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USU Students Examine Civil War History to Understand the Future of Medicine

Dr. Dale Smith standing next to a civil war cannon, talking to students.

By Ian Neligh


“The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” 

—Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)


A platoon of thirty military medical school students walk along a road, past a peaceful cornfield near Sharpsburg - the same piece of land that echoed 159 years ago with the sounds of a Civil War. Muskets raged, cannons fired, and shrapnel rained from the sky. Nearly 23,000 soldiers were killed and wounded in just twelve hours. In 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, modern military field medicine was born.

Nearly 300 students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) took part in a 30-year-old-tradition of marching through the battlefield on Aug. 20. Their goal was to learn about the heritage of modern military medicine and those who made a difference on the battlefield.

The students hiked to historically important sites around the national park and listened to lectures from university faculty and volunteers from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Called the “Bloodiest Day in American History,” the Battle of Antietam saw Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland stopped in a cornfield by Union Gen. George McClellan on September 17, 1862.

“I was lying on my back, supported on my elbows, watching the shells explode overhead