Bucklin’s Hospital & Camp: “Everywhere Wounded Men Were Lying In The Streets”

In Hospital and Camp, A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War by Sophronia E. Bucklin

It’s Week 6 of our read-along with extra historical notes and images. If you want to catch up on the chapter notes, just click here for the collection in the archive. This week we are looking at chapters 11 and 12.

Chapter 11

This chapter begins Bucklin’s account of her time at Gettysburg. Further research suggests that she arrived on July 18 and therefore was not one of the first women to arrive in the war-torn community, but the situation was still desperate when she arrived.

It seemed impossible to tread the streets with out walking over maimed men, who had fallen in the shock of that July’s ?re, in which the sun seemed almost intent upon vieing with cannon and ri?e in destructive heat. They lay like trees uprooted by a tornado, with summer’s leafy crown upon them. With manhood’s strength, and youth’s vigor, and comeliness, they lay on the bloody ground, sick with the pains of wounds, grim with the dust of long marches and the smoke and powder of battle, looking up with wild haggard faces imploringly for succor.

The large hospital she described was Camp Letterman, and Nurse Bucklin worked in Ward B of the Third Division of that hospital. Tents sheltered the wounded, the established kitchen turned out meals for thousands, and wells were dug. Camp Letterman—named for Dr. Jonathan Letterman—stood on the George Wolf Farm along the York Pike, about 1 1/2 miles outside of town. By July 22, the hospital was actively receiving patients and over the next months over 1600 patients came through the facility. Camp Letterman closed in November 1863 with its last remaining patients transferred to other medical facilities away from Gettysburg.

Camp Letterman, August 1863

Notice how Bucklin thought she was going to the Seminary Hospital, but then is told it will be closing? Camp Letterman was the reason. In the hours and days immediately after the battle, nearly every structure in the Gettysburg community served as an official or unofficial field hospital and shelter for the 50,000 casualties. Several weeks into July, though, medical authorities had cleared thousands of injured from the streets, makeshift hospitals, civilian homes, and division hospitals to base hospitals elsewhere in the north—Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and other locations. They started intentionally moving the wounded from civilian homes and division field hospitals for one large field hospital—Camp Letterman. This made it easier to concentrate medical attention, receive supplies, and move soldiers who could travel, while also easing some of the burden from local civilians.

Bucklin spends a good portion of this chapter giving details and criticism on the “Rebel Wounded.” A few points to consider:

  1. The Confederates left behind the most badly injured, taking the ones who could stand journey back to Virginia.
  2. Bucklin has some prejudices which may be influencing her opinions and tone of writing about men—north vs. south, though she is not the only nurse to make such observations.
  3. Modern medical studies suggest that if a person feels abandoned, hopeless, or realizes he/she is not among anyone considered worthy of impressing, they will exhibit more symptoms of pain and in general be “bad patients.” I’ve been collecting primary sources and trying to discover if something along these lines happened to prisoner wounded (on both sides) during the Civil War and might be a cause for nurses routinely criticizing enemy soldiers’ lack of endurance. (Hopefully a more detailed blog post with multiple examples and modern references in the future!)

Chapter 12

Not all nurses or medical staff had a kind or generous opinion of Gettysburg civilians. However, Nurse Bucklin routinely praised them, especially noting the ones that brought food to Camp Letterman. While this reflects the reality for many civilians in the area, keep in mind that the “stingy ones” did exist, but Bucklin probably had no contact with them since they would not have been showing up at the hospital camp.

In the midst of a nursing crisis, she remembered: “I then went out into the darkness to— they were a great terror—the uncovered wells, which had been dug on the verge of the timber to supply the hospital with water.” Why hastily dug wells? After-all, Camp Letterman stood near a natural water supply. A field hospital the size of Camp Letter needed lots of water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing patients, dressing wounds, laundry, etc. In the immediate aftermath of Gettysburg (prior to Camp Letterman), wells had been pumped dry and the natural water sources—springs and creeks—had been contaminated with casualties or latrine use. Clearly, the medical doctors did not want to rely solely on the natural water supply, even though it’s condition had improved, for their hospital use.

Few Civil War battles were fought in the northern states. Gettysburg’s location in Pennsylvania triggered chapters of battle aftermath not always seen at other battlefields. It was accessible to family members who could travel. Nurse Bucklin spent much of Chapter 12 detailing scenes of women at the bedsides of their badly wounded soldiers. She also wrote about the women who came to the battlefield burial trenches, trying to identify bodies, disinter, and rebury their soldiers in their home communities. Most primary sources writers at Gettysburg recorded such accounts. To the northern civilians, it was one limited chance to repair the idea of “good death” and ensure that the fallen soldier could rest with his family.

This chapter grimly revealed details about wounds and family members sitting by the bedside of their dying soldiers. One of the problem for Camp Letterman came from bringing all the wounded who could not make a journey to a base hospital to one location. Yes, it makes medical and logistical sense, but it also created a higher death rate situation.

But there were moments of joy, even in the aftermath world of Gettysburg, and Bucklin recorded those time also:

We witnessed a happy meeting one day, when a father, who was also a soldier, came into the ward, and met his wife sitting at the bedside of their son. Many tears were shed around them, which they knew not of, nor could have regarded in the full thankfulness of their hearts that the life of the dear boy had been spared to them. This mother left us, and took her son with her, he being able to endure the fatigue of travel.

To be continued next weekend…

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