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Dr. James Craik: Washington's "Compatriot in Arms, Old and Intimate Friend"

By the end of George Washington's life, he had lost several friends. Notable among them was George Mason. He also detested Thomas Jefferson and refused to refer to him as anything other than "that man." Despite former friends and a growing number of political adversaries, Washington had no shortage of admirers. After his presidency, strangers made pilgrimages to Mount Vernon to see "The General" or "His Excellency." Washington and his wife, Martha, were cordial and received these visitors with hospitality.


But amid the sea of admirers, who did Washington consider his friends? And out of his friends, was there one that could claim to be the closest? Did George Washington have a best friend?


There is a man that can arguably claim the title of Washington's closest friend. That man is Dr. James Craik. By the time Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797, Dr. Craik was only a short distance from Washington in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Craik was George Washington's personal physician. Beyond being Washington's doctor, Craik was a close confidante, business partner, and fellow veteran of two wars. By the time of Washington's death on December 14, 1799, Craik and Washington had known each other for 45 years.


Dr. James Craik was born in 1730 and grew up in Dumfries, Scotland. He received a formal education in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. At the age of 20, Craik immigrated to the West Indies and served in the British army as a surgeon. However, he continued to move around and soon made his way to the Virginia colony. He first settled in Norfolk, Virginia and later moved to the western frontier. By 1754, Craik lived in a small, but growing frontier town called Winchester, Virginia.[1]  


Craik's move to Winchester was a critical decision that thrust him into a brimming conflict on the colonial America frontier. The conflict was between the empires of Britain and France and escalated into the French and Indian War or Seven Years War. At the outset of the conflict, Craik joined the Virginia Provincial Regiment as a surgeon in March 1754. This was the first time that he met George Washington, who was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment.[2]


Under the command of George Washington, the Virginia Regiment fought against French forces in western Pennsylvania. The skirmishing in the backcountry culminated in a loss for Washington and his regiment at Fort Necessity on July 4, 1754.


Nearly one year after the defeat at Fort Necessity, Washington and Craik served in the Braddock Expedition. Major General Edward Braddock arrived in Alexandria, Virginia in March 1755 with two regiments of British regulars. Under Braddock's command, the British launched a military campaign against the French, who were stationed at Fort Duquesne near modern day Pittsburgh.[3]


Unfortunately for Braddock and the British, the expedition failed to achieve its military objectives. On July 9, 1755, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock's forces at the Battle of the Monongahela. The ambush resulted in 900 British casualties. In the aftermath of Braddock's defeat, the French position on America's western frontier, which was then known as the Ohio Country, was solidified for several years.[4]


While the Braddock Expedition was disastrous for the British, it elevated the profile of both Washington and Craik. George Washington, who served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Braddock, helped organize a withdrawal of Braddock's forces. In the process, he was shot through his coat four times without being hit and had two horses shot from under him.


Meanwhile, Dr. Craik was busy trying to save Braddock. Craik attended to the general in the last days of his life. Despite his best efforts, General Braddock died on July 13, 1755. Braddock was buried underneath a wagon road in western Pennsylvania. His remaining troops rode their wagon convoy over Braddock's hasty grave to hide it from the French and Indians. Moreover, Dr. Craik continued to serve in the Virginia Regiment until 1762. During that seven year period, the British were able to avenge their losses, recapture Fort Duquesne, and win the French and Indian War.[5][6]


After the French and Indian war ended in 1763, Washington and Craik continued to deepen both their personal and professional relationship. Most notably, they surveyed lands on the western frontier in 1770. During this time, colonial Americans looked west and saw the frontier as a land of wealth and opportunity. As veterans of the French and Indian War, Washington and Craik had been promised land for their service. However, the British backtracked on their promise to the American colonists. Instead, they negotiated a Royal Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from settling west of the Alleghany Mountains.[7]


The French and Indian War set in motion the events that led to America's revolution against the British monarchy. It was not only the system of taxes that were implemented but also the subordination of American colonists by British policies.


