Canonsburg native was ‘Father of Battlefield Medicine’
Samuel B. McBride survived a bullet wound to the head during heavy fighting in the Battle of Chancellorsville, and he bore a dent in his forehead from the injury for the remainder of his life.
And, like many soldiers fighting in the Civil War, McBride’s life was likely saved by a system of removing the wounded from the battlefield that was invented by one of his Canonsburg neighbors and can still be found in operation in modern warfare.
“It’s kind of remarkable,” said Leslie A. Przybylek, curator of history at Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, where McBride’s story is included in a new exhibit, Pennsylvania’s Civil War, 1861-1865.
The so-called “Father of Battlefield Medicine,” Dr. Jonathan Letterman, an 1845 graduate of Jefferson College in Canonsburg, would become one of the most-forgotten heroes of the Union Army. His story rarely surfaces, even though the Army major saved thousands of lives in a war that began with the military sometimes leaving the wounded on battlefields for days.
No one at the time thought the war would last long, and the Union Army went to battle without a plan for how to deal with the wounded.
Letterman took the lead and created a mass-casualty response team, employing military officers to gather the injured on horse-drawn carts and take them to a triage station in a field farther behind the battle lines. From there, the survivors were often taken to a hospital for additional treatment.
“He created a standard response to get the wounded off the battlefield as quickly as possible,” Przybylek said.
Letterman was appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac in July 1861, at a time when the war’s medical services were under stress and performing unsatisfactorily.
“The medical officers, insufficient in number, were broken down by fatigue,” retired U.S. Army Col. James M. Phalen wrote in “The Life of Jonathan Letterman.”
A month after his appointment, Letterman submitted a plan for an ambulance corps, placing it under the control of medical services to prevent other officers from taking medical team members into battle.
Among Letterman’s first major tests was serving the wounded in three solid days of fighting at Chancellorsville, Va., and his corps performed with “high order,” Phalen wrote.
McBride, an 1861 graduate of Jefferson College, recorded in his diary May 5, 1863, that he crouched for his life near the end of what became one of the Confederate force’s most successful drives during the war.
A member of the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, McBride was struck in the forehead by a Minié ball in a skirmish on the banks of the Rappahannock River.
McBride recorded his experiences with Letterman’s medical team in his diary, which is part of the archives at the Heinz center and on display in the special Civil War exhibit.
“At the moment of injury he records his experiences,” Przybylek said, relating the diary’s May 5 entry. “He records in gruesome detail that he’s engaged behind a tree, watching for the enemy. He’s hit in the head, falls back and makes it behind the lines.”
He wrote about the surgeon removing the Minié ball at a triage center the next day and the good diagnosis he received when he made it to a hospital two days after the battle that the shrapnel hadn’t penetrated his skull.
“It was nothing less than Providence interfering that my life was spared from ball,” McBride wrote.
Letterman resigned from the Army in December 1864 and relocated to San Francisco, where he served as coroner. In 1911, the hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco was named after Letterman. It was demolished in the 1960s.
His wife, Mary Digges Lee Letterman, died during childbirth in 1867, sending her husband into a downward spiral, said Amy Welch, archivist at Washington & Jefferson College. He died five years later at age 47.
The Lettermans had two daughters, neither of whom married.
“Nobody kept telling the story,” Welch said.
She said the story of the two men illustrates there were “forward-thinking people” in the early years of the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains.
“I think it just goes to show, Jefferson College, within a few decades, developed into a college producing surgeons,” she said.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 5 at the museum at 1212 Smallman Street.