Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care


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Civil War Surgeon Set The Standard For Battlefield Medicine

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This past week marked years since the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a crucial victory for the North, a turning point in the Civil War.


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But it came at an enormous cost to both sides. Thousands of soldiers were killed, tens of thousands more wounded.

Letterman's Legacy

And it might have been even worse, had it not been for a surgeon named Jonathan Letterman. He served as the chief medical officer of the Army of the Potomac and over the course of a single year, he revolutionized military medicine. They didn't know what caused infections - bacteria, anything of that sort. There was no ambulance system, so the early battles such as Bull Run left thousands of men wounded on the battlefield for days; some of them dying of dehydration and thirst.

By John Prevas

They were weakened to begin the battle because Army diet was horrible in the sense of salt pork, weevil-filled biscuits and alcohol as the daily ration. Can you tell us more about that story, what happened to the wounded from that battle? Did they have anywhere to go for care? They were depended upon a few slackers, derelicts and Army band members who are typically assigned as ambulance crews. He is named the chief medical officer of the Army of the Potomac.

Account Options

Huge percentages of the fighting force are sick, unable to fight. How did he tackle this problem? The commanding general, George McClellan, was something of a reformer. The surgeon general was a very deep-thinking reformer by the name of William Hammond, a young man. And he was able to very quickly issue new regulations, make the mandatory with real authority that defined and codified new standards in nutrition, camp hygiene, how and when latrines were dug and when they were covered, the disposal of lice-ridden uniforms.

Can you describe what that looked like in those early days and why it was such a radical improvement? MCGAUGH: Prior to that military officers routinely commandeered wagons, intended as ambulances, for their personal use and for their baggage. The commanding general, George McClellan, was something of a reformer; the surgeon general was a very deep-thinking reformer by the name of William Hammond, a young man. And that gave Letterman the opportunity to apply a very keen, analytical, holistic mind to health care, not just on the battlefield but before ever reaching the battlefield.


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And he was able to very quickly issue new regulations, make them mandatory with real authority, that defined and codified new standards in nutrition, camp hygiene, how and when latrines were dug and when they were covered, the disposal of lice-ridden uniforms. Because at the time when he took over, he was faced with a disease rate of nearly 40 percent. Luggage, personal belongings, even their servants in some cases. So one of the very first things Letterman did was acquire the authority from Gen. McClellan to hold military officers and medical officers accountable.

McClellan a stronger, more viable fighting force. And if that made him more effective, that might lead to a faster end to the war and the ability for everyone to go home. All those concepts, those principles, that all began with Jonathan Letterman. And today it's a hallmark of battlefield medicine, to a point where in World War II, 30 percent of soldiers succumbed to their wounds.

Civil War Surgeon Set The Standard For Battlefield Medicine | WUWM

Today, it's less than 10 percent. This past week marked years since the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a crucial victory for the North, a turning point in the Civil War. But it came at an enormous cost to both sides. Thousands of soldiers were killed, tens of thousands more wounded. And it might have been even worse, had it not been for a surgeon named Jonathan Letterman. He served as the chief medical officer of the Army of the Potomac and over the course of a single year, he revolutionized military medicine. They didn't know what caused infections - bacteria, anything of that sort.

There was no ambulance system, so the early battles such as Bull Run left thousands of men wounded on the battlefield for days; some of them dying of dehydration and thirst.

Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care

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