The culmination of these policies and the feeling of being second class citizens led to a document presented in Alexandria, Virginia on July 18, 1774. This document is known as the Fairfax Resolves. Its primary author was George Mason, and George Washington chaired the assembly that oversaw its passage. The first resolve bluntly states:

1. Resolved that this Colony and Dominion of Virginia can not be considered as a conquered Country; and if it was, that the present Inhabitants are the Descendants not of the Conquered, but of the Conquerors.[8]

Prior to the Revolutionary War and in the same year as the Fairfax Resolves, Craik welcomed a son into his family. After two decades of knowing each other, Craik clearly felt a deep friendship and strong admiration for George Washington. Like many of Washington's friends and admirers, Craik named his son after him. Thus, George Washington Craik was born January 22, 1774.[9]


The following year, George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army and began his service during the siege of Boston on July 3, 1775. By 1777 the American Revolution was fully underway. Washington had led his army in the ten crucial days that included the momentous battles at Trenton (December 26, 1776) and Princeton (January 3, 1777). After the Battle of Princeton, the Continental Army settled into winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. On April 26, 1777, General Washington offered Dr. Craik a post as Assistant Director General in the middle department of hospitals. In his letter to Craik, Washington said he was offering Craik the position as a "friend." However, he did not want the doctor to feel pressured into service if his personal and professional obligations made it difficult to do so.[10]


When Washington wrote his letter, Craik was living in Port Tobacco, Maryland. On May 13, 1777, Craik replied gratefully that he would accept the position as Assistant Director General. Thus, Dr. Craik's service in the American Revolution began in 1777 and continued for six years until 1783.[11]


Dr. Craik was a major asset to the American fight for independence. Most doctors were not formally educated like Craik. As a result, Dr. Craik's expertise was sought at pivotal moments to include the aftermath of the Battle of Brandywine when a young Frenchmen named Lafayette was wounded in the leg. This is the famous instance in which Washington supposedly said to treat Lafayette as if he were "my son."[12]


On January 6, 1778, Craik sent a letter to Washington, who was camped with his army at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. In the letter, Craik offered Washington insight into a plot to overturn his command, which is known historically as the infamous "Conway Cabal." In the letter, Craik wrote plainly to Washington, "You are not wanting in Secret enemies who would Rob you of the great and truly deserved esteem your Country has for you." With the help of Craik and other friends, the plot to upend Washington's command was snuffed out by February 1778.[13]


Dr. Craik was eventually promoted as Chief Physician and Surgeon of the Continental Army. Washington's trust and confidence in Craik led to another important assignment that included establishing hospitals for French forces in Rhode Island. Dr. Craik served in this capacity until 1781 at which point he joined the march south to Yorktown, Virginia. During the siege of Yorktown, Dr. Craik built the hospital system that would support the medical needs of Washington's army. Thus, he was present for the culminating battle of the war that would secure American military victory, and, thus, solidify independence for the new American nation.[14]


In the aftermath of the American Revolution, General Washington and Dr. Craik returned to their private lives. Washington resigned his commission on December 23, 1783 in Annapolis, Maryland. Dr. Craik's serviced ended that same year. After a few months rest, Washington's mind turned west again. As a result, he sent a letter to Craik expressing his desire to survey western lands and said, "I should be very glad of your company." Craik was eager to join his friend on another expedition west, which occurred in September and October of 1784. This trip is notable because it also included Washington's nephew, Bushrod Washington and another one of Dr. Craik's sons named William. [15]


Several years later, George Washington was elected president of the nation that was now formed under the U.S. Constitution, which had been ratified in the summer of 1788. Washington had also served as president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Thus, he became the natural choice to be president and assumed this role at his inauguration on April 30, 1789 in New York City.


