Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dr Benjamin Church, Jr Appointed "Surgeon General"

   Meeting in Philadelphia in July, 1775, the Continental Congress was faced with the reality of forming a means to govern the newly united colonies and to establish a Continental Army to defend them, where none had existed before. Previously, all armies were provincial and controlled by the individual colonies or, on needed occasions, by the British Army. In a letter dated July 20, 1775,  the new Commander-in Chief, writing from Cambridge, Massachusetts was pleading for the establishment of a paymaster and :

 I have made Inquiry with respect to the Establishment of the Hospital and find it in a very unsetled Condition. There is no Principal Director, or any Subordination among the Surgeons; of consequence Disputes and Contentions have arisen and must continue until it is reduced to some System. I could wish that it was immediately taken into consideration as the Lives and Health of both Officers and Soldiers so much depend upon a due regulation of this Department.
   Washington was also in correspondence with Benjamin Harrison, a Virginia delegate to the Congress, on the subject and Harrison advised Washington in a letter dated July 21st, 1775:

Nothing is as yet done as to the Hospitall, but I will bring it on very soon. 

   On Thursday, July 27,1775, The Continental Congress voted to establish a hospital for an army of 20,000 men to be headed by a "Director General and Chief Physician",  with a staff of four surgeons, one apothecary, twenty surgeons mates, one clerk. two storekeepers, one nurse to every 10 sick,  and "labourers  occasionally."  The Director was to "furnish medicines, Bedding and all other necessaries, to pay for the same, superintend the whole, and report to and receive orders from the Commander-in-Chief.

  Dr.  Benjamin Church, Jr.  was unanimously elected to the position of "Director General and Chief Physician" of the new hospital and was given authority to appoint the four surgeons and apothecary, the two storekeepers, one clerk, and one nurse to every ten sick. A parsimonious Congress, totally unfamiliar with the nature of an army in the field, also resolved that the  surgeons mates should only be paid for days when the number of sick should justify their attendance.

   Dr. Church's pay was fixed at $4 per day ($120 per month). A Major General in the Continental Army was paid $166 per month, the Commissary General of Stores and Provision $80 a month, and the Paymaster General $100 per month. Dr. Church's pay was twice that of a Colonel in the Massachusetts Militia.

   In addition, note the patronage positions Dr. Church controlled and the fiscal responsibilities of his position. Given the culture of British procurement under which all of the officers of the Continental Army had previously operated under and the opportunities for  enrichment it represented, the position of Director General certainly, despite its many drawbacks, could be seen as a very desirable one.

   There is a general misunderstanding of Dr. Church's titles and duties as the Director General of the Continental Army's Hospital. He was not the first Surgeon General of the United States, a position under the US Public Health Service and not established until many years later, and which position, during my lifetime, has been held  by some of the strangest physicians imaginable,  and he is not, in actuality, the first Surgeon General of the United States Army. In April 1777, the Continental Congress superseded the Hospital organization it created in July 1775 with the establishment of a Medical Department based on the British model. After the War, the US Army consisted of short service troops with no provision for medical services above the regimental level. Subsequent legislation in 1802 and 1808 authorized the employment of  permanent peace time physicians and surgeons for the Army, but it wasn't until 1818 that this Medical Department was given a permanent Director under the title "Surgeon General."  However, Church was referred to as "Surgeon General" and so titled in several contemporaneous letters by John Adams.

   I could find no correspondence or diaries, etc. which would indicate just why Benjamin Church was elected as the new Director General of the Continental Army's Hospital; but, one can, through the review of several of John Adams' letter from the days surrounding the vote to establish the Hospital and appoint Church Director, that it was the Adams cousins, John and Samuel, along with Elbridge Gerry, who were responsible. In the days preceding Church's appointment the journal of the Continental Congress indicates a flurry of activity to establish new positions to conduct the affairs of the united colonies and concomitant with that, there had to have been enormous politicking to get favored candidates appointed to those positions to advance personal interest as well as the interests of one's colony. And there was the issue of providing geographical balance to the army as well as the government. And John Adams was in the midst of it. Sometimes for good (e.g. George Washington's appointment as Commander-in-Chief) and sometimes for the not so good. A perfect illustration of this can be found in a letter from Adams to James Warren  dtd. July 26, 1775:

I can never Sufficiently regret that this Congress have acted so much out of character as to leave the appointment of the Quarter Master General, Commissary of Musters and Commissary of Artillery to the General [Washington]. As these officers are checks upon the General and he a check upon them, there ought not to be too much connection between them. They ought not to be under any dependence upon him or so great obligations of Gratitude as those of a Creature to the Creator.

    Only John Adams could write something this obtuse.

