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Every Necessary Care and Attention, George Washington and Medicine

At the Battlefront

"More to dread…than from the Sword of the Enemy."

On June 15, 1775, George Washington was unanimously selected as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Within weeks, he began making preventative health decisions about food storage, placement of latrines, disposal of animal carcasses, and general provisions for clothing and shelter.

Above quote from a letter from George Washington to Doctor William Shippen, Jr., February 6, 1777

  • Washington Taking Command of the American Army at Cambridge Massachusetts on July 3, 1775.

    Washington Taking Command of the American Army, 1876

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    In this Currier & Ives colored print, General George Washington is shown mounted on a white horse in an extended trot as he addresses the Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. The divisions of soldiers, dressed in blue coats with gold epaulets, white knee breeches, black boots, and hats in what we now call the Napoleonic style, stand in formation at the ready. The General, dressed similarly, raises his black hat in greeting to his troops while four other men on horseback in uniform stand to his left. The meeting takes place beneath a large tree while a color guard on the right supports what appears to be the British Red Ensign, which was the first national flag of the United States. The print includes text: Published by Currier & Ives. Entered according to act of Congress in the year 1876 by Currier & Ives, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington. 125 Nassau St. New York. Washington Taking Command of the American Army. At Cambridge, Mass. July 3rd. 1775.

    Washington faced the challenge of winning a war with limited supplies and an often diminishing number of able and healthy men.

  • Engraving:  Nurse tends to injured soldiers of the Revolutionary Army

    A Nurse tends to injured soldiers of the Revolutionary Army

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In this engraving, a young woman kneels beside five wounded soldiers taking shelter under a grove close to water's edge. She is drawn to care for one of the young men lying on his side. In the background are two more wounded soldiers and a saddled horse.

    Washington's soldiers were at risk from many ailments: dysentery, septic wounds, smallpox, and an infection known as camp fever.

  • Manuscript list of provisions

    Provisions, including salt, fish, beans, and rice, as well as whiskey, rum, beer, and wine, issued under General Washington at Valley Forge, April 1778

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    As Commander of the American Army during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington kept a handwritten ledger of supplies. Under the title: "in Camp under the Command of His Excellency George Washington,: the ledger counted Bacon or Gammons by the pound; Fish by the pound; Salt by the quart; Soap by the pound; Candles by the pound; Spirits or Brandy by the gallon; Rum by the gallon; Whiskey by the gallon; Malajser by the gallon; Vinegar by the gallon; Beer by the gallon; Wine by the gallon; and Oil by the bottle.

    Washington and his troops arrived at Valley Forge in December 1777 and faced a harsh winter with few rations for more than 12,000 men. Many were undernourished, poorly clothed, and often very ill.

  • Photo of bottle of musk

    Bottle of musk, used in perfumes and medicines, carried by Washington throughout the Revolutionary War, ca. 1770–1790

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    This small, green glass bottle, capped and wrapped in brown paper with string, has a torn label identifying the bottle as containing musk, belonging to General Washington. The label identifies the portable nature of the bottle as Washington traveled with it through the Revolutionary War.

  • Manuscript order for inoculation

    An order from George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Grier to transport new recruits to Philadelphia for smallpox inoculation, March 12, 1777

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

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    This single-page letter signed by General George Washington, addressed to "Sir," meaning Lieutenant Colonel Grier, requires the Lieutenant Colonel to identify those amongst his troops who have not had smallpox and to send them to Philadelphia for inoculation.

    In addition to the routine ailments faced at camp, the American army faced a more severe problem–a potentially deadly outbreak of smallpox that threatened the outcome of the war. Washington began to inoculate and quarantine troops to control and minimize the impact of the disease. His decision was bold and dangerous, as inoculation brought risk of death, although far less frequently than if contracting smallpox naturally.

  • A letter from George Washington to the Honorable Joseph Jones of Congress

    A letter from George Washington to the Honorable Joseph Jones of Congress in support of the employment of Doctors Craik and Cochran to the Army's medical department, September 9, 1780

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In this two-page letter to Congressman Joseph Jones of Philadelphia, General George Washington writes in support of the Army hiring Doctors Craik and Cochran for the medical department.