Dr. Rush and General Washington
by Paul Leicester Ford
Nothing, perhaps, better proves the position of Washington in the estimation of
mankind than the almost absolute suppression of everything in the nature of
attack and criticism on him. A public man for forty-five years, he was the
target for the abuse and criticism that such a life implies. Yet not merely
have these been forgotten, but the very descendants of the men who were
bitterest in the attacks upon him have most carefully avoided reviving the
facts, and have actually taken every means in their power to suppress and
destroy all proof of such antagonism. As an instance of this, the biographies
of Samuel and John Adams, of Elbridge Gerry, of Jonathan and John Trumbull, and
of Richard Henry Lee, as well as such materials as exist concerning James
Lovell, William Williams, Daniel Roberdeau, and Francis Lightfoot Lee, either
are silent, or absolutely deny that these several men were concerned in the
attempt to remove Washington from the command of the continental army at one of
the most critical moments of the Revolution. As a consequence, the story of the
so-called "Conway cabal" remains shrouded in such mystery as to lose much of
its interest. The student of history stands, like the seconds in one form of
the Corsican duel, in the doorway of a darkened room, in which the two
contestants carry on their contest,--knowing nothing of what occurs except by
the observable results when the contest is concluded. That we shall ever learn
the true ins and outs of the attempt for which so large a number of the members
of the Continental Congress and so many officers in the army worked is probably
now hopeless. But it may be possible to obtain here and there a glint of light,
which will serve to make the truth more evident.
In a series of letters from Benjamin Rush, who had but just left the
Continental Congress to take a medical position in the army, to John Adams,
still a member of the Congress, we can trace much of the spirit and animus
which lay back of the whole movement. That Rush was concerned in this cabal has
often been denied, despite the fact that Washington ascribed to his pen the
famous anonymous letter of the l2th of January, 1778, to Patrick Henry. But
these denials cease to be of the slightest value in the face of this
correspondence, which shows not merely that Rush was attempting to undermine
his commander in chief at least three months before the anonymous letter was
written, but even that he began his attacks before the convention of Saratoga,
which, by its popularizing of Gates, gave such vitality to the conspiracy. The
letters are so self-explanatory that they practically speak for themselves.
TRENTON, Octobr. lst,
DEAR SIR,--It would have given me great pleasure to have spent an hour with you
in this place after my return from Genl. Howe's camp. I could have told you but
little of the loss of the enemy on the heights of Brandywine for I confined my
questions to subjects more interesting to my country, and which were solved
without difficulty or restraint. Let us leave to common soldiers the joy that
arises from hearing of fields being covered with dead bodies. The Statesman and
the General should esteem even victory a loss unless GLORY, or DECISIVE GOOD
CONSEQUENCES have arisen from it. I was struck upon approaching Genl. Howe's
lines with the VIGILANCE of his sentries & picket. They spoke, they
stood--they looked like the safeguards of the whole army. After being examined
by 9 or 10 inferior Officers I was not permitted to enter their camp 'till an
officer of distinction was sent for, who after asking a few questions ordered a
guard to conduct me to Head Quarters.
I was next struck with their attention to SECRESY in all their operations. I
was confined upon parole to the district where our wounded lay, and when the
whole army marched by my lodgings I was confined by an officer to a back room.
They lock up the houses of every family that is suspected of being in the least
unfriendly to them in their marches thro' the country, & if they are
discovered by a countryman whom they suspect, they force him to accompany the
army 'till their rout[e] or disposition are so far changed that no mischief can
arise from the intelligence he is able to convey.
They pay a supreme regard to cleanliness and health of their men. After the
battle on the 11th of last month the soldiers were strictly forbidden to touch
any of the blankets belonging to the dead or wounded of our army least they
should contract the "rebel distempers." One of their officers, a subaltern,
observed to me that his soldiers were infants that required constant attendance
and said as a proof of it that altho' they all had blankets tied to their
backs, yet such was their laziness that they would sleep in the dew and cold
without them rather than have the trouble of untying and opening them. He said
his business every night before he slept was to see that no soldier in his
company laid down without a blanket.
Great pains were taken to procure vegetables for the army, & I observed
everywhere a great quantity of them about the soldiers tents. The deputy
quarter masters & deputy commissaries in Howe's army are composed chiefly
of old & respectable officers, and not of the vagrants and bankrupts of the
Their [sic] is the utmost order & contentment in their hospitals. The
wounded whom we brought off from the field were not half so well treated as
those whom we left in Gen'l Howe's hands. Our Officers and Soldiers spoke with
gratitude and affection of their Surgeons. An orderly man was allotted to every
ten of our wounded, and British Officers called every morning upon our officers
to know whether their Surgeons did their duty. You must not attribute this to
their humanity. They hate us in every shape we appear to them. Their care of
our wounded was entirely the effect of the perfection of their medical
establishment which mechanically forced happiness & satisfaction upon our
countrymen perhaps without a single wish in the Officers of the hospital to
make their situation comfortable.
