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Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wounded at Gettysburg

From: AmericanCivilWar.com
Over 30,000 soldiers of both armies lay wounded in temporary field hospitals at the close of the Battle of Gettysburg. In every sense of the word, these were not real hospitals at all, but private homes and buildings which afforded some shelter and a nearby source of water. Every barn, church, warehouse, and outbuilding within a ten mile radius of Gettysburg was filled with suffering men, so many that they could not all be attended to at once. Surgeons from the various regiments worked for days without rest to treat the wounded and medical supplies were hurried to the scene as rapidly as possible. Still, many soldiers went without care or treatment for several days. "Houses and barns, but chiefly the woods were used as hospitals and the wounded, necessarily endured much suffering," wrote Dr. Jonathan Letterman. As the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, Dr. Letterman and his staff had an overwhelming job ahead of them. Before the battle ended, Dr. Letterman ordered more medical supplies to be brought to Gettysburg and he sent his ambulance corps over the field to move the wounded into a more central medical stations called corps hospitals. Dr. Letterman was forced to leave Gettysburg with the army in the pursuit of the Confederates, but he assigned Surgeon Henry James to the task of supervising the gathering and treatment of all the wounded in the area.
The first task was gathering all of the wounded into central field hospitals where adequate water supplies could be found, treatment could be rendered and wounds dressed. Further surgery could also be performed at these hospitals until the wounded could be taken to Gettysburg where they could be transported by railroad to hospitals in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. A central hospitalwas established on the York Pike east of Gettysburg and near the railroad and named Camp Letterman after Dr. Letterman. Wounded soldiers were taken from the field hospitals by horse-drawn ambulances to the new camp where they were housed in large canvas tents. Unlike the rigors of a field hospital, the new camp had cots with clean sheets and pillows. Nurses were assigned to each of the tents and surgeons stayed busy around the clock treating the more serious cases. Food was plentiful and the camp was remarkable for its sanitation. Cases considered too serious to move remained at the camp while an average of 800 men per day were shipped by rail to hospitals in northern cities.
Many of the nurses at Camp Letterman were women who were members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and U.S. Christian Commission, organizations formed in the north for the benefit of Union soldiers wounded in battle. Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, was not at Gettysburg, but many women like her were. They put in long hours in the hospital wards, aiding the sick and injured soldiers, both Union and Confederate.
Surgical operations continued on the most serious cases at Camp Letterman. A visitor to the hospital witnessed the most gruesome of treatments in a surgeon's tent:
"In the operating tent, the amputation of a very bad looking leg was witnessed. The surgeons had been laboring since the battle to save the leg, but it was impossible. The patient, a delicate looking man, was put under the influence of chloroform, and the amputation was performed with great skill by a surgeon who appeared to be quite accustomed to the use of his instruments. After the arteries were tied, the amputator scraped the end and edge of the bone until they were quite smooth. While the scraping was going on, an attendant asked: 'How do you feel, Thompson?' 'Awful!' was the distinct and emphatic reply. This answer was returned, although the man was far more sensible of the effects of the chloroform than he was of the amputation." (excerpt from A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle, by Gregory Coco, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, 1995.)
By August 7, 1863 all of the corps and field hospitals were closed and Camp Letterman was the only hospital remaining with over 3,000 patients. Union and Confederate wounded were both treated at the camp by army doctors and personnel of the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission. Still, not all of those wounded men could be saved and many died from the results of their wounds or infection. A cemetery was established near the camp and burials took place every day. The camp remained at Gettysburg until November 1863 when the last remaining patients left, the tents were packed, and the doctors and nurses left for other battlefield hospitals.

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