Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Gettysburg: the Aftermath Part 2

by | December 7, 2012 | 2 comments

Though the battle of Gettysburg ended on July 3, 1863, the suffering did not. Over 33,000 wounded, 21,000 of those seriously wounded, needed care and attention. How could just 106 Union doctors and a handful of Confederate surgeons in a town with a population of just 2400 minister to this multitude? Where would they put them? How would they feed them?

“To all this was the great tax upon the people of providing and caring for the wounded from the bloody battle-field of Gettysburg…People threw open their private house; the churches, the schoolhouses, the public halls, and even the bars and stables, rang with the groans and agony of the shot, maimed and mutilated, that filled apparently every place, and still the field of death and agony could yet furnish more victims.” Bradsby, H.C., History of Cumberland and Adams Counties…p. 171.

The number of wounded was so large that many, particularly the Rebels, were simply laid out in the fields with just a blanket beneath their body and there they stayed, bleeding and in horrible pain, while the rain that drenched the earth after the battle soaked through them.

“Scarcely had one man out of a thousand anything more than the ground, covered with an old blanket or an oil cloth, to lay on, and hundreds had undergone amputations since the battle…the doctors were busily engaged in amputating; great piles of limbs being heaped up at the three different tents, and hundreds were suffering to have their wounds washed and dressed.” The USCC Maryland Report…pgs. 104-107

Though the field hospitals tried to care for the sick, they were often overwhelemed.  Assistant Surgeon John S. Billlings of the U.S. Fifth Corps recalls that on July 2nd, “I performed a large number of operations, received and fed 750 wounded, and worked all night.”

There were two major civilian agencies that helped behind the battle front: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission and they worked with the military to provide comfort to the sick and wounded. John S. Billings reports that on the evening of July 2nd, “An agent of the Sanitary Commission visited me in the evening and furnished me with a barrel of crackers and some lemons. Of stimulants, chloroform, morphine and dressings the Autenreith wagons furnished an ample supply.”

If you saw the recent movie, Lincoln, you will remember the scene where Lincoln’s son comes across another type of wagon filled with assorted limbs. Author Susan Macatee has a great blog post on the state of the Civil War surgeon and surgery that sets the scene for Gettysburg: http://susanmacatee.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/monday-inspiration-the-civil-war-surgeon/

Between the crude state of medicine and equally crude state of war, it is a wonder anyone who was wounded survived for there was nothing sanitary about their treatment. Out of both necessity and ignorance, men who had just undergone an amputation were set down on muddy ground. Flies swarmed and maggots hatched in their wounds. Food, particularly in the first few days after the battle, was scarce and many wells had been pumped dry by the armies of men who had trampled through the area in the fight. As Confederate Lieutenant John Dooley of the 1st Virginia recalled, “I begin now to suffer from thirst, for the only water they bring us is from a neighboring run which is warm and muddy and has the additional properties belonging to human blood and dead bodies.”

The soldiers at Gettysburg were a triumphant example of endurance and resilence.

What did all this chaos and agony do to the little hamlet of Gettysburg, however. The majority of the townspeople who were left were women and they cooked food and donated their time and efforts to helping the wounded despite the daunting nature of the task. They served as nurses, helped the two commissions dole out clean shirts and sheets, and dressed wounds. It was hard, distasteful work, but they did it. And they did it despite the fact that for many, their homes had been wrecked, their fields trampled, and their lives upended.

The New York Times reported the following on July 15, 1863: “There are still about three thousand wounded in the principal hospitals throughout the village, all of whom are well cared for. There are in addition to this number about a thousand rebel wounded in the place, nearly all of whom are in the Pennsylvania College building, which is used as a hospital; it is the best and most spacious building in the place, and was taken possession of as a hospital during the first day’s fight on Wednesday. Most of the rebel wounded are under the charge of Dr. H.D. FRASER, Division Surgeon under the rebel Gen. ANDERSON. The rest of them are under the care of Dr. W.B. REULISON, of New-York City, who has chief charge of the Cavalry corps Hospital, at the Presbyterian church, which is one of the very best conducted hospitals in the place. Gov. CURTIN has been here for a couple of days, giving his personal attention to the wounded and otherwise making himself useful.

