Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
By Scott McGaugh; Arcade Publishing; 368 pages; $25.95
Book Review Here’s what a real Washington, D.C., scandal looks like: Many Union soldiers wounded at Bull Run, the Civil War’s first major battle, had to walk some 20 miles to the nation’s capital in search of medical care. Hundreds too badly hurt remained behind, some for as long as a week, until they were carried off and treated.
Hardly any thought had been given to tending to wounded troops. More than 1,500 soldiers seeking treatment overwhelmed Washington’s four hospitals as well as an inexperienced military medical corps.
The military debacle in Northern Virginia in July 1861 revealed more than a fundamentally flawed and unprepared Union army, historian Scott McGaugh writes. “Its medical department needed new leadership, organization, resources, and perhaps most importantly, the authority to adequately prepare, deploy and treat the wounded in battle.”
Central to the life-saving changes that followed was a military doctor who had spent more than a decade in Army outposts around the country. Jonathan Letterman, a native of Canonsburg, Pa., educated at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College, knew all too well how commanders and the military bureaucracy could treat doctors with disdain and ignore their advice about hygiene and nutrition.
In “Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care,” McGaugh blends the doctor’s personal history with an examination of medical practices of the era and an overview of key Civil War battles. McGaugh provides telling details within a concise narrative to give Letterman’s personal story the context necessary for appreciating his influence.
Letterman’s organizational skills earned him greater and greater responsibility for determining how to anticipate and meet the needs of wounded troops.
By the time Union and Confederate forces clashed in September 1862 at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md., Letterman’s reforms were taking hold. Illness among troops had fallen after weekly baths were ordered, for example, and cases of scurvy began to recede once fresh vegetables were routinely provided.