Washington's Aide-de-Camps: A Look at James McHenry

Updated: Jul 3


From his election as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington served as the symbolic – and literal – bearer of the American struggle for independence. It’s success or failure rested squarely on his shoulders. To carry this incredible burden, Washington was helped by thirty-two assistants, known by their military title as Aide-de-Camps. They performed a variety of tasks such as writing letters, copying and delivering orders, and acting as translators for Washington’s French correspondents. This blog series entitled “Washington’s Aide-de-Camps” aims to examine the six officers who were housed at the Dey Mansion Washington’s Headquarters. We will rediscover who they were and what expertise they brought to the table in helping manage the war effort.


James McHenry was born on November 16, 1753 in Ballymena, a small town located in what is now Northern Ireland. Educated in Dublin, McHenry moved to Baltimore in 1771 and with the assistance of his family, established an import business. McHenry would continue his studies at the Newark Academy (today’s University of Delaware) where he studied medicine. Upon the start of the hostilities between the colonies and Great Britain, he abandoned his work and immediately enlisted in the Continental Army and stationed in Massachusetts.


McHenry witnessed many deprivations in his first year at war. Stationed at Fort Washington, he and his battalion surrendered to the British on his twenty-third birthday. The following two months were spent in captivity, in which McHenry witnessed the horrifying treatment that American soldiers were subjected to at the hands of their British captors. The care of American wounded chiefly fell to an American prisoner of war named Louis Debute. Debute had a sordid history in the Continental army and had been dismissed after being found guilty of disposing of valuable medicine. In his new capacity as tending to American wounded under British captivity, he denied them food, water, and medicine necessary to their survival. McHenry would later describe these deprivations in a letter to Washington dated June 21, 1777 in which he recalled:

“[That] great numbers of our sick and wounded were separated from the rest, and put into houses provided for their reception is not to be doubted. But there they wanted, the necessary attendance, comforts, and conveniencies [conveniences] which constitute a hospital: either ‘through design, or neglect of reasonable and practicable care,’ Whilst On the other hand no patients could be better taken care of or better provided, than those in the B. [British] Hospitals.[1]

McHenry was one of the fortunate. He took charge of seventy-five wounded and sickly prisoners and was later placed on parole in January 1777. His duties allowed him to both petition General Howe for better treatment and conditions for the wounded, and to communicate with Washington about some of the issues he faced. McHenry was finally exchanged on March 5th, 1778.


At Valley Forge in the spring of 1778, McHenry returned to his post as a surgeon for the Continental Army. On May 15th, he would be titled “assistant secretary” to Washington. No written evidence remains as to why McHenry was picked. Historian and author, Arthur Lefkowitz, identifies that having a doctor to attend to Washington’s military family would have been incredibly beneficial. Aides like Robert Hansen Harrison and Tench Tilghman were known to suffer from hemorrhoids and hepatitis respectively; even Alexander Hamilton was tended to by McHenry.[2] The selection could have also been more personal. Washington himself wrote of the young McHenry as one who maintained an “easy disposition, good sense of humor, and a willingness to work hard.”[3] Whatever the reason, Washington certainly thought highly enough of him to have him as part of his staff.


While as aide-de-camp, McHenry became entangled in the court martialing of General Charles Lee upon his disastrous performance at the Battle of Monmouth. He and his fellow aide-de-camps all supported Washington in the removal of General Lee. In August of 1780, McHenry bid farewell to the Commander-in-Chief’s headquarters and was transferred to the command under the Marquis de Lafayette. In the aftermath of the Battle of Yorktown, McHenry left the army altogether to join the Maryland Senate, to which he had been elected.


Washington and McHenry developed a lifelong friendship. This friendship continued to blossom when Washington picked McHenry to become America’s third Secretary of War. He would hold this position for four years, serving the nation’s first two presidents. During that time, he oversaw the transfer of Great Britain’s military posts in the western frontier. McHenry would resign in 1800 after disagreements with President John Adams on foreign policy. Afterwards, he remained connected with his political and military friends. In 1814, suffered an attack of paralysis and passed away two years later on May 3rd 1816 at the age of 62.



Kelly J. McManus

Museum Attendant, Dey Mansion Washington's Headquarters



[1] “To George Washington from James McHenry, 21 June 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0096. [2] Arthur Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and the Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence, (Lanham: Stackpole Books, 2003), 142. And “To Alexander Hamilton from James McHenry, 21 September, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0568. [3] Lefkowitz, 142.


 

Bibliography

Lefkowitz, Arthur. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and the Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Lanham: Stackpole Books, 2003.


“To Alexander Hamilton from James McHenry, 21 September, 1778.” Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0568.


“To George Washington from James McHenry, 31 January 1777.” Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0214.


“To George Washington from James McHenry, 21 June 1777.” Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0096.

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