Army Medical History- Civil War

MAJ Jonathan Letterman


Known as the “Father of Modern Battlefield Medicine,” MAJ John Letterman graduated

from Jefferson Medical College in 1849. The same year he assumed the rank of

assistant surgeon in the Army Medical Department. From 1849 until 1861,

Letterman served on various military campaigns against Native American tribes

in Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, and California.



In the beginning of the Civil War medical logistics were lacking. There were no dedicated wagons to assist with removal of injured and dead soldiers. Additionally the medical logistics at the time were inefficient, causing

preventable deaths. 



MAJ Letterman developed an evacuation system that consisted of three stations:

1) A Field Dressing Station - located on or next to the

battlefield where medical personnel would apply the initial dressings and

tourniquets to wounds.


2) A Field Hospital – located close to the battlefield,

usually in homes or barns, where emergency surgery could be performed and

additional treatment given.


3) A Large Hospital – Located away from the battlefield and

providing facilities for the long term treatment of patients.




Letterman started the very first Ambulance Corps, training men to act as stretcher bearers and operate wagons to pick up the wounded and bring them to field

dressing stations. The success of the Ambulance Corps was proven at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. While there were over 23,000 casualties,

medical personnel were able to remove all of the wounded from the field in just 24 hours. The battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union suffered an additional

12,000 casualties, and the battle of Gettysburg, with 14,000 Union wounded, both tested Letterman’s system to the extreme, but again, it proved a great success, saving thousands of soldiers’ lives. In March of 1864, the system was officially adopted for the U.S. Army by an Act of Congress.



MAJ Letterman also addressed camp hygiene issues and created numerous solutions

including: 

·       Bigger and more nutritious portions

·       Better cooking methods

·       More hygienic handling of food

·       Ensured breakfast

·       Improved shelter

·       Breaks for rest mandated

·       Improved supplies, ex: clean uniforms

·       After 1 month as chief medical officer, disease for Army of Potomac decreased by a

third. 


MAJ Letterman also accessed the medical supply system and overhauled it. Letterman created a tiered supply chain that decentralized supplies from the brigade HQ in the rear to forward units on the battlefield. Each brigade was ensured one

hospital wagon, one medical supply wagon, and one medical chest and knapsack for each medical officer. This allowed the army to be more mobile.



MAJ Jonathan Letterman
Ambulance Drill, 1864