George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Colonel Lewis Nicola, 31 October 1780

From Colonel Lewis Nicola

Philada 31 Octob. 1780


I am sorry to be under the necessity of calling off your Excellencies attention from matters of moment to listen to a difference between the gentlemen of the medical department & me, but the good of the service, by a preservation of proper discipline, requires I should state facts & request your directions.

Some time since a refusal from the doctors of the hospital to receive some sick soldiers, sent there by my order, in consequence of a request from the doctor attending the hospital in the barracks, was productive of a general court martial, the proceedings of which, I am informed are now before you.1

About the 19th of this month I thought it necessary, as there was an alteration in the department, to remind the doctors that the time for making the returns to the adjutant genl, agreable to your orders transmitted to me by him, was approaching, I therefore wrote a note to Dr Shippen requesting he would direct the return to be sent to me, & in future by the 20 or 21 of each month that I might forward it by the following post.2 The post day arrived without my hearing any thing from the doctor or receiving the return; being engaged that morning by letters & other business I desired the doctor of the Invalid regt to call at the hospital for it, he informed me Dr Binny, the principal of the hospital, had taken it to town; I delayed sending my letter to the post as long as possible & was obliged to send it without the return, I continued in daily expectation of receiving it ’till the 27th when I wrote to Dr Binny, a copy of my letter accompanies this, No. 1 & received the answer No. 2.3 Greatly surprised at the purport of it, & thinking it a duty incumbent on me to support the dignity & authority of my station, I wrote No. 3 to the doctor & sent it by Lt Pugh, to whom I gave written instructions No. 4. On his return he informed me the doctor accepted the arrest.4

In the afternoon Dr Jackson came to me & told me it was not the custom for the doctors to make returns to the superintending officer, but that the hospital books were open to his perusal & he might make his return from them. I replied this was quite new to me, that Dr Smith, predecessor to Dr Binny,5 & Dr Otto made their returns, that if Dr Shippen or Dr Binny had informed me this was the usual method I should not have made any objection, as it was a matter of indifference to me how I rec[e]ived the necessary information provided I was enabled to comply with the orders of my superiors. Had this been the only point in controversy between the doctors & me you should not have been troubled with it, tho from the best information I can procure from Col. Humpton & other officers & doctors, I find the above is not the most usual method & Doctor Jackson has since owned he spoke only from the practice in the hospital he attended.

Forty years service as an officer has not only informed me that every person in military employment is bound to obey orders, but has convinced me of the necessity of the regulation, & that it is adopted in all armies in Europe. If the person receiving the order thinks himself injured he has a right to complain, before the execution thereof, if time, and the presence of authority superior to that of the person issuing the order, permits, if not he is to obey & seek redress afterwards. I am fully satisfied that in Europe every officer commanding in camp, garrison or post has a right to know the strength & circumstances of every body & thing military in the place, this the good of the service often requires, but no event rendering such information necessary since the command here has devolved on me as senior officer, I never required returns from any department, being averse to giving trouble from no other motive than a wanton display of authority; but this right being now contested, I think it requisite, for the preservation of discipline, the point should be determined.

In all new institutions precedents should be carefully attended to, as bad customs may acquire sanction by practice. Obedience to orders from my superiors, as well as enforcing obedience to such as I conceive necessary is, from long practice become habitual to me, wherefore you may be assured I shall comply, with due submission to your determination in both points of controversy between me & the gentlemen of the faculty.6 Permit me to assure your Excellency that I am with respect Sr Your most obedt Servant

Lewis Nicola Col. Inv.


1For this court-martial, see General Orders, 30 Oct., and n.2 to that document.

2Nicola’s note to William Shippen, Jr., director general of Continental army hospitals, has not been identified.

3Nicola enclosed under heading “No. 1” his letter to Dr. Barnabas Binney, “Senr Doctor attending the Hospital at the Bettering House,” written from the Invalid Corps barracks on Friday, 27 Oct.; and under heading “No. 2” Binney’s reply to him, written at Philadelphia on the same date (DLC:GW). Nicola’s letter reads: “I Expected the return of the sick woud agreeable to Orders have been sent to me last tuesday to be forwarded to Head Quarters, but was disappointed nor have I reced it since.

“must therefore request it be sent to me immediately, & one every month in such time that it may be sent by the 1st post after the 20th as his Excellency requires their being returned to Adjutant Genls Office by the 25th of every Month.”

Binney’s reply reads: “I have receivd your letter of this day, & beg leave to inform You I am too well acquainted with the line of my duty to delay making returns to the Officer who has a right to demand them.

“To Superior Authority in my own departmt & orders of Congress I hold myself amenable, but am entirely ignorant of all Orders which oblige me to make a return to You, or any other Superintendent Officer whatever.”

4Nicola enclosed under heading “No. 3” his letter to Binney written from the Invalid Corps barracks on 28 Oct., and under heading “No. 4” his instructions to Lt.Jonathan Pugh, Invalid Corps adjutant, written from the same place on the same date (DLC:GW). His letter to Binney reads: “I reced your’s of yesterday date & own I read it with astonishment as I cannot conceive how you coud refuse Obedience to an order your predecessors have complied with for years past.

