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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Friday, September 07, 2012

The Source of the “Huzzah” Anecdote

Yesterday I completed tracing the story of Gen. George Washington’s admonition to his troops not to cheer at Yorktown to Dr. Thomas McCalla, intendant (mayor) of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1810-11. The last step is determining if McCalla was at Yorktown and thus had the chance to hear Washington’s words, or a report of them, at the time.

There are at least two men named Thomas McCalla connected to the American forces. (And with the number of ways people spelled that surname—McCalla, M’Caula, Macaulay, McCauley, and so on—there are probably more.)

One Thomas McCalla appears in Elizabeth Ellet’s profile of his wife Sarah in Women of the American Revolution (1848-1850). That man did live in South Carolina, but wasn’t at Yorktown and wasn’t a physician.

The other man was Thomas Harrison McCalla, who graduated from Princeton in 1777 and joined Col. Stephen Moylan’s regiment of dragoons in Philadelphia as a surgeon’s mate the next spring. He remained with the unit through the end of the war, becoming a surgeon on 1 June 1780. (In some war records, McCalla’s middle initial has been transcribed as an M instead of an H.)

Moylan’s regiment was part of the American forces at Yorktown. Dr. McCalla was therefore on the scene when the British surrendered. Whether or not he was close enough to Gen. Washington to hear what the commander said, he could have learned the upshot of the orders soon afterward.

At the end of 1783, Dr. McCalla joined the Pennsylvania division of the Society of the Cincinnati. But the “Dr. M’Caula” whom Alexander Garden quoted in 1822 was from Charleston, South Carolina. And there were a few states in between those places.

Fortunately, in 1871 the Transactions of the Medical Society of New Jersey published this profile of the man—clearly the same one, even though it says nothing of his military activity:
THOMAS HARRISON McCALLA, son of John McCalla and Jane Harrison, was born in the city of Philadelphia, where he was educated. He pursued medical studies with so much zeal and success as ultimately to gain for himself an enviable standing as a physician. He practiced medicine in Greenwich, Cumberland County, N. J., some time between the years 1790 and 1800. He changed his residence to Charleston, South Carolina, where he soon became distinguished as a physician. He was for some years Poor Physician of that city. He was married to Miss Barksdale, of Charleston, by whom he had a daughter, who died a few days after her marriage, and left him childless. He did not long survive her. Like the most of his family, he was possessed of more than ordinary mental endowments. It is regretted that no further account of this distinguished physician has been obtained.
Now we can add that Dr. McCalla was elected to Charleston’s highest office in 1810 and 1811. According to Ancestry.com, his daughter Sarah Barksdale McCalla died in 1809 at the age of twenty. The Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati records that Dr. McCalla himself died in January 1813.

It’s striking how the different periods of Dr. McCalla’s career—his army years, his New Jersey medical practice, and his life in Charleston, including local government service—are preserved in wholly separate sources. I think that reflects how he died without descendants who could have pulled everything together and put it in print. It’s likely that the profile of McCalla in Princetonians, the reference to that college’s early graduates, has a more complete picture.

In any event, we can say that the anecdote about Gen. Washington telling his men, “Let history huzzah for you,” is a garbled version of the original quotation; but that story did come from a regimental surgeon in the Continental Army at Yorktown.

1 comment:

Sam Abate said...

What I found most interesting while reading this post is the mention of Greenwich, NJ. Greenwich is right up the road from me in South Jersey & beyond the local, "Hey I know that place!" reaction was this new piece of evidence to show just how important the region was in early American history. From looking at local history for years now I know that Greenwich was an important & thriving port in South Jersey & was early on involved in the struggle for American independence. In fact, Greenwich is one of only five tea party towns in America, designated as such for its Dec. 22, 1774 tea burning. To have a notable physician among its residents only further enhances this now sleepy & forgotten town's standing in history. I also wonder if my Revolutionary great-grandfather, Cumberland County militia captain Benajah Thompson, knew Dr. McCalla?