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Benjamin Rush Portal: The Revolutionary War

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Rush Revolutionary War Timeline

  • January 10, 1776: Common Sense by Thomas Paine is published (Rush edited the pamphlet and arranged for its publication).
  • January 11, 1776: Rush marries Julia Stockton.
  • June 23, 1776: Rush finishes writing Pennsylvania's Declaration of Independence.
  • July 20, 1776: Rush voted into the Continental Congress.
  • August 2, 1776: Rush signs the Declaration of Independence for Pennsylvania; his father-in-law Richard Stockton signs for New Jersey.
  • September 1776: Rush is appointed to the Medical Committee of the Continental Congress.
  • December 12, 1776: Congress adjourns as British troops get too close to Philadelphia; Rush sends his wife to safety in Maryland, and joins Pennsylvania troops along Delaware.
  • December 1776: Rush renders medical attention to wounded soldiers of The Battle of Trenton.
  • December 24, 1776: On his 31st birthday, Rush visits General Washington at his camp.
  • January 1777: Rush renders medical attention to wounded soldiers of The Battle of Princeton.
  • March 1777: Rush is voted out of the Continental Congress.
  • April 1777: Congress immediately appoints him Surgeon General of the Middle Department for George Washington’s troops.
  • April 22, 1777: Rush publishes his landmark essay, “Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers”.
  • July 1777: Rush's Son, John Rush is born.
  • October 1777: Rush tends to the wounded of the Battle of Brandywine and Germantown.
  • January 1778: Rush resigns from military service in protest of the way patients are being treated in hospitals.
  • January 12, 1778: Rush writes the infamous letter to Patrick Henry, ruining his relationship with Washington.

Eye-witnessing The Horrors of the War

After Rush married Julia Stockton, joined the Continental Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence, he got more involved in the escalating war. Rush was put into the medical committee in Congress. Since he was new and had no experience with military medical care firsthand, Rush began to study the medical corps on a structural level. 

It was unsafe for Julia to stay in her new home in Philadelphia. Rush had her rejoin her family at Morven to be away from the conflict. He kissed her farewell, not knowing when they will see each other again.

While checking in with George Washington and the Continental Army, Rush couldn't believe what he saw when treating numerous patients:

'for the first time war appeared to me in its plentitude of horrors.' He wished he could find 'words to describe the anguish of my soul, excited by cries and groans and convulsions of the men who lay by my side.' (Fried, 185)

In the late winter of 1777, Rush's time in Congress was about to come to an end. But before leaving, he wanted to accomplish something: Rush requested Washington to order all of his troops to be inoculated. Rush had been lobbying Washington to inoculate his troops against smallpox for quite some time.

He presented the new plan for Continental Army hospitals that was based on the British model (one chief executive physician, more organization, and better pay for doctors). Dr. William Shippen, Jr., still feuding with Dr. John Morgan and Rush, dismissed Rush's British model. For his plan, the director-general should be in charge of everything. The problem for Rush was that the new system needed someone more qualified to run the hospitals. Shippen had a total of 6 months of military experience. There was nothing Rush could do about it. He had no choice but to help Shippen's proposal. 

In 1777, Rush was appointed surgeon-general of the Middle Department under Shippen as the director-general. As a surgeon general, he became cautious with the health of the soldiers. Rush even sent a letter to Washington about his concerns about the conditions of the army hospitals:

  • overcrowding
  • more initial care for sick soldiers in the camps
  • shortages of supplies, medicine, food, blankets, and hospital gowns
  • lack of security and officer supervision of hospitalized soldiers 
  • too many nonmedical responsibilities were under the director-general's control

Shippen didn't take it well. He went in for a counterattack. He denied any wrongdoing being in charge of the facilities, and then questioned Rush's actions, in front of Congress, when he was away in York during the war. It was concluded that Shippen doesn't want to work with Rush anymore. Rush didn't plan to resign from the department, but Dr. John Witherspoon persuaded him to for his own good. On January 30, 1778, Rush's resignation was approved by Congress. 

After his resignation, Rush congratulated Washington for improving the military system. Washington had always considered Rush a friend until Patrick Henry revealed to Washington in a letter that it was Rush who anonymously wrote about his bad leadership at the time when the war was getting worse. 

Washington V. Smallpox

Washington was not only fighting against the British. He was also fighting against an invisible enemy: smallpox.

Washington was quarantining his army who had the virus, but the British army wasn't as exposed to smallpox in Britain as much as Washington's army in America. They thought they were going to lose because everyone was getting sick. Washington initially said he was going to quarantine people and NOT inoculate them. But he changed his mind. Thanks to Rush, who wrote to Washington on February 13, 1777, on behalf of the Medical Committee, Washington decided to inoculate his soldiers.

But there were risks: if someone had smallpox, there was a 1 and 3 chance this soldier would die. If someone was inoculated and passed it along to other soldiers, his whole army would die.

But he took a chance, changed course, and took the risk in order to have the chance to fight for freedom.

 To George Washington from the Continental Congress Medical Committee, 13 February 1777

Benjamin Rush's Challenging Friendship with George Washington