William Burnet Heals Continental Veterans
William Burnet was a physician who dedicated a substantial amount of his money and time to build a hospital for Continental Army veterans.
Burnet also served in the Continental Congress and as Physician and Surgeon General for the Eastern Region.
After attending the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), William Burnet took up an apprenticeship with a physician.
Burnet mastered the art of medicine and opened a practice in Newark, NJ. Twenty-five years later he was a respected leader of his village.
As the American Revolution approached, Burnet took up the Patriot Cause.
He championed the colonists’ rights and was chosen as chairman of the Newark Committee of Safety. In this position, William was responsible for securing supplies for the State Militia in chase the need arose for the people to defend themselves against the British Army.
Surgeon General for the Eastern Region
After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, William Burnet established (with his own money) a hospital specifically for wounded soldiers.
Seeing his initiative, the Continental Congress appointed Burnet as Physician and Surgeon General for the Eastern Region. He became responsible for all medical aspects of the Continental Army from Delaware through New York.
William served in this position for three and a half years before the Medical Department was reorganized.
He was severely disappointed to learn that he had been demoted to a common surgeon.
The following month, Burnet was sent to the Continental Congress on behalf of New Jersey.
Within a year, William attempted to gain control of the position of Chief Physician and Surgeon General of the Continental Army. This would have put him in charge of the entire Medical Department.
Unfortunately for Burnet, James Craik received the job. Luckily, he replaced Craik as one of the Chief Hospital Physicians, quickly resigning from Congress in order to return to the Army.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, William Burnet carried on a lengthy correspondence with George Washington.
As Chairman of the Committee of Safety, he was, in effect, Governor of New Jersey (albeit a shadow government) until the State constitution was written.
Not long after hostilities broke out, the New Jersey Assembly declared Royal Governor William Franklin (son of Benjamin Franklin) an ‘enemy of American Liberties.’ He was arrested and told he must leave the State.
Franklin requested he be sent to Connecticut and this was approved. However, when setting out, Franklin’s guards decided to wait in Hackensack to hear further information.
Burnet contacted Washington letting him know how troublesome this was, fully expecting Franklin to escape. Washington agreed and let Burnet know the situation would be handled at once.
George wrote an intimidating letter to Captain of the guard which is interesting as the General is clearly making a threat through his legendary politeness. The letter can be read here.
There were quite a few Founding Physicians in the American Revolution. I’ve covered several of them at this point, but a few you might be interested in are Nathan Brownson, Richard Bayley, Nathaniel Scudder, and Declaration Signer Benjamin Rush.
I highly suggest you check out ‘Medicine and the American Revolution’ which takes an extremely interesting, and important, view of the Revolutionary War. Get it from your library or through our affiliate link below.
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