Jonathan Letterman

Civil War Surgeon Revolutionized Battlefield Medicine

Jonathan Letterman was a surgeon in the U.S. Army who pioneered a system of caring for the wounded during battles of the Civil War. Prior to his innovations, the care of wounded soldiers was fairly haphazard, but by organizing an Ambulance Corps Letterman saved many lives and changed forever how the military operated.

Letterman's accomplishments did not have much to do with scientific or medical advances, but with ensuring that a solid organization for caring for the wounded was in place. 

After joining the Army of the Potomac of General George McClellan in the summer of 1862, Letterman began preparing the Medical Corps. Months later he faced a colossal challenge at the Battle of Antietam, and his organization for moving the wounded proved its worth. The following year, his ideas were utilized during and after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Some of Letterman's reforms had been inspired by changes instituted in medical care by the British during the Crimean War. But he also had invaluable medical experience learned in the field, during a decade spent in the Army, mostly at outposts in the West, before the Civil War.

After the war, he wrote a memoir that detailed his operations in the Army of the Potomac. And with his own health suffering, he died at the age of 48. His ideas, however, lived on long after his life and benefited the armies of many nations.

Early Life

Jonathan Letterman was born December 11, 1824, in Canonsburg, in western Pennsylvania. His father was a doctor, and Jonathan received an education from a private tutor. He later attended Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1845. He then attended medical school in Philadelphia. He received his M.D. degree in 1849 and took the examination to join the U.S. Army.

Throughout the 1850s Letterman was assigned to various military expeditions which often involved armed skirmishes with Indian tribes. In the early 1850s he served in Florida campaigns against the Seminoles. He was transferred to a fort in Minnesota, and in 1854 joined an Army expedition that traveled from Kansas to New Mexico. In 1860 he served a stint in California. 

On the frontier, Letterman learned to tend to the wounded while having to improvise in very rough conditions, often with inadequate supplies of medicine and equipment.

Civil War and Battlefield Medicine

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Letterman returned from California and was briefly posted in New York City. By the spring of 1862 he was assigned to an Army unit in Virginia, and in July 1862 he was appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac. At the time, Union troops were engaged in McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, and military doctors were grappling with the problems of disease as well as battle wounds.

As McClellan's campaign turned into a fiasco, and the Union troops retreated and began to return to the area around Washington, D.C., they tended to leave behind medical supplies. So Letterman, taking over that summer, faced a challenge of resupplying the Medical Corps. He advocated for the creation of an ambulance corps. McClellan agreed to the plan and a regular system of inserting ambulances into army units began.

By September 1862, when the Confederate Army crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, Letterman commanded a Medical Corps that promised to be more efficient than anything the U.S. Army had seen before. At Antietam, it was put to the test.

In the days following the great battle in western Maryland, the Ambulance Corps, troops specially trained to retrieve wounded soldiers and bring them to improvised hospitals, functioned fairly well.

That winter the Ambulance Corp again proved its worth at the Battle of Fredericksburg. But the colossal test came at Gettysburg, when the fighting raged for three days and casualties were enormous. Letterman's system of ambulances and wagon trains dedicated to medical supplies worked fairly smoothly, despite countless obstacles.

Legacy and Death

Jonathan Letterman resigned his commission in 1864, after his system had been adopted throughout the U.S. Army. After leaving the Army he settled in San Francisco with his wife, whom he had married in 1863. In 1866, he wrote a memoir of his time as medical director of the Army of the Potomac.

His health began to fail, and he died on March 15, 1872. His contributions to how armies prepare to attend to the wounded in battle, and in how the wounded are moved and cared for, had great influence over the years.

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McNamara, Robert. "Jonathan Letterman." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, January 29). Jonathan Letterman. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Jonathan Letterman." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).