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Field hospital at Smith’s barn – Keedysville, Maryland

About nineteen thousand men were wounded in the Battle of Antietam. Their care posed a logistical challenge that encompassed an area of more than forty miles and parts of three states. Practically every house, church, barn and shed in and around Sharpsburg, more than 120 structures, was used as some sort of hospital. But beyond that, the wounded were taken to hospitals in nearby villages such as Keedysville and Boonsboro. Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland, became major hospital sites, and about four hundred wounded Union soldiers were sent north by rail to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The Confederates set up hospitals in Shepherdstown, Martinsburg and Winchester, Virginia. A Hagerstown newspaper referred to the area as “one vast hospital.”

By the time of the Vietnam War and up until our present conflicts in the Middle East, medical evacuation of the wounded has generally been swift. The use of motor vehicles or aircraft, particularly the helicopter, allows for medevacs, often in thirty minutes or less. During the Civil War, wounded soldiers usually stayed on the field much longer. Antietam was no exception. Accounts tell of soldiers lying out on the battlefield for two or three days. However, a revolution in combat medical care was instituted just a few weeks prior to Antietam to alleviate this. Dr. Jonathan Letterman, chief medical officer of the Army of the Potomac, organized an ambulance corps that moved to the front to evacuate the wounded and established field hospitals and a procedure to prioritize causalities by the severity of their wounds. This system is what emergency medical teams today know as triage.

“Battle of Antietam:The Bloodiest Day” by Ted Alexander

Footnote: Doctor Letterman proved the efficiency of this system at Fredericksburg, 3 months later, and it was adopted by all armies of the United States. Letterman’s crowning achievement was at the Battle of Gettysburg. In dealing with more than 14,000 Union wounded, along with 6,800 Confederate wounded who were left behind, a vast medical encampment was created northeast of Gettysburg off the York Pike on the George Wolf farm, named “Camp Letterman.