Death and devastation hovered over central Pennsylvania long after the armies had gone.

Gettysburg, July 4, 1863. Stench fills the air. Excrement from perhaps one hundred and eighty thousand men and more than seventy thousand horses is left behind in the area. Urine smell. Flies. Thousands of flies. Millions. Dead men barely covered in shallow graves. At least seven thousand dead men. More likely ten thousand. How many dead horses and mules? Three thousand? Five? None buried. A nurse writes of carcasses “steaming in the sun.” The smell of putrid animal flesh mingles with the odor of human decay. It extends into the spirit of the people. War had come to them. War had gone and left the horror behind.

Gettysburg is—was—a modern, progressive, small town, though with nearly 2,400 souls as the war started, and the census counted it as a city. The houses were brick-built, mostly, with spacious fenced yards behind each, vegetable gardens, perhaps chickens, a cow, a shed, and the privy. The town took pride in its college, the Lutheran seminary, and all the benefits educational institutions bestowed. It had three weekly newspapers, one Democratic, The Compiler, and two Republican, The Adams Sentinel and the Star and Banner. They were all highly partisan, but then so were most newspapers throughout the United States. During elections the area tended to divide evenly between the two parties.

Politics provided one of the most important and at times all-absorbing cultural activities; religion provided the other. Gettysburg had eight churches with nine congregations, with Lutherans and Presbyterians dominating. It had a new rural burial ground up on Cemetery Hill. The schools were public; Pennsylvania required public education and, as one would expect in a college town, Gettysburg had good schools, including two private ones for girls and many private instructors on the side.

The town had gaslight and some paved sidewalks, but its streets were alternately dusty or muddy. The seat of government for Adams County, it had a beautiful new courthouse, built in 1859, close to the center square, “the Diamond” as the locals called it. It had new warehouses around a railroad station, also newly built in 1859, right after that modern mode of transportation arrived in town.

Gettysburg was on the move, with lawyers, doctors, merchants, bankers, blacksmith, and various craftsmen serving the surrounding countryside of small farmers. It had hotels, taverns, and the county prison. Carriage manufacturing thrived, with more than ten shops. There were tanneries. Twenty-two people made shoes and boots. Indeed half of the population worked as artisans, a quarter as professionals, a quarter as unskilled laborers.

The ethnic stock was Scotch-Irish and German, but everyone else seemed to be also represented, including new immigrants who made up nearly 7 percent of the population. Black people, mostly the poorest part of the community, came to 190 people, about 8 percent of the town’s population. Yet there were professionals and craftsmen among them, and even for the poorest hope often lived—one third of the black people had escaped from slave states, and freedom meant everything.

Basil Biggs, for example, moved his family from Maryland to Gettysburg in 1858 so that his seven children would have educational opportunities, and rented a farm from one of the most prominent members of the community. Biggs farmed and worked as a veterinarian—he had to be very good with animals—and by the end of the war would own his own farm—right on Cemetery Ridge, including the copse of trees where Robert E. Lee had sent his doomed soldiers on July 3. Gettysburg was a modern town, a place of hope for many.

But soon the battle came and, for a time, making coffins would become an important occupation. So would ferrying bereaved visitors to hospitals or the battlefield and digging up the dead. Gettysburg had been transformed into a blighted land and needed to recover in body and soul.

Gettysburg, July 4, 1863. Dreadful silence. Instead of the sun shining, it rains. People crawl out of their cellars blinking in the gloomy light, trying to find their neighbors, food, news—life. Strange, awful odors overpower the air and seem to be growing, trying to imprison all in unbearable stench. Dead bodies are scattered over the streets. Dead horses. Mules. When the oppressive hush breaks, the clatter comes not from rifles or cannon fired to salute Independence Day, but in dead earnest by enemy armies still facing each other at the edge of the town. No toasts are offered today, no fireworks, no parades, no services in churches that are being filled with grievously wounded men.

