Friday, November 15, 2013

Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. - Displaced Person

Charlestown burns at the beginning of Bunker Hill.
      On the afternoon of Friday, June 16, 1775, a sulky carrying one man, accompanied by a man on horseback, sped up the Boston Post Road bound for Watertown, Massachusetts where the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was in session. Two months earlier, on April 19, 1775, open rebellion had broken out when British Regulars and New England militia forces engaged in battle at Lexington and Concord. Since then, a tense stand-off had ensued with the British still occupying Boston and the militia forces encamped in the heights west of the city. The two travelers must have been becoming increasingly more anxious as they approached the outskirts of Cambridge, for, as they came up the Post Road, they heard the thunder of  artillery from a British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor and from British Army batteries entrenched on Boston's hills as they pummeled rebel American lines set up on Breed's and Bunker Hill near Cambridge. In fact, one of the men in that sulky had been involved in the decision* to dig breastworks on those hills as Chairman of the Committee of Safety for the Massachusetts Second Provincial Congress. Given the separation of powers concept that is the foundation of the modern U.S. Constitution, contemporary Americans tend to think of the Committee of Safety as a legislative committee with the power to only advise on legislation. In fact, it was a very powerful executive tool for the Provincial Congress. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, executive authority in Massachusetts had lain with the Crown and its Royal Governor and his Council. That authority no longer existed and the rebellious people of Massachusetts had only the Provincial Congress to take executive action. They had no Governor, no Council, no administration, and no courts, and it worried the Provincial Congress greatly.

   In order to resolve this problem, the Massachusetts Second Provincial Congress had drafted a letter, dated May 16th, 1775  to the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, PA explaining their current predicament and asking for advice:

We are now compelled to raise an Army, which with the assistance of the other colonies, we hope under the smiles of heaven, will be able to defend us and all America from the further butcheries and devastations of our implacable enemies. --- But as the sword should in all free states be subservient to the civil powers and as it is the duty of the Magistrates to support it for the peoples necessary defense, we tremble at having an army (although consisting of our countrymen) established here without a civil power to provide for and control them...We are happy in having an opportunity of laying our distress state before the representative body of the continent, and humbly hope you will favour us with your most explicit advice respecting the taking up and exercising the powers of civil government.

   Doctor Benjamin Church, Jr. member of the committee of Safety and until a couple of days before the drafting of the letter, its Chairman, was ordered to proceed to Philadelphia to present the May 16th letter to the Continental Congress and present the Provincial Congress' views and anxiety about their current predicament. Dr. Church was the most logical delegate to send on this extremely important matter since Dr. Church had been one of the leading Bostonians in the Whig struggle against the British Crown and Parliament. One could say that with Samuel Adams in Philadelphia, William Molineaux dead, and Dr. Thomas Young having fled Boston, Church was the second ranking patriot to his colleague and rival, Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Second Provincial Congress.

Boston Post Road.
Please note that there were three distinct branches
 of this road all converging in New Haven, CT.
   Dr. Church departed Watertown on May 20th, 1775 with his servant and we know from a May 21,1775 letter from Abigail Greenleaf to her brother Robert Treat Paine that:

Doctor Church is just arrived. As soon as meeting is done with set out for Pennsylvania both sisters being gone to meeting..

  It is believed that Church's father, mother, wife, 15 year old son and 14 and 11 daughters, and at least two of his sisters  were all in this area, having escaped from British occupied Boston. It can be confirmed that some of his family were staying with the William Augustus Crocker family in Taunton. In 1766, Dr. Church had purchased a farm in Bridgewater, MA, approximately 10 miles from Taunton and one wonders if, his wife and children, in fact, were staying there. In any event, Dr. Church presumably had not seen his family for a month and it would be normal for him to want to stop in the area. In addition he saw his brother as he passed through Braintree and also received some letters from Abigail Adams to be delivered to her husband in Philadelphia.