  John Adams was determined to get his friend James Warren, newly elected President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and husband of Mercy Otis Warren, appointed Paymaster of the Continental Army at the same time he and Samuel Adams were, I believe, championing Church as Director of the Hospital. John Adams would later distance himself from James and Mercy Warren, but at this time, he was determined to get him the position of Paymaster. John Adams had a long doctor-client relationship with Benjamin Church and only recently, upon Dr. Church's June visit to the Continental Congress on the business of  the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Church prescribed a lotion for Adams' eyes.*

   Samuel Adams, of course, had a strong relationship with Church as a fellow Whig and one of the real stalwarts in pressing the British for colonial rights before war broke out in April 1775. Whereas John Adams only became very important to the cause after war broke out, Church along with Dr. Joseph Warren, William Molineux (until his death in October 1774)  and  Dr. Thomas Young stuck with Samuel Adams throughout the dark days when the Whig cause was in decline. Church, it must be remembered  had prominence in his own right, not only as an orator and pamphleteer, but also as a Poet.

   I can find no record of any reaction to Dr. Church when he visited the Continental Congress but he must have made a favorable impression and, just as important, the delegates had a face to put to his name when his name was mentioned. Benjamin Harrison may also have played a role in Church's appointment since he knew of Washington's desire to get a Hospital established as soon as possible. Harrison was described by John Adams as a "Falstaff-like" character and indeed, he was big, friendly and very rich. All of which Adams was not. At some point Adams came to really detest Harrison but what his attitude was in July 1775 is not known., I doubt that any dislike would have prevented Adams from working with Harrison. In any event, I believe it was an easy sell. No one nominated could possible match Church in stature or prestige.

 * Dr. Church was something of an eye specialist and advertised himself as such. Cataract surgery was practiced at this time and ,without anesthetic, must have been a very painful business. On April 8, 1747, Jacques Daviel, a French physician, performed the first modern cataract surgery by purposefully making a corneal incision to remove the lens.

Illustration from Daviel's paper to the
French Academy of Surgery.


Monday, September 28, 2015

July 4th, 1775

    It would be timely now to set forth the situation, military and political, that permeated Boston one year before the United Colonies declared their Independence from Great Britain and one day after George Washington took command of the Continental Army as Commander-in-Chief. The Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought some two weeks earlier and it left the British in total control of Boston and Charlestown. Between that time and the arrival of Washington, a kind of irregular warfare occurred, much to the dismay of the British. The British would periodically bombard the Provincials, and the Provincials would ambush British sentries and conduct minor raids. At one point, some Stockbridge Indians, assigned to a militia unit, ambushed the British and killed four of them with bows and arrows

These are two of four watercolors by  Lt Richard Williams , a
British engineer, who drew them between July and November 1775,
 of the British and American defenses during the siege of Boston.
They are now in the British Library. They cannot be adequately
presented on this blog. They can be seen in better detail at:

Taken from Osprey Campaign Series
Boston 1775
The British fleet, consisting of approximately ten ships and upwards of 250 guns, dominated Boston Harbor and the rivers leading into Boston. Water traffic was totally disrupted. Although suffering severe losses at Bunker Hill, the British Army, under General Thomas Gage, still numbered approximately 10,000 men, although a reliably accurate figure is difficult to come by. The bulk of the British Army was on Bunker Hill under the command General William Howe, the rest, with the exception of the light horse and a few men, were on Roxbury neck. The British fortified Bunker Hill with a redoubt. It was a formidable defense and could not be successfully assaulted without the use of superior artillery fire, The Provincials did have some artillery but it was insufficient for the task at hand. For some inexplicable reason, General Gage never fortified Dorchester Heights.

   The Colonial troops were spread out in a great arc some twelve miles in length. Manning the colonial fortifications were troops from all of the New England states. (Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820). In his history of the Siege of Boston, Richard Frothingham, provides this return of the New England troops besieging Boston.

   On July 9, 1775 Washington held a council of war with his senior officers and they estimated that the British forces defending Boston were 11,000 strong and that it would take an army of 22,000 to successfully maintain the siege that was currently in progress.. It was estimated that only 14,500 colonial troops were fit for duty. It was decided that the prudent course of action was to maintain the status quo and apply for reinforcements. For some reason, it was decided that it was not necessary to take and fortify Dorchester Heights nor to opposes the British should they choose to take it.

A Map drawn by a British Engineer in October 1775
        Washington also faced the fact that the outbreak of fighting had resulted in army created by circumstance from different provinces with different regulations, different laws, and different supply, transportation, and logistics problems. Regiments from four colonies acted under their respective commanders and were only cooperating out of mutual consent. They recognized no military authority above them. Discipline was lax, hygiene was substandard, fights were common, and, of course, New Englanders were New Englanders. Washington's disdain for them upon first meeting is outside the scope of this narrative, but it was palpable and real. Washington, after all, saw himself as the quintessential English gentleman. And, of course, what little military experience he had, in no way prepared him for what he found when he arrived in Cambridge on that rainy day.