But Sally Myers, twenty-three, full of life, forges ahead. The sun comes out and in a free moment the schoolteacher will write in her diary, “I never spent a happier Fourth. It seemed so bright….” The Union had retaken the town. A soldier will later add: “The Glorious Fourth and we are still a Nation, and shall most likely continue to be for centuries to come.” Professor Michael Jacobs comes out of his house on Middle Street with his son Henry. So do others. A band marches down Baltimore Street, fife and drum breaking the noxious grip of stillness. People move toward the square. Life begins again.

It is Independence Day, after all, the day of victory in 1776, four score and seven years ago. The armies are leaving. But the wounded and dead remain, on the fields, in houses, in barns, and in hospital tents. Twenty-one thousand wounded, seven thousand dead.

Dead everywhere. Day follows day. Disinfecting chloride of lime spread over the muddy streets turns them white for a little while, and adds to the odors. Snow in July. Must try “to extinguish, as far as possible, the sense of smelling,” one woman writes. The residents must try to control disease. Pour kerosene on the bodies of horses and mules. Light the fire over them. Let them go up in smoke. The smell of burning flesh dissipates after a while; the smell of rotting carcasses stays around for months. If they are too close to a building or a good tree, they cannot be burned. They just rot.

Many days are stiflingly hot. Even the nights. Most people don’t open their windows to keep the stench out. Hard to keep the stench from their spirits. Rumors fly: the civilians are dying, too. Sarah Broadhead, wife, mother, and now nurse to the wounded of the battle, writes in a diary about her fears that “we shall be visited with pestilence.” Yet among the town’s population there is no increase of disease and death. A resilient people.

When people approach the town, “the odors of the battle-field” attack them long before they get there. But the visitors come, many to help, some to gawk, some to plunder, most looking for their lost loved ones from the armies.

Masses of strangers. Where to put them all? On July 9 The New York Times reports “no accommodations or food here for visitors and last night many were compelled to roost in the barns, or upon the steps of dwellings.” A man feels lucky when he gets a chair to sit through the night in front of a hotel; better than wandering till daybreak. On July 13 the Broadhead house, in addition to a family of three, has three wounded soldiers, and twenty visitors. The strangers “are filling every bed and covering the floors.”

Some complain about the visitors. Too much “idle curiosity.” Professor Jacobs of the college, however, sees it differently. He wishes “the whole land had come.” Seeing the bloodstained fields, the sacrifice of the mangled soldiers, and the newly dug graves would rekindle people’s “patriotism and their gratitude to God for a most signal deliverance” at Gettysburg.

Many do come and stay in uncomfortable quarters, but their problems shrink in the face of the immeasurable suffering of the wounded and the dying. Private George R. Frysinger arrives with an emergency militia unit sent to help maintain order. “We had a severe trial for young soldiers,” he writes home to his father. His unit had limped into town on “blistered feet” and got placed in a church. The sacred structure reminded him of his home which now felt “like a distant Jerusalem to the ancient Jews.”

So here we are quartered in a building, which it was little thought at the day of its dedication would ever be used to serve the purposes of war…I see the pews occupied by forms moving amid the din and clanging of arms, which the soldiers are brightening up for duty; and instead of singers on the gallery, boys writing letters to their friends far away. . . . Everything remains in the church seemingly just as the congregation left their last Sabbath’s service. Hymn books are scattered through the pews, spittoons and footstools remain in the aisles, and the altar and pulpit carpeted with Brussels. Even the clock hangs suspended ticking the hours as they fly, and which, instead of meeting the minister’s eye, now catches the eye of the sergeant of the guard as he says, “Fall in, second relief.”

“Perhaps we will not deface it much,” this church, Frysinger writes to his father, adding “Gettysburg can not be called a town, but a large collection of hospitals.”

Eliza Farnham, a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, writes the same. “The whole town…is one vast hospital….The road, for long distances, is in many places strewn with dead horses…the earth in the roads and fields is ploughed to a mire by the army wheels and horses…avenues of white tents…But, good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained! What spectacles awaited us on the rolling hills around us! It is absolutely inconceivable…Dead and dying, and wounded,… torn to pieces in every way.” Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror. The piles of limbs dripping blood, the dying, the dead. Hell on earth.

