Following in the Steps of History

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.

Dr. WF Osborn, Assistant Surgeon at the Battle of GettysburgWF 1860 Journal

I grew up reading my great-grandfather’s Civil War journals. They are small, leather-bound pocket journals, entries sometimes written in ink, sometimes pencil. Truly history on a close, personal level in my hands. For the past 18 years, I sorted his letters and papers and transcribed the journals. Not just the text in his daily jottings, but notes on the sides and backs of the little books. It’s taken that long to appreciate his position as a country doctor before he signed up with US Medical Corps and went onto the field of battle.

As a historian and descendant, I am so lucky to have this wealth of material in my family. As the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approached, I felt drawn to go there as Dr. William F Osborn went to the 50th as an 83 year old. But I had many questions.

What exactly was it like for a surgeon to be in battle at that time?  What exactly were his duties? His journals and letters tell me right below:

~Tuesday, March 31st 1863

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

He arrived in Washington City and set off to join his regiment,the 11th PA infantry. It was snowing hard (April 5, 1863), but he reported to duty and the life that would change him forever. He would soon go into battle.

~ Letter April 27, 1863

You will wonder what feelings are going to battle for the first time. Until I heard the groan of the wounded & dying today, I had no feeling on the subject.

The 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg

DIGITAL CAMERAOn June 29th, 2013 I arrived ahead of the opening ceremonies. I was able to score a ticket to the Spangler Farm, the hospital for the 11th Corps. It is a recent acquisition of the Gettysburg Foundation and one of the best examples of a corps field hospital. There I learned not only the history of the farm during the three days during the battle and its aftermath, but what role my ancestor would have played as an assistant surgeon. It was not pretty.

  1.  The assistant surgeon often was the one who worked close to the battlefield. He made the decision of who would go to the dressing station and then onto a divisional hospital for DIGITAL CAMERAsurgery. Who would go to the dying tree if there was one. That hospital could be a barn, a tent, a farmhouse. Triage was born in the Civil War, created by Union surgeon, Jonathan Letterman.

  2. The assistant often got the job of doing dentistry work which many full surgeons hated to do as it was so difficult.

The stories at Spangler Farm were moving and horrifying: 1,900 wounded including General Armistead from the Confederate side and pigs running loose as surgery done out in the open. (Use your imagination here) There may a possibility that this was the hospital on Baltimore Pike WF spent a day at July 5. Could also be over at Meade’s Headquarters.

DIGITAL CAMERAThe Hospital at Seminary Ridge

The 11th PA played an important role on Day 1 of the battle,July 1, 1863. I know that WF Osborn was up there as their assistant surgeon. Fighting had already broken out. He wrote that he went up there around 11:00 and helped the wounded. Then the line broke around 3:00 PM and 20,000 Union soldiers fled through the little town of Gettysburg to Cemetery Ridge. WF was one of them as he hurried “through shot and shell” to Christ Lutheran where the 2nd Division Hospital was located. He was held there as a prisoner for three days, then on July 3rd, he must have been given a pass to back out to Seminary Ridge to tend to all wounded. He was there during Pickett’s Charge, which in reality was a mile long and came back up to the Seminary. His journal says it was the hardest day.

DIGITAL CAMERAMy brother and I wanted to go the opening of the new Seminary Ridge Museum on July 1st. There were opening volleys from cannon as reenactors, fife and drum corps and PA state officials gathered to celebrate, 150 years after the battle started. It was a surreal experience to see Lee and Reynolds (head of 11th PA) talking to each other, but it was part of the fun.

It is a beautiful state of the art museum with outstanding exhibits on three floors. The top floor tells the story of the first day of fighting . One floor down is where the story of the surgeons and wounded is told. We were very excited to see WF’s name listed there.DIGITAL CAMERA

One thing we did learn that affected critical care. The Union doctors were well supplied, though at the beginning of the battle many of the medical materials were several miles down the Baltimore Pike. At Seminary Ridge as soon as the Confederates took it over July1st, the medical supplies were stolen and taken back to their lines. Union medical personnel who remained behind had little to work with.

This is all I’ll write about for now. More later.


5 thoughts on “Following in the Steps of History

  1. Read this posting with great interest as our family had many participants in the battle of Gettysburg. One of them ( Great Uncle Charles Ladd) lost a leg and a few days later his life at Gettysburg. Could not help but wonder if our great uncle and your great grandfather met. If they did it was not the best of circumstances.

    • Wow. That is amazing. What regiment was Ladd with? I know that WF was up at Seminary Ridge on July 1st by 11:00 AM and then down at Christ Lutheran from about 4:00 PM on until July 3rd when he went back up to Seminary Ridge. July 4th he was at Christ Lutheran.

      • It’s amazing how stories come down through the generations. If he was upon Seminary Ridge around 11:00- 3:00, he could have been treated by my great-grandfather. After that time, he fled to Christ Lutheran.

  2. It was so good to see you and hear all that’s going on in your rich and busy life! These photos help to flesh out what you were telling us the other night. Great!

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