During the time of Washington's presidency, Dr. Craik lived and ran his medical practice in Alexandria, Virginia. The two friends continued to correspond with one another. In particular, Craik showed concern for Washington's health. Early in his presidency, Washington was afflicted with two major medical issues including a tumor in his leg, which had to cut out. The following year, 1790, Washington suffered from both pneumonia and influenza.[16]


While Washington was mostly away from Mount Vernon during his presidency. Dr. Craik continued to support him by caring for the people living at Mount Vernon. The majority of the people were Washington's slaves, who continued to work on the property under the supervision of farm overseers. While Craik was not present with Washington, his son, George Washington Craik, served as secretary during Washington's second term in office.[17]


After Washington's presidency, Dr. Craik continued to care for the sick at Mount Vernon to include both family and enslaved laborers. In the last two years of Washington's life from 1797 until his death on December 14, 1799, Washington records in his diary dozens of instances of Craik dining with him at Mount Vernon. Indeed, Craik visited Mount Vernon several times each month.


Historic Tavern
Location of former Wise's and Kemp's Tavern in Old Town Alexandria, VA

While making trips to Alexandria, Washington saw Dr. Craik as well. Washington's important trips to Alexandria included celebrating his birthday balls in February of 1798 and 1799. Washington also attended a celebration of America's Independence Day at Kemp's Tavern on July 4, 1799. This was the same tavern in which Washington celebrated the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and his election as president on April 16, 1789.


After Washington's presidency, he was again called back into service during the Quasi War with France. As a result of the infamous XYZ affair and French privateering, there was a strong fear that full scale war with France was inevitable. Thus, President Adams selected George Washington to be general-in-chief of the army. This is a lesser known incident in Washington's life. He made suggestions on organizing the army, but did not get mired in the details. However, one appointment that he oversaw was that of Dr. James Craik. Washington selected his friend and doctor to be Physician General of the army. Dr. Craik assumed this post until June 15, 1800. Yet again Washington turned to his friend to join him in service to his country.[18]


Washington's selection of Craik to serve as Physician General was one of the last times that he asked his friend for help. But, it was not the final time. By mid-December 1799, the weather at Mount Vernon turned cold as snow and sleet fell across Washington's farms. Nevertheless, Washington rode out in the bad weather to inspect his farms. On the evening of December 12, he sat down to dine while still in his wet clothes from riding. The following day, December 13, he began to feel sick and the feeling lingered until he went to bed. In the early morning of December 14, his sickness became worse and he awoke sometime around 2 or 3 a.m. struggling to breathe.[19]


In the morning, Martha Washington sent for Dr. Craik in Alexandria. By the time Dr. Craik arrived, Washington had already been bled by George Rawlins, who was an overseer of one of Washington's farms. Bloodletting or bleeding was a common practice in the 18th century. It was a procedure that was believed to purge the body of bad bacteria and germs. In Washington's case, he was diagnosed with quincy, which is known today as epiglottitis. In plain terms, he had an infection of the throat and was suffocating to death. Washington thought the bleeding was necessary and ordered for it to begin before his doctors arrived.[20]


209 Prince Street
209 Prince Street is a home in Alexandria, VA where both Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick and Dr. Craik lived in the 18th century

Dr. Craik assessed the situation as dire. He continued to oversee several more iterations of bleeding. At the same time, he sent for additional help. Doctors Elisha Cullen Dick and Gustavus Brown arrived at separate times, but offered their assistance. Doctors Dick and Craik both lived in Alexandria at that time. In fact, Dick lived in the same house that Craik had previously lived in on 209 Prince Street. At that time, Craik had moved one block away to a beautiful Federal-style home on 210 Duke Street.[21]


The doctors continued to bleed Washington as was common practice. At one point, Dr. Dick recommended a tracheotomy. However, Washington had become so weak that the doctors deemed it too risky. In total, Washington was bled four pints of blood, which would have been the equivalent of 40% of his blood supply. Despite the loss of blood and his inability to breathe, Washington held himself with amazing stoicism. He thanked his doctors for their service, which was a remarkable gesture of compassion and selflessness that he exhibited in the last moments of his extraordinary life.[22]


Finally, Washington called his secretary, Tobias Lear, to his side and made his final request which was not to be buried until at least three days after his death. He did not want to be buried alive. When Lear acknowledged the request, Washington uttered his last two words, "'Tis well" then died.[23]


