The Methodist Camp Meeting (1819) By Jacques Gérard Milbert (1766-1840) - Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USZ62-2497), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=376417
Perhaps one of the stranger things someone encounters in Saint Maggie is the Methodist camp meeting. Most contemporary readers – and especially those who do not have a relationship with a church, much less a Methodist church – will wonder why a group of people would trek out into the wilderness, put up tents, and participate in worship services and hear preachers for a week or longer.
As I wrote in the “Definitions and Bible References” section of Saint Maggie, a camp meeting is “an event usually held in the woods or a field provided by a farmer. Participants camped out for one to three weeks, listened to preaching and exhortations, sang hymns, and took part in prayer meetings. Some camp meeting grounds still exist, and some are still in operation, such as the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in Ocean Grove, NJ.” (Saint Maggie, p. 271)
Camp meetings grew out of “spontaneous all-night camp meetings” that sprang up in what is now the state of Kentucky in 1799.” https://southwellfleet.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/south-wellfleet-methodists-and-camp-meetings/ This was the beginning of what is known as the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through the young nation. (In case you’re wondering, the First Great Awakening is a series of revivals that caught fire in Great Britain and its the colonies during the 1730s and 1740s.)
These long-form revivals were events that happened usually late in the summer (August) to coincide with the farming cycle and were attended by churches that had an evangelical orientation, such as the Methodists. In the 1800s the term “evangelical” meant someone or some church that focused primarily on preaching and trying to live by the “Good News.” The “Good News” is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and was resurrected to save humans from sin and evil, and justify them (aka, line them up) with how God’s wants them to be and live.
Maggie is this kind of an evangelical. In Saint Maggie, and during a camp meeting she becomes convicted that she will live by the “law of love," something that comes from Jesus’ statement that the two greatest commandments – on which all the other commandments are based – are 1) loving God with everything you’ve got, and 2) loving others as you love yourself. This is what Maggie strives to do, sometimes with greater success, and sometimes flopping miserably on her face.
In short, camp meetings are meant to revive and refresh the faithful.
While I was writing Saint Maggie, I found a handbook on Camp Meetings. Oh, those nineteenth-century folk! How they loved handbooks and manuals. This one is called A Camp Meeting Manual, a Practical Book for the Camp Ground; in Two Parts, by Rev. B.W. Gorham, published by H.V. Degen in Boston, 1854. I used the book to write the description of the camp meeting Maggie attends. I went into a great deal of detail in the novel, but I wanted to paint a picture of what a camp meeting might have been like for today's readers. The excerpt is below.
Since I’ll be up on Cape Cod this week, I think I will make a visit to at least one location where camp meetings were held. Years ago, I did some research on a Methodist pastor who lived in the New York City area. I immersed myself in his journals, and they revealed that he took several trips to the Cape to attend camp meetings there. In fact, that fellow was a camp meeting fanatic! It would be fun to visit the Eastham location or the South Wellfleet location to get some photos, if I can.
Anyway, I hope I’ll have a fun blog on Friday, gentle readers!
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!
In the final part of this series, we look at the implications of breaking the law on the side of compassion. Frankie and Lydia thought they had arranged Caleb’s escape so that no one would notice. But their plan was not fool-proof and resulted in unintended consequences.
Eli arrived at our interview early, saying his stepdaughters would be arriving shortly.
Eli [sniffs the air]: Mm… is that coffee?
Janet: Yes, it is. Would you like some?
Eli: How did you get coffee? It’s as scarce as a hen’s teeth these days.
Janet: Different time stream. [pours cup of coffee]
Eli: What’s that?
Janet: Don’t ask, Mr. Smith.
Eli: Call me Eli. May I call you Janet?
Janet: Of course.
Eli [points]: What’s that thing? The thing you got the coffee from?
Janet: A coffee maker. Would you care for cream or sugar?
Eli: Both, please. And I like my coffee rather sweet, please. [frowns] A coffee maker? Egad! Where's your tin pot? Where's the stove? The wood? The fire?
Janet: Don’t think about it too much.
Eli: Ah. I see. You’re the author, aren’t you?
Janet: I am. I’d like to talk to you about the time Capt, Frost and several soldiers showed up at your house in Middletown.
Eli: I don't know why. You already know what happened, don't you?
Janet: I do. But I’d like you to tell the readers how things looked from your point of view.
Eli [grins]: Oh, so you’re a lazy author.
Janet: Very funny.
Eli: My wife likes my jokes.
Janet: She’s a saint.
Eli: I see what you’re doing. Saint Maggie. Ha. [grins again] Just remember who coined that phrase, my dear author.
Janet: I don't think you'll let me forget.
Lydia and Frankie hurry in.
Lydia: Sorry we’re late.
Frankie: Coffee! May I have some?
Janet: Of course. [pouring coffee for both sisters] I’d like to jump to Middletown. August 4, 1863, if you don't mind. The family living in Gettysburg has paid a visit and has just left, leaving you, Lydia, behind. And you, Frankie, have been living in Middletown with your mother and stepfather, as well as Gideon Opdyke, and Nate and Emily Johnson.
