Friday, January 17, 2014

Is it time to save Camp Letterman?

While other Civil War battles were as bloody as Gettysburg, the three days spent in mutual butchery here was unmatched throughout the Civil War in sheer numbers.  After the killing,  both armies moved to the west, Lee in advance, desperately trying to get across the Potomac, and followed slowly, cautiously, by General George G. Meade.  Behind them lay a Battlefield which saw three days of fighting resulting in a combination of 51,000 dead, wounded, captured or missing from both sides. 

The wily General Lee had sent most of his wounded and his prisoners west the day before, over South Mountain along the Chambersburg Pike, the same road most of his army used to get to Gettysburg.

But several thousand Confederate wounded remained behind, prisoners of the victorious Union Army of the Potomac.  Some were found in barns and farm houses made into hospitals by the Confederates, others were still being found on the Battlefield, while others had been captured after being wounded in the many assaults made by the Army of Northern Virginia during the great battle fought here.  Still others had been taken in by the residents of the town, and the surrounding farms.

Treatment of the wounded during the Civil War was, put simply, horrible, brutal, and likely the inadvertent killer of many wounded who might have survived if their wounds had been treated more antiseptically.  

The Chief Medical Director for the Army of the Potomac, Major Jonathan Letterman, had been given a free hand in 1862 by General George B. McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, to reorganize the Medical Department.  Later, at Battle of Antietam and still later at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Letterman's innovative reorganizations were responsible for the ultimate recovery of many of the wounded who, without those changes, would have died.

Letterman organized regimental aid stations that would funnel the more seriously wounded back to Brigade, Division Field Hospitals and Corps Hospitals farther behind the lines.  He organized the Ambulance Corps after transferring control of it from the Quartermaster Corps, to augment his system which was later adopted by the US Army as standard field medical practice.  This was a new system of triage which is the basis for mass trauma treatment prioritization being used today on battlefields around the world. 

At Gettysburg, Letterman remained behind after the battle to supervise the treatment of the more than 20,000 wounded, more than 14,000 of which were Union soldiers.   Below is the location of the Letterman Army Hospital at Gettysburg:

Camp Letterman was located on the George Wolf farm on the south side of York Pike just east of Rock Creek.  It sits mostly vacant, though a Hotel and a Giant grocery store, on the south end and a shopping center on the north side are likely also sitting on the site, at least partially.  Across US 30 [York Pike], is a set of railroad tracks.  Bodies and wounded able to travel were sent east on this line to hospitals in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Baltimore and Washington.  Families came to  Camp Letterman to see their wounded loved ones, and sometimes to escort the wounded, or the dead back home. 

Camp Letterman was constructed of large tents.  Here is a Library of Congress image of one of the tents at Camp Letterman.

Note the decorative evergreen garland above the opening of the tent.  While the decoration was a nice touch, the smell of the evergreen was the main purpose of the garland.    Tents full of wounded men were not the sweetest smelling places.

It is time to include this place in the National Park System, as part of Gettysburg National Military Park.  Let's work on organizing an effort to raise the funds to purchase this very historic parcel.  Perhaps the Civil War Trust will take the reins of this effort.

Let's spread the word to add Camp Letterman to GNMP.


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