September 15, 1863
Sarah Sampson had been visiting hospitals and Civil War battlefields since early 1862. She had become a full time employee of the Maine Soldiers Relief Agency in Washington. In a letter to Governor Abner Coburn, Sampson explains why she has been remiss in sending her monthly hospital reports to him, saying "My daily mail has been so heavy since the Battle at Gettysburg, that I have not been able to make the copies myself."
The Army left it up to Regimental officers or other comrades after a battle to inform families of wounded, killed, or captured soldiers about what had happened to their loved ones. Many families found that they could get better information from relief agency workers like Sarah Sampson.
Her diary describes her experiences at Gettysburg: "Profiting by 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, and with some choice brandy and the fresh milk the people of the city brought us, we were able to furnish the most agreeable and nourishing drink for the patients. They also brought us poultry, fresh bread and sauces; and though 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."
She goes on: "We remained in Gettysburg until the Corps Hospitals had been discontinued and a large General Hospital established one mile from the city. We visited our patients here several times, and when we left …we took with us a full list of the names of our soldiers who had died and those who remained there."
"We did what we could, but ’twas but little to what we would" she concludes.
The "large General Hospital" was Camp Letterman, established by Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac. An advanced physician for his time, he insisted that a system of triage be followed, by which casualties were divided into three categories – those who could be looked after without immediate care; those who needed immediate medical attention, and those who were beyond help and were left aside. This last distinction bothered some of the nurses, whose instinct was to comfort the dying first. Dr. Letterman also established an efficient Ambulance Corps.
Although many of the "boards that marked the graves of our soldiers" were displaced and in danger of being washed away, they were not neglected or forgotten. During the autumn weeks, the bodies were re-interred in what became Gettysburg National Cemetery. On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Cemetery.
- The Confederate dead were not buried in the National Cemetery. What happened to them?
- Is the system of triage still used in medical emergencies today?