When the Michigan Fourth Infantry sustained heavy casualties after the battle of Gettysburg, the nearby Camp Letterman became this largely Hillsdale-based regiment’s field hospital. For several months after the Civil War’s northernmost battle, Letterman treated wounded soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. Now, it’s the site of a new struggle.
The Pennsylvania-based housing development company S&A Homes has purchased the remains of Camp Letterman. The company plans to build a subdivision on the historical site in the next few years. But in an effort to maintain the historic ground, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association has asked S&A to spare 17 acres for preservation of the area where the Camp Letterman Field Hospital once stood. The GBPA has already preserved eight acres of the site.
“People have been talking about saving Camp Letterman since the 1880s. We originally wanted to make it the entrance of the National Military Park,” GBPA representative Glen Hayes said. “But for a number of reasons it never happened. This is pretty much our last chance to save the site.”
Hayes said the GBPA has received widespread support for its efforts, which resulted in a petition with 2,000 signatures aimed at persuading S&A to reserve some of the land.
“We even have a reenactment group in Italy signing a petition,” he said.
The part of Camp Letterman about which the GBPA is concerned once served as a field hospital, where doctors and nurses treated over 4,000 wounded soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy in the months following the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863.
Gary Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia, said because of its involvement in the battle of Gettysburg, the area where the Camp Letterman field hospital stood is worth preserving.
“Camp Letterman does have considerable historical importance and potential as a place to interpret for modern audiences the ways in which both sides dealt with the vast number of wounded soldiers after major battles,” he said in an email.
Among these wounded was Cpl. David Laird of the 4th Michigan Brigade from Hudson, Michigan, who was transferred to Letterman after the battle. He lay there for two months before dying of his wounds on Sept. 24.
In her memoir, “In Hospital and Camp: A Woman’s Record Of Thrilling Incidents Among The Wounded In The Late War,” the field nurse Sophronia Bucklin serving at Letterman recorded the massive influx of soldiers like Laird transferred to Letterman after the battle.
“A line of stretchers a mile and a half in length, each bearing a hero, who had fought nigh to death, told us where lay our work and we commenced it at once,” she wrote.
Bucklin took note of the gory conditions and suffering many of the soldiers endured while being treated for their wounds.
“One soldier, in the presence of his wife, was striving to endure with calmness the pain of a fractured thigh and amputated arm. No hands but hers smoothed his pillow, no other could give him nourishment to support life, no fingers were as tender as hers over the throbbing wounds, where worms were feeding upon the living human flesh,” she wrote of an unnamed soldier who eventually recovered of his wounds.
Private Franklin Stokes, a Pennsylvania militiaman assigned to guard Prisoners of War being treated at Letterman also wrote about the camp in his diary.
“It is heart rendering to pass through the streets and hear the cries of agony that burden the air. I have heard them when I was away from the hospital a half-mile,” he said.
Today however, most of Letterman is either developed land — or soon to be developed land — casting doubt upon whether its historic value will be preserved for future generations.