✟ July 1863: For God And Country

Image courtesy of ACHS
St. Francis Xavier as it appeared in 1863

The Rev. Arthur M. McGinnis came here as a very young priest on July 16, 1861. He remained at St. Francis Xavier until October 27, 1863. Apart from the ordinary routine of baptisms, funerals and the usual pastoral duties, there is nothing in the parochial records to mark the pastorate of Father McGinnis. However, one of the most significant events in the history of the parish occurred while this young priest was in charge.


The possibility of the war being carried into south-central Pennsylvania was a common fear long before the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederate invasion of September, 1862, was checked only fifty miles away on the field of Antietam, and a month later Jeb Stuart's cavalry raided through Cashtown and Emmitsburg. However, it was not until June 28, 1863 that the Sabbath quiet was broken by the tramp of Jubal Early's Confederates marching through Gettysburg on their way to York. A scattered exchange of shots took place with Union provisional cavalry, and there was much excitement over a young soldier from Hunterstown being killed on the Baltimore Pike, but it appeared that the inevitable battle would occur elsewhere.

Then, on Tuesday, June 30, Union cavalry rode into town, and the following morning they engaged the enemy on the Cashtown Pike, about a mile west of town. Promptly, the Union surgeons and medical workers went about the grim task of setting up suitable places in the rear to care for the wounded.

Father Arthur M. McGinnis

(September 29, 1835 – May 21, 1873)


Rev. Father McGinnis was born in County Armagh, Ireland, September 29, 1835, and was at the time of his death in his 38th year. He came to this country in 1856, and entered the Seminary of St. Charles Borromco, where he made his ecclesiastical studies. He was ordained by Right Rev. Bishop Wood on the 3rd of June, 1860.

He was first stationed at Manayunk, and in 1861 was appointed to the pastoral charge of St. Francis' Church, Gettysburg. Here, during the battle of Gettysburg, he rendered great assistance to the wounded of both armies, to whom he was unceasing in his attentions.

October 27, 1863 he was transferred to the pastoral charge of St. Peter's Church, Columbia, Pa., and in 1866 he succeeded the Rev. Edward Murray as pastor of St. Joseph's Church, Canvill, which position he held up to the time of his death. Here he built a fine church, costing about $50,000, and made other important improvements.  (From his obituary in Sadler's Catholic Directory, 1874)

Father McGinnis died on May 22, 1873 and is buried in Old Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA.



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The Church Becomes A Hospital

"So crowded was the Catholic Church that the wounded lay in and under the seats and in the aisles. Later, when more arrived at the doors, they were placed in the sanctuary and in the gallery. Because of the nature of these places, the men were laid so close together that the attendants could hardly move about."


At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, St. Francis Xavier Church was only about eleven years old. It was a sturdy brick building with three arched, clear glass windows on each side of the church. Inside, there were sixty-four white pine pews, with doors at the aisles. Outside the white double doors, the church was bordered by a picket fence and brick sidewalk. A distinctie cupola housed the 400 pound bell from the original church.


St. Francis Xavier was one of the first buildings to open its doors to the wounded. Already in use before noon on July 1, 1863, the most seriously wounded were brought here for amputation. This was an appalling method of treating the wounded limbs of the poor soldiers who suffered the misfortunes of war. Regrettably, however, the only alternative to a badly wounded limb was the inevitable development of gangrene, blood-poisoning and death.



J. Howard Wert, a citizen of Gettysburg, witnessed the horrors at St. Francis during those dark days:

"There were gruesome sights all around. The sacred edifice was filled with suffering humanity. Groans and shrieks and cries of agony rent the air. In the little yard of the church stood the amputating tables and the surgeons at them, bedabbled with blood, were ceaseless in their work, whilst legs and arms deftly cut off, were being thrown upon an increasing pile."


