Image from Library of Congress photos; Nurses and Patients at Camp Letterman, Gettysburg, PA
I put the following blog together in late February of 2018, but thought it was worth reprinting inasmuch as my interview with Frankie Blaine, Lydia Blaine Lape, and Eli Smith brought Camp Letterman up several times and it had played an integral part in the plot involving Caleb O'Connor.
What follows is the story of Camp Letterman during the time immediately after the Battle of Gettysburg and the time in which the tent hospital was dismantled. 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. 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 of 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 construct a central hospital to care for wounded soldiers left behind in Gettysburg. The hospital was named after him. Today Letterman is known as the “Father of Modern Battlefield Medicine.”
Meanwhile, in Gettysburg, Dr. Henry Janes had oversight of the field hospitals, which included those located in the town proper and scattered throughout the battlefield. One source says Janes was dealing with a total of 20,995 soldiers, 14,193 of whom were Union and 6,802 (estimated) Confederate. 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, to prison, a subject which I dealt with in A TIME TO HEAL. Amazingly, about 16,800 soldiers were able to be relocated. And yet, that left about 4,200 who were still in need of hospitalization.
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 to provide water.
Camp Letterman became a model for other medical camps. It 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. However, to those living in the town and trying to care for and feed the wounded, the approximately two weeks between the end of the battle and the opening of Camp Letterman must have seemed like an eternity. Food shortages and lack of other supplies put undue stress on already stressed town people. (Read A TIME TO HEAL to get a sense of what this might have been like.)
Once the wounded had been moved and were being cared for at the general hospital, Camp Letterman’s patient population began to drop. It was 1,600 by the end of August. By late October the number of patients stood at 301, 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 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 were disappearing.
Here is a picture of old footprint of Camp Letterman overlaid with that of contemporary encroachment.
All trace of Camp Letterman almost has vanished due to contemporary suburban expansion. As you can see from the map (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 been built on the camp hospital's location. Please note that the Mobile Home Park is no longer there. But there is good news: some folks are working to preserve what remains and hope to memorialize the soldiers, medical staff, and nurses there.
What is remarkable about Camp Letterman was the quick response to the crisis of a 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 on this achievement alone, 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, It's fascinating whether you’re a hard-core military history buff or simply curious about Camp Letterman.
https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/camp-letterman-part-1/. Phil Lechak’s essays.
See you on Wednesday!