Finding Family History on a Battlefield

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

378. To prevent Wounds from mortifying. – Sprinkle sugar on them. The Turks wash fresh wounds with wine, and sprinkle sugar on them. Obstinate ulcers may be cured with sugar dissolved in a strong decoction of walnut leaves.

Gettysburg and Dr. WF Osborn

I returned four weeks ago from  an amazing adventure: a work/vacation in Gettysburg. I think it changed my life, but more importantly. I understand my great-grandfather’s journey on the road to Gettysburg as a new assistant surgeon in the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers,  2nd Division of 1st Corps.

More than a Window on History

I grew up reading my great -grandfather Dr. William F Osborn’s little pocket journals from the Civil War era  and in the past 15 years, have transcribed all of them, but the one I wanted to understand the most were his entries from his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Like many of his generation, it shaped his life for ever after, leading him back to the fields for the 50th anniversary of the battle. He was 83 years old.

With the 150th anniversary of the battle approaching, I wanted to find out more about him and I wanted to go to Gettysburg in his name. After all, my only experience had been on a chartered bus I went on with my high school choir.  So I began to search beyond the journals.

Looking for Clues: Medical School

One of the non-Civil War journals I transcribed was WF’s 1859 journal. On April 31, 1859 he arrived in Chicago to attend a year’s study at Rush Medical College. After several years of teaching in Illinois, he decided to become a doctor. His father AG Osborn, a Presbyterian minister in Fairchance, Penna, was well versed in medical matters, but self-taught. Rush was considered a good school for medical instruction.  WF grew up reading his father’s extensive library.

His journal for January 13, 1860, he wrote about a lecture by Brainard, founder of the school:

Diseases of the bones.

The bones are subject to all the disease of the soft parts and what affects the constitution also affects the bones. Rheumatic & syphilit has a tendency to increase the density of the bones.

He graduated in April 1860 and moved to Memphis, MO shortly afterward to set up his practice. By March 1861,with war looming and bricks thrown through the newspaper office of the Memphis National Democrat where he was editor and writer. He left, disappointed for Pittsburgh. He eventually set up practice in Pleasant Unity, PA and for the first year of the Civil War was a country doctor, delivering babies and caring for the injured and sick

A Church, Dr. Letterman and the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry Volunteers

Up to a couple of years ago, I had no details about his Gettysburg experience, except for his journals and the few surviving letters he wrote to a “Jenny.”  For July 1st, the first day of the battle at Gettysburg, he writes:

Had orders to move at 8 A.M. Proceeded on the road to Gettysburgh—soon heard cannonading in that direction and on arrival found a part of our corps engaging the enemy, about 20,000 strong. A severe engagement followed. Our forces were driven back by superior numbers.

On September 17, 2012, I stepped out on the Emittsburg Road to paint picket fences at the Klingle Farm. To stand there and look south to where WF came up on July 1st was stunning. I began to understand. My country doctor ancestor had only joined the Medical Corps in April.

A new piece of information I had before I came to Gettysburg was a copy of a letter he composed in the 1880s.  In it he wrote that he had come into town passing through Seminary Ridge (which is very long) with his regiment and appointed Christ Lutheran Church, as the 2nd Division hospital. He went back out to Seminary Ridge where a temporary hospital was set up, but fled back to the church when the Union line broke.

This past September after a day of painting, my brother and I got a tour of that church and the puzzle of what WF had experienced began to unveil. Surgery was done in the basement of the church, we were told by Hilda Koontz, interpreter, arms and legs thrown out through the windows. Wounded were laid across the pews on planks.  WF writes there were 300 in the building. The town was held by the Rebs.

