Glen Hayes, of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, has championed the preservation of Camp Letterman outside of Gettysburg for two decades. The field hospital covered more ground than people have realized, he says, and a significant chunk stood on land now owned and planned for residential development by S&A Homes, headquartered in State College, Pa. Hayes is urging Civil War aficionados and anyone who cares about preserving the memories of the Gettysburg battle and its aftermath to advocate for it by writing to the property owner. (See box at end of interview for address).
What is your organization?
The Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association. We’re the oldest battlefield preservation group. We started in 1959. And I’ve been involved in this project for 13 years, and actually it goes back further. We have been working to save Letterman for 20 years.
What brought you to this cause?
I’ve been going to Gettysburg all my life, since 1968, there is just something.…people always say they have a feeling on the battlefield. I’ve always enjoyed the battlefield. At the Letterman I’ve always had a melancholy feeling. I’ve never understood it. I used to go to the monument and put a flag and flowers there. I got involved back when there was a threat from the Giant Store. And when that was built in 1997, everyone said that’s it, it’s pretty much all destroyed now. I started doing the research and found, hey, there’s a lot left of this that can be preserved.
What happened at Camp Letterman?
Camp Letterman was the first general hospital that was placed on the battlefield. Until then they were always in the major cities; they were wooden hospitals with barracks. This was a tent hospital and there were almost 4,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. One nurse called them the “dregs of the battle”—they were so bad they couldn’t be moved by trains anywhere else. A lot couldn’t take even the ambulance to Camp Letterman, they had to be carried by stretcher. They were in such bad shape. It started officially July 22, 1863, and closed November 20, 1863. 365 of those 4000 soldiers died. The nurses talked about the suffering the soldiers went through. One member of a militia from Pennsylvania said the screams were so horrible that from half a mile away he could hear them screaming. One soldier was wounded on July 1 and spent three weeks at the field hospital and two weeks at Camp Letterman before he died. They list him as having a penetrating wound of the left lung and a gunshot wound to the abdomen that perforated his liver and gallbladder. That’s the kind of wounds they had there. And double amputees.
Who was staffing it?
Army medical corps with tremendous help from the U.S. Sanitary commission and the U.S. Christian Commission. Most of the nurses were just regular people who went to help. They didn’t have that big of a nursing corps.
Where is the camp exactly?
There are two parts. The more famous, that you always see photographed, is right on route 30, We are in negotiations with the owner and we are hoping we can save a good part of it. If we can save what we are hoping for, we will be saving the area where the tents containing the wounded were located and also the tents where the nurses and Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission were located. People will be able to see the photographs of the hospital in that section and visit the same area where those photographs were taken.
What is saved now?
As of now the only part of Camp Letterman that is preserved is the back part of the hospital that contained tents with the wounded. This consists of 8 acres (the total size of Camp Letterman was said to be over 80 acres) located on the back of the Daniel Lady Farm, which is adjacent to where S&A Homes wants to build on the 17 acres we want to save. When the Giant Store was built, they destroyed the area where the surgeons’ tents where they operated on the patients were. If we lose the front part of Letterman, we will lose the area where the tents containing the wounded were, as well as the area where the Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission were. Also lost will be the area where the tents for the nurses, notably Sophronia Bucklin and Cornelia Hancock, were, whose letters have given us so much of the information we have on Letterman. People could stand in that area and read where Hancock wrote on August 7 (2 weeks after Letterman opened): “It is now about 9 o’clock and every tent has a light and a lot of groaning sick men…there are many sights to see here but the most melancholy one is to see the ambulances come in after dark with the wounded.” Also, if S&A builds, you will stand at the remaining 8 acres on the Lady Farm and instead of continuing to walk on the land, which is still the same as when the tents with the wounded were there, you will be seeing houses.
What is there now on the land you want to preserve?
The property, owned by S&A Homes, is exactly the same as it was when there were tents there. There’s a house that can be removed. There is a stream. It’s dried out but you can see the depression where it ran. The tents were on both sides of the stream. It’s like a little ridge that goes down to the property to the Daniel Lady farm. The last 8 acres of Camp Letterman—the back part—were there.
Why is it important to save it?
They took care of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Even in the cemetery, Union and Confederate soldiers were buried side by side. And the nurses were told to show no difference in treating the wounded. The hospital is an example. Many people only think of the battle as the 3 days of fighting. These wounded soldiers were there much longer. They were suffering and dying months after the battle. It shows the suffering these guys went through on both sides. They were there a lot longer.
Did any combat occur at the Camp Letterman site?
Part of the land on S&A was involved in combat. Graham’s battery and Nelson’s battalion were there on July 3, and they were part of the bombardment before Pickett’s charge. If we could save that area, we would complete the artillery line of the Confederates from the Peach Orchard all the way to far left flanks. Some tour guides have said if you can save this, this would be the last stop on our tours. Considering only the hospital site, there are some purists who say only sites involving the 3 days of fighting should be preserved. These soldiers didn’t stop being wounded after July 3.
What do you want?
We want 17 acres that made up the hospital. Now when we first met with S&A in 2007, this was only one project out of 60 they had in three states. This land is in the back corner of their property, and it’s connected to the Daniel Lady Farm. Because we’re a nonprofit we can give them a tax donation for the full value of the land. And we suggested if they could come up with a decent price, we could try and raise the money. I received no response.
What is your worst fear?
To have this development go in. The only thing left of Letterman will be the very back 8 acres. Since the 1880s, people have been talking about saving Camp letterman. At one time even the New York Commission was talking about saving it and making it the entrance to the battlefield.
Even in the original Sickles map, the original boundary for the park had Camp Letterman in it. If we don’t save it now, it’s gone forever.
If you get the land, what happens next?
Our best hope is that we hold onto the land until the park can change the boundary and then we turn the land over to the Park Service to become part of the park. Right now, if people want to see it, they can’t because it’s private property. They can go to the Giant Store parking lot and look at the empty area. There’s a monument put there in 1914. It’s right on the road, but it’s tough to see, because if you pull off the road you might get hit. That’s why we’re hoping to save it, so people can see the front part, then go on to the part that we saved and walk onto the Lady Farm. They’d be able to go to the whole back of the hospital, which actually held, probably about 2/3 of the wounded at the height of Camp Letterman.
What can people do to help?
Right now we’re looking for a letter writing campaign, because the first time it did bring them to the negotiating table. The owner finally arranged a meeting, saying “We’re getting letters from all over the country, this is important we have to talk about it.” Sometimes it’s like they hope we just give up and go away, hoping we can’t do anything. We’ve been at it this long, we’re going to fight right to the end and hopefully save it.
Bob Poole, CEO
2121 Old Galesburg Road
State College, PA, 16803