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Benjamin Church

Photo Benjamin Church

Surgeons General

BENJAMIN CHURCH (August 24, 1734 - 1776), Director General and Chief Physician of the Hospital of the Army, July 27, 1775 - Oct. 17, 1775, was born in Newport, R. I. He was the son of Benjamin Church, a merchant of Boston and deacon of the Hollis Street Congregation Church conducted by the Rev. Mather Byles. His grandfather, Colonel Benjamin Church, took a prominent part in the war with the Narragansett Indians and led the force which hunted King Philip to his death on August 12, 1675. The third Benjamin attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1734. He studied medicine with Dr. Joseph Pynchon, later continuing his studies in London. While there he married Hannah Hill of Ross, Herfordshire. Returning to Boston be built up a reputation as a talented physician and a skillful surgical operator. With growing friction between the colonies and Great Britain, Church supported the Whig cause vigorously with his pen, but even in the early stages of the controversy he was accused of being secretly a supporter of the government. There is evidence that during this period he was variously considered as an ardent patriot and as a secret Tory sympathizer. He examined the bodies of the dead and treated some of the wounded in the so-called Boston Massacre on May 5, 1770, and in 1773 he delivered an anniversary oration, To Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of May 1770, which marks him as an orator of high order. In 1774, after a secret meeting of Whig leaders, it was stated that the business of the meeting had been divulged to the Tories and Church was accused of having furnished the information. He continued, however, in the confidence of the Whig leaders and in 1774 he was appointed a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and to membership in the Committee of Safety, which had charge of preparation for armed conflict. On Feb. 21, 1775, the Provincial Congress appointed him with Dr. Joseph Warren a committee to make an inventory of medical supplies necessary for the army and on March 7 voted them the sum of five hundred pounds for the purchase of such supplies. On May 8 he was appointed a member of an examining board for surgeons for the army and on June 19 a resolution ordered "that Dr. Church, Dr. Taylor, and Dr. Whiting be a committee to consider what method is proper to take to supply the hospitals with surgeons and that the same gentlemen be a committee to provide medicine and other necessaries for hospitals." As the chairman of a subcommittee of the Committee of Safety, he signed a report on May 12 which recommended a System of defensive works on Prospect Hill and Bunker Hill. On the other hand he came under criticism for having entered Boston after the battle of Lexington and having been in conference with General Gage. In May he went to Philadelphia to consult the Continental Congress about the defense of Massachusetts colony, and on July 27 that body authorized the establishment of a medical department of the army with a director general and chief In the meantime, on July 2, General Washington had arrived at Cambridge to take command of the colonial forces and Church was one of the committee appointed to receive him.

From the day of his appointment Church was in difficulty. Though of undisputed professional skill and of distinguished literary and political ability he was deficient in the executive qualifications essential in an army staff and quite unfitted to cope with a personnel that was to give succeeding medical chiefs their main trouble--the regimental surgeons. His relations with these medical officers became so strained that a tempest of complaint poured in upon the army headquarters and Washington was compelled to order an investigation of the service. In defense Church complained of the jealousy of rivals for his position and is said to have asked for permission to leave the army. In the meantime an incident arose which brought him before an army court-martial on Oct. 4, 1775.

In July 1775 Church had sent a cipher letter addressed to Major Cane, a British officer in Boston. The letter was intercepted and was sent to Washington in September. It was decoded and found to contain an account of the American forces before Boston, but contained no disclosures of great importance. It contained, however, a declaration of Church's devotion to the Crown and asked for directions for continuing the correspondence. The matter was placed before a court of inquiry made up of general officers, Washington presiding, to Whom Church admitted the authorship of the letter but explained that it was written with the object of impressing the enemy with the strength and position of the colonial forces in order to prevent an attack while the Continental army was still short of ammunition and in hopes of aiding to bring about an end to hostilities. The court considered that Church had carried on a criminal correspondence with the enemy and recommended that the matter be referred to the Continental Congress for its action. The report of Washington to the President of Congress is in part as follows:

"I have now a painful though necessary duty to perform, respecting Doctor Church, the Director of the Hospital. About a week ago, Mr. Secretary Ward, of Providence, sent up one Wainwood, an inhabitant of Newport, to me with a letter directed to Major Cane in Boston, in occult letters, which lie said had been left with Wainwood some time ago by a woman who was kept by Doctor Church. She had before pressed Wainwood to take her to Captain Wallace, Mr. Dudley, the Collector, or George Rowe, which he declined. She gave him the letter with strict injunctions to deliver it to either of these gentleman. He, suspecting some improper correspondence, kept the letter and after some time opened it, but not being able to read it, laid it up, where it remained until lie, received an obscure letter from the woman, expressing an anxiety as to the original letter. He then communicated the whole matter to Mr. Ward, who sent him up with the papers to me. I immediately secured the woman, but for a long time she was proof against every threat and persuasion to discover the author. However she was at length brought to a confession and named Doctor Church. I then immediately secured him and all his papers. Upon the first examination lie readily acknowledged the letter and said that it was designed for his brother, etc. The army and country are exceedingly irritated."

Congress on Oct. 17, 1775, elected Dr. John Morgan "in the room of" Dr. Church and on Nov. 7 passed the following resolution:

"That Doctor Church be close confined in some secure jail in the Colony of Connecticut, without use of pen, ink and paper, and that no person be allowed to converse with him except in the presence and hearing of a magistrate of the town or the sheriff of the county where he is confined, and in the English language, until further orders from this or a future Congress."

In accordance with this resolution he was confined at Norwich, Connecticut. Previous to this action, however, he was arraigned on Nov. 2 before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Despite an eloquent appeal in his own defense he was unanimously expelled as a member of the House. Owing to the unfavorable effects of confinement upon his health he was, in January 1776, released from jail and was permitted considerable movement under guard. On May 13 he was permitted to return to Massachusetts under bond. Shortly thereafter he sailed from Boston, presumably for the West Indies, but the vessel on which he took passage was never heard from again. Thus miserably ended a career that had been brilliantly begun. It is difficult, even impossible, to estimate at this time the degree of his guilt. He was deeply in debt and the position he had won, promising eminence and profit, had proved only a source of trouble and devoid of glory. He was convicted, not of treason, but of communicating with the enemy. It should be remembered that Church's letter was written at a time when independence was in the minds of only a few medical leaders. The colonial conflict was popularly viewed as a struggle of British citizens for British rights. Church was an ambitious man with considerable personal conceit. A friendly viewpoint is that "he visualized himself as the arbitrator who should bring about the restoration of friendly relations between the fatherland and the colonies, little suspecting that its effects would place him in the ranks of those we brand as traitors."

Appearances were decidedly against him, and at a time when party zeal and prejudice were keen in search of men suspected of disloyalty. However harmless his letter to his British officer friend may have been, its discovery marked him as a traitor to a cause to which he was ostensibly giving distinguished service. It is said that his family was pensioned by the British government.

Sources: L. C. Duncan, Medical Men in the American Revolution, 1778-1783 (1931); James Thacher, American Medical Biography (1828); T. H. S. Hamersly, Complete Army and Navy Register of the United States, 1776-1887 (1888); Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. IV (1930); J. M. Toner, Medical Men of the Revolution (1876); P M. Ashburn, History of Medical Department of the U S. Army (1929); F. R. Packard, History of Medicine in the United States (1931).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches," Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 1-4, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]