Words of the Wounded: The Gettysburg Campaign

Wounded soldiers recovering after Gettysburg. (LOC)

By the end of the Gettysburg Campaign into Pennsylvania there were an estimated 64,000 killed, wounded and missing between both the Union and Confederate armies. The struggles and the implications on the medical field from the military campaign will be covered in a later post. But first, in order for them to be understood, we must understand the carnage of the campaign itself, particularly after the three-day battle. We will never be able to fully understand the effects of the bloodshed; the closest we can get is through the words of those who were there. Here are some of those experiences: 

Shortly after the battle, the town appeared to become one huge hospital full of pain and suffering.  A correspondent to the Philadelphia Public Ledger on described Gettysburg on July 15, 1863: 

This town, and the vicinity with a space of country surrounding it of eight or ten miles, is literally one vast and over-crowded hospital. In the town itself, every available space has been freely given up by the citizens to the sufferers, and yet on this, the ninth day after the battle, several thousands are lying, with arms and legs, amputated and every other kind of conceivable wound, in tents, in the open field, in the woods, in the stables, barns, and some of them even on the bare ground without cover or shelter. During a violent thunder gust, accompanied with high wind and heavy rain, on yesterday [Sunday, July 5], some would have drowned, had not the most extraordinary efforts been put forth to prevent it.

A hospital of the U.S. Second Corps near Rock Creek. (GNMP)

Another observer from the Christian Commission in Gettysburg remembered one of the many hospitals in town, a Federal hospital along Rock Creek, that reflected the typical state of the hospitals throughout town: 

The men here were in terrible condition. They lay upon the damp ground, many of them with nothing under them. In this hospital there were an usually large number of amputations, the amputated stumps lying directly on the ground; except when now and then elevated a little upon a handful of straw or a bunch of all rags. Many of the men, perhaps most of them, were in want of clothing. Suitable food was not to be had. The surgeons were overworked. There was an insufficient number of attendants….nearby were nearly or quite a thousand rebels, most of them severely wounded… shrieking and crying for assistance continually…Destitute of clothing many of them nearly naked and covered with filth, without tents, lying in the mud… cursing, praying, begging their attendants or visitors to put an end to their suffering… 1.

An unidentified soldier from the 47th North Carolina followed the remarks of the Christian Commission, for he remembered his time at the college hospital two years after the war ended: 

As a consequence of the small number of surgeons left with us, our men…suffered much…Thus for the first two weeks, there were no nurses, no medicines, no kinds of food proper for men in our condition, our supply being two or three hard crackers a day with a small piece of fat pork, with now and then a cup of poor coffee, and for men who were reduced to mere skeletons from severe wounds and loss of blood, the floor was a hard bed with only a blanket on it…

We each day became weaker and thinner until a certain point was reached, then if our wounds were curable, nature began to revive the wasted frame; if they were not, a little struggle, a low moan, and the poor emancipated skeleton, of what was once a man, was wrapped in a blanket and borne from our sight forever…2.

Trostle Farm in the days after Gettysburg. The horses in the yard are mainly from the stand of the 9th Massachusetts Battery. (LOC)

Not only was the area a hospital, but a vast cemetery as well,  as recalled by local Gettysburg soldier and later author, J. Howard Wert, who walked the area in the days after the battle: 

All that could be done was to throw some earth over the corpses where they had fallen. Often a very few inches of earth was the only covering, through which portions of the body and clothing were visible after the first heavy rain. Oh! The ghastly horrors of those sickening burials of valiant men. Here, and here, and here, and there, and everywhere, at the head of the rude mounds was a piece of a cracker box—and on it in lead pencil; “Unknown—14th of Brooklyn” or “Unknown-95th N.Y.” Or as you moved from the pike into the grove, “Unknown—24th Michigan”. 

Crowds came that were searching for husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, dead or wounded in that awful vortex of destruction. They came by the thousands…all on one common errand of love, all torn by the same agonizing feelings of doubt, which, in thousands of scenes was, too soon, dissolved in their certainty of despair… They came to search for their dead—to minister to their wound. Some were successful, some failed. Some exhumed hundreds of bodies but never found the dead for whom they sought. Some found their loved ones in rude hospitals and hovered over them for weeks, with the gentlest ministrations, until partial health began to replace the plaid hue; or, until death terminated all.  3.

This is just a few excerpts of primary sources describing the horrible days, weeks, and months after the battle and there are many more from the battle and the campaign itself. The medical situation in the midst of it were scenarios that were unimaginable up to that very moment. As a result, the campaign had profound effects on the medical field and cemeteries as we know it today. Stay tuned as we further explore medical implications of the Gettysburg Campaign. 

1.  United States Christian Commission for the Army and Navy. Work and Incidents, First Annual Report. Philadelphia, PA (1863): 70-71. 

2.  Unidentified Confederate officer, “College Hospital in Gettysburg,” The Land We Love, vol. II, November-April 1866-67, Charlotte NC, Hill Irwin & Co. p. 291. 

3.  Wert, J. Howard. “In the Hospitals of Gettysburg”. #1. 

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