Medical Care at Second Manassas: Reaching A Crossroads?

Stone House at Manassas National Battlefield Park (Bierle, August 27, 2022)

At the crossroads of the Sudley-Manassas Road and Warrenton Turnpike (now modern roads Route 29/Lee Highway and 234/Sudley Road) stands a historic stone house. Dating back to 1848, this structure has stood guard at the trafficked intersection and witnessed two large-scale battles of the American Civil War. At both battles, the Matthew Family’s stone dwelling became a field hospital and shelter for the wounded.

During the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861, and during the three-day fight of Second Bull Run/Manassas (August 28-30, 1862), medical personnel struggled to provide care for the wounded and dying. In the thirteen months between the battles, improvements to the Federals’ battlefield medical system had been slow or non-existent. While some surgeons and their assistants were better prepared to handle the sight of casualties, the armies still struggled to provide organized and centralized care for the battle’s wounded. Like the Stone House, medical care stood at a crossroads in the summer of 1862.

Although Dr. Jonathan Letterman had stepped into the role of Medical Director for the Federal Army of the Potomac in the late summer of 1862, the implementation of his innovations still lay in the future as the armies clashed near Manassas Junction again. Ambulances and their drivers proved as absent and unreliable as ever for transporting wounded off the battlefield.

In fact, three days after the fighting ended, at least 3,000 wounded still lay on the battlefield, unable to move themselves. Many suffered without food or water and had received no medical attention.[i] Pelted by rain or burned by the sun, some of these wounded endured a week on the bloody field, and many died from exposure and lack of care. One chaplain working in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote about some of the wounded who finally made it to a general hospital:

These days are more terrible than any thing the nation has yet seen, and their horrors are at our very doors…. We have opened a hall where, strewn on the floor, without even blankets, lie scores of wounded men unattended, with rebel lead festering in their bodies, but thankful for even that accommodation. Many of them came all the way from the battlefield in horrid army-wagons after lying in the rain and mud upon the field….[ii]

Compounding the problems at Second Manassas, the Union medical director on the field, Thomas A. McParlin, ordered regimental surgeons to establish “dressing stations” and then proceeded to try to establish large one large field hospital.[iii] Many regimental medical staff could not (or should not) have been performing major operations, usually lacking skill and supplies. Instead of sending their bandaged and stabilized wounded to a brigade or division field hospital, all wounded leaving the field were directed to the understaffed single “field hospital” or the gathering point depots which McParlin referred to in his official report.[iv] The central field hospital lay seven miles from the area of the first day of fighting, and the journey got worse as the battle progressed and roads and bridges were destroyed or otherwise impacted.[v]

McParlin admitted in his official report that there were problems, but he and the other medical men believed they had done the best that they could: “I had made the best arrangements; which, in my judgment, I could affect with the means at my disposal, but as I looked at the scene, I felt impressed with a sense of how little could be accomplished at that hour.”[vi] The scope of the fighting ground and the difficulties of the terrain and roads did not help the Union medical cause either, and McParlin noted this in his report.

Meanwhile, the Confederates — particularly in Jackson’s corps — had a better functioning hospital system and recently captured supplies helped their efforts. Still, the number of casualties strained their system. Dr. Harvey Black, a brigade surgeon, wrote immediately after the battle: “I have under my charge the wounded of the Division — have but one assistant and about 225 men to take care of. This is more than we can attend to, to do them justice… Our wounded are a good deal scattered. One Hospital we had to abandon but recovered it yesterday.” Black detailed the injuries of acquaintances and then remarked on the Union wounded still on the field. “The loss will be counted by thousands on both sides. Bro. Tebbs told me tonight that he passed over part of the field today, and the ground the Yankees occupied before where our division fought [railroad cut]  he could almost step rom one dead body to another. His remark was that they looked as if they were souls.”[vii]

The Confederates ran into trouble though as victors of the field, meaning they “inherited” many the regimental dressing stations and fields still filled with wounded, dying, and starving. By September 1, a flag of truce allowed Union and Confederate medical men to discuss the situation. Confederate Medical Director for the Army of Northern Virginia, Dr. Lafayette Guild, approved the parole of a Union wounded within the Confederate lines and allowed Union doctors to come into the Confederate lines to look after their men. The Confederates also arranged to “return” or share many of the captured medical supplies and blankets, but there was little that could be done about the lack of food at that time.

While the Confederates’ offers have an echo of mercy, necessity also prompted the agreements. The Confederates had enough wounded of their own and letting Union doctors return to take care the fallen in blue solved multiple issues.