Newspapers that seem loath to report on the horrors admit that the “area is one vast hospital.” Red and some green flags sprout everywhere identifying places housing the wounded. Nothing like this has ever happened in the United States. Looking back in September, the Christian Commission will report “a scene of horror and desolation which humanity, in all the centuries of its history has seldom witnessed.” The more measured tones of an Army medical officer’s report will still be blunt: “The period of ten days following the battle of Gettysburg was the occasion of the greatest amount of human suffering known in this nation since its birth….” And the government is utterly unprepared for the greatest man-made disaster of American history.

Jonathan Letterman, the medical director of the Army of the Potomac, had developed a remarkable system of caring for the wounded, but it was crippled by the commanding generals, first by “Fighting Joe” Hooker who, chasing after Lee as he invaded Pennsylvania, did not wish to be encumbered by substantial amounts of medical supplies. This left “no system at all,” as Letterman would write in an official report that tried to minimize the disaster. Then Hooker’s successor, George Gordon Meade, timidly kept much of what remained out of the possible reach of the Confederates—and so also of his own army. This Letterman would liken to engaging in battle “without ammunition.” Even as the fighting went on, war-hardened nurse Ellen Orbison Harris of Philadelphia’s Ladies’ Aid Society understood what was happening: “An evident reluctance to forward hospital stores to Hanover or Gettysburg, where a conflict supposed to rage, betokens a want of confidence in the position or strength of our forces. Can it be that our soil is to be crimsoned with the blood of our bravest and best?” Crimsoned it was, and Dr. Letterman, who obeyed orders, would later write with anger, “Lost supplies can be replenished, but lives lost are gone forever.” The Sanitary Commission, which sent two supply wagons to Gettysburg on July 4, had one captured, with its personnel sent to prison in Richmond.

It would have been impossible to cope fully even without the bumbling of generals. The able Letterman himself went along when, with victory in hand, Meade followed the retreating Lee and, expecting another major battle, took with him most of the medical corps. “It was absolutely necessary that I should carry away the greater portion of my Surgeons and medical supplies,” Meade would explain. Close to twenty-one thousand wounded Union and Confederate soldiers remained behind in Gettysburg. “What! Take away surgeons here where a hundred are wanted?” exclaimed Andrew Cross, speaking for the Christian Commission. “But so it is.” Even the angry Commission vastly understated the problem, reporting that “there was no more than one for ten” who needed surgeons. In fact of one hundred and six medical officers left behind, perhaps thirty-five could actually operate. A distraught Ohio army doctor and an ordained minister, Harry McAbee, who stayed and had to care with three assistants for “a thousand badly wounded men” would resign with bitter words when the crisis passed: “it is my deliberate opinion, that the failure to furnish sufficient number of medical officers…cost the country more good men than did the charge of any rebel brigade….” The official medical report in the fall, however, would state that of the more than fourteen thousand Union wounded, “not one…was left on the field…on the morning of July 4.” Yet Dr. Letterman was sufficiently aware of the disaster to order the improvement of the system of medical supplies and ambulances. As for Dr. McAbee, not long after he sent his protest, an accident would take his life.

The Confederate Army may have done even worse. Not only did it have to prepare for another possible battle and also keep medical personnel and ambulances in reserve for those who got ill on the retreat, it did not have sufficient transportation back to Virginia for movable casualties. Lee’s medical director, Lafayette Guild, ordered left behind “abundant supplies for the wounded and the sick,” but that could not be done. In the disaster that followed, the Confederate government and Army would take even less note than did the Union side. Nothing would be said about its helpless soldiers drowning by a flooding creek or left lying unattended for days.

One of the Gettysburg papers claims that the Rebels “left behind them six drunken, inefficient and worthless surgeons and 11,000 wounded.” Another local paper bemoans this “Inhumanity and Poltroonery.” But the Sanitary Commission’s report will describe the Confederate doctors as “intelligent and attentive” even as it will accept the Army’s explanation that impending battle required the removal of most of the surgeons. In short, no “neglect” will be admitted though Meade took with him more than four out of five of his doctors. Christian Commission delegates digging graves for the dead report more boldly, but with masterful understatement, that the Army of the Potomac “did not leave a sufficient force to bury the dead, much less to afford necessary attendance upon the mangled and bleeding forms.” Union and Confederate, “they lie side by side, many without even a straw under them, some with a rail or bottle under their head, half clothed, destitute and suffering; many carried fresh from the amputating table.”

