March 27, 2019
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Nurses, other volunteers cared for Maine’s Gettysburg wounded

Pity the wounded of Gettysburg — and the envy the dead, who no longer suffered.

After sunset on Friday, July 3, 1863, the 17th Maine Infantry boys deployed as skirmishers across the body-strewn fields that had witnessed Pickett’s Charge in mid-afternoon. “No tongue can depict the carnage, and I cannot make it seem real,” scribbled Pvt. John Haley perhaps a day later.

He vividly described the nightmares that darkness could not conceal: “frightfully smashed” dead men, the stench, the numerous wounded soldiers in blue, butternut, and gray. “As we cannot sleep, we pass the time bringing in the wounded and caring for them,” Haley told his journal.

“Among the wounded is a little, flaxen-haired boy from North Carolina who is only fourteen,” he remembered.

Estimates vary on Gettysburg’s ultimate butcher’s bill, but modern historians generally agree on approximately 51,000 casualties. This figure included some 27,200 wounded men — perhaps 14,500 Union and 12,700 Confederate — for whom inadequate medical care and facilities awaited.

Retreating Confederates took many wounded comrades with them, but abandoned badly wounded Union prisoners where they lay in barns, houses, and fields. Union troops rescued men near their own lines; “morning [on July 4] found us still busy bringing in the dying and dead,” Haley wrote.

Union stretcher bearers and ambulance drivers retrieved the wounded as the clouds opened and “it rained like a sieve,” Haley recalled. After suffering agonizing thirst and pain beneath the hot sun, the wounded faced a new terror: drowning.

“Many of our wounded, whom we had placed on the banks of a stream because water was handy, came near being drowned,” Haley wrote, possibly referring to a flooding Stevens Run.

After dawn “we advanced our pickets and found that the enemy had departed” Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, he recalled. Union skirmishers probed westward and occupied the Lutheran Theological Seminary campus near Chambersburg Pike. There they discovered wounded comrades abandoned in the actual seminary, the four-story brick building made famous by its cupola.

The rain sheeted Adams County into the night and soaked wounded men left lying beneath trees. The seminary’s cellar flooded.

The sheer numbers of wounded overwhelmed available Union army doctors and attendants. Ad hoc aid stations and hospitals sprang up in barns, churches, private houses, and public buildings; one estimate mentions some 160 such sites established soon after the shooting ended.

The Lutheran seminary quickly became an official hospital where local women — soon joined by the Sisters of Mercy and women from as far away as Philadelphia — volunteered to help ease the suffering. Inside the seminary, Sarah Broadhead opened the cellar door on Wednesday, July 8 and discovered a nightmare.

Not yet accustomed to the horrible wounds she had already seen, Broadhead recalled that “worse horrors met my eyes on descending to the basement of the building.” As Union artillery shelled the Confederate positions around the seminary, badly wounded Union prisoners had crawled or hobbled into the cellar. There they lay forgotten through the weekend’s torrential rains.

“Men, wounded in three and four places, not able to help themselves the least bit, lay almost swimming in water,” Broadhead said. Among them might have been 16th Maine Infantry soldiers captured on July 1, including Corp. George Farnum of Co. C and Corp. Charles Favour of Co. H.

Broadhead helped other medical personnel and volunteers carry the men upstairs to the fourth floor.

Writing on July 8 from a “hospital near Gettysburg,” Christopher Hayes of the Maine Soldiers’ Relief Agency reported to Gov. Abner Coburn about the battle’s aftermath. “Our men have done most gallantly, suffering intensely, and indeed in some respects are ranked the ‘heroes’ of the day,” Hayes proudly stated.

He particularly sought wounded Maine soldiers, whom the MSRA specialized in helping. “As all the regiments have moved it is impossible to get a correct list of the wounded men who were slightly wounded, [and] left on the battlefield,” Hayes reported.

Seriously wounded soldiers remained hospitalized at Gettysburg. Despite ongoing evacuations, wounded men overflowed every conceivable hospital, from those set up by specific Army corps to those placed in local homes. Shaking his post-Pickett’s Charge lethargy, Maj. Gen. George Meade finally let loose his Army of the Potomac to pursue retreating Confederate troops — and Hayes believed that wounded soldiers paid a price.

With “the army moving and expecting to have another engagement … many more surgeons and nurses [were needed] to go along than would have been otherwise” necessary, he noticed. Healthy soldiers assigned as hospital aides during the battle rejoined their regiments soon afterwards; “none but convalescents were permitted to remain as attendants and not half enough of them,” Hayes wrote.

He volunteered to help. “I have this day dressed nearly a hundred wounds — all Maine men, some who have not had their bandages changed since they were first added some 4 or 5 days since,” Hayes reported.

“Our men bear the suffering from their wounds with heroic fortitude,” he wrote in the wee hours of July 8. “A great many deaths have occurred from wounds,” he told Coburn.

Traveling to Gettysburg soon after Hayes were Maine nurses Harriet Eaton and Sarah Sampson, also members of the Maine Soldiers’ Relief Association. Already experienced in caring for sick and wounded soldiers, they went right to work.

Believing from her “former experience and the testimony of surgeons, that nothing was better for the wounded than fresh eggs, I had brought with me as many as I could collect,” Sampson noted in her diary. With these eggs and “some choice brandy and the fresh milk that” Gettysburg residents “brought us, we were able to furnish the most agreeable and nourishing drink for the patients,” the wounded Maine soldiers for whom she and Eaton cared.

Local civilians “also brought us poultry, fresh bread and sauces; and thought we bought much with the money the ladies of our State had sent us for this purpose, much was given us, and we received continual kindness from the people of Gettysburg during our stay.”

Like other nurses and volunteers, Eaton and Sampson changed bandages, washed wounds, and mopped feverish brows with cold compresses. Nurses spoke quietly with the mortally wounded, wrote letters that often bore a dying hero’s last thoughts homeward, and fed men unable to feed themselves.

“We did what we could, but ’twas little to what we would” do if possible, Sampson informed her diary.

Writing to Coburn from Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15, Sampson stated that “I spent four weeks at Gettysburg with our wounded … and returned to Washington very reluctantly.” At this date some wounded Maine soldiers remained in Gettysburg.

When she left the town, Sampson carried “a full list of the names of our [Maine] soldiers who had died and those who remained there.” She mailed this list to Coburn, who could finally read, name by name, the price that Maine had paid to help save the Union.

Brian Swartz can be reached at or visit his blog at

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