It would take a volume to tell you of the many things I saw & heard which
tend to show the extreme regard that our enemies pay to
discipline--order--economy & cleanliness among their Soldiers.
In my way to this place I passed thro' Genl. Washington's army. To my great
mortification I arrived at the Head Quarters of a General on an Outpost without
being challenged by a Single Sentry. I saw Soldiers straggling from our lines
in every Quarter without an officer, exposed every moment to be picked up by
the enemy's light horse. I heard of 2,000 who sneaked off with the baggage of
the army to Bethlehem. I was told by a Captain in our army that they would not
be missed in the returns, for as these were made out ONLY by SARGEANTS they
would be returned on parade, and that from the PROPER officers neglecting to
make out, or examine returns Genl. Washington never knew within 3,000 men what
his real numbers were. I saw nothing but CONFIDENCE about Head Quarters, and
languor in all the branches & extremities of the army. Our hospital opened
a continuation of the confused scenes I had beheld in the army. The waste--the
peculations--the unnecessary officers &c (all the effect of OUR medical
establishment) are eno' to sink our country without the weights which oppress
it from other quarters. It is now universally said that the system was formed
for the Director General & not for the benefit of the sick & wounded.
Such unlimited powers and no checks would have suited an angel. The sick
suffer, but no redress can be had for them. Upwards of 100 of them were drunk
last night. We have no guards to prevent this evil. In Howe's army a Captain's
guard mounts over every 200 sick. Besides keeping their men from contracting
& prolonging distempers by rambling, drinking, &...guards keep up at
all times in the minds of the sick a sense of military subordination. A Soldier
should never forget for a single hour that he has a master. One month in our
hospitals would undo all the discipline of a year, provided our soldiers
brought it with them from the army.
I know it is common to blame our subalterns for all these vices. But we must
investigate their source in the higher departments of the army. A general
should see everything with his own eyes, & hear everything with his own
ears. He should understand & even practice at times all the duties of the
soldier--the officer--the Quarter Master--the Commissary--& the Adjutant
General. He should be modest sober & temperate, free from prejudice--he
should despise ease, and like Charles XII should always SLEEP IN HIS
BOOTS--that is, he should always be ready for a flight or a pursuit.
The present management of our army would depopulate America if men grew among
us as speedily & spontaneously as blades of grass. The "wealth of worlds"
could not support the expense of the medical department above two or three
We are waiting impatiently to hear that our army has defeated General Howe's.
Would not such an event be a misfortune to us in the end? & would it not
stamp a value upon ignorance & negligence which would greatly retard
military knowledge & exertions among us? God I hope will save us only
through the instrumentality of human wisdom & human virtue. If these are
wanting the sooner we are enslaved the better.
My dear friend we are on the brink of ruin. I am distressed to see the minions
of a tyrant more devoted to his will than we are to a cause in which the whole
world is interested. New measures and new men alone can save us. The American
mind cannot long support the present complexion of affairs. Let our army be
reformed. Let our general officers be chosen annually. The breaking of 40
regiments, and the dismission of one field officer from every regiment & of
one subaltern from every company will save many millions to the continent. Your
army by these means may be made respectable & useful. But you must not
expect to fill it with soldiers for 3 years, or during the war. The genius of
America rebels against the scheme. Good General Officers would make an army of
six months men an army of heroes. Wolfe's army that conquered Canada was only 3
months old. Stark's militia who have cast a shade on everything that has been
done by regulars since the beginning of the war shew us what wonderful
qualities are to be called forth from our countrymen by an active &
enterprising commander. The militia began, & I sincerely hope the militia
will end the present war. I should despair of our cause if our country
contained 60,000 men abandoned eno' to enlist for 3 years or during the war.
Adieu--my dear friend. May you never sleep sound 'till you project and execute
something to extricate and save your country. My love to Mr. Saml Adams, Mr.
Geary [Gerry], Mr. Lowell, Dr. Bronson & my Br. if at Lancaster.
Yours &c. B. RUSH
HOSPITAL AT LIMERICK,
26 miles from Philada. on the Reading
road, Octobr. 13, 1777.