A Little Town on Fire

One of the perks of volunteering for the Friends of Gettysburg came in the form of licensed guides who took our group around Gettysburg near twilight. As the town darkened, the scale of the battle fleshed out. It was hell on earth.  When WF fled back to the church, a woman who lived across the street opened it for the surgeons. She could not get across the street to her family due to cannons, horses and Confederate soldiers charging down the street in pursuit of Union soldiers. She was swept down to the town square and got home to her house only to discover blood on the door step. Her children were safe inside but there were wounded soldiers too. While she hid them, my great grandfather was in the church. On July 3rd, he was able to get out and tend to the wounded.

Passed over the battleground of the 1st to look after the wounded. Found a great number. Spent the day among the rebels. This has been the hardest day’s fighting. The cannonading was terrific.

This “hardest day” was the day of Pickett’s Charge. The cannonading and screams of battle could be heard in Pittsburgh far to the west. The journal entry suggests that WF went back out to Seminary Ridge to tend to the wounded while the battle raged down the Emmitsburg Road.

Understanding Another Piece of the Puzzle

I have to remind myself that WF’s journals have a gap. He wrote little for 1862, except to record birth stats. Then March 31, 1863, he records his first entry for that year:

Started for the army. First night at Greensburgh. Called on Miss Kate Laird.

I often ask, why? Why did he suddenly join up? Was it the direction of the war for the North? Money? Or something else? A new thing learned at Gettysburg was the role of Dr. Johnathan Letterman, Father of Battlefield Medicine. A native of Canonsburg, 18 miles south of Pittsburgh and very close to where WF set up his medical practice after leaving Missouri, Letterman brought order and efficiency to caring for the battlefield wounded.  In the early years of the Civil War, wounded men were often left to fend for themselves. Unless someone got them off the field they could lie there for days.

Letterman became medical director of the entire Union army in June 1862. He introduced a three station “evacuation” plan and established the Ambulance Corps. He also recruited doctors from medical societies.  WF joined a medical society in Greensburg, PA most likely the Westmoreland County Medical Society, on May 14, 1861 .  Perhaps, Letterman came  to talk the society or posted a notice that encouraged WF to join up two years later.

Finding My Place in Gettysburg

Dr. WF Osborn left Gettysburg for good on July 6. He would serve as assistant surgeon with the 11th PA until January 1865 when he made full surgeon. During his time in the Army he was present at some of the most famous battles of the war, but  Gettysburg never was far from his mind. He wanted to return as early as the 1890s.  The 50th anniversary of became one of the highlights of his life. Just like my work vacation at Gettysburg.

Now I have been drawn into the story of those three days. The battlefield is sacred ground and the story of my great grandfather’s involvement resonates down through three generations. I will go back. In his name.



6 thoughts on “Finding Family History on a Battlefield

    • I’m first working on getting back to Gettysburg for the 150th. I have been asked to write a chapter for Christ Lutheran’s publication, Sanctuary. That will happen after the event.

      • Does your great grandfather’s letter or diaries mention General Gabriel R. Paul? Do you have a photo of William?

      • Seward, I see you have an Osborn, though we dropped the e along time ago. I don’t recall him mentioning the name General Paul. Most times he didn’t mention names in the journals, though on the sides of them he often made notes. I do have a picture of him in his union uniform.

  1. Can anyone advise, where the dead who passed upon coming to the Lutheran Church for help, were buried. I am trying to find out more about Sgt. John Stratton, Company A, 94th NY Vol, Infantry, Shot on 1 july, died 3 July, and buried in the Presbyterian Graveyard. I am trying to determine where he was treated, and where the list of the burials at the Presbyterian
    Graveyard came from and other info, for a narrative for my grandsons. Thank you !

    • You might check in at Seminary Ridge Museum which opened during the 150th anniversary of the battle. It was wonderful. Since then, they did a show on the surgeons who were up at Seminary Ridge, including my ancestor WF Osborn. I was told by the director that the college next door has students going through all the records of surgeons, including patients’ lists. also the Adams County Historical Society might have lists of where people are buried. If Stratton went through the Church on July 1st, WF may have well worked with him. They were all held by the Rebs through the 2nd. Then WF went back up to Seminary Ridge.

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