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

 Scott McGaugh, Arcade Publishing

After its unsuccessful 1862 Peninsula Campaign, the Army of the Potomac underwent a revolution, led by Dr. Jonathan Letterman. The army’s medical director, Letterman instituted a series of reforms that revolutionized the care soldiers received during and after combat. Scott McGaugh’s thoroughly researched biography of this unsung hero should place Letterman among the pantheon of medical innovators.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1824, Letterman received a quality education at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Rather than starting a private practice, he opted to join the Army and spent the antebellum years at a variety of frontier posts treating dysentery, diarrhea and arrow wounds. But the staggering casualties of the war’s first battles soon overwhelmed the tiny, unprepared Army Medical Corps. “When spring arrived in 1862,” McGaugh opines, “the Union army would be supported by a medical structure that lacked foresight, innovation, and the ability to adapt.”

Surgeon General William Hammond brought Letterman from the Department of West Virginia to head the medical department of the Army of the Potomac in July 1862. He received the unstinting support of the army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, but was mistrusted by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck and many doctors from the civilian relief agencies.

Within three weeks of his appointment, however, Letterman “rewrote the standards of military camp hygiene; living conditions; diet; and the process of authorizing transfer to hospitals in the rear….” McGaugh argues that, during four of the largest battles of the war— Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg— Letterman also developed a professional ambulance corps that “refined battlefield evacuation from a post-battle scavenger hunt to one marked by military discipline.”

Although the Army of the Potomac suffered more than 15,000 wounded casualties at Gettysburg, Letterman proudly proclaimed “that not one wounded man…was left on the field within our lines on the morning of July 4.” His legacy lives on in the modern age. Major General Paul R. Hawley, chief surgeon for the European Theater of Operations in World War II, commented: “There is not a day…that I did not thank God for Jonathan Letterman. He was truly a surgeon for the soldiers.”


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.