Frankie: Yes. Mama and Papa said I was too young to live on my own. [gives Eli a cool glance] They're wrong, of course.
Eli [sipping coffee]: Mm. No, we're not.
Frankie: My beau, Patrick was there, too.
Eli: And now you know why she needs to be chaperoned.
Frankie [rolls her eyes]: He was recovering from a war wound. He had been shot in the leg.
Lydia: He surprised a very nervous Union sentry.
Frankie: And of course, the children – Bob and Natey – were living in MIddletown, too.
Lydia: We're a rather large group of family and friends when all is said and done.
Eli: Capt. Frost had bullied Matilda into telling him where Lydia went. He came tearing up our drive that morning. Four soldiers on horseback were with him. And one was driving the team pulling a wagon.
Frankie: Little Natey was right in the path of the wagon. Mama raced out and pulled him away just in time, tripped, and fell down as the wagon passed.
Lydia: Our mother is expecting a baby, so we immediately were concerned that she or the baby might have been injured.
Eli: Nate and Emily’s little boy was more scared than hurt. Maggie had twisted her ankle but otherwise was fine. As for the baby – it’s a tough little thing and is doing what it is supposed to do. But it was a close call for all concerned.
Janet: The whole thing must have been frightening.
Eli: We didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Eli: Heck. We didn’t know what the heck was going on.
Janet: Did you have any idea why Capt. Frost was there?
Eli: None at all. Not until he told me.
Janet: Eli, was Gideon telling the truth? Did he truly desert from the Confederate Army?
Eli: Oh, yeah. He was a deserter, all right. He and his brother Lemuel lived in Blaineton, but that cad Lemuel threw his lot in with the Confederate States. Then he forced Gideon to join the C.S.A. army, too. By chance Gideon ended up wounded and in our house during the battle. When I got to the house after the fighting was over, he told me he didn’t want to be part of this bell-fired madness any longer.
Janet: So you helped him desert.
Eli [shrugs]: Why not? He was a nice fella. The straightforward kind. Said he didn’t want to fight with the C.S.A. anymore and I believed him.
Janet: How did you change his identity?
Eli: It was easy. All was in chaos immediately after the battle. We simply got rid of his uniform and dressed him in some old clothes. His unit had left with the Confederate retreat, so they didn’t give a fig where he was. Once things started calming down in Gettysburg and the Union Army took over, we brought Gideon up to Middletown where no one would be the wiser.
Janet: But you didn’t expect him to –
Eli [interrupts]: Confess? No, I didn’t.
Janet: And why did you confess to helping him?
Eli: I didn’t confess. I offered to help explain Gideon's situation. A difference in semantics to be sure, but I had no desire to go to prison or get hanged.
Janet: And yet you still ended up locked in the prison wagon with Gideon.
Eli: Obviously I hadn’t intended for that to happen.
Frankie: When the soldiers left with Papa and Gideon, I felt so guilty.
Janet: Did you regret helping Caleb desert, Frankie?
Frankie: No! It was the right thing to do.
Lydia: What we regretted was not being more careful. The day Capt. Frost came to collect the men, I should have told him that Caleb had died from disease.
Janet: You weren’t very pleased with Capt. Frost, were you?
Lydia [Laughs]: I was furious! Furious with our government for healing men and then sending them off to a prisoner of war camp. Furious with Capt. Frost for not listening to me and for being so stubborn.
Eli: But he had orders. He was a soldier and he had to do his duty.
Frankie: Yes, he did. But the problem was that our mistake could have cost you your life, Papa.
Eli: Frances, any act of compassion, or justice, or mercy can have repercussions. I figured out what you had done while in the county jail. I just hoped I would be able to explain why I had given aid to Gideon. Both our lives were at stake. Finding myself at the end of a rope was not in my plans.
Janet: And were you able to explain?
Eli [chuckles] : Well, I’m here, aren’t I? [more seriously] Actually, I had a little help at the hearing from my wife.
Frankie: And from us.
Eli: You know, I think we drove the District Provost Marshal a bit mad.
Janet: Well, we’re out of time. If our readers are interested, they may find this story – and others – in the third book of the Saint Maggie series, A Time to Heal. Thank you, Frankie, Lydia, and Eli for chatting with me.
Eli: Any time, friend. Anytime. Say, may I have more of that coffee?
Janet: Of course.
Eli: If you ever ask us back, will you promise to bring that contraption with you and boil us up another cup?
Janet: Oh, I promise.
Camp Letterman, from the Library of Congress photo archives
I continue my interview with Lydia Blaine Lape (21) and Frankie Blaine (17) from my American Civil War “Saint Maggie series.” On Monday, the young women talked about their feelings regarding Confederate soldiers and treating enemy wounded. In this part of the interview, they discuss Lt. Caleb O’Connor, a C.S.A. soldier with whom they became friends.
Janet: We left off the last time with you coming upon Lt. Caleb O’Connor as he lay pinned under two dead bodies on the battlefield.
Lydia: Lt. O’Connor had a leg wound, made all the worse because he had not received immediate attention.
Janet: That’s dangerous.