The battle-field is visited daily by thousands of people from all sections of the country. Many come in quest of those who have fallen in battle, while most of them come through sheer curiosity. Thousands of dollars’ worth of guns and other military Valuables, are carried away by them from the field, notwithstanding the pretended vigilance of those charged with the duty of preventing such offences, and the ground for miles, in all directions is still thickly strewn with all manner of such articles. The Village is, of necessity, very much crowded, and hundreds of visitors are obliged to seek the hospitality of private dwellings, the hotels being wholly incapable of accommodating them all. Most of the citizens remained in the place during the battle, and those who did go away have again returned, and once more resumed their usual callings. There is but little business, however, as yet, of any kind transacted, nearly all the merchandise having been carried a way either by the rebels when in possession of the place, or by the owners of the property themselves; and most of the citizens, are devoting themselves almost exclusively to the care of the wounded. There were several citizens wounded during the progress of the battle, but only one killed — Miss MINNIE WADE, a young lady about 20 years of age, who was in her dwelling at the time. “

As with all such disasters, there are always some for whom it brings out the worst. And least we think only the modern age suffers from opportunists or that somehow “back in the day” people were so much better, the following tidbits should support that human nature has not changed much in a hundred and fifty years.

Lieutenant Robert S. Robertson of the 93rd New York Infantry presented his sense of the people thusly: “It was evidently a flourishing village, but I can’t say much in favor of its inhabitants…Most of the rest left their homes, and many are coming back today only to find their houses in ruins, or else used as hospitals. Those who staid home are trying to make up for what they lost by the battle in exorbitant prices for food sold to the soldiers. They are a miserly crew, and have no souls or conscience where a penny is concerned.”

Surgeon Cyrus Bacon, 7th Michigan Infantry shares his opinion about the area residents surround Gettysburg: “…Thousands visited the battle field, yet for days I did not see the first act of charity from the people…The people seem to consider us lawful prizes, and are not only extortionate but give to us little real sympathy. A man comes after a bit with a few bundles of straw. $1.00 for a loaf of bread. Such items makes one indignant for the honor of his county. However, the people of the city of Gettysburg in some measure redeem this character of the county residents.”

Mrs. C.A. Ehler, a civilian volunteer nurse noted: “There are isolated cases of meanness and extortion is certain, for the men of our hospital told us how after lying three days without anything to eat and suffering great agony from their wounds, five wounded men were charged twenty-five dollars (all they had in the world) for bringing them two miles into Gettysburg in an uncovered wagon without springs, whose very motion they thought would put an end to their sufferings. The next day three of the number died.”

If you want to truly understand the horror of the battle of Gettysburg, I recommend A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg: the Aftermath of a Battle by Gregory A. Coco from which I got most of my information. And the Library of Congress has an interesting collection of pictures of the battle at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=gettysburg&st=gallery&co=civwar

If you have not had a chance to visit Gettysburg and tour the battlefield, I highly recommend it. It truly brings history to life.

Anne Carrole writes historical and contemporary romance with a western flair. Her latest release is Falling for a Cowboy, available now at www.amazon.com


  1. Susan Macatee

    Thanks for the plug. lol
    I’ve visited Gettysburg and can only imagine what those poor people had to endure. The Jennie Wade house, now a tourist attraction, still has holes in the door and walls. And bullet holes damaged bricks in one of the town’s restaurants and other buildings as well.

  2. mlewis

    Gettysburg is an unforgettable experience. I was last there around 1997; my understanding is there have been great improvements since then in terms of the historical display. They have a new film, and many renovations in terms of preservation and display. But the experience of walking the grounds is what really gets to you. Go there if you can.



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