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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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dr. McHenry Exchanged at Last

I’ll wrap up Dr. James McHenry’s story first. When we left him back here in 1777, he had been captured at Fort Washington in New York and then paroled—released in a trade for a prisoner to be named later.

The British Commissary of Prisoners suggested that Massachusetts release Dr. Benjamin Church. The state government agreed, but the people did not. Which left Dr. McHenry still on the sidelines.

On 5 Mar 1778, Alexander Hamilton wrote to the young doctor:

It gave me pleasure to inform you that Mr. [Elias] Boudinotte has been able to effect your exchange for a Doctor Mentzes. Allow me to congratulate you on the event.
I haven’t been able to identify this doctor, either under that name or “Menzies.” He could have been a military surgeon or a prominent Loyalist. Dr. Archibald Menzies served as a Royal Navy surgeon later in the war before embarking on a significant career in botany, but I can’t find any indication he was a prisoner this early.

In any event, the completed exchange meant McHenry was free to rejoin the Continental Army, which he did at Valley Forge in early 1778. Gen. George Washington quickly made him an aide-de-camp. Later the commander-in-chief wrote:
McHenry’s easy and cheerful temper was able to bear the strain which we suppose must sometimes occur between two persons thrown so closely and so constantly together in a position of social equality and military inequality.
[CORRECTION: Whoops! This quotation is attributed to Washington on the Valley Forge National Historical Park website. However, on probing further after a query from Boston 1775 reader Dan Shippey, I found that it actually came from Fred. J. Brown, as quoted in The Magazine of American History in 1881. Brown apparently wrote these words for a profile of McHenry published by the Maryland Historical Society in 1877, contrasting how McHenry remained on good terms with Washington while Hamilton had a couple of blow-ups.]

After two years McHenry left Washington’s military family to serve Gen. Lafayette in the same capacity until Yorktown. [So McHenry might have avoided blow-ups by taking another job. Nonetheless, on 15 Aug 1782 Washington closed a letter to McHenry by writing, “It is unnecessary for me to repeat to you, that I am Your sincere friend & affecte. Sevt.” And that quote I found in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.]

McHenry then entered Maryland politics, serving in the state senate, Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention. A strong Federalist, he was Secretary of War under Presidents Washington and John Adams, feuding with the latter. With the ascension of the Jeffersonians, he retired to his estate in Maryland and died in 1816.

Fort McHenry is named for him. Indeed, the fort is now more famous than the man because Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after seeing it withstand a British siege during the War of 1812. Ironically, McHenry as a Federalist strongly opposed that war.

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