Camp Letterman was a large, temporary general hospital established at Gettysburg on July 20, 1863. The first mention of establishing a general hospital at Gettysburg was contained in a circular from the Headquarters of the Army of Potomac dated July 5, 1863. The prime focus of the circular dealt with troop movements and accompanying supplies for the pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreating forces; however, care of the wounded was systematically covered in general terms. Assistant Adjutant-Gen. Seth Williams indicated, “The medical director will establish a general hospital at Gettysburg for the wounded that cannot be moved with the army.” Thus, surgeon Jonathan Letterman, the medical director for the Union Army of the Potomac, appointed members of his command to comply with the circular.
Dr. Henry Janes, surgeon for U.S. Volunteers, was left in charge of the various field hospitals at Gettysburg. Most of the field hospitals were in churches, schools, private homes and at the farms scattered over the surrounding countryside of Gettysburg. The Union (U.S.) field hospitals were clustered south and southeast of the town, generally between the Hanover and Taneytown roads. The Confederate field hospitals extended northeast, north, west and southwest of Gettysburg. Janes and his staff faced a daunting challenge as they began the process of moving and consolidating the wounded from the field hospitals. The wounded in the charge of Janes numbered 20,995, with 14,193 Union and 6,802 Confederate. The wounded, if they had recovered sufficiently enough to travel, were moved to the railroad depot and then transported home or to more permanent military hospitals in or near large cities in the east. Those that remained, approximately 4,200, were moved to Camp Letterman, as they were in no condition to travel.
The site selected for establishing the hospital was east of Gettysburg along the York Pike. The site was on elevated ground that was well drained. It had a large stand of trees, providing fresh air, cooling breezes and shade. The railroad was close by, along the York Pike, which facilitated the movement of the wounded to the railroad cars. A natural spring was located on the site, providing a good supply of clean, fresh water. The land was on part of the George Wolf farm. Before long, the general hospital became a model of a clean, efficient and well-managed medical care facility. At the height of its operation, the hospital had more than 400 hospital tents, placed in rows, about 10 feet apart. A tent held up to 10 patients. In the cooler autumn, each tent was heated by a Sibley stove. Each medical officer assigned was responsible for 40 to 70 patients. By the end of August 1863, the patient population had dropped to 1,600 and fell to 300 by late October, with only 100 on November 10, 1863. The general hospital site included a cook house, dining tents, operating tents, tent quarters for support staff and surgeons, quarters and tent stations for the U.S. Sanitary Commission and U.S. Christian Commission, the dead house, embalming tent and hospital graveyard.
Sophronia E. Bucklin, the first of some 40 female nurses to arrive at Camp Letterman, recalled “that of the 1,200 graves in the camp cemetery, over two-thirds were Confederates.” The general hospital closed on November 20, 1863, the day after President Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ Cemetery. Nurse Bucklin further recalled how “the hospital tents were removed—each bare and dust-trampled space marking where corpses had lain after death-agony was passed, and where the wounded had groaned in pain. Tears filled my eyes when I looked on that great field, so checkered with the ditches that had drained it dry. So many of them I had seen depart to the silent land; so many I had learned to respect …”
Author’s Note: Camp Letterman was situated east of Gettysburg along the south side of York Pike on the present-day site of the Giant Food supermarket and parking lot.