  Totally overlooked by historians is that the same order that dispatched Dr. Church to the Continental Congress to seek its advice also included the following:

...and the sd. Church is also directed to confer with the Congress, respecting such other matters as may be necessary to the defense of this colony and particularly the state of the army therein.

   We don't know precisely what discussions Dr. Church had along these lines but there is little doubt that he did have some for he was reportedly carrying some information "too secret to put in writing" that Samuel Adams gave him to pass on to James Warren, who succeeded Dr. Joseph Warren (no relation) as President of the Provincial Congress after Joseph Warren's death at Bunker Hill.

   Arriving in Philadelphia on June 1st, Dr. Church presented the Provincial Congress' letter to the Continental Congress, the next day and had discussions with Samuel and John Adams; and he took the time to treat the hypochondriac John Adams' eyes. Departing Philadelphia on June 10, 1775, Church and his servant made excellent time making the trip back to Watertown in four and a half days. The Boston to Philadelphia stage usually took four days. Of course, it was early June and the weather must have been favorable.

   After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the  Henry Vassall House ( see my Sep 11, 2010 post) in Cambridge was used as a hospital to treat the wounded. One mustn't confuse the term "hospital" in 1775 with any modern conception of a hospital. The first hospital in the United States was founded in 1751 in Philadelphia and it took another twenty years before another one was founded in New York. In the absence of hospitals, patients were commonly housed in the homes of their physicians. The first medical school in the United States had opened ten years prior. Hospitals were a fixture of London and Edinburgh medical care, and Dr. Church was one of about thirteen Boston physicians who had received medical training in Europe.

   As Dr. Church arrived in Cambridge, it is presumed that he immediately went to the Henry Vassall House where he and Dr. Isaac Foster were in residence and in charge of the hospital. Dr. Issac Foster was a prominent Charlestown physician who had also studied in Europe. A Harvard Graduate (1758), a delegate to the First Provincial Congress, Foster devoted most of his time in the next two months to treat the wounded and the increasing number of ill men from the unsanitary camps around Cambridge. Presumably, he and Dr. Church shared the Vassall House with the wounded. ( The situation is somewhat confusing and this is my best take on the matter.) Both, however, operated as private individuals as there was no formal medical department or establishment and neither had any formal authority over the hospital or the patients, some of whom continued to be treated by their own physicians. In addition, there was a very acute shortage of medical supplies.
Ruggles-Fayerweather House
   The Battle of Bunker Hill plunged this hospital into chaos. There was no organized ambulance or medical companies for the various New England militia units that fought this battle. The wounded were being transported from the battlefield carried on the backs of soldiers or, if the patient was an officer, on a litter made from rails and a blanket. Over 300 wounded overwhelmed the hospital and physicians. To make matters worse, a rumor started that the British were about to overrun Cambridge. Many of the wounded were carted out to Watertown only to be carted back again. Houses and farm houses in and near Cambridge were confiscated for the wounded. At one time it is believed that the wounded from the Vassall House were transported to the Fayerweather House in Cambridge and back again. Sufficient physicians could not be located so Dr. Foster enlisted a group of Harvard undergraduates (Harvard classes had been dismissed) to serve as "surgeons assistants."

   Thus Dr. Church returned to a Cambridge undergoing the chaos of battle and panic and trying to minister to the wounded with a lack of physicians, medicines and supplies. Somehow, through the efforts of Drs Church and Foster, order was restored and treatment administered. When reading the accounts of this time, one gets the impression that Dr. Church, given his subsequent history, was never going to be given sufficient credit for his efforts that day.

    To be continued
   * In one of the more curious entries in the Journal of the Second Provincial Congress is a report , dated May 12, 1775 by a special committee, signed  by Dr. Church as Chairman of the Sub-Committee proposing, among other things, that engineers be directed to construct 'a strong redoubt [to be] raised on Bunker's Hill with cannon planted there." Right below this entry is one signed by Dr. Church as Chairman of the Committee of Safety stating that the committee, although it agrees with the recommendations, doesn't believe that the matter belongs to them officially and further recommends that the matter be brought before the council of war.