As the sun set on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 3, 1863, although the sound of combat faded into history, a new battle was just beginning. Over the course of the three day engagement, 51,000 men became casualties. That number horrified the home fronts and armies of both sides, and is a sad reminder of the cost of this battle and war on our country. Of that number, approximately 30,000 soldiers were in need of various degrees of medical attention. These wounded began their battle for survival the moments after being hit; a battle for some that lingered for days, weeks, months, and even years. Today’s Weekender will provide you with an opportunity to visit several of the many public and privates buildings that were turned into field hospitals and aide stations in the greater Gettysburg community during the aftermath of the battle.
Our first stop will be at the McPherson Barn, located along Stone Avenue on the Gettysburg National Military Park Auto Tour route. The first day’s battle west and north of the town was furious and violent, despite the long-standing mythology that it was a meeting engagement. Nearly 48,000 soldiers from both sides participated in the first day’s battle with a casualty total of approximately 16,000. One of the many farmhouses and barns that were turned into field hospitals following the July 1 action was the property owned by Congressman Edward McPherson and rented and lived in by the Slentz family. On the evening of July 1, one of the first to visit the Slentz home was J. A. Walker of the 45th Georgia. He recalled:
“It was now night and I could no longer see to work. Very near this place is a small farm house . . . . This farm house was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Taken and re-taken, riddled by bullets, filled with dead and dying, the very cows and horses shot down by stray bullets, and yet not materially damaged. Seeing a light in it I went to see if my services were needed. I found it filled with Federal dead and wounded. I made known my business to them, when they informed me of their having been already captured and left to be treated for their wounds. Physicians for both armies were in attendance, and finding my services not needed I started for the door. In one corner of the room sat a common pine table, used by the family for a dining table. On this table, sitting upright against the wall, was a federal major, William or George Chamberlain, of the One Hundred and Forty-eighth, One Hundred and Forty-Ninth, or One Hundred and Fiftieth Pennsylvania Regiment, exact number forgotten. He signaled me to come to him, when he introduced himself and began a conversation. . . . Opening his shirt front he exposed to my view a ghastly wound through the breast, the ball, I think, coming out at his back, but he had no idea of giving up the ghost. . . . His appetite showed no signs of an early dissolution, and dividing my biscuits with him bid him good-bye. . ..”
Working in the barn as a surgeon’s assistant in order to avoid capture during the first day’s engagement was Lieutenant R. B. Beath of the 88th Pennsylvania. With a white band of cloth tied around his arm he was recognized as belonging to the hospital corps, and allowed by the Confederates to pass to the rear of their lines to help the wounded of the Union First Corps. Beath never forgot the scene as he entered the barn that had been turned into a field hospital.
“. . . .upon reaching McPherson’s barn he found it full of bleeding and mangled soldiers in a most distressed and sickening condition, without a surgeon to dress their festering wounds and bind up their splintered bones. Many of the unfortunate were so shockingly lacerated that they were unable to move, being in some glued to the floor by the blood flowing from their gaping wounds congealing in pools under them, and all were in torment, suffering from thirst and hunger. These pitiful cases awakened all the sympathy in the Lieutenant’s heart, and he at once set to work to alleviate their sufferings.”
Gettysburg citizens worked hard to relieve the sufferings of the wounded in the time period following the battle. One such Samaritan was possibly William McClean:
“I was informed that men were suffering in the McPherson barn, on the Chambersburg Pike. My good wife went to work, baked biscuit, prepared gruel and we gathered fresh Antwerp raspberries in our garden, and loaded up with as much as I could carry, I started, on foot of course, to the barn. As a civilian, I must confess to a little trepidation in going to what was so recently the front, and hearing the firing of artillery, as the retreat was being followed up. There were parties engaged in burying the dead in the fields, where they fell. A dead soldier in blue was lying along the side of the turnpike, black and swollen from the heat and rain, disfigured beyond recognition. When I entered the barn it was crowded with the wounded of both armies, some of them having, fallen four days before and without having any food, except in some cases the little hardtack in their haversacks, and without any surgical attention to their wounds. There was so many of these wounded and so closely packed together, that I was obliged to tramp on some of them in distributing my supplies. You may imagine how pleased and grateful they were for this fresh food, in their famished and suffering condition. One of them told me that as he was lying on the field, Gen. Lee had given him a drink out of his canteen. Lee’s headquarters were in this locality. Many of these poor fellows must have died afterwards from gangrene.”
