Caring for the Wounded at Gettysburg’s Camp Letterman

Opening on July 20, 1863, Camp Letterman General Hospital was one of the largest tent hospitals of the war. For months, it treated the worst cases of wounds sustained during the battle of Gettysburg. Though it is now heavily developed, for several months following the battle, thousands of soldiers were treated at the site before regaining enough strength to recover or be sent to other permanent hospitals.

In an 1858 map of Adams County, the Camp Letterman area is empty aside from a toll office for the road as well as the marked homestead of J. Wible.[1] An elevated wooded knoll with a scenic view, access to cool, fresh water, and shade, it was a popular picnic spot for local residents.[2] By 1863 this property was now owned by George Wolf, but was not cultivated farmland and retained its partially wooded character. On July 1-3 the battle raged around the town, and though this property was spared the worst fighting, it was briefly used by Confederate artillery batteries. When the armies left, countless wounded remained behind. By the 20th, most of the wounded had been evacuated, either returned to their units after minor wounds or sent to more permanent hospitals in northern cities. However, thousands remained who were still critical condition, unable to travel.

Camp Letterman, August 1863.

This land was chosen for many of the same reasons it had been popular for picnics: elevated, well-drained land, consistent movement of air, fresh water, shade, and convenient location near both the road and a railroad.[3] There, doctors examined patients and performed operations while numerous nurses attended to the wounded by delivering food, bathing the wounded, and offering comfort.[4] At its height, it could house over 2,000 wounded and staff at a time.

Nurse Sophronia Bucklin recorded the best description of the camp:

The hospital tents were set in rows – five hundred of them – seeming like great fluttering pairs of white wings, brooding peacefully over those wounded men…Walks were thrown up between these rows, in order that they might dry quickly after the summer rains. 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…[5]

The operating tents were on the eastern side of the camp. Despite public perception of amputation as a brutal process, the operations that occurred at Letterman were professional. One delegate from the Christian Commission witnessed an amputation and noted the patient “was put under the influence of chloroform, and the amputation was performed with great skill by a surgeon who appeared to be quite accustomed to the use of his instruments.”[6] Since the camp was designed to house those with grievous wounds, a large number of amputations were performed at the operating tents. Removed limbs would either be discarded and buried on site, or sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC as a specimen for study. For those who succumbed to their injuries or illness, a small camp graveyard was established in the far part of the camp. Frank Stoke described the cemetery in a letter to his brother, writing, “Those who die in the hospital are buried in the field south of the hospital…The dead are laid in rows with a rough board placed at the head of each man, (they are nearly all Confederates.)”[7]

Camp Letterman’s staff was supplemented by the staff of both the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission. These organizations were private groups that followed the Union army to provide small comforts. Both provided physical goods to provide physical aid to soldiers, and the Christian Commission also worked to improve their spiritual lives. Bucklin wrote that both the Christian and Sanitary Commissions had tents located at the edge of the woods near the staff quarters. She noted they did their work “nobly,” and remembered a woman from the Christian Commission would take a wagon to the countryside daily and return with “generous gifts of fowls, eggs, milk and butter.”[8] In addition to foodstuffs such as the above examples, a tabulated statement of goods issued by the Sanitary Commission in the aftermath of Gettysburg included things such as shirts, soap, crutches, lanterns, blankets, socks, mosquito netting, jellies, oranges, canned goods, and tobacco.[9]

On November 20, one day after President Abraham Lincoln visited town and delivered the Gettysburg Address, Camp Letterman officially closed. All the surviving wounded had recovered or been sent to permanent hospitals in northern cities, and the doctors and staff dispersed to other areas that required their supplies and expertise.[10]

The monument to Camp Letterman and the Medical Department, located along Route 30.

In November 1863, Camp Letterman all but vanished from the visible landscape. Union dead were exhumed and either sent to family or buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. However, some Confederate remains may have remained at the hospital cemetery until they were removed to cemeteries in the south such as Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond during the 1870s. As the hospital had been comprised of tents with nearly no lasting structures, the landscape soon returned to what it once was – farmland, woodlots, and creeks. John Bachelder, an early historian of Gettysburg, noted the lack of change on a visit in 1878. “Not withstanding the mournful memories of this hill,” he wrote, “it is still a very charming spot…. All its surroundings invite the traveler to pause and rest and ponder.”[11] To the surprise of many veterans and visitors, there was never an effort to protect or preserve the site. In 1914, the War Department, which managed the National Military Park, placed a small marker along Route 30 on the site of the hospital. Serving as the marker for the Medical Department of the Army of the Potomac in the same fashion as the various corps and division markers across the main battlefield, it lists each major hospital and its location on the field, concluding with “General Hospital Camp Letterman at the Hospital Woods on the York Pike.”[12]

The site remained mostly empty and unprotected, though reshaped as Route 30 grew in importance and was redone and expanded over time in order to better convey changing and increasing vehicle traffic. Much of the site is now developed into a shopping center, and though core segments remain open or wooded, the “For Sale” signs around the property note an uncertain future.

A map of Gettysburg, with Camp Letterman marked in the top left near the Giant brand grocery store.



[1] Griffith Morgan Hopkins, Jr, Robert Pearsall Smith, and M.S. & E. Converse Publishers, Map of Adams Co., Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: M.S. & E. Converse, Publishers, 1858).

[2] Gregory A. Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1995), 227.

[3] Ibid,.

[4] Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land, 227-237.

[5] Sophronia E. Bucklin, In Hospital and Camp: A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War (Philadelphia, PA: J.E. Potter and Company, 1869), 143-144.

[6] United States Christian Commission, Second Report of the Committee of Maryland, September 1, 1863 (Baltimore, MD: Sherwood & Co, 1863), 27-32.

[7] F.M. Stoke, Letter to J.M. Stoke, October 26, 1863, CW/VFM-111 (Oversize), Gettysburg College Special Collections & College Archives.

[8] Ibid, 153.

[9] Sanitary Commission No. 71. Report on the Operations of the Sanitary Commission During and After the Battles at Gettysburg, July 1st, 2d and 3d, 1863, Vertical File 7-9 U.S. Sanitary Commission, Gettysburg National Military Park Library, 21-22.

[10] Record and Pension Office to John P. Nicholson, September 17, 1898, Box B-73 Gregory A. Coco Collection, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.

[11] Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery, 172.

[12] “Army of the Potomac Medical Department,” Monument Inscription, 1914. War Department.

3 Responses to Caring for the Wounded at Gettysburg’s Camp Letterman

  1. Many CW buffs know the value of the Hilton Garden Inn, which is very nearby. I like to walk the grounds when I stay there, including the back parking lot and the Giant parking lot, trying to get a feel for Camp Letterman, a place of peace

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