Remembering Jonathan Letterman

Dr. Letterman’s story, despite his importance to the field of military medicine, has been largely, forgotten. I hope that this post changes that.

Major Jonathan Letterman, affectionately known as “the father of battlefield medicine,” would develop a plan to reorganize military medical treatment for the army which continues to save countless lives. Born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania in 1824, Letterman took after his father who was a surgeon, and attended Jefferson Medical College as a young man (“Jonathan Letterman”). Shortly after graduating, he became an assistant surgeon in the army medical department until the start of the Civil War. In June of 1862, Letterman was assigned to the Army of the Potomac and became medical director for the entire army (“Jonathan Letterman”). After witnessing the gut-wrenching aftermath of the second battle of Manassas in August, Letterman reported his action plan to Major General George McClellan, who enthusiastically approved of his ideas (Groeling 45).

Photo of Jonathan Letterman. Image Credit: battlefield.org

A Call to Action:

It is important to understand what the old system was like prior to Jonathan Letterman in order to fully appreciate all that he contributed. One of the first major problems was the confusion surrounding the removal of wounded soldiers from the battlefields. Soldiers who were not killed were left to lie on the fields where they were struck. They were exposed to the elements, animals, and the enemy. Sometimes all a man could do was scream and hope that it was his comrades that came upon him. It often took both sides days to collect their wounded men. Even after the men were removed from the fields, the organization of the hospital system was disorderly and ineffective. Lastly, Letterman was disgusted by poor sanitary conditions and the overall diets of the regiments and began exploring methods that would prevent the worsening of diseases throughout camps. 

The Development of the Ambulance Corps:

One of Letterman’s first changes was the institution of an ambulance corps which was composed of trained men that were solely responsible for removing wounded soldiers from the fields and taking them to treatment facilities (“Jonathan Letterman”). Stretchers and wagons were specifically put aside for the use of medical transportation and the men wore special uniforms to differentiate them from combat soldiers (Groeling 47). 

All members of the newly formed Ambulance Corps were expected to complete training courses so that they knew how to act under pressure. Image Credit: National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Tiered Treatment:

One large aspect of “The Letterman Plan” involved a tiered system of treatment. A triage system allowed the soldiers to be evaluated and cared for accordingly:

Top Priority: Most serious but survivable wounds

Second Priority: Less serious but survivable wounds

Last Priority: Most likely fatal wounds

Dressers at field dressing stations would prepare soldiers for treatments at field hospitals in the event of an emergency. Patients whose conditions were more stable were oftentimes sent to general hospitals for long-term recovery. In less than four months he radically revolutionized the removal of wounded from the battlefield and saw to it that they were treated more efficiently. 

“The conduct of the medical officers was admirable. Their labors not only began with the battle, but lasted long after the battle had ended. When other officers had time to rest, they were busily at work–and not merely at work, but enthusiastically and devoutly.”

[ Dr. Jonathan Letterman’s Gettysburg report, dated 3 October, 1863.]

Cleanliness and Order:

One final area that Letterman saw as being unacceptable at the start of the war was the overall poor sanitary conditions of the camps and treatment facilities. Certainly Letterman would have been exposed to the problems resulting from a slew of sufferings, including but not limited to, lice, dysentery, infection, and dietary deficiencies (Groeling 44).  Some changes he made involved ordering regiments to bathe once a week, standards for dug waste and food pits near camps, dietary needs of soldiers being met with their rations, and reports on the importance of general health and wellbeing becoming prioritized. In July 1862, 37% of the Army of the Potomac was reported ill, but by 1863, the number was reduced to 9%; a stark difference (Groeling 49). 

Jonathan Letterman resigned from the army in 1864 and moved to San Francisco where he served a coroner (“Jonathan Letterman”). His wife unexpectedly died in 1867 and he fell into a depressive state before dying in 1872 at the age of 48. Despite the many positive changes he brought forth for the army, Dr. Letterman’s story has been forgotten by most. I hope that this post changes that.

“Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, June 23,1862, to December 30, 1863, who brought order and efficiency into the Medical Service and who was the originator of modern methods of medical organization in armies.”

[Dr. Letterman’s headstone inscription. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.]

Check out my other Civil War post HERE.

If that doesn’t make you grateful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time

N.F.

Sources:

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