Travel next to the Abraham Trostle Farm on the second day’s battlefield located on United States Avenue before Auto Tour Stop 11. The farm was the site of the last stand of John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery. The Confederate attack had beaten and battered large portions of the Federal Third Corps that had advanced to a new position stretching from Devil’s Den to the Emmitsburg Road and then northward. As Longstreet’s assault on the Federal left pushed back this position, the Federal artillery pulled out as best they could. It was Bigelow’s battery that covered their withdrawal. Following the fight, the home, barn, and outbuildings owned by Abraham and Catherine Trostle served as a hospital for the Third and Fifth Corps, as well as some Confederate wounded. By July 6, the temporary field hospital had been abandoned. Town citizen Daniel Skelly visited the property that day, “The Trostle house was entirely deserted. In the kitchen the dinner table was still set with all the dishes from the meal, and fragments of food remained, indicating that the family had gotten up from their meal and made a hurried getaway.”
Our final stop for this Weekender will be at the site of General Meade’s headquarters during the battle. The headquarters are located along the Taneytown Road south of Cemetery Hill and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. During the Confederate bombardment on July 3 that preceded Pickett’s Charge, the artillery over-shots that landed near army headquarters grew to the point that Meade and staff evacuated the site. During that time, wounded from the growing fight along Cemetery Ridge poured rearward. Meade’s headquarters, at the home abandoned Lydia Leister and her children, had now been converted into an aide station and field hospital. Private C.W. Belknap, 125th New York Infantry, remembered that conversion as the fight along Cemetery Ridge ended. “After the firing ceased I helped carry Capt. (Ephraim) Wood, (who was shot through the bowels) to Gen. Meade’s headquarters where many of the wounded were carried to await the ambulances which carried them to the hospital,” recalled Belknap. “A great many of the rebel wounded were also carried there. I stayed and waited on several of the wounded….” Daniel Skelly, during the same trip around the battlefield on July 6, also stopped by Leister’s home. “In the front room…was a bed, the covers of it thrown back; and its condition indicated that wounded soldier had occupied it. I was told that General Butterfield, Meade’s chief of staff, who had been wounded, had been placed upon it before being taken to a hospital.” Lydia’s barn was also converted into a field hospital. One wounded soldier, Charles A. Hitchcock, sought refuge there.
“When the heavy artillery-fire opened I was hit in the forearm by a splinter struck from a rail by a shell which bursted nearby. I thought my arm was broken & started to the rear for a surgeon, & reached the [Meade’s] head-quarters & went in to the barn. I sat on the floor, my back against a large beam, pouring water on my arm from my canteen. I was in such pain that I thought little of the terrible racket going on all around, when a spent cannon ball crashed through the side of the barn, hitting the beam directly back of my back, & knocked me some distance from where I was sitting, stunned & breathless & conscious, but thinking myself fatally wounded I was lying face downward flat on the floor, & when I got my breath & could stir my arm I carefully put my hand to heel [head?], expecting to find myself all mashed in, & was happily disappointed at finding myself whole. I was helped up & when able went to see where the ball had struck. I found it to be a twelve pound solid shot, it had buried itself half way in the beam & had fallen out.”
Certainly these three stops do not comprise an entire weekend’s worth of time to visit. In the aftermath of the battle every private and public structure in a several mile radius of Gettysburg was turned into a place of shelter and treatment for the wounded of both armies. A great study on this subject that WILL provide a weekend’s worth of sites is “A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1 – November 20, 1863” by Gregory A. Coco. In this seminal work, hospital sites are mapped and chronicled on the Gettysburg battlefield and surrounding areas, providing an easy way to visit many of these places. Not all are within Gettysburg National Military Park so please respect private property. I hope you will take the time to investigate this often overlooked phase of the battle of Gettysburg and remember and honor the lives of those wounded on this hallowed ground.