Chaplain Hopkins at a General Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote about the wounded rescued during the “flag of truce” and how they appeared when they reached his care. “I thought I had seen weary and worn-out human beings before, but these bloody, dirty, mangled men, who had lain out on the battlefield…with wounds untouched since the first rude dressing…were a new revelation. We cut their clothes from them, torn and stiff with their own blood and Virginia clay, and moved them inch by inch onto the rough straw beds; the poor haggard men seemed the personification of utmost misery.”[viii]

Outrage at the slow, inefficient, or non-existent evacuations to an understaffed field hospital or directly to a general hospital hurried the process for Dr. Letterman’s plan to create and use an ambulance corps. Like previous battles, Second Bull Run showed the weakness of the Union army to care for its injured soldiers. Something had to change, and Jonathan Letterman rose to the challenge. Just under three weeks later, the bloodiest single day in American history unfolded along Antietam Creek, and the Letterman System went into action, swiftly removing wounded from the battlefield or forward dressing stations, taking them to field hospitals for medical attention, and then shipping those who could travel to larger hospitals for their longer recuperation. The system would not work perfectly at Antietam and new challenges presented themselves, but there would be a marked improvement in the system of care for the wounded in blue when contrasted between Second Manassas and Antietam.

To his credit, Dr. McParlin recognized the problems at Second Bull Run — some of circumstance, some of his own creation as he tried to work with limited supplies, bad roads, and a lack of central organization for the Union medical efforts. At the end of his report, he made strong recommendations and offered concluding thoughts about the importance of medical organization to the war effort as a whole:

Thousands were wounded, and all the transportation at our disposal was inadequate to the amount of service demanded. The lessons of experience should not be disregarded, especially in matter  of such transcendent importance. At such a time, a well organized, regularly established ambulance corps would have been a blessing. Under proper and thorough organization, l am very confident that hundreds of vehicles that passed loaded with wounded from Centreville to Fairfax Courthouse could have been promptly returned to continue the duty. Universal experience inculcates the propriety of the division of labor. The army, itself, in its organization illustrates its necessity and no economy or efficiency in service is possible without it. If the medical department must transport its wounded, let it at least, be done systematically and properly, as in the armies of Europe.[ix]

Changes would come, but for many soldiers it would be too late. In the Stone House at the crossroads of a war, a battlefield, and military medical history, two Union volunteers from the 5th New York Infantry numbered among those who sought care and shelter. In an upper room of the house turned field hospital, these men carved their names into the wooden floor. Eugene P. Geer. Charles Brehm.[x] Was the impulse of a moment? Was it a last way to prove they had lived as they faced death? Charles lived, but Eugene died…and their names are still written in the floorboard, a tangible reminder of the sufferings of war at Second Bull Run.

[i] George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1952). Pages 73-76.

[ii] Georgeanna Woolsey Bacon and Eliza Woolsey Howland, My Heart Toward Home: Letters of a Family during the Civil War. (Roseville, Edinborough Press, 2001). Page 279.

[iii]George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1952). Pages 73-76.

[iv] Thomas McParlin’s Report, located in Appended Documents, pages 108-117. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 1 and Appendix. Accessed online: https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/ext/kirtasbse/14121350RX1/PDF/14121350RX1.pdf

[v] George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1952). Pages 73-76.

[vi]Thomas McParlin’s Report, located in Appended Documents, pages 108-117. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 1 and Appendix. Accessed online: https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/ext/kirtasbse/14121350RX1/PDF/14121350RX1.pdf

[vii] Harvey Black, edited by Glenn L. McMullen, The Civil War Letters of Dr. Harvey Black: A Surgeon with Stonewall Jackson (Baltimore, Butternut and Blue, 1995). Pages 38-39.

[viii] Georgeanna Woolsey Bacon and Eliza Woolsey Howland, My Heart Toward Home: Letters of a Family during the Civil War. (Roseville, Edinborough Press, 2001) Pages 280-281.

[ix] Thomas McParlin’s Report, located in Appended Documents, pages 108-117. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 1 and Appendix. Accessed online: https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/ext/kirtasbse/14121350RX1/PDF/14121350RX1.pdf

[x] “Place: Stone House” Manassas National Battlefield Park: https://www.nps.gov/places/stone-house.htm (Accessed 8/30/2022)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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2 Responses to Medical Care at Second Manassas: Reaching A Crossroads?

  1. Brian Swartz says:

    Excellent post that both details the existing “failed” system to retrieve and treat wounded soldiers and the transportation system that Dr. Letterman developed. I would have liked to met him.

  2. Hank Gilliam says:

    Thanks for the post and recognizing the numerous contributions Dr. Letterman
    made to the triage, transport and treatment of wounded service members. Many of his techniques are the basis of providing emergency medical care even today.

    The US Army Military Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco was named in honor of Dr. Letterman. Even a brief read of his life and accomplishments is time well spent.

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