Weird History
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12 Lesser-Known Facts About The American Revolutionary War That Actually Surprised Us

July 1, 2021 931 votes 169 voters 7.0k views12 items

List RulesVote up the most intriguing facts about the American Revolution.

The lengthy American struggle for independence from Britain had some odd paradoxes. There were experiments with new military technology while the Continental Army copied a strategic approach from the Romans. So often characterized as an American fight for liberty, for many fighting on behalf of the British Crown, freedom was a quite literal motivation.

With more than a little help from some European friends, the colonies prevailed in a remarkable upset victory, but many facets of this well-told tale aren't all that well-known. 

This collection features some of the most intriguing but lesser-known details of the American Revolutionary War.

  • Photo: George Graham / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Deborah Sampson was a former indentured servant who worked as a teacher and weaver in Plymouth, MA. In 1782, the 22-year-old was determined to take part in the American Revolution, so she disguised herself as a man under the assumed identity of Robert Shurtleff. She served as a scout in New York and went to extraordinary lengths to conceal her true identity, even self-extracting a pistol ball from her thigh to avoid detection.

    After 18 months of evading danger on the frontlines and discovery behind them, the ruse was finally unveiled when Sampson fell ill and was taken to a hospital in Pennsylvania. She was honorably discharged from the military in October 1783 and was allowed to collect a military pension. After a lifetime's worth of adventure, she settled down and started a family, and lived out her days peacefully on a Massachusetts farm. 

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    The Patriot Army Was Inoculated Against Smallpox

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Vaccines seem like a pretty modern invention, but inoculations against diseases go way back to medieval China and may have been in use as long ago as 1000 CE, possibly even earlier. By the 18th century, inoculation against smallpox had been developed, though it was a far cry from modern methods. It wasn't until after the American Revolution, in 1796, that British physician Edward Jenner developed a safer and more effective form of inoculation. 

    In the time of the American Revolution, the process was known as variolation and was far from a pleasant experience. A doctor made an incision into a patient's flesh and inserted a thread laced with smallpox. Although the inoculation was milder than the real thing, the patient would ultimately come down with a case of smallpox and need about a month to recover. The procedure was dangerous; it was lethal in 5-10% of cases and also carried the risk of further spreading the infection. 

    During the American Revolution, a smallpox epidemic swept through Boston. The British weren't affected by the affliction, having achieved herd immunity long ago, but the colonial troops were far more susceptible. The loss at the Battle of Quebec was in part due to American forces being severely weakened by disease.

    Ultimately, George Washington decided that the only option was to inoculate his men against smallpox on February 5, 1777. The decision was not taken lightly, as the procedure was risky and the recovery time could have been exploited by the enemy.  

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    The War Featured The First Submarine

    To combat the might of the Royal Navy, Americans needed a certain amount of imagination to try to lift the blockade imposed by the British. David Bushnell, an American engineer and inventor from Connecticut, believed he had the answer: a one-man submersible craft that could sneak up on enemy ships and plant explosives undetected. The Turtle was a precursor to the modern submarine, constructed in 1775 with funds coming directly from George Washington himself. A workable model was ready for action the following year and an audacious attempt was made to sink the HMS Eagle.

    The Turtle was operated by Ezra Lee, a colonial soldier from Connecticut, but the limitations of the craft's design doomed the attack to fail. Lee was a late replacement as the operator for Bushnell's brother, who had fallen ill shortly before the planned maneuver. With limited oxygen, poor visibility, and limited maneuverability, Lee was forced to abort the mission after several attempts to attach a bomb to the ship's hull. 

    Writing some years after the Turtle's one and only mission, Washington reflected on the reasons for the device's failure:

    I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius; but that a combination of too many things were requisite, to expect much success from the enterprise against an enemy, who are always upon guard.

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    Some Veterans Of The Revolution Lived Long Enough To Be Photographed

    The period from 1775 to 1783 seems like an era so far removed from our time as to be unrecognizable compared with the present. However, some veterans of the conflict were photographed several decades later in 1864 as part of a collection to commemorate the very last survivors of the American Revolution.

    Adam Link (pictured) was one of the centenarians photographed; he joined the Continental Army at the age of 16 and passed shortly after the photograph was taken some 86 years later. 

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