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George Washington and Medicine

Class 2: Commander-in-Chief


When Washington became Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775, he not only knew that his troops would face the usual challenges to their health and safety but that the cash-strapped colonial government would struggle to supply them adequately with food, clothing, and medicines. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington devoted himself to the care of his men, spending the harsh winter of 1777–78 with them encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, lobbying Congress for supplies and coping with the deadly challenge posed by an outbreak of smallpox among the soldiers. In Sharon Holt’s article, we see Washington caught between morality, politics, and the survival of his men, refusing to disobey Congress’s authority to seize by force the supplies the Army so desperately needed. In a chapter from Caroline Cox’s acclaimed study of the experiences of officers and enlisted men in Washington’s forces, Cox shows that, even in this war of liberation, class differences between the ranks mattered greatly, particularly in relation to access to medical care. Ann M. Becker emphasizes the major role played by experiences of and anxieties regarding smallpox in the conduct of the war on the Continental side.

Class Resources
  • Becker, Ann M. “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease During the American Revolutionary War.” Journal of Military History  68 (2004): 381–430.
  • Cox, Caroline. “Oh the Groans of the Sick: Health, Status, and Military Medicine.” In A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army. Edited by Caroline Cox. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Holt, Sharon Ann. “Why George Washington Let the Army Starve: Necessity Meets Democracy at Valley Forge.” Pennsylvania Legacies  2 (2002): 6–12.
Discussion Questions
  1. Why did Washington’s troops remain loyal to him despite the terrible sufferings they were forced to endure in their winter encampment at Valley Forge? Why was Washington unwilling to take matters entirely into his own hands in terms of supplying his men with food, clothing, and medicines?
  2. How did a soldier’s military rank and social background affect his access to medical care?
  3. Why was smallpox such a fearsome disease to Revolutionary-era Americans, and in what ways did it affect decision-making about the Continental Army’s strategy and tactics?
Additional Activity

Read the letters from Washington to William Shippen Jr. dated February 6, 1777, and to and Lieutenant Colonel Grier dated March 12, 1777. How does Washington describe the outbreak of smallpox among his troops? What factors convinced him to take the risky step of inoculation?

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