Buzzing inbound to Gettysburg on busy Route 30 (a.k.a. the York Pike or the York Road), visitors headed for Gettysburg National Military Park zip past a lonely monument located diagonally across the road from Hoss’s Restaurant and McDonald’s, about halfway between both driveway entrances.
Backdropped by slightly rising fields, woods, Pennsylvania’s ubiquitous power lines, and a water tower, the monument comprises a granite monolith and an attached bronze marker.
Given the attention to driving detail that drivers must practice on the Gettysburg side of the Routes 15-30 interchange just to the east, Civil War buffs can be excused for missing this monument.
It is dedicated to the “Army of the Potomac Medical Department,” an unsung component of the politically micromanaged and militarily unlucky army that finally chocked up a “win” at Gettysburg.
Listing them by Army corps, the bronze marker identifies the “Location of the Field Hospitals During the Battle of Gettysburg.” Unlike the approximately 1,328 monuments scattered around the battlefield and town, the surviving field hospitals don’t receive much attention from visitors.
The last field hospital cited on the marker is “General Hospital Camp Letterman at the Hospital Woods on York Pike.” Named for Dr. Jonathan Letterman (identified on the marker as “Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac”), this particular facility was the only one actually designed as a hospital; all other buildings used as field hospitals during and after the battle was an existing house, church, and even a seminary.
The Medical Department monument’s location in Straban Township (not in Gettysburg proper) is important; Camp Letterman spread across 80 acres, from York Pike southeast over the rising terrain and into adjacent woods. No more than 200 feet east of where the monument stands, Army personnel constructed the Camp Letterman access road.
Medical personnel, including Maine doctors and nurses, cared for some 3,500 badly wounded men at Camp Letterman, and some Maine soldiers survived or died there.
Gettysburg left more than 20,000 soldiers wounded (many mortally). Sheer numbers overwhelmed existing medical personnel, but once Confederate troops vanished south over the mountains, doctors started evacuating wounded men who could travel by wagon or train to permanent hospitals in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.
However, the Army of the Potomac left Gettysburg to chase the Army of Northern Virginia, and George Gordon Meade took most surgeons and hospital orderlies with him in anticipation of more fighting somewhere between Gettysburg and the Potomac River. Meade’s slow pursuit let most Confederates escape and robbed the wounded left at Gettysburg of adequate medical care.
Civilian doctors and nurses soon arrived to buttress the remaining military medical personnel. By July 25, some 3,500 badly wounded men still remained at Gettysburg. Brig. Gen. Seth Williams, assistant adjutant general of the Army of the Potomac, instructed Dr. Letterman to “establish a general hospital at Gettysburg for the wounded that cannot be moved with the army.”
“Those who are obliged to remain will be quartered in a large field hospital established at a suitable place near the town, where I hope they will have all the comfort and receive all the attention and kindness to which they are so justly entitled,” noted Army medical inspector John M. Cuyler.
Army officials found a good site on the Wolf Farm, located on the York Pike near where the Gettysburg Railroad curved to the northeast near the pike. Camp Letterman “set up in a clearing between two wood lots, a larger lot on the northeast side and a smaller lot on the southwest,” said nurse Sophronia Bucklin. “The hospital lay in the rear of a deep wood, in a large open field, a mile and a half from Gettysburg, and overlooking it, the single line of rail …
“Over 500 tents were pitched in neat, orderly rows. The wounded from all of the surrounding field hospitals were eventually moved to the tents of Camp Letterman,” Bucklin recalled. “Here they were treated and cared for by members of the Army Medical Department as well as the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission.
“The hospital tents were set in rows, five hundred of them, seeming like great fluttering pairs of white wings, brooding peacefully over those up between the rows, in order that they might dry quickly after summer rains,” she said. “The ground, now sodded, soon to be hardened by many feet, was the only floor in the wards or in our quarters. The latter, with those of the surgeons, were set at the edge of the woods.”
Located so near tourist-centric Gettysburg, the extensive site has undergone some development, with 15 acres lost to a Giant Foods Shopping Center. The Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association has preserved 8 acres, “the very back part of the hospital that extended onto the Daniel Lady Farm,” according to Glen Hayes, who serves as the GBPA’s National Advisory Board.
Now the GBPA seeks to buy 17 aces from the present owner to preserve a piece of long-overlooked history — and Maine at War readers can help.
Next: How you can help preserve long-overlooked historical ground at Gettysburg.
The 2nd Maine Cavalry Roams the Deep South
Join Civil War buffs at the Isaac Farrar Mansion, 166 Union Street, Bangor at 6 p.m. Thursday, February 16 as Holden educator and Civil War author and historian Ned Smith talks about the 2nd Maine Cavalry. Author of the 2nd Maine Cavalry in the Civil War, Smith will look at how the regiment was raised, give a brief look at Florida’s politics before the Civil War, take a look at the Maine regiment’s service in Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama, and relate some of the “above and beyond” exploits of Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Spurling. This program is part of the Civil War Lecture Series presented by the Bangor Historical Society.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.