Thursday, May 18, 2017

Profiles of the Northern Department: Dr. Samuel Stringer

by Ian Mumpton

Dr. Samuel Stringer by Ezra Ames
On July 2nd, 1775, Dr. Samuel Stringer wrote to Philip Schuyler from Albany to congratulate him on his recent appointment to the rank of Major General and commander of the Northern Department. As a physician, he also made reference to Philip’s chronically poor health:
…permit me to offer you, among your Welwishers[sic], my most hearty Congratulations on your Appointment, and to assure I am… rejoiced to find you called ypon[sic] by your Congress to fill the important Post of a General in the American Army, in whose abilities, your Country will undoubtably[sic] place the greatest Confidence. I wish I could say so much for your Constitution, and that it may equal to the arduorus[sic] Task you have to engage, is my sincere prayer.
Shortly after this letter was sent, Schuyler approached Stringer about applying his medical services to the support of the Northern Department, a position confirmed by the Continental Congress on September 14th of that year:
  • Resolved, That Samuel Stringer, esq; be appointed director of the hospital and chief physician and surgeon for the army in the Northern Department.
  • That the pay of the said Samuel Stringer, as director, physician and surgeon, be four dollars per day.
  • That he be authorized and have power to appoint a number of surgeons mates under him not exceeding four.
  • That the pay of said mates be two thirds of a dollar per day.
  • That the number be not kept in constant pay, unless the sick and wounded be so numerous as to require the constant attendance of four, and to be diminished as circumstances will admit, for which reason the pay is fixed by the day, that they may only receive pay for actual service.
  • That the deputy commissary general be directed to pay Dr. Stringer for the medicines he has purchased for the use of the army, and that he purchase and forward such other medicines as General Schuyler shall, by his warrant, direct, for the use of the said army.

Stringer was a Marylander by birth, but had received his medical education in Philadelphia. Like Philip, Stringer had been involved in the French and Indian war - in Stringer’s case as a surgeon – and in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, became a member of the Albany Committee of Correspondence. His connection to the Schuylers was also professional, tending to the medical needs of the family as one of the most prominent physicians in Albany. His appointment to the position of chief medical officer for the Northern Department was official recognition of a role he had already been performing since August. Problematically however, the wording of the resolution failed to explicitly denote his place in the chain of command relative to Dr. John Morgan, who already held the title of chief physician and head of the General Hospital of the Continental Army. This led to repeated clashes between the two men and their associates.