DEAR SIR.--I have little to add to the long letter I wrote to you a few days
ago, but that the event of the battle at Germantown on the 4th instant was full
of proofs of the truths I formerly communicated to you. We lost a city, a
victory, a campaign by that want of discipline & system which pervades
every part of the army. General Conway wept for joy when he saw the ardor with
which our troops pushed the enemy from hill to hill, and pronounced our country
free from that auspicious sight. But when he saw an officer low in command give
counter orders to the Commander in chief, and the comr. in chief passive under
that circumstance, his distress and resentment exceeded all bounds. For God's
sake do not suffer him to resign. He seems to possess Lee's knowledge &
experience without any of his oddities or vices. He is moreover the idol of the
whole army. Make him a Major-General if nothing else will detain him in your
service. He is entitled to most of the glory our arms acquired in the late
battle. But his bravery and skill in war are not his only military
qualifications. He is exact in his discipline, and understands every part of
the detail of an army. Besides this, he is an enthusiast in our cause. Some
people blame him for calling some of OUR GENERALS cowards & drunkards in
public company. But these things are proof of his integrity, and should raise
him in the opinion of every friend of America. Be not deceived my dear friend.
Our army is no better than it was two years ago. The spirit of our men is good.
Our officers are equal, nay, superior to Howe's. A few able Major Generals
would make them a terror to the whole power of Britain.
Adieu. Yours sincerely,
P.S. I am afraid we shall soon loose a most gallant officer in Col. Stone.
Congress must take notice of him living or dead.
AN ANECDOTE. An officer in Howe's army told me they executed ONLY two men in
the last year. Their discipline prevents crimes. OUR WANT of it creates them.
We have had 20 executions in the last year, & our army is not a bit the
better for them. If Howe should lie still, desertions, sickness, accidental
deaths & executions would waste our whole army in one year.
READING, Octobr. 21, 1777.
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I fear you will class me with the weeping philosophers of
antiquity, but I cannot help it. He who can be happy while his country is
wasting her blood, and treasure to no purpose must be more or less than a man.
General Gates' unparalleled success gave me great pleasure, but it has not
obliterated the remembrance of the disorders I have seen in the army in this
department. On the contrary I am more convinced than ever of the necessity of
discipline and system in the management of our affairs. I have heard several
officers who have served under General Gates compare his army to a well
regulated family. The same gentlemen have compared Gen'l Washington's imitation
of an army to an unformed mob. Look at the characters of both! The one on the
pinnacle of military glory--exulting in the success of schemes planned with
wisdom, & executed with vigor and bravery--and above all see a country
saved by their exertions. See the other outgenerald and twice beated--obliged
to witness the march of a body of men only half their number thro' 140 miles of
a thick settled country--forced to give up a city the capitol of a state &
after all outwitted by the same army in a retreat. If our congress can witness
these things with composure, and suffer them to pass without an enquiry, I
shall think we have not shook off monarchial prejudices, and that like the
Israelites of old we worship the work of our hands.
In the British army Pickets are relieved once or twice every day, and guards
every two hours. In Gen'l. Washington's army it is not an uncommon thing for
pickets to remain FIVE days & guards 24 hours without a relief, and
destitute at the same time of provisions except such as they plunder or buy
with their own money. This negligence is a fruitful source of diseases in our
In the British army hospitals are never without guards. In G.W.'s army guards
which might save the lives of hundreds are used to parade before the doors of
our Major Generals. One of them having no less than a Sergeant & 18 men to
guard himself and his baggage thro' this town.
There are nearly as many officers as men in our army. Every Regiment has a
Surgeon with one or two mates. Each of these (officers--Surgeons & mates)
has a Servant drawn from the ranks to attend them who is always exempted on
this acct. from camp & field duty. I have been told the Genl. has forbidden
it a hundred times in GENERAL ORDERS. But the evil continues, & no wonder,
for Officers ride up to his quarters with soldiers behind them in the capacity
of servants. Some of the martinets in my department have trod in their
footsteps. But I believe I have at the expense of the friendship of many of
them put a stop to the evil. Who ever heard of an army being disciplined by
ORDERLY BOOKS? You might as well think of conquering an enemy by writing
letters AT him.
