Surgeon John McDowell

Surgeon John McDowell
The Society of the Cincinnati, The Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection

John, the son of the Reverend Alexander and Alice (Craighead) McDowell, was born in Cecil County, Maryland, in 1750. He was a student of medicine at the College of Philadelphia but on 9 January 1776 was commissioned First Lieutenant in Captain David Grier’s Company of the Sixth Pennsylvania Battalion, Colonel William Irvine [an Original Member of the Society]. The battalion’s chief service was in the Canadian Campaign of 1777-1777, and it suffered heavily at Chambly and Trois Rivières. It was this battalion which formed the rear guard of the retreating American Army at Crown Point. In turn they withdrew to Fort Ticonderoga and finally were mustered out at Carlisle in March 1777.

The successor to the Sixth Battalion was the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. Colonel Irvine again was named commander but remained a prisoner in Canada; consequently, his subordinates moved up a rank and McDowell’s company commander, Grier, was made Lt. Colonel and really commanded the regiment in Irvine’s absence. McDowell himself was promoted to Captain of the eighth company on 20 March 1777. During this time the regiment saw action at Middlebrook, New Jersey (June 1777), Brandywine (11 September 1777), Paoli (20 September 1777),Germantown (4 October 1777) and Whitemarsh (December 1777). The regiment wintered at Valley Forge 1777-1778, and on 1 February 1778 Captain McDowell wrote to General Wayne,

As Surgeons are extreamly scarce in our Army; and the Regiments, many of them suffering for want of them – And as the Regiments, from their Smallness, have no Necessity for so many Officers as they now contain: I have determined with Your Permission, to go into the Medical lines, as Surgeon to the 6th Pennsylva. Regt. I hope as I am not quitting the Service of my Country; but only leaving one Office to serve in another, which in my Opinion, with Respect to the present State of the Army, is more necessary; Your Honor will please to accept of this as a Resignation of my Captaincy in the 7th Pennsylva. Regt….

McDowell did become Surgeon of the Sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, Lt. Colonel Josiah Harmar [an Original Member of the Society], and held this post until 17 January 1781. During this time the Sixth operated chiefly in New Jersey; it was at Stony Point on 16 July 1779. By December 1780 the regiment was encamped at Morristown where McDowell joined other medical men of the military in petitioning Congress for the same benefits in land, half-pay and depreciation allowances which were granted to officers of the Line. In January his regiment joined the general mutiny and was afterwards a paper regiment, but when the Pennsylvania Line was re-formed on 17 January 1781 Dr. McDowell remained as Surgeon of the Sixth Regiment. He was in the South with Wayne, and was one of the jolly party who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with Lt. William Feltman [an Original Member of the Society] near Charleston in March 1782. This and its consequences have already been described. When the Pennsylvania Line in the South was re-formed by Wayne into a single regiment in November 1782, Dr. McDowell remained as its Surgeon. In the final arrangement of the Pennsylvania Line on 1 January 1783 McDowell became Surgeon of the Second Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel Richard Humpton [an Original Member of the Society], and returned home in June.

When the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania was being organized in Philadelphia Dr. McDowell signed not only the “Barracks Roll” of the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment in August 1783, but also the “Parchment Roll” and the “Pay Order of 1784.”

At about this time Dr. McDowell married Martha, daughter of Alexander and Martha Johnston of New London, Chester County; she was the sister of Colonel Francis Johnston [an Original Member of the Society] of the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment. On 13 February 1784 McDowell was appointed by the Supreme Executive Council Surgeon of the “troops required by Congress for the protection of the North Western frontiers,…”, shortly to be known as Harmar’s “First American Regiment”. The Doctor’s Mate was Richard Allison [an Original Member of the Society]. Little is known specifically of McDowell’s actual experiences and service in this regiment. He spent much of his time at Fort Harmar at the mouth of the Muskingum River which after 1785 became the army’s headquarters, and he was certainly there on 9 August 1787 when Lt. Ebenezer Denny addressed a letter to him. In 1788 Dr. McDowell resigned his commission; Colonel Harmar wrote him on 21 May from Fort Pitt,

I have received your letter of the 20th of May, inclosing your commission and a letter for Captain [Erkuries] Beatty [an Original Member of the Society]. He left this place yesterday for Venango, but will be here again next Sunday; your letter shall be delivered to him. Be assured, sir, that I wish you all possible happiness a civil life can afford,…

Dr. McDowell returned to Chester County where he is found in New London Township in the census of 1790, with one other male over sixteen years of age, three males under sixteen, four females and one slave. In about 1809 or 1810 he removed for a stay of undetermined length to Westmoreland County. Thereafter he migrated to Steubenville, Ohio, where he died in 1825. John and Martha (Johnston) McDowell were the parents of five children, of whom the eldest was John, who left issue.