Dr. Craik was devastated by the loss of his friend. According to Lear, Craik was "absorbed in grief." For Craik, he watched more than the passing of our nation's first president and most gifted general. He watched the death of a trusted friend. He had done all he could and must have taken solace in Washington's final appreciation of his service. Furthermore, Washington's will described Dr. Craik as "My companion in Arms and old and intimate friend."[24]


The two men had lived through a lot since 1754. They had bravely served in two major wars and survived some of the most dire moments during each one of them. Dr. Craik was convinced that Washington's survival during the Braddock Expedition meant that he was protected by a divine power. That higher power carried Washington through eight and a half years as commander-in-chief of the American army. But, on December 14, 1799, Washington's life ended at the age of 67. Moments before his death, George Washington turned to Craik and said, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go."[25]


Dr. Craik's service to Washington did not end with his friends death. He continued to take care of Washington's widow, Martha, until she died on May 22, 1802. After Martha's death, Craik lived almost twelve years longer until his death on February 6, 1814 at the age of 84. He was older than Washington by two years and had outlived him by nearly 15.

Dr. Craik Grave
Dr. Craik's Grave at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, VA

Unlike George Washington, Dr. Craik was a Presbyterian. As a first generation American from southern Scotland, Presbyterianism was an important part of Craik's life. He attended the First Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, which is known today as the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. In fact, Dr. Craik is interred in the burial ground of the Presbyterian church. His headstone is prominently displayed on the north side of the sanctuary adjacent to a walkway that leads to the open burial ground. After Washington's death, there were four memorial services held for him at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. It was closer to the center of town than Washington's own church, which is today called Christ Church Episcopal.


Furthermore, Dr. Craik's burial in the Old Presbyterian Meeting House burial ground is significant as it is the final resting spot of at least 27 Patriots of the American Revolution including a soldier known but to God. Thus, Dr. Craik is laid to rest beside many of his fellow veterans, who fought to secure America's independence. George Washington is interred at his families tomb at Mount Vernon. Craik lays at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, which is only a block from his home on 210 Duke Street. Thus, the two friends are laid to rest nearly the same distance from where they lived in 1799.[26]


Dr. Craik was more than George Washington's personal physician. They were close friends. George Washington trusted Craik. This trust and friendship was forged in the hardship of two wars and through the threat of a third. After each war, they worked together to survey and build their vision of America as a land of prosperity and freedom. In the book Washington's Circle: The Creation of the President, authors David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler write, "Craik was Washington's most enduring friend, vigilant to threats and supportive in times of need, spending a lifetime looking after the health of Washington, his friends, and family" (Heidler and Heidler, 2015).[27]


While Dr. Craik served with Washington and knew him for almost 45 years, he is not well known historically. However, he should be. Dr. James Craik was more than simply Washington's friend and physician. He is an American Patriot, whose service and sacrifice helped secure the blessings of liberty that Americans enjoy today.



The Craik House
210 Duke Street: The former home of Dr. James Craik

Sources:



[2] Expedition to the Ohio, 1754: Narrative,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0004-0002 






[7] “[October 1770],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0005-0027 



[9] Boyhood Memories of Dr. James Craik, D.D., L.L.D. Rector of Christ Church, Louisville, Ky., 38 Years. (1938). The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 46(2), 135–145. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4244856


[10] “From George Washington to James Craik, 26 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0256. 


[11] “To George Washington from James Craik, 13 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0404.


[12] Chernow, Ron. (2010). Washington: A Life. Penguin Books.


[13] “To George Washington from James Craik, 6 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0126.      



[15] “From George Washington to James Craik, 10 July 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0350.






[20] Horn, Jonathan (2020). Washington's End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle. Scribner.


[21] Ibid.


[22] Ibid.



[24] McGroarty, W. B. (1946). The Death of Washington. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 54(2), 152–156. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4245403




[27] Heidler and Heidler David S. and Jeanne T. (2015). Washington's Circle: The Creation of the President. Penguin Random House.


Title Quote comes from George Washington's Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799

“George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001.

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