Don't tell me that our army has drawn Howe out of Phila. Gates has saved
Pennsylvania in the State of New York just as much as Pitt conquered America in
Germany. I have no objection to our country's being delivered by a miracle
provided we could secure a perpetuity of them. I have never heard of but one
city whose walls fell down at the blowing of a ram's horn.--military
skill--industry & bravery are the ordinary weapons made use of for that
purpose. God alone I know must save us at last, but I wish for the future honor
and safety of our country he may do it thro' the INSTRUMENTALITY of human
wisdom & human virtue. A peace just now would leave us without
generals--officers or soldiers in THE MIDDLE AND SOUTHERN States, and if our
deliverance is now accomplished, it has been effected thro' the instrumentality
of ignorance, idleness, and blunders.
"A great & good God (says Genl Conway in a letter to a friend) has decreed
that America shall be free, or -------- and weak counsellors would have ruined
her long ago."
Our hospital affairs grow worse & worse. There are several hundred wounded
soldiers in this place who would have perished had they not been supported by
the voluntary & benevolent contributions of some pious whigs. The fault is
both in the establishment & in the Director General. He is both ignorant
and negligent of his duty. There is but one right system for a military
hospital, & that is the one made use of by the British Army. It was once
introduced by Dr. Church at Cambridge, and Dr. McKnight informs me that he
never has seen order, economy, or happiness in a hospital since it was banished
by Dr. Morgan & his successor. My heart is almost broken at seeing the
distresses of my countrymen without a power to remedy them. Dr. S--- never sets
his foot in a hospital. Tell me, are there any hopes of our plan being mended.
Dr. Brown & every medical officer in the hospital execrate it. If it cannot
be altered & that soon I shall trouble you with my resignation & my
reasons shall be afterwards given to the public for it. The British system
would save half a million a year to the Continent & what is more, would
produce perfect satisfaction & happiness.
A Surgeon General is wanted in the Northern Department. Give me leave to
recommend Dr. McKnight a Senior Surgeon, in the flying hospital for that
office. He has skill, industry, & humanity & has served with unequalled
reputation since the beginning of the war. My love to Mess. Lovell, Dr.
Brownson & my Br. add Col Walton to the number if he is still in Congress.
I should have written often to him, but had reason to think he was gone to
Georgia. You may show him such parts of this letter as you think proper.
Adieu! The good Christians & true Whigs expect a recommendation from
Congress for a day of public thanksgiving for our victories in the North. Let
it be THE SAME day for the whole continent.
What do you think of sending home Johnny Burgoyne upon his parole? Poor boy! he
has no consolation left him but that he turns a period better than Major
Should not General Washington immediately demand the enlargement of Genl Lee's
person upon parole within Howe's lines.
What honors, or marks of gratitude will you confer on Gates, Lincoln, &c?
Suppose you introduce a constellation to be worn on the breast containing 13
stars as a reward for military exploits? But nothing but heaven can ever repay
them for the services they have rendered their country.
God bless you!
P.S. Direct for me at Princeton, New Jersey, when you have leisure to drop me a
Genl. Mifflin must not be suffered to resign his command in the army. If he is,
you will soon receive a hundred others.
BETHLEHEM, Octobr.. 31, 1777
DEAR SIR,--The disorders of our army do not proceed from any NATURAL faults in
our men. On the contrary I believe the people of America (especially the
natives) are the most TRACTABLE creatures in the world. I can say with great
certainty that I have never yet been disobeyed in a single instance by a
Virginian or a New England man in my connection with them in the hospital. I
speak therefore from observation as well as reason when I may say that our
country affords the finest materials for making good soldiers of any upon the
face of the globe. The same may be said of our officers. They are greatly
superior in education & principle to the officers in the British army, most
of whom are whipped from schools or rusticated from colleges. The fashion of
blaming our soldiers & officers for all the disorders of our army was
introduced in order to shelter the ignorance, the cowardice, the idleness and
the drunkenness of our major generals. The spirit of our men is good. They
possess a firmness of mind peculiar to themselves, or they must have sunk long
ago under the numberless retreats, defeats, and camp distresses to which they
have been exposed. Half the number of either of them would have broken up
Howe's army long ago, and reduced him to a single life-guard. The courage of
our men is great, in so much that there is scarcely a single instance of their
giving way where they have not first been deserted by their general officer.
There is but one way of producing such a change in your army as will rectify
all the disorders which prevail in it. It is by electing your general officers
annually, in no other way will you ever purge the army. There are a hundred
things true which cannot be proved. A General may play the coward both in the
Cabinet & the field, or he may raise the price of whiskey by getting drunk
every day of his life, and yet it may be impossible to prove either of these
things against him in a Court of Enquiry. The Romans never trusted to any man
but to the "Felicissimus Dux." An unsuccessful Practitioner of physic is always
ignorant or negligent of his business. In like manner I believe the always
unfortunate general is always a culpable one. You have Brigadiers in your army
who would do honor to the rank of major general in any service in Europe.
