie.

In his Memoirs of the American Revolution, Moultrie’s insights on slavery were of particular interest to me. My current project compares slavery in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina during the 1700s. Moultrie and other leaders greatly used slave labor to help build the fort at Sullivan’s Island that would later bear his name. One of my chapters focuses on public concerns surrounding slavery at the ports. One of the issues I discuss is the fear of slaves spreading small pox in the colonies. Moultrie provided important insights of both whites and slaves spreading disease in Charleston and the paranoia that ensued with the possibility of getting small pox.

In a letter to General Benjamin Lincoln in 1779, Moultrie mentioned that many slaves were temporarily quarantined in pest houses or lazarettos on Sullivan’s Island if it was known that they had or might have small pox. Lincoln also wrote Moultrie a letter noting his disgust of members of the South Carolina militia who abandoned rather than defended Charleston because they were afraid of receiving small pox. Lincoln wanted to assure the militia that the city was free of small pox. He was also angered that men would abandon their position rather than defending the city of Charleston during the Revolution.

Although the people of Charleston were safe from small pox for most of 1779, some obtained small pox during other years of the war. Moreover, many were afraid of getting the disease from rumors and paranoia that spread over small pox even though at times no one had small pox in the town. The possibility of losing more people in the war due to disease frightened many South Carolinians. The people of the colony were so afraid of catching small pox that they believed the British recruited slaves with small pox into their army in hopes of spreading the disease while engaged in battle to the South Carolina militia. It is uncertain if the British or the people of South Carolina spread this rumor, but many Charlestonians feared the British used the threat of the spread of disease as a military tactic to frighten and cripple the South Carolina militia.

Memoirs of the American Revolution: So Far As It Related to the States of North and South Carolina, and Georgia. By William Moultrie. New York : New York Times & Arno Press, 1968. Reprint of the 1802 ed. printed by D. Longworth, New York. 2 Volumes.

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