For this blog on the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg and the development of Camp Letterman, I have relied heavily on my historical essay in WALK BY FAITH and research done for A TIME TO HEAL.
The battle of Gettysburg left a profound imprint on the town in the days, months, and years after hostilities ended on 3 July. If you can, imagine a community of about 2,400 people being occupied by perhaps twice as many Confederate soldiers (the total number of CSA troops involved in the battle was 75,000, but these were dispersed throughout the general area). This meant the soldiers needed food and depended on the people and the land around them for sustenance, which created a food crisis for the people of Gettysburg. Although outside assistance arrived within a few days of the battle’s end, the people were left to recover on their own and the town did not bounce back to its pre-battle prosperity.
It also meant that nearly every home and public building in the town was used to house the wounded. However, the massive number of wounded soldiers from both sides required more than the treatment they could receive at individual homes, public buildings, and army field hospitals and on 5 July 5 1863, the Headquarters for the Army of the Potomac issued a circular stating the need to establish a general hospital at Gettysburg. Part of the reason behind the circular was that Union troops had gone after General Robert E. Lee’s retreating forces, taking badly needed supplies and medical personnel with them. The large number of wounded remaining in home, civic, and church “hospitals” needed skilled treatment on a large scale. Most of those caring for the wounded at that time did not have any medical training beyond that which was necessary for family illness and injury. The majority the caregivers were women because most of the male population had vacated Gettysburg – for various reasons – prior to the battle.
Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, ordered people in his command to comply with the circular. The hospital was named after him and Letterman today is known as the “Father of Modern Battlefield Medicine.”
Meanwhile, in Gettysburg, Dr. Henry Janes had oversight of the field hospitals, which included the hospitals located in the town proper and scattered throughout the battlefield in farms. One source says Janes was dealing with a total of 20,995 soldiers, 14,193 of whom were Union and 6,802 (estimated) Confederal. That’s a LOT of people to move and consolidate. His first act was to get those who were mobile out of the town and to send them on trains to their homes or military hospitals, or in the case of Confederate soldiers, prison, which I dealt with in A TIME TO HEAL. Amazingly, about 16,800 soldiers were able to be relocated. Still, about 4,200 remained in the town.
The site for Camp Letterman was located east of Gettysburg along the York Pike. It was chosen for a few reasons. First, it was near the railroad, making it convenient for patients to be moved to other facilities when they were well enough to travel. The hospital, located on part of the George Wolf farm, also was chosen because the land there was elevated and dry, had trees to provide shade, and had a natural spring which could provide water.
Camp Letterman, which became a model for other medical camps, had over 400 hospital tents, planted 10 feet apart and organized in rows. Each tent could hold ten patients. When the weather cooled during the fall, each tent had a stove to provide heat. Medical officers were responsible for 40-70 patients and were aided by around 40 female nurses.
Other tents at the site housed a mess hall and cooking facility; operating rooms, a morgue, and embalming stations; and quarters for support staff, surgeons, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and the U.S. Christian Commission. Not surprisingly, the location also contained a hospital graveyard. When all was said and done, it held 1200 graves, about two-thirds of which were the final resting place of Confederate soldiers.
The hospital opened for patients in mid-July 1863. Considering the destruction done to Gettysburg’s railroad and telegraph lines, this is an amazing feat. That said, to those living in the town and trying to care for and feed the wounded, it must have seemed like an eternity. Food shortages and lack of other supplies put undue stressed on already stressed town people. (Read A TIME TO HEAL to get a sense of what this might have been like.)
Camp Letterman’s patient population dropped to 1,600 by the end of August. By late October the number of patients stood at 300, and by 10 November, only 100 remained at the hospital. The facility closed on 20 November 1863, day the day after the Soldiers’ Cemetery was dedicated by President Lincoln.
The camp was then dismantled after that. Nurse Sophronia E. Bucklin, who watched the activity, noted, “the hospital tents were removed—each bare and dust-trampled space marking where corpses had lain after death-agony was passed, and where the wounded had groaned in pain. Tears filled my eyes when I looked on that great field, so checkered with the ditches that had drained it dry. So many of them I had seen depart to the silent land; so many I had learned to respect …” Hours, days, and months of medical care, worry, and human connection was disappearing.
Indeed, Camp Letterman almost disappeared due to contemporary suburban expansion. As you can see from the map above (prepared under the supervision of Curt Musselman of the National Park Service), A Giant Foods supermarket, a Hilton Garden Inn, and other signs of 20th and 21st century life have encroached on the location. Please note: the Mobile Home Park is no longer there. The good news some folks are working to preserve what remains in memory of the soldiers, medical staff, and nurses who were there.
What is remarkable to me about Camp Letterman was the quick response to the crisis of the large number of wounded with scant medical care and the construction and organization of a large field hospital. For 1863, it was an amazing feat and the site deserves to be preserved for future generations.
If you’d like to take a tour of the camp, please visit Licensed Battlefield Guide Phil Lechak’s websites. They contain photos, videos, and more if you’re a hard-core military history buff or just curious about Camp Letterman.
Phil Lechak’s initial site is: https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/camp-letterman-part-1/. There are more, and it’s great stuff.