Adam Errter, a local man, recalled that there were Union and Confederate wounded and doctors at St. Francis. He related that the dead were carried to the basement, where he assisted "a man who was preparing the bodies of the dead for burial or for shipment home.." Errter also hauled wounded soldiers and dead bodies in his wagon for a while. He remembered blood all over the church, with boards on the pews for the men to lie on, as the pews were too narrow for this purpose.

George E. Stock, who was a member of the church and lived four blocks away, said that every other pew was removed to make it easier to get to the wounded.


Later, Reverend Mr. McCullough, a Christian Commission delegate, and two other men, made bunks for all of the patients in the Church, raising them from the floor; the wet, musty straw then was cleaned out and fresh bedding was obtained. It was said that the windows were fixed so that they could be lowered from the tops to supply fresh air.


Surgeon James Fulton of the 143rd Pennsylvania was in charge of the hospital in St. Francis on July 1. He ordered that cooking for the patients was to be done in a nearby house belonging to Mr. Peter Myers (home of Salome "Sallie" Myers). Fulton recalled that food got so scarce that he finally went to Confederate General Richard Ewell to request flour to make bread. It was promised, but never delivered.


William H. Locke, a chaplain in the 11th Pennsylvania, told how Confederate stragglers were constantly coming into the Church to help themselves to the private belongings of wounded soldiers. They took items such as shoes, caps, haversacks, and in one case, he saw two Rebels fighting over a Yankee captain's sword.


On July 7, William F. Norris, M.D., working at Lincoln General Hospital in Washington D.C., was ordered to Gettysburg. Arriving in town on July 10, he wrote:

"I was immediately assigned to the Hospital of the 3rd division, 1st Army Corps which occupies at present a Catholic Church... The Hospital contains 200 patients and is in a state of utter confusion. Men with serious wounds lying about ... with very little attention. There are no intelligent assistants or surgeons ... Even the food is insufficient.

I ... slept last night on the floor of the private room of the priest adjoining the confessional, which I use as a storeroom, much to the disgust of the Sisters who are in attendance."


Every effort was made to remove the wounded soldiers quickly to permanent hospitals in Baltimore and to the central hospital, Camp Letterman, on the York Road, but conditions were such that the church was in use as a hospital for several weeks after the battle. During this period, Father McGinnis had to conduct Mass in the home of local resident Nicholas Codori at 44 York Street where both citizens and soldiers jammed the room and staircase.

Five or six weeks later, this hospital finally closed. The Church suffered extensive damage during the period of its use as a hospital, and it wasn't until 1864 that it was able to raise nearly $1,000 to continue the work of cleaning up the war damage. In the words of Father Joseph A. Boll, the next pastor of the church:

"On the 4th of January (1864) I arrived here and took charge of my commission. Having found the church much out of repairs by reason of the battle ... I took immediate action toward cleansing and renovating ..."


St. Francis Xavier vs. The United States

In 1907, a court case arose involving the United States Government and St. Francis Xavier Parish. The case concerned the efforts of the Parish and three other Gettysburg churches to seek compensation for the extensive damages suffered by them while they were being used as hospitals following the Battle of Gettysburg.

The cases were all heard in the Court of Claims at Gettysburg in August of 1907. Witnesses for St. Francis Xavier included Fr. Thomas J. Crotty, then the Parish Pastor, as well as parishioners who personally witnessed the events 44 years before. Over $400.00 was paid to the churches in the modest government settlement.



Sources

  • A Glorious Heritage, One Hundred Years: A History of St. Francis Xavier Church, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1853-1953, ACHS, Gettysburg, PA, 1953.
  • Cole, James M., ed. For God and Country: St. Francis Xavier Church, 1831-1981, ACHS, Gettysburg, PA, 1981
  • Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery, Thomas Publications, 1988.

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Elizabeth Salome “Sallie” Myers

(June 24, 1842 – January 17, 1922)

The moans of dying and wounded men called to Elizabeth “Sallie' Salome Myers from inside the walls of St. Francis Xavier Church ...

