Howdy folks, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: for the past few days I have purposely NOT followed the Olympic medal count online, since I want to watch the evening coverage of the Olympics without knowing who’s going to win in advance. This played out well for me on Tuesday night, where I got to see Michael Phelps break the record for most medals ever!
Sadly, 150 years ago the United States was more focused on tearing itself apart than on competing in multi-national sporting events. The war had already taken a frightfully bloody toll on both the Union and the Confederates, and a problem arose concerning the wounded. About two men were wounded for every man who was killed in action, and as a result the sheer volume of men requiring care often overwhelmed medical services. To Union Major Jonathan Letterman, this was unacceptable: he set out to upgrade and reorganize the medical services in the eastern theatre. Union soldiers should not want for help when they need it most!
Major Letterman was appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac in June of 1862. Once he received permission from General McClellan, Letterman began to reform the medical services with a free hand. On this day 150 years ago, Letterman established an Army Ambulance Corps separate from any other department. Prior to this action, all the ambulances belonged to the Quartermaster’s department. Since ambulances were then just regular wagons used for medical purposes, wounded men and medical supplies were frequently not properly transported because the wagons were busy moving other supplies. With a separate ambulance corps, ambulance wagons could now be dedicated to transporting only wounded men and medical supplies. This improved the care given to the wounded by a staggering amount.
After creating an ambulance corps, Letterman set to work instituting one of the first triage systems in the Civil War. By the time of the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, Letterman had created and deployed a system of forward aid stations which could help organize the wounded, making it easier to get the most urgent cases immediate care. This is the primary purpose of triage: to sort the wounded in order of severity so that the most immediate life-threatening wounds get treated first, while minor wounds can be dealt with later. Triage is normally used when medical staffs are overwhelmed by the number of cases they have to deal with, which would definitely be the case during a major battle like Antietam. For information on the different aspects of triage, click HERE.
As the war progressed, Letterman’s reforms proved to be so effective that they were adopted by other armies, and later even established as the official medical system by the US military in spring of 1864. In December of that same year, Letterman retired and moved to California with his wife to serve as coroner of San Fransisco. Not a bad end for a man whose medical reforms probably saved the lives of tens of thousands of men!
Well, that about does it for today’s entry, folks. Tune in next time for more Civil War coverage, and in the mean time, enjoy the Olympics!