Chocolate for Invalids

February 22nd, 2012

In April 1792, Isaac Craig sent Captain Jonathan Cass some supplies for the sick men under his command: five pounds sugar, two pounds of tea, and four pounds of chocolate. These three items also show up in lists of hospital stores throughout the 1790s. Why? Were they being used as medicine?

Not exactly. Medical theory and practice of the time concerned itself not only with the ailment at hand but with the diet of the invalid. Tea was believed to act as a sedative and sugar had been used as a medical additive for centuries. Chocolate was not only used to improve the taste of some medicines, but was a part of the recommended diet for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, prominent Philadelphia physician, mentions chocolate in his Medical Inquiries and Observations, Volume 1, as a part of the diet for a person preparing to be inoculated against smallpox: “Tea, coffee, and even weak chocolate, with biscuit or dry toast, may be used as usual.” Chocolate was also used in cases of consumption (tuberculosis), asthma, yellow fever, and cholera. Chocolate was useful because it was fairly easy to digest while providing nourishment. Consumption and other diseases caused the patient to waste away; chocolate’s fatty content could reverse the trend and hopefully aid in recovery.

The chocolate, tea, and sugar that Craig sent from Pittsburgh for Cass’ invalids were not, precisely, medicine. Nonetheless, they were intended to help soldiers regain their health and get back to duty by providing a “healthy” diet.

St. Clair Defeat

February 13th, 2012

Following the disastrous Harmar expedition against the Western Indians  in the fall of 1790, which resulted in the loss of 180 men (including 73 federal troops),  planning began for another expedition in 1791.  Governor Arthur St. Clair was appointed General in Chief, Richard Butler commanded the levies, Samuel Hodgdon became the Quarter Master General and General Charles Scott commanded the Kentucky militia.  The public clamored for a swift and effective response against the Indians of the Ohio wilderness.   This in turn pressured Hodgdon to take up a frantic pace in administering the procurement of supplies.  The problems of supply were many, but the major ones were  related to coordination with contractors, transportation of supplies through the rugged wilderness,  and the generally low quality of the arms and supplies themselves.   Delays throughout the spring and summer of 1791 taxed the patience of St. Clair, who became concerned about the onset of winter and the expiration of six month long militia enlistments.    So in August, he began to move his incomplete force toward Fort Washington (modern day Cincinnati).  Eventually  General Butler and his levies joined up with St. Clair, but movement remained extremely sluggish as the army stopped to build forts and  struggled under the weight of excessive baggage and a seemingly limitless  trail of wives, washerwomen and camp followers.  Morale too suffered because of supply problems.  Desertion was so rampant that St. Clair resorted to public execution of deserters.

This was all before any shots were fired in anger.  One of St. Clair’s officers sounded this ominous note:  “I pray God that should the General proceed, the Enemy may not be disposed to give us battle-our force…are the worst and most dissatisfied Troops I have ever served with.”   A week later, St. Clair established his force on either side of the Wabash River.  On 4 November, both Generals St. Clair and Butler were sick, so the adjutant general Colonel Winthrop Sargent was nominally in charge during  reveille.  After Sargent had finished inspecting the militia,  the Indians launched a surprise attack.  The battle only lasted three hours,  but the results were devastating.  Of the 920 American soldiers, 632 were killed and 264 wounded (a casualty rate of 97%).  General Butler’s heart was cut out and General St. Clair had eight bullet holes in his uniform.  St. Clair’s Defeat remains the single worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Army in its history.  Here in the Papers of the War Department collection is a sketch  drawn by Winthrop Sargent showing the disposition of forces when the Indians attacked.  Note the positioning of forces on both sides of the river.