21 year old Sallie was in her fourth week of summer vacation from her teaching job and was living with her family on West High Street when fighting broke out west of town on the morning of July 1, 1863. With little warning, she found herself faced with a terrible decision, to hide in the cellar of her home or help the injured and dying.

Foul odors, screams, cries for mother, blood, flies, intense July heat and humidity, and mangled bodies: all of these assaulted the senses. In this place of human misery, Sallie Myers served, responding to this life-altering situation with courage and perseverance.


Sallie wrote in her diary:

"Before 6 o'clock the firing ceased and we came up from the cellar. They had begun bringing wounded and injured into town. The Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a few doors east of my father's home were taken possession of as hospitals."

"Dr. James Fulton [143rd Pennsylvania Volunteers] did splendid work getting things in shape. From that time on we had no rest for weeks. 'Girls,' Dr. Fulton said, 'you must come up to the churches and help us - the boys are suffering terribly!' I went to the Catholic church. On pews and floors men lay, the groans of the suffering and dying were heartrending. From that time on we had no rest for weeks."

"I knelt beside the first man near the door and asked what I could do. 'Nothing,' he replied, 'I am going to die.' I went outside the church and cried. I returned and spoke to the man - he was wounded in the lungs and spine, and there was not the slightest hope for him. The man was Sgt. Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers. I read a chapter of the Bible to him; it was the last chapter his father had read before he left home."


The passage Sallie read to Stewart was the fourteenth chapter of John: "Peace I leave with you. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you ... Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." She then had Stewart moved to her home, a few doors down the street, and cared for him until his death on Monday, July 6.


"Sgt. Stewart was the first wounded man brought in, but others followed. The sight of blood never again affected me, and I was among wounded and dying men day and night. While the battle lasted and the town was in possession of the Rebels, I went back and forth between my home and the hospitals without fear. The soldiers called me brave, but I am afraid the truth was that I did not know enough to be afraid and if I had known enough, I had no time to think of the risk I ran, for my heart and hands were full."


After the fighting Sallie Myers continued nursing at the general hospital that was located in Wible's woods, caring for patients until they were well enough to be moved to Camp Letterman, the large Union field hospital on the York Road east of Gettysburg.


"I went daily through the hospitals with my writing materials, reading and answering letters. This work enlisted all my sympathies, and I received many kind and appreciative letters from those who could not come. Besides caring for the wounded, we did all we could for the comfort of friends who came to look after their loved ones."

"I would not care to live that summer again, yet I would not willingly erase that chapter from my life's experience; and I shall always be thankful that I was permitted to minister to the wants and soothe the last hours of some of the brave men who lay suffering and dying for the dear old flag."


In late July, Sallie received a letter from Alexander Stewart's younger brother Henry, who was a minister. The following summer, Henry and his mother came to Gettysburg. A romance developed between Sallie and Henry, and they married in 1867. Their marriage was brief, however; Henry died in the fall of 1868 from the effects of wounds received during the war.


For her outstanding services to the wounded of Gettysburg, Sallie Myers was selected as a member of the National Association of Army Nurses following the war. This distinction made her unique in that she was the only member in the history of the Association who was not a regularly enlisted Civil War Nurse. Sallie died on January 17, 1922 at the age of 79. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetary in Gettysburg.



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Lt. Colonel Henry S. Huidekoper

150th Pennsylvania Infantry ("Bucktails")
(July 17, 1839 – November 9, 1918)

At Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, the 150th Pennsylvania was part of John Reynolds' Union I Corps. Lt. Colonel Huidekoper commanded three companies of the 150th in the initial heavy fighting around McPherson's Farm, northwest of the town. When the 150th's Colonel, Langhorne Wister, took over command of the brigade, Lt. Colonel Huidekoper assumed command of the regiment.