Lydia: It certainly was. I thought he might need to have the leg amputated if the infection could not be brought to heel.
Frankie: He wasn’t the only man in our wagon. We had four total. Two of them died shortly after we got them home.
Lydia: Fortunately for Lt. O’Connor, he responded well to the cleansing of his wound – it was a painful process, but I did not have to amputate. I was grateful for that. I dislike doing amputations unless a man’s life is in danger without it.
Janet: It’s usual for a young woman of 1863 to be a practicing physician.
Lydia: I was fortunate. Our town’s physician spotted my interest in and saw my aptitude for medicine and took me on as an apprentice. I had the opportunity to observe one leg amputation. But that wasn’t enough for Gettysburg.
Janet: What did you do?
Lydia: I went for help. I knew there was a hospital in the Union School, so I ran there and badgered the doctor into letting me observe and then perform a few amputations.
Janet: That was quite aggressive of you.
Lydia: Well, It was not a moment to be ladylike. We were in the midst of the battle. Also, I kept thinking of my husband Edgar. Because he did not make it, I was all the more determined to give as many men as possible the opportunity to return to their homes.
Frankie: Almost every soldier we treated had family and friends at home.
Janet: And Caleb O’Connor was one of those men who survived.
Lydia: Not only survived but thrived.
Janet: Frankie, you became especially close to him.
Frankie: I did! He told me he was from Virginia and had been in the army and away from home for a year. He was worried about his wife – her name is Lottie – and James, their baby. Caleb hadn’t heard from Lottie since May, and it was already July! [quietly] Made me realize how much I hate the war. People get killed or wounded. But even the people who aren’t in the army end up wounded one way or the other. It’s brutal and wasteful. [looks up] I asked him why he joined up.
Janet: What did he say?
Frankie: He said he did it because his country had been threatened. He didn’t own slaves. Not a one. He just wanted to protect his family. What he didn’t expect was that the war would go on for years. But, then, we all thought it would be over in a few months.
Janet: Was that conversation what made you want to help him?
Frankie: No. It made me feel sorry for him, and angry that we were all so stupid as to get into this war. What made me want to help Caleb was when I asked a question. If he could do anything right now, what would that be? And he said, “I’d leave this damn war behind.” He wanted to find his wife and little baby and get as far away from the war as he could. It broke my heart. He was just like our men in so many ways.
Janet: What did you do?
Frankie: Prayed for him. And I found my answer through that prayer.
Janet: That was a dangerous decision to make. How did you help him run away?
Lydia: We pretended Caleb had developed a fever, which I diagnosed as a communicable disease.
Frankie: We moved him from the front parlor to the back parlor, where none of the other soldiers were, and said it was for the protection of the other men.
Lydia: We did this on July 11. At that time, Lt. O’Connor had recovered enough to move on his own.
Frankie; That was also the day Capt. Philip Frost showed up at our door. He wanted to take inventory of the men in our house for the government.
Lydia: You see, there had been reports of Confederate officers walking around Gettysburg. That meant the officers might have spoken with the town's Copperheads –
Frankie [interrupts]: People opposed to the war.
Lydia: I was going to get to that Frankie. Please let me finish my sentence.
Frankie: I apologize.
Lydia [to Janet]: The government didn’t want the Copperheads sharing information with Confederate officers about our army’s locations and possible movements.
Frankie: Capt. Frost made the inventory and noted who among our patients was Union and who was Confederate. The Union and Confederate soldiers who were still bedridden from their wounds were to be sent to Camp Letterman, the tent hospital set up about a mile outside Gettysburg.
Lydia: The problem was what would be done with those who were able to walk. Union men were to be returned to their regiments but –
Frankie [interrupts]: Confederate soldiers would be sent to a prisoner of war camp!
Lydia: The prisoner exchanges between the North and South had been suspended. So, prison camps had been constructed to hold captured soldiers. We realized that we were healing Confederate soldiers so our government could put them in prison.
Frankie: Can you imagine? Healing people just to imprison them?
Lydia: We kept Caleb hidden in the back parlor. We burned his Confederate uniform and had him wear civilian clothes. On July 29, Capt. Frost moved the men out of our house. Fortunately, he did not take a headcount, and did not bother to check the back parlor because we didn't have anyone in there on his first visit. A few days later, we took a trip up to Middletown. Caleb went with us and got off when we reached the town. The plan was for him to walk up to Harrisburg, catch a train to Maryland, and make his way south.
Frankie: We don’t know what happened to him, but we hope and pray he found his wife and son.
Janet: You took an enormous risk helping an enemy prisoner escape. You could have been imprisoned or given the death penalty.
Lydia: We know.
Frankie: We know because Papa almost took the punishment.
Janet: And our readers need to hear the rest of this story, because your actions had some unintended consequences. Would it be possible to have your stepfather come with you on Friday?
Frankie: Oh, yes. He loves to talk! But you’ll have to tell him to watch his language.
Lydia [exasperated]: Frances…
Frankie: Well? He likes to use bad words. A lot.
And I'll leave you here, folks. See you on Friday with Frankie, Lydia, and their stepfather, Eli Smith.