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Dr. Jonathan Letterman

Jonathan Letterman[1] (December 11, 1824 – March 15, 1872) was an American surgeon credited as being the originator of the modern methods for medical organization in armies. Dr. Letterman is known today as the "Father of Battlefield Medicine." His system enabled thousands of wounded men to be recovered and treated during the American Civil War.

Early life[]

Letterman was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, the son of a well-known surgeon.[2] He graduated from Jefferson College in 1845 and Jefferson Medical College in 1849. That same year he was given the position of assistant surgeon in the Army Medical Department.

Letterman served in Florida during military campaigns against the Seminole Indians until 1853. He then spent a year in Fort Ripley, Minnesota. He was then ordered to Fort Defiance in New Mexico Territory to aid the campaign against the Apache. He was transferred to Fort Monroe in Virginia. From 1860 to 1861 he was engaged in California against the Utes.

His younger brother, William Henry Letterman, co-founded the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in Canonsburg after tending to a sick friend in the winter of 1850-1851. After graduation from Jefferson College, William followed his brother into Jefferson Medical College.

Civil War[]


Letterman (seated at left) and staff, Warrenton, Virginia, 1862.

At the start of the Civil War, Letterman was assigned to the Army of the Potomac. He was named medical director of the Department of West Virginia in May 1862. A month later he was appointed, with the rank of major, as the medical director of the Army of the Potomac itself. Letterman immediately set to reorganizing the Medical Service of the fledgling army, having obtained from army commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan the charter to do whatever was necessary to improve the system. The army reeled from inefficient treatment of casualties in the Seven Days Battles in June, but by the time of the Battle of Antietam in September, Letterman had devised a system of forward first aid stations at the regimental level, where principles of triage were first instituted. He established mobile field hospitals to be located at division and corps headquarters. This was all connected by an efficient ambulance corps, established by Letterman in August 1862, under the control of medical staff instead of the Quartermaster Department. Letterman also arranged an efficient system for the distribution of medical supplies.

Letterman proved the efficiency of his system at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in which the Army of the Potomac suffered 12,000 casualties. After this show of proficiency, his system was adopted by other Union armies and was eventually officially established as the medical procedure for the entirety of the United States' armies by an Act of Congress in March 1864. The greatest casualties for his army were suffered at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. To deal with more than 14,000 Union wounded, along with 6,800 Confederate wounded who were left behind, a vast medical encampment was created northeast of Gettysburg off the York Pike on the George Wolf farm, named "Camp Letterman."[3]

After a brief period of serving as Inspector of Hospitals in the Department of the Susquehanna, Letterman resigned from the army in December 1864 and relocated to San Francisco, California, where he served as elected coroner from 1867 to 1872.[4] He published his memoirs, Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac, in 1866.

Death and legacy[]

After the death of his wife, Mary Digges Lee Letterman, he became severely depressed. He then came down with several illnesses and eventually died in San Francisco. He was only 48 years old. On November 13, 1911, the Army hospital at the Presidio was named Letterman Army Hospital in his honor. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The inscription on the private memorial that was erected for him reads:

Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, June 23, 1862 to December 30, 1863, who brought order and efficiency in to the Medical Service and who was the originator of modern methods of medical organization in armies.

His wife was buried at his side. Her inscription reads: "Blessed are the dead that died in the Lord."

See also[]



  1. The Arlington National Cemetery website lists his name as "Jonathan K. Letterman," but no other sources list a middle name or initial.
  2. Musto, p. 120.
  3. Musto, p. 125.
  4. Musto, p. 127.