Faced with an assault by the 32d North Carolina, the regiment fired two effective volleys into the enemy, and then Lt. Colonel Huidekoper led his men forward, waving his sword at the advance of his companies. As he did so, an enemy ball shattered his right arm. He continued to direct his regiment, despite the wound, until the loss of blood forced him to retire. By remaining with his regiment as long as he had, he performed heroic service to the men who fought under his command. Every other officer had been killed or wounded.


The Minié ball had badly shattered Huidekiper's right elbow. He had it bandaged at the McPherson barn, and then walked unassisted into town to the hospital at St. Francis Xavier Church. Inside the church, the pews -- with boards laid across them -- were used as beds, and the surgeons set up an operating table in the vestibule where the open doors provided light. Lt. Colonel Huidekoper had to climb onto that makeshift operating table to have his right arm amputated.

He writes:


"On arrival at the Church (about 5:30 pm), I found an operating table placed in the entry, with the double doors open for light during operations then going on. I went into an empty pew on the left hand side of the church ... asked some men to tear the pew door off its hinges and place it crosswise on the back and front of the pew. On this, I placed my swollen arm ..."

"About six o'clock, an assistant to the several surgeons who were operating on the table, came to me announcing it was my turn. I went to the (operating) table and got onto it with my head towards the west."


It was at this time, in the early evening of July 1st, that the Confederate army captured the town. This occurred at the very moment that Col. Huidekoper was preparing himself to undergo the horrors of a limb amputation. His detailed accound describes the scene:


"After getting on the table the doors were suddenly closed, to be broken open by the rebels, who surrounded the table and saw the operation. I took some chloroform but not enough, for I distinctly remember having said, 'Oh, don't saw the bone until I have had more chloroform.' What I next remember was my saying, 'You took my arm off, did you, Doctor?' He was Dr. Quinan, Surgeon of my Regiment."


After he came to, Huidekopper was left on his own to find a place to lie down. After “stepping carefully over the hundreds of soldiers that were lying in the aisles,” he “worked (his) way back to the operating table and climbed the stairs to the gallery.” He did all of this with no assistance.


"I then swung off the table feet first and was told to seek a place in the pulpit to lie down ... stepping carefully among the hundreds of soldiers who were lying in the aisles ... Spying the gallery at the other end of the church, I worked my way back to the operating table and ascended the stairs to the gallery, which, as I had thought, was empty ... The night was a horrible one. All night long I heard from downstairs moans, groans, shrieks, and yells from the wounded and suffering soldiers. The next day, the rebels took those who were not seriously wounded, out on the sidewalk, lined them up, took off their shoes, and strung upon each twelve muskets and marched them to the rear as prisoners of war."


Huidekoper remained in the Church until July 9th. He mentioned that the Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg were very active and helpful to the injured men. He even hired a town doctor to assist the wounded for four or five days. From his own pocket, he paid the doctor $20.00 for his services.


For his actions during the battle of Gettysburg, Lt. Colonel Huidekoper was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism on May 27, 1905. His citation reads:

"The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Shippen Huidekoper, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 1 July 1863, while serving with 150th Pennsylvania Infantry, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While engaged in repelling an attack of the enemy, Lieutenant Colonel Huidekoper received a severe wound of the right arm, but instead of retiring remained at the front in command of the regiment."


Following his recovery from the Gettysburg wounds, Huidekoper attempted to return to his regiment in September 1863 and accepted a commission as its Colonel on 23 February 1864. However, further field service aggravated his partially healed wounds to the point where he was forced to resign his commission on 5 March 1864 at Culpeper, VA.


After the war, Huidekoper received a master’s degree from Harvard College (1870). He served as a Major General of the Pennsylvania National Guard, and was active in suppressing the 1877 Labor Riots. Following his stint as Postmaster of Philadelphia, he was an executive in the telephone industry until his retirement in 1913. In addition, he served his alma mater as an overseer from 1898 to 1910.