Document Spotlight-Another Proclamation

February 8th, 2012

Recently, transcriber HollyPBrickhouse brought us this document detailing a preliminary peace agreement between the United States government and several Indian tribes: Wyandots, Chipawas, Ottawas, Potawatamies, Miamies, Shawanaes and Delawares. The agreement was designed to calm tensions until the groups rolled out a permanent treaty. This proclamation is notable for the restrictions it places on American citizens: they are forbidden to enter Indian territory with hostile intentions, and without prior permission from Indian authorities. It also requires American citizens to surrender any Indian prisoners they might be holding, and gives a deadline for compliance with that order.

Read the original here:

There are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

The War Department Fire and Compensation

February 7th, 2012

The papers of the War Department – along with the other executive departments – relocated to Washington, D.C. from Philadelphia in the summer of 1800. Five months later on November 8, 1800, flames engulfed the new building. You can read one of the immediate reactions here. The devastation felt by Secretary Samuel Dexter in the wake of the fire shines through in the plainly, solemnly stated first sentence in another letter the same day: “On Saturday evening last my office with all the Records, Papers, &c. was consumed by fire.” The fire was an incalculable disaster for the young federal government, destroying valuable Indian, veterans, and military records that had been collected since the Revolutionary War. Dexter quickly wrote his subordinates in order to obtain much-needed copies of documents that had been lost. More than two centuries later the Papers of the War Departments is nearing completion of a digital reconstruction of that lost archive.

There is a lesser known story that surrounds the fire, however. After the move from Philadelphia, Dexter had the War Department records moved into a three-floor house on 2100 Pennsylvania Avenue belonging to Joseph Hodgson – which Dexter leased for eight months until a better location was found. A federal employee who helped relocate the records – William Markward – lived in the basement with his wife, and the two of them helped with maintenance around the house in exchange for living quarters. The fire of November 8 was not only a disaster for the War Department, but for the Markward family as well. $800 worth of personal belongings were destroyed, and William’s salary was only $350 a year. To make things worse the House of Representatives rejected his petition for compensation, arguing that they had no obligation to pay employees whose property was destroyed by accident or fire.

Even Joseph Hodgson, the owner of the house, had an exceptionally difficult time receiving compensation. When the lease ended in April 1801 – five months after the fire – Hodgson filed a lawsuit against Dexter for breaking his contract by not returning the house in good order, as the lease had specified. Two years later the Circuit Court ruled against Hodgson, claiming that a government representative like Dexter could not be held personally liable, and the Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Joseph Hodgson died in May 1805, and between 1806 and 1822 his wife Rebecca filed nine petitions for compensation. In May 1822 Congress finally passed a bill compensating the family $6,000 for the destroyed house.

Source: Elaine C. Everly, “The Local Impact of the War Office Fire of 1800,” Washington History (Spring/Summer 2000), 8-9.

Captain Molly

February 1st, 2012

One of the many tasks of the War Department in the 1780s and 90s was the administration of wounded or invalid veterans of the Revolutionary War. In general, all that had to be done was keeping track of the residence of a veteran and paying pensions. William Price, Deputy Commissary of Military Stores and officer in charge at West Point from 1785 to 1786, had more to deal with when it came to one particular pensioner: Captain Molly.

Her name was actually Margaret Corbin, although Price only ever refers to her as Captain Molly. During the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776, she took her husband’s place at an artillery piece when he was killed in battle (if this sounds familiar, it’s because Molly Pitcher, aka Mary Hays, did the same when her husband was wounded). As a result, Margaret lost the use of one arm and was, in July 1779, granted a life pension of half pay for a soldier. In addition, the military took on the responsbility of finding her room and board, which was not an easy task.

As Price wrote Henry Knox in January 1786, Captain Molly was “such an Offensive Person that People are unwilling to take her in charge.” Her current landlady was only willing to keep her until the first of March, and Price was having a very hard time finding someone willing to take on the task of living with and caring for cantankerous Captain Molly. By May, he had found a new landlady, but moved Captain Molly in October because he felt that she was “not so well treated as she ought to be”. Despite her unpleasant personality, Price felt that she deserved to be well treated.

Margaret Corbin died in 1800 and is buried at West Point.