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ExhibitionAt the Battlefront

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.

“More to dread…than from the Sword of the Enemy.”
Above quote from a letter from George Washington to Doctor William Shippen, Jr., February 6, 1777

  • Washington on a white horse saluting with his hat towards rows of soldiers.

    Washington Taking Command of the American Army, Currier and Ives, 1876

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

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

  • Nurse tends to injured soldiers on the ground at the base of a tree.

    A Nurse tends to injured soldiers of the Revolutionary Army

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

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

  • [illegible] Chart with columns for types of food with numbers indicating quantity.

    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

    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.

  • Glass bottle with browned paper label hand writing [illegible].

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

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

  • Faded brown letter with handwriting.

    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

    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.

  • Two page letter with cursive handwriting.

    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