In 1899, Gen. Huidekoper was the main speaker at the unveiling of the memorial to Gen. John Reynolds at Gettysburg. However, his best-known effort was his role in the erection of the Pennsylvania Memorial. When the monument was dedicated on September 27, 1910, he gave the primary speech which transferred the monument to the state of Pennsylvania. He was also the source of the idea for the Grand Reunion of Union and Confederate Veterans at Gettysburg, 50 years after the battle.

Henry Shippen Huidekoper died on November 9, 1918. He is buried in Greendale Cemetery in Meadville, PA.



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The Sisters of Charity

St. Joseph House, Emmitsburg, Maryland
Order founded in 1809 by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton


Sister Camilla O'Keefe

"We have been greatly excited this afternoon and evening by the most continued cannonading in the direction of Gettysburg. The battle, wherever it is, must be a fearful one."

-- Diary of Sister Camilla O'Keefe, July 3, 1863


In the final days of June 1863, the Civil War came perilously close to home for the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland. When the Rev. James Francis Burlando opened his door, he hardly expected to see Col. Philippe Regis de Trobriand. But the Union Army sought refuge before heading to Gettysburg, and trusted that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity would see to their care. About 8,000 to 10,000 Northern troops stayed on their grounds for nearly four days before leaving for Gettysburg on July 1.


In order to safeguard the property and the Sisters, the Union generals stationed guards at various points. De Trobriand said to Mother Ann Simeon Norris, "Permit me to make one request. Ask St. Joseph to keep the rebels away from here. For, if they come before I get away, I do not know what will become of your beautiful Convent."


Fr. James Francis Burlando

Father Burlando and the two other priests went about hearing the confessions of the Catholic men, while the Sisters got together as many scapulars and medals as they had. The Sisters also went about "slicing meat, buttering bread and filling canteens with coffee and milk for the famished soldiers."

Sister Marie Louise Caulfield wrote:


"The soldiers came in throngs to the house. One squad succeeded another and each squad seemed hungrier than the last... All were bountifully supplied."


Early on June 30, 1863, "a sudden order war given to strike the tents and march for Gettysburg." In fifteen minutes, all Union soldiers were gone, and St. Joseph's convent grounds were quiet again. Once the Union troops, the Daughters’ involvement with the events at Gettysburg was hardly over.

Sister Matilda Coskery records what the Sisters heard and literally felt once the fighting commenced on Wednesday, July 1:


Mother Ann Simeon Norris

“On the 1st of July 1863, the two armies met near Gettysburg, a large town in Pennsylvania about ten miles north of Emmitsburg. They fought until the evening of the 3rd, advancing by their movements more and more towards our peaceful vale, so that our buildings and very earth trembled from their cannons. That night the rain fell heavily and continued to do so all the next day, Saturday.“


Father Burlando and Mother Norris decided that some Sisters had better go up to Gettysburg. Immediately after Mass on the morning of July 5, Father Burlando loaded up a carriage and an omnibus with 14 Sisters of Charity, along with refreshments, bandages, sponges and clothing, and started up the road to Gettysburg.


Sister Marie Louise Caulfield wrote that she saw "thousands of guns and swords lying around. ... further on we saw many soldiers on horseback as silent almost as the dead who lay there ... The rain had filled the roads with water, and here it was red with blood. Our carriage wheels rolling through blood! Our horses could hardly be made to proceed on account of the horrid objects lying about them."


Another Sister remembered:


"Finally we reached the scene of combat. What a frightful spectacle met our gaze! Houses burnt, dead bodies of both Armies strewn here and there, an immense number of slain horses, thousands of bayonets, sabres, wagons, wheels, projectiles of all dimensions, blankets, caps, clothing of every color covered the woods and fields. We were compelled to drive very cautiously to avoid passing over the dead. Our terrified horses drew back or darted forward reeling from one side to the other. The farther we advanced the more harrowing was the scene; we could not restrain our tears"


Sr. Matilda Coskery: A Daughter of Charity Views the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg


Father Burlando observed:


"The officers seemed well-pleased and told us to go into the town and we would find sufficient employment for our zealous charity. Every large building in the town was being filled as fast as the wounded could be brought in, and in and around the town were 113 hospitals in operation, besides those in private houses."