“You say You are too well acquainted with the line of your duty, to delay making returns to the Officer, who has a right to deman[d] them. I am sorry to say, Your Conduct evinces the contrary, & that I am necessitated to inform You the superintendg Officer has a right to inspect into every thing relating to the Hospital under his care; medicament & aliment for the sick Excepted; & to demand returns of the sick, & the Officer commandg at any post where an Hospital is, has a right to order returns to be made to him, of the State thereof, whenever he thinks necessary, as well as of every other department under his command.

“As Field Officer Superintendg the Hospitals in this State, I demand a return of the Hospital under Your Care to be made to me this day; & as Commanding Officer, I order Your Complyance with the above. Lt Pugh the bearer has orders in case of refusal, to put You under Arrest, & as from the Stile, & purport of your letter, I have reason to suppose You will not submit to the Arrest; he is directed & authorized by Me to compel You thereto by force, to bring You to the barracks a prisoner, & confine You in an Officers room, under the care of one or more Sentries, if necessary.

“Nothing but the obligation I am under to preserve discipline woud induce me to go to this Extremity, & I hope Your Complyan⟨ce⟩ with the first or second of these directions & orders, will render the last unnecessary, which will give much Satisfaction.”

Nicola’s instructions to Pugh read: “You are hereby directed to go to the House of Dr Binny, Senior doctor of the Hospital in the Bettering House, & deliver to him the open letter herewith given to You, requiring his making a return to me this day of the sick under his Care should he refuse, You are to put him under Arrest, requiring him to remain a Prisoner in his house without going therefrom unless by permission from me or any other Officer that may succeed me in the command of this post; In case he refuses to accept this Arrest, You are with military force if necessary, to bring him up to the Barracks, & confine him in the room prepared for Capt. Reily, under the Care of such Sentries, as You may think necessary.

You are to proceed in this business with as much decency & politeness, as the nature thereof will admit, & not proceed to the last Extremity, unless compelld thereto by a repeated refusal on the Doctor’s part, to comply with the Order for the return, or to submit to the Arrest in his own House.”

Jonathan Pugh served as a sergeant in the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion from June 1776 until he became an ensign in the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment in January 1777. Promoted to lieutenant that April and wounded at the Battle of Brandywine that September, he transferred to the Invalid Corps in October 1778. Pugh assumed the duties of adjutant in June 1779, rose to captain lieutenant that November, and remained in the army until the end of the war.

5Nicola may refer to William Smith (1746–1822), who graduated from Princeton in 1766 before earning a medical degree from the College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania) in 1771. Congress had appointed him to serve as Continental druggist at Philadelphia on 20 Aug. 1776 (see JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 5:673).

6Nicola again wrote GW from Philadelphia on 6 Nov.: “Capt. Stoddart has communicated to me the sentence of the court martial on Dr Sharp & your Excellencies opinion thereon, by which I find I have unwittingly run counter to some of your orders, possibly, not only against the spirit, but often against the letter thereof, owing, I assure you, to my being unacquainted with such orders as you may think requisite for the good government of the army.

“Permit me to represent to you the inconvenience I labour under from the remoteness of my situation, which prevents my knowing what orders you issue respecting the conduct of officers in general. My only guide is the resolves of Congress, and, occasionally, particular directions from the Board of war, where these fail I am governed by such principles of discipline as I have imbibed from long practice, but as it is requisite, for the good of the service, uniformity should run though the whole, it would give me particular satisfaction if I could, through some of the Gentlemen in Col. Scammels office, receive copies of such orders as your Excellency has, or may hereafter issue for the good government of the army in general.

“Nations that have long supported standing armies may be supposed to have formed laws for the government thereof, founded on reason and experience; and it is to be presumed the similitude of laws, customs & manners between the Americans & Brittish renders those of the latter best adapted to the former, but localities and peculiar circumstances may require deviations therefrom, which it is the duty of every officer to adhere to strictly, & I assure you I shall not be deficient in this point, but where those do not guide me I suppose I shall not be deficient if I follow the latter.

“As to the particular case of Dr Sharp, had he, instead of an absolute refusal, informed me, in writing or verbally, that he could not receive any men into the hospital in consequence of orders from Dr Shippen, I should have applied to the Doctor, & I presume received such information as would have prevented all further trouble, but I was unacquainted with the Directors orders ’till the time of trial, except a report that he had given directions no Invalid should be received into the hospital; an exclusion I conceived unjustifiable.

“I hope a desire of being properly instructed & of acting right will be a sufficient appology for the trouble I give your Excellency” (ALS, DLC:GW). Benjamin Stoddert, Board of War secretary and former captain in an Additional Continental Regiment, communicated Dr. James Boyd Sharpe’s court-martial sentence (see n.1 above).

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