One of Stringer’s first and most pressing concerns was acquiring the actual medicine needed to care for the sick and wounded soldiers of the army. In the Summer of 1775, the future availability of medicine was uncertain. Stocks were high in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, but the specter of shortages loomed ever larger as the war progressed and regular shipments from England slowed to a trickle. Even before his official appointment, Stringer had been purchasing drugs for the army; purchases for which he was to be compensated by order of the Congress. Once acquired, Stringer also saw to the dispersal of the department’s medicinal supply to the various units of the army. On November 16th of 1775, he wrote to Schuyler to inform him that medicine was being sent to supply Revolutionary troops participating in the invasion of Canada:
Mr. Wimple & Mr. Williams are now packing up Medicines viz: will go off according to your Order, as soon as possible, with whom I shall send two thirds of all our Stock.
While medicine is an obvious concern to a medical officer, Stringer was also tasked with establishing the infrastructure and bureaucratic systems needed to keep the Northern Department Hospital corps effective. This included sourcing and acquiring the supplies needed to feed, clothe, and house the sick and injured. Many of his letters to Schuyler immediately after Stringer’s appointment deal with the minutia of constructing adequate shelter to provide for those in the care of the hospital. On October 6th, Stringer wrote from Fort George to report that:
18th century Carpenters' Tools from
Joseph Moxton's Mechanick Exercises
…the want of Carpenters, Boards, Masons and Carpenters tools, will occasion such a delay, that I fear I shall be overpowered with Numbers before I can be in a situation to dispose of them—I shall have two Waggons[sic] Loads of Boards over to day, when I hope to have the last side of the wooden Barrick[sic] closed, which was entirely open—Mr. Yates tells me he has Tools for no more than four Carpenters… He is chiefly in want of Handsaws, and hammers…
With the impending winter, Stringer was also concerned with the abysmal state of the fireplaces at the fort.
The Iron which supported the Arches of the Chimneys having been all taken away, the Arches have fallen, & the Chimnies[sic] open to near the upper floor; the Backs are also burnt thro’, of each, & no bricks to repair either defect, nor Iron to replace what has been robed[sic] from the Arches, or to make a Grate under the large kettle.
Four days later he reiterated the request for masons and tools, as well as ever-in-demand medical supplies:
If there is such a thing as a mason to be spared from your Garrison, and Tools for him, beg you would order him (or more than one) over; otherwise the Sick will enevitably [sic] suffer much from the Cold… also a [book] or two of White Cartridge Paper for wraping[sic] medicines—I sent for Wraping[sic] Paper,  they have sent me the blue kind, that will not bare[sic] ink; & it will be necessary that every Mans Medicines are distinguished as they are made up, by his names on each, & directions.
Equally pressing, to Stringer’s mind, was the lack of support staff that he had to work with. The assistance of only four “as needed” mates in addition to himself left the hospital corps woefully understaffed, as Stringer well knew from his military experience in the French and Indian war. Moreover, recruiting capable medical officers at the poor rate of two thirds of a dollar for every day of service was proving nigh on impossible. Stringer wrote to Schuyler on this topic in several letters, laying out his recommendations at length on the 25th of October:
Sir…in my last [letter]…I took the liberty to point out a material deficiency of officers who are indispensably necessary in that Department, Viz: Senior Surgeons & Apothecaries; a Clerk & Steward… Two Seniors & Four mates (exclusive of myself) are as small a Hospital as the Army under your Command should take the Field with; & should there be an engagement, it would scarcely be sufficient---In the Resolution of Congress, I am limited to four mates only; I suppose the necessity for more ever so great, I cannot employ them; & even those four are to be dissatisfied [ie: discharged], and the numbers of Sick & Wounded decrease so as not to require the attendance of the whole; founded probably on the supposition that the Hospital was to be confined to Albany, where mates of an inferior class might be more readily procured in an emergency; for no Gentleman of Merit would on such Conditions enter into the Service--- We had Supernumerary Mates in the Kings Hospital during the late[sic?] War, but they were for the most part continued… because they were capable Mates, and already acquainted with the Hospital Service… I must further add, that the Pay being so small, will not be an encouragement for Gentlemen qualified to go out in the Service, & unless they can support themselves as such, they certainly will not enter into it.
In addition to these difficulties, Stringer repeatedly clashed with officers of the Northern Department and other branches. The Northern Department was frequently the cockpit for bitter disputes over the chain of command. Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates battled for command with each other as Continental and Militia forces squabbled over levels of authority, civilian and military bodies parsed out their spheres of responsibility, and officers wrangled at length over seniority of commissions. On the 7th of November, Stringer wrote to Schuyler to air his complaints about the officers at Fort George.
Dear General!However loth[sic] I am to trouble you with Complaints (ever disagreeable) yet my Duty compels me to it, or the Hospital must great suffer, & myself be treated with Insults that I cannot possibly bear—I cannot say the Sick have been sufficiently supplied with Fuel since I returned from the other side of the Lake… [owing to the] Wood not being cut, and at other times, a neglect in detaining the Waggons[sic]… which I informed the Col: of…  His answer was, that I should give my Orders to the Officer of the Day… & HE would see they were executed. [I] wrote & sent [the Officer of the Day] as follows, “The Officer of the Day will be pleased to furnish a Party to cut Wood for use of the Hosp. and that he will please to see that the Hospital Guard remain at the Guard-Room”…The next morning I understood that the Col:, in presence of Lieut. Brazier… had expressed great displeasure at my presuming to give Orders, saying that my Orders were not to be obeyed—[I] let him know (very civily) what I had heard; upon which he showed great warmth, & repeated that I had no right to give Orders. I told him that it was what he himself had desired of me the evening before… He (with heat) denied it… I had the impudence enough to affront that what I said was true, & confirmed it with an Oath—He immediately desired me (with an air of importance) not to swear there… I replied that I thought myself at Liberty to swear there, & should do it—
Dr. John Morgan by Angelica Kauffman
The bigger dispute came, however, in Stringer’s clash with the Director of the General Hospital, James Morgan. Morgan was another prominent, Philadelphia-trained physician serving with the Revolutionary forces. His position was intended by Congress to supervise the General Hospital and other departmental hospitals. This meant that he understood that Stringer, as head of the Northern Department Hospital, would report to him and pass requests for supplies through the General Hospital. Stringer disagreed, citing that his position had been created a month before Morgan’s, and that nothing in the resolution appointing him to his position indicated that he was answerable to Morgan. Morgan himself seems to have been uncertain of how to address the situation, telling Stringer, “It has never been announced to me in what light I am to consider you.”

Stringer’s frustration grew when Congress confirmed the superior status of Morgan’s authority on July 17th, 1776, delineating Stringer’s authority “in the Northern Department only”. When their conflict continued, with Stringer asserting that Morgan was withholding key medicinal supplies, Congress finally resolved to divest themselves of both parties, dismissing both Stringer and Morgan without warning on January 9th, 1777. Philip Schuyler, frustrated and surprised by the dismissal of someone whom he considered a trusted officer and ally, and feeling the breath of a New England faction desirous of seeing Horatio Gates in command of the Northern Department on his neck, wrote a passionate letter to Congress. All he received in reply was a sternly worded censure.


Stringer’s dismissal was not the end of his and Schuyler’s association. He continued to provide expert medical care to the family, as he had even during his time with the Northern Department. In the 1790’s he would develop an early form of oxygen machine (based on English patterns developed by Joseph Priestley) for Philip’s use. A year younger than Philip, he outlived his general by thirteen years, dying at the age of 83 on July 11th, 1817.

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