The Sisters went directly to work, tending to the wounded not only at the local Catholic church, but at the Methodist church, the Lutheran Seminary and Pennsylvania College as well. When they ran out of bandages, “these ‘Angels of Gettysburg’ removed many of their own garments, which were quickly torn into strips and applied to the bodies of bruised and broken and bleeding men.”

Sister Camilla O'Keefe describes the scene:


"The Catholic Church in Gettysburg was filled with sick and wounded... The soldiers lay on the pew seats, under them and in every aisle. They were also in the sanctuary and the gallery, so close together that there was scarcely room to move about. Many of them lay in their own blood... but no word of complaint escaped from their lips."


Sister Margaret Hamilton wrote:


"The weather was extremely warm, and the vast number of the wounded made careful attention to their wounds impossible; and upon their arrival at the hospital many wounds were full of vermin, and in many cases gangrene had set in, and the odor was almost unbearable. The demand on our time and labor was so increased that the number of nurses seemed utterly inadequate and the hospital presented a pure picture of the horrors of war."


While they cared for their bodies, the Sisters did not neglect the souls of their patients. Many were prepared for the reception of Baptism, and many died with these holy women comforting them with assurances of God’s infinite love and mercy. Catholics and Protestants alike were the objects of their tender ministrations, and the joy of seeing them die piously was the good Sisters’ great reward.


Father Burlando returned to Emmitsburg that night and came back the next morning with more bandages and more sisters; about 40 in all nursed at Gettysburg. One young nun, Sister Mary Serena Klimbiewicz, was washing the blood from the face of a seriously wounded soldier and was shocked to find it was her own brother, Thaddeus, whom she had not seen in years.

Doctors generally preferred to work with the nuns because many religious orders had been founded to care for the sick, and the Sisters had accumulated centuries of experience. By 1860, they ran 28 American hospitals, and were the only trained nurses in the nation.

The care and kindness they bestowed on their patients melted even the most hardened hearts and helped remove many of the prejudices held, at the time, against their religion. For as long as there were wounded, the Sisters nursed the sick, and comforted and baptized the dying of both armies.


A stained glass window in St. Francis Xavier Church commemorates the service provided by these Angels of the Battlefield to the wounded and dying of both armies in the wake of the battle.

When the war was over, their work earned recognition from President Abraham Lincoln. He said:


"Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were among the most efficient. More lovely than anything I had ever seen in art, so long devoted to illustrations of love, mercy and charity, are the pictures that remain of these modest Sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying."



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The Second Battle of Gettysburg: The Aftermath

Tillie Pierce

"The whole landscape had been changed and I felt as though we were in a strange and blighted land."

-- Matilda J. "Tillie" Pierce, July 7, 1863


The troops took their war back to Virginia, but the wreckage left in their wake brought about a second battle. This one against injury, death and pestilence.


The horror was just beginning for the town and surrounding community. Out in the open, surgeons continued to amputate, embalmers worked on those that didn't make it, soldiers searched for anyone who might still be alive, and curiosity-seekers came out to gawk at the destruction and collect souvenirs.

Local people took wounded into their homes, public buildings -- including St. Francis Xavier Church -- continued to be used as hospitals, and a tent hospital was set up on the east side of town. A number of the wounded remained in Gettysburg for several months, and the local population also took in many relatives who came either to care for wounded soldiers or to seek loved ones among the living and the dead.

The battlefield itself was a disaster. The original fields of wheat, barley, oats, corn, and grass became crater-marked muddy expanses with blood-filled ditches. Wounded soldiers groaned as they waited in pouring rain and blistering sun to be rescued. The human wreckage was beyond belief and comprehension.