Conway and Woodward are at the head of them. You have likewise Colonels and
other field officers who would shine at the head of Brigades.
Stone--Hendricks--and Brown have not their superiors for activity, industry
& military capacity in the army. I have the pleasure of informing you that
the first of them Col. Stone is in a fair way of recovering from the wound he
received at the battle of Germantown.
But a change in your General Officers cannot be made. If the blood and treasure
of America must be spent to no purpose; if the war must be protracted thro'
their means for two or three generations; and if the morals & principles of
our young men must be ruined thro' their examples, pray acquit yourself in the
eyes of your country & of posterity by recording the two following
resolutions upon your Journals:
1. Resolved that if any Major or Brigadier General shall drink more than one
quart of whiskey, or get drunk more than once in 24 hours he shall be publickly
reprimanded at the head of his division or brigade.
2. Resolved that in all battles and skirmishes the Major & Brigadier
Generals shall not be more than 500 yards in the rear of their respective
divisions or brigades upon pain of being tryed & punished at the discretion
of a court martial.
From military subjects I proceed to medical, and here was I disposed to
complain I could fill a volume. We shall never do well 'till you adopt the
system made use of in the British hospitals. The industry & humanity of the
physicians & surgeons are lost from the want of it. While I am writing
these few lines there are several brave fellows expiring within fifty yards of
me from being confined in a hospital whose air has been rendered putrid by the
sick & wounded being crowded together. The business of the physicians, and
of the Directors or Surveyors ought to be wholly independent of each other, and
in no case should the latter dictate to the former--We see, we feel the
distresses of the sick, and therefore are better capable of directing
everything necessary for their convenience than men who never go into a
hospital but who govern them by proxy as Genl Schuyler commanded Ticonderoga at
Albany. The following resolutions would remedy many abuses and prove the means
of saving the lives of hundreds before the campaign is over.
1. Resolved, that the Director & Ass. Director furnish the Physician &
Surgeons Generals & Senior Surgeons with such medicines, stores &
accommodations as they shall require. The requisition to be made in writing
& to be used afterwards as a voucher for the expenditures of the D.
2. That all the Accts. of the D. General for medicines, wines, stores &c.
be certified by the Phy: or Surgeons General before they are passed.
This resolution is of the utmost importance, and I have good reason to say will
save thousands to the continent.
3. That all returns of sick, wounded, & of officers of the hospital be
delivered to the Medical Committee by the Phy: or Surgeons General. The reason
of this is plain. They can have no interest in making out false returns and the
returns from them will always be a check upon the expenditures of the Director
Adieu--my dear friend--Best compts. to Dr. Geary, Mr. Saml Adams, Mr. Lovell,
and all such of our old friends as prefer poverty with republican liberty to
wealth with monarchial infamy & slavery.
Should you think it worth while to read any parts of this letter to any of them
it will perhaps give some weight to them if you conceal the name of your friend
& humble sert. B. RUSH.
The intense feeling displayed in these communications, as well as in the
already alluded to anonymous one, implies some deeper motive in Rush than the
pseudo-patriotism so conspicuous in the letters. Fortunately, an explanation
can be supplied, which may be taken for what it is worth. It was written by
John Armstrong,--the author of the "Newburg letters" of 1783 (calling on the
continental army to seize the government of the United States), and later
Secretary of War in Madison's administration,--in whose writings more
historical revelations concerning that period are to be found than in those of
almost any other man; the writer was an aid-de-camp of General Gates, too, and
a minor star in the cabal. Yet despite this reason for justifying all concerned
in the attempt to calumniate and remove Washington, in 1819 Armstrong wrote R.
LE GRANGE, Monday.
DEAR SIR,--I am much obliged by your note of Wednesday. Morgan was the
ostensible--Rush the real prosecutor of Shippen--the former acting from
revenge, (having been ejected from the office to make room for Shippen) the
latter from a desire to obtain the directorship. In approving the sentence of
the court, Washington stigmatized the prosecution as one originating in bad
motives, which made Rush his enemy and defamer as long as he lived....
With great respect
Your obedient servant,
In closing, it may be of interest to add that there exists to-day in
Philadelphia a biography of Dr. Rush in his own handwriting, in which frequent
comparisons are drawn between himself and Washington, usually to the latter's
disadvantage. Unfortunately, the publication or sight of it is prohibited, or
still further light on this matter might be possible.
"Dr. Rush and General Washington" by Paul Leicester Ford, The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1895; Volume 75, No. 451;