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Future Military Providers Learn From Past Battlefield Lessons: The Antietam Road March

Dr. Dale Smith, professor of Military Medicine and History at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and historical consultant for the Antietam Road March talks to medical students and graduate nursing students about the battle. (Photo by Thomas Balfour)
By Zachary Willis

On all sides he saw battle. Bullets pierced many of the soldiers around him, and the fear of death was omnipresent. However, to Richard Curran, a greater voice spoke to him – the sense of duty he had to medicine and care for his fellow man. It was no question that, at the Battle of Antietam, Curran deserved the Medal of Honor he received for rushing out onto the battlefield amidst chaos to care for the wounded; however, had he not made it through, what would’ve become of those who desperately needed treatment? What would be a safer, more tactical way to achieve the same results?

These are the questions USU’s first-year medical students and graduate nursing students consider at the annual Antietam Road March, a full-day military history lesson designed to better understand the trials faced by those who fought at Antietam, and the medical personnel who forged the way we handle medical care in the midst of raging battle.

The Sunken Lane in Sharpsburg, Md., was the site of a
vicious battle between northern and southern troops during
the Civil War. In three hours of combat, 5,500 soldiers
were killed or wounded, giving rise to the road’s new
nickname, “Bloody Lane.” (Photo by Thomas Balfour)
“In no other single day in American history has a medical department ever been taxed like that,” said George Wunderlich, former director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. “That makes Antietam really stand out as a pivotal point to gauge the success or the failures of a medical system.”

The Antietam Road March was born as a way for new USU medical students to literally break in their boots while learning about the transition they would have to make from being a physician to taking on the responsibilities of a military medical officer and understanding what that title entails.

Students on the Antietam Road March make several stops along the battlefield throughout the day, beginning at the artillery at the National Park visitor’s center, and ending around Burnside Bridge. USU faculty, the National Civil War Medicine Museum staff, and Civil War re-enactors give these lessons to students at stops like the Miller Farm House and Mumma Farm to help explain figures like Richard Curran, an assistant surgeon who served with the Union army, and how surgeries were performed at Antietam versus how they are performed today.

For innovation, however, the Battle of Antietam exemplified the necessity for a new military medical system.

“It wasn’t a battle that caused medical innovation,” said Dr. Dale Smith, professor of Military Medicine and History at USU, and historical consultant for the Antietam Road March, “but it was probably the single most important demonstration of the effectiveness of these [system] innovations.”

Smith put forth the story of Jonathan Letterman, an Army physician at the Battle of Antietam who became the exemplar for what it means to be a military medical officer. Using Letterman’s systems, Antietam became the first battlefield to be cleared within 24 hours, despite massive amounts of wounded service members on both sides. While the Confederate army had to abandon their wounded, the Union army held the capacity to carry them away thanks to Letterman’s ambulance system.

First-year medical students and graduate nursing students from Uniformed Services University cross Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam National Battlefield as part of the university’s annual Antietam Road March. (Photo by Thomas Balfour) caption

“Letterman’s thinking brought forth the best way to clear a battlefield. He developed a new understanding of the best way to do logistics; however, these ideas had to be supported by the commanding general. Even though generals at that time were changing every six months, all of those generals had been corps commanders at Antietam, and saw Letterman’s system work, so as he kept coming to them, they were prepared to support him,” Smith said.

As a military medical leader, Letterman recognized that he would no longer be primarily responsible for taking care of a single person; rather, he would be taking care of the whole army with far more responsibilities. His new job would be putting together the systems that enabled care of greater numbers of casualties in safer, more operationally-nuanced ways.

These lessons carry forward in the Antietam Road March, as USU students are taught that they, like Letterman, will have to understand their roles as both health care providers and military medical officers, who will have to think strategically to secure the greatest care for the greatest number of service members.

"Antietam was an excellent experience where we had the opportunity to reflect on one of the greatest battles in American history and also learn about the origins of military medicine as we know it today,” said Army 2nd Lt. Emily Ferraro, a second-year medical student in USU’s F. Edward H├ębert School of Medicine. “Walking through the fields helped us imagine what it would be like to try to provide care for so many wounded soldiers with such few resources. This was one of my favorite experiences so far at USU."