J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

“Doctor McHenry now a prisoner”

As I said yesterday, in mid-1777 the British military proposed exchanging suspected spy Dr. Benjamin Church for a “Doctor McHenry now a prisoner with the British Troops.” That offer came from the British Commissary of Prisoners, Jamaica Plain’s own Joshua Loring, Jr.

I haven’t seen any identification of McHenry in the articles about Church that I’ve read, but it seems reasonable to conclude that this was young Dr. James McHenry, a rather significant figure in American history. The only other Continental doctor named McHenry I’ve found served on a Pennsylvania privateer from April 1776 to Mar 1777, and there’s no mention of his being captured.

Dr. James McHenry (shown here in middle age) was born to a genteel family in Ireland in 1753. He came to America in 1771, apparently for his health, and liked it so much that he persuaded his family to emigrate and set up a mercantile business in Maryland. James himself lived mostly in Philadelphia, studying medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush.

When the Revolutionary War began, McHenry volunteered in the lines outside Boston. He worked as an assistant surgeon under Dr. Church in the military hospitals, and collaborated in keeping them going after Church’s resignation and arrest. McHenry offered to set up a hospital in the “northern department,” the upstate New York war against Canada, but before he could go there was made surgeon for a Pennsylvania regiment.

McHenry was at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island in 1776, and was among the many men taken prisoner by the British army on 16 November. Five days later he wrote to Rush, then a Continental Congress delegate:

I have not as yet reflected so deeply on the fate of a prisoner as to make me unhappy. And perhaps I shall not. For I am no admirer of that philosophy which is constantly in tears or beating itself to pieces against the impassable bars of its prison. Methinks I feel something within me like that kindly resignation which when duly attended to never fails to befriend the unfortunate. But

Altho’ I am resigned with regard to my own fate, yet it were to be wished that an exchange of prisoners could be brought about as soon as possible. The officers thro’ the goodness of his Excellency General [William] Howe—have the liberty of the City—but the privates are crouded into Churches and the like. Prodire tenus, si non datur ultra. [Horace: “To reach a certain point, if not to go beyond.”]

Col. Magaw is ill of a fever, tho’ in my opinion not dangerous. I am at private lodgings with him, Col. Miles, Atley, Swoope &c. Their evening and morning devotions begin and end with Horace’s O rus, quando ego te aspiciam. [“Countryside, when shall I behold you.”]
However, McHenry never got to send that letter. He kept it, marked, “The commissary of prisoners Mr. Loring rejected this letter It would not pass”. Which meant Loring knew McHenry, whatever he said about “kindly resignation,” hoped to be exchanged.

Loring had McHenry set up a hospital for the captured Americans, though the two men debated over lines of authority. In a June 1777 report to Gen. George Washington, McHenry mentioned that the wounded prisoners were under the care of “Dr. Oliver, a refugee from Boston.” This was probably Dr. Peter Oliver of Middleborough, son of the Loyalist Chief Justice of the same name.

The British command paroled McHenry on 27 Jan 1777. This treatment, usually available only to gentlemen, meant that he was free to go home after promising not to engage in war again unless he was formally exchanged for someone the Americans freed. (If a man still on parole was recaptured in arms, he was liable to be hanged.) Thus, when Loring proposed the trade for Church, McHenry would not have been actually “now a prisoner with the British Troops,” just legally so.

It looks like the British thought that would be a fair exchange since both men were doctors. There’s no indication that McHenry was a spy, though British commanders might have seen him as more treasonous than the average American since he was born on the east side of the Atlantic. Then again, those authorities might simply have been trying for a bargain—a twenty-four-year-old who was already free for a locked-up spy who’d been in the top ranks of the Boston resistance.

TOMORROW: How that exchange went down.


Robert S. Paul said...

This is the same McHenry who had a fort in Maryland named after him, the site of which became F.S. Key's inspiration for our violent National Anthem, yes?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, which makes me a little surprised that no one writing about Church has drawn the connection.

Soon I’ll come back to how Dr. McHenry officially became free, and what he did after that.