The stench of decomposition from the surrounding countryside created an air that was barely breathable and could be detected from miles away. The burial of the dead had begun but, by the time they were covered, many had already lain untouched for four days in the July heat. The dead horses left on the field were estimated to be between 3-5 thousand. After the soldiers were buried, these animals were dragged into piles and burned -- an extremely slow and odorous process.


Sarah Broadhead

In the excessive heat of July, hoardes of flies fed on the decaying flesh in the hospitals and partially covered graves and invaded the town, carrying fever-inducing germs. The town fought the threat of disease by daily spreading chlorine of lime on the streets to disinfect the mud, manure and puddles that accumulated there. The peculiar smell of the disinfectant mingled with the other noxious odors to add to the unpleasantness of the atmosphere. At night, it became necessary to sleep with the windows shut, keeping out the odor but keeping in the heat of the day.


On July 11, Sarah Broadhead wrote:

"The atmosphere is loaded with the horrid smell of decaying horses and the remains of slaughtered animals and, it is said, from the bodies of men imperfectly buried. I fear we shall be visited with pestilence, for every breath we draw is made ugly by the stench."


Albertus McCreary noted that for weeks to follow:

"The stench was so bad... that everyone went around with a bottle of pennyroyal or peppermint oil."


The Fahnestock Brothers Store

The struggle was made worse by a severe shortage of food and potable water brought about by the presence for days of more than 170,000 men of both armies and the thousands of horses and mules that accompanied them. In addition, the railroad bridge just east of town had been destroyed by Confederate troops on June 26 and the telegraph wires were down, so the town was cut off from the outside world and, for a while, was forced to rely on its own resources. Town folk responded to the best of their means, but there just was not enough to feed everyone.

However, help was on the way. The relief organizations, now arriving by restored railways descended on the town in waves. Each arriving train brought a cadre of volunteers as well as food and medical provisions. It was a mixed blessing for the citizens of Gettysburg. The relief, particularly the food, was desperately needed. The influx of outsiders arriving along with the food would overflow both the public and private capacity for accomodations. Once more, the citizens of Gettysburg would extend themselves to meet the need.

On July 9, the U.S. Sanitary Commission established their headquarters and main supply distribution point in the Fahnestock Brothers store on the corner of Baltimore and Middle Streets. The Christian Commission set up their distribution headquarters in the rooms of J.L. Schick's store in the Stoever building. The positive effect of their aid would be noticable almost immediately, as care and living conditions for the wounded improved dramatically. Christian Commission volunteers began to spell many of the local citizens in the hospitals, giving exhausted Gettysburg women their first break since July 1st. The presence of these Commissions, their supplies and their many volunteers assumed much of the burden that otherwise would have overwhelmed and crushed the town.


Camp Letterman

Jonathan Letterman

When the two armies retreated from Gettysburg, they left behind roughly 21,000 wounded men in more than 160 makeshift hospital locations. This number was later consolidated into over 60 locations but, even so, it was too vast an area over which to efficiently care for all the wounded. On July 6, Asst. Adj. Gen. Seth Williams suggested a large tent hospital should be constructed to the northeast of town for taking care of all the wounded that had been left behind:

“The medical director will establish a general hospital at Gettysburg for the wounded that cannot be moved with the army.”


Surgeon Jonathan Letterman, the medical director for the Union Army of the Potomac, ordered 106 surgeons to remain behind with these wounded. Shortly afterward, the army dispatched a few more doctors to assist those left at Gettysburg. On July 20, Camp Letterman was established on 80 acres of the George Wolf farm along the York Pike (on the present-day site of the Giant Foods complex) about one mile east of town.

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.


Camp Letterman

Long-term care was not the purpose of Camp Letterman. Its purpose was to enable the convalescents to recover enough to be placed on railroad cars that would transport them home or to more permanent military hospitals in or near large cities in the east.


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.


The official closing of the hospital took place in late November. The last tents were finally struck about the same time President Abraham Lincoln visited Getysburg to give his Gettysburg Address at the new Soldiers National Cemetery.



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