Washington is oblivious. President Lincoln has no idea about what is going on in Gettysburg. His wife had suffered a terrible injury in an accident and seemed in danger; she had jumped out of a runaway carriage and got a head wound that grew infected. The private distress of the president is compounded by the inability of Meade to finish off Lee. Lincoln’s eyes focus on the retreating Confederate army, hoping to see it annihilated. He thinks that might end the war. Gettysburg? Let the country celebrate that victory.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appears equally oblivious. He, too, looks to the upcoming days of hoped-for battle. Subordinates are supposed to handle medical problems. But they don’t understand either. When Nurse Harris goes to the War Department on July 3 “to beg permission” to bring supplies to Gettysburg “besought the privilege with tears,” her pleas get flatly rebuffed. She goes anyhow, saying, “the Lord will carry me there safely,” and only regrets that she obeyed orders about provisions.

Nor does Surgeon General William A. Hammond recognize the magnitude of the emergency in Gettysburg. At first he even refuses the offer of civilian help. “How many volunteer surgeons may I send?” Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin asks and is told none. “The Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac has plenty of surgical Aid.” General Robert C. Schenck, in command in Baltimore, in turn complains, “Barns, houses and yards are full” of the wounded. “Pennsylvania is not taking care of them.” Nurse Farnham’s call for help is published in Philadelphia, but the press remains mostly silent about the horrors. “The army has left Gettysburg,” Farnham writes, “and we are not here an hour early for the suffering. Please send all that you can….” On July 9 Nurse Harris writes home about wounded men drowning in flash floods and thousands who are “still naked and starving. God pity us! God pity us!”

As disaster engulfs Gettysburg, the Philadelphia Inquirer writes: “Our wounded left in Gettysburg  are well cared for.” Men don’t talk much about what’s happening all around them. Men need to be strong, men need to be men. No room for whining. If you are a wounded, dying soldier, in great pain, you try to suppress your cries. Die like a man. If you are a caretaker, you don’t often write letters telling about the horror. You are a man. If you write official reports you stress the positive.

The women—they tell the truth. Visiting Nurse Cornelia Hancock writes to her cousin that “there are no words in the English language to express the sufferings I witnessed….” The country is “very beautiful, rolling,” but contrasts to the “awful smell of putrification.”

And she tells her sister: “I shall never feel horrified at anything that may happen to me hereafter.” At first Hancock deals with the horror one way, “I have lost my memory almost entirely.” But adds, “it is gradually returning.”

Nurse Sophronia Bucklin sees a visiting wife “clasping to her bosom a little child of eighteen months,” and sitting “for hours with bowed head” next to her gut-shot husband “stupefied with morphine.” A “humane” surgeon allows the drug to ease, Bucklin writes. The soldier looks up, “wild glare of pain in his eyes….‘Oh! Mary, are you here?’ His groans were terrible to hear, and in mercy he was again given the opiate, and slept his life out….”

Nurse Emily Souder eases her shock by writing letter after letter to family and friends. “The sights and sounds are beyond description;” the stench “ever-present….The amputation-table is plainly in view…I never trust myself to look toward it…the groans the cries, the shrieks…I buried my head in the pillow to shut out the sounds which reached us, from a church quite near. . . .the Union soldiers and the rebels lie side by side, friendly as brothers…Monday, there was no bread…manna in the desert…Almost every hour has its own experience to tell…from seven in the morning till seven in the evening…I am sorry to say that I gave out totally…a perpetual procession of coffins is constantly passing to and fro…it will be a place of pilgrimage for the nation.”

This is the place where Abraham Lincoln will have to come and explain why the bloodletting must go on.


Gabor S. Boritt is the Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, as well as a member of Civil War Times’ Advisory Board. This article is excerpted from his upcoming book The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.