   Perhaps, most importantly, Washington discovered an incredible shortage of gunpowder. Within days of his arrival in Cambridge, Washington asked for an inventory of available gunpowder. The response from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was : "303 1/2 bbbl's [barrels] of Powder."  This, in itself, was an astonishingly small amount for an army of 15,000 men, but a further report gobsmacked Washington. On 1 August, 1775,  the Massachusetts Committee of Supplies told him that in reserve “there remains but 36 barrels in Store of the Quantity collected from the Towns in this Colony & recd from others.” The larger number had been “an Account of all the Ammunition, which had been collected by the Province” over time. Training, Bunker Hill, and other actions had drawn down that stock. Soldiers and artillery companies had powder in their cartridges, but “the whole Stock of the Army at Roxbury & Cambridge & the adjacent posts, consists of 90 Bbbls [Barrels]or thereabouts.”
   Politically, although it seems incongruous, those actively engaged in rebellion were not ready for independence. Just how they expected to be reconciled with a Great Britain that treated uprisings against it with incredible ferocity is a mystery. They were well aware of what happened to the Highland Scots at Culloden, some thirty years earlier. Indeed, one of Washington's best friends, Hugh Mercer (killed at Princeton) was an assistant surgeon in Bonnie Prince Charlie's army and present at Culloden. He fled to the United States as a fugitive after months in hiding. Washington had to be aware of that whole affair. It is extremely difficult to ascertain just what percentage of the colonists did, indeed, support those who rose in rebellion. Loyalists were a significant percentage of the population and could have been of even more assistance to the British had the British Army not been so stupidly antagonistic towards them (Then again, outside of the Duke of Marlborough and Robert Clive, British generals haven't astonished the world with their military genius.) And, of course, you had those who were pinning their hopes on a swift reconciliation and those who would support whomever eventually prevailed.

   Upon returning to Cambridge from escorting Generals Washington, Lee and  their aides from  Springfield, Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr resumed his position as a delegate to the Third Provincial Congress and as a prominent member of the Committee of Safety. I can find no indication that Dr. Church was involved in practicing medicine or that he was in receipt of any type of income. His wife and family were safely housed with friends near Taunton but since a mob burned his papers later, it is impossible to determine just what kind of drain they were on his finances, which had to be in very poor shape since there was no indication that he received any income since Lexington and Concord, some two and a half months earlier, except for whatever expenses he received in reimbursement for business conducted for the Provincial Congress.

Andrew Craigie by Archibald Robertson, 1800
Craigie is a fascinating character. See more
Abut him here:
It is obvious form the records of the Third Provincial Congress that he was an extremely active and respected member of the Congress. He was assigned his own room in which to conduct business, most likely in the Edmund Fowles House in Watertown. On the day Washington assumed command of the Continental Army, Church was appointed to a committee to confer with two delegates from New Hampshire on matters pertaining to New Hampshire and Canada. On July 4th, he was appointed to a follow-up committee on the New Hampshire matter and a committee to bring in a resolve appointing the 21 year old  Dr. Andrew Craigie commissary of medical stores and determine what his pay should be. On July 5th, Church was among a committee of three charged with conferring with Washington "on the subject of furnishing his table, and know what he expects relative thereto, and that they sit forthwith" On July 6th, the Congress authorized Church and Moses Gill the sum of £28, 5 s, 10 p, for expenses in escorting General Washington to Cambridge from Philadelphia. And, finally, On Sunday July 9th., Church was paid £ 34, 5s, 2p for  expenses for him and one servant for their trip to the Continental Congress the previous month.

   On Sunday July 10th, Church, along with James Warren, the President of the Provincial Congress, and Elbridge Gerry were appointed a committee to prepare a letter to MGen Charles Lee who had informed the Congress that he had been in written communication with British General John Burgoyne who held a command in the British Army in Boston. The importance the Congress placed in that letter can be seen by the individuals who were selected to respond to General Lee. On July 11, Church and two other doctors were appointed to "take into their custody all the medicines, medical stores and instruments, which are, or may be provided for the use of the army, by this colony, and to distribute them at their best discretion, so that no peculation or needless waste be made of the medicinal stores belonging to the public."

   On July 13th, 1775 Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr was reappointed to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress' Committee of Safety with 10 other delegates. The most prominent member was John Hancock. Benjamin Church was listed second.
Edmund Fowles House, Watertown, Mass