By Beverly Sayles for Auburnpub.com
James Dana Benton, from the north end of Cayuga County, was an assistant surgeon in the Civil War serving from the summer of 1862 to the end of the war in 1865. The new book “A Surgeon’s Tale: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton,” edited by Christopher E. Loperfido, describes Benton’s life and service as a surgeon with Cayuga County’s own 111th and 98th New York infantries. The Benton family originally moved west to the town of Ira from New England in the early 1800s.
On a recent annual trip to Gettysburg sponsored by the Auburn/Cayuga Community College Alumni Association, I learned much about the 27,000 Union casualties of the Gettysburg battle and how they were cared for.
Hospitals were crude, doctors and surgeons were few, and women were called upon to help with the wounded. Clara Barton, Amelia Hancock and Dorothea Dix were among those who began their healing here.
John Lamphere, licensed Gettysburg guide and professor at CCC Fulton, talked about Camp Letterman, the huge Union field hospital on the east side of Gettysburg, named after the medical director of the Army of the Potomac.
In his Gettysburg study guide, he said, “there were over 160 other field hospitals which included houses, churches, schools, public buildings, barns, sheds, cow stalls and open fields. At Camp Letterman, more than 5,200 severely wounded men were gathered and treated at the same time. Of that, 1,200 would die.
There were less than 100 doctors there at any time. There are monuments in Gettysburg to generals, soldiers, horses, civilians, a priest, a doctor, even two dogs, but none to the casualties.
“Alcohol played an important role with medicine at this time in our history, and Camp Letterman would not only have two breweries in operation, but the Union Army would ship in 2.5 million gallons of whiskey following the battle for the wounded,” Lamphere said. In the weeks following the war, “crates of medicines arrived including aloe, alum, ammonia water, calomel, camphor, cantharides, collodin, copaiba, creosote, digitalis, hypocaust, laudanum, quinine, and tannic acid,” as stated by Gregory A. Coco in his book, “A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1 - November 20, 1863.”
Coco describes graphically, the conditions of the wounded and dying in his book. He quotes many surgeons, soldiers and some of the 2,200 Gettysburg residents on their thoughts and experiences on the battle.
He is right that “you will never feel quite the same about Gettysburg” after reading of “those frightful places called field hospitals.”
I strongly recommend any history buff, historian, or student to visit Gettysburg. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg will be July 1-3, 2013.
Thanks to John Lamphere for his dedication, knowledge and expertise in planning and guiding our trip.
From our first stop at McPherson Ridge, where the battle began, to our last stop a few days later on Culp’s Hill where hundreds of bullets were found in a tree recently cut down, our trip was again exciting and we were active participants on the battlefield.
“It was one of the most crucial events within the history of the United States and played a significant role in establishing and maintaining our nation as to what we are today.
While the names of those men (and we now know women) who fought here might not all be recalled, it was their actions that we can never forget. Attending events such as this will ensure we will always remember and appreciate the actions from those who served on both sides during those three days here,” Lamphere said.
Coming up this month at the Town of Victory History Center and Museum, Route 38, Victory, is our annual fall open house from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. Our program will be Lamphere presenting a program called “Unknown in Life and Death” about the Civil War and Robert Buffam.
The third Medal of Honor recipient in the Civil War, Buffam’s story includes participation in Bleeding Kansas, fighting in the Civil War, and a murder conviction that brought him to Auburn, where he is buried in Soule Cemetery.
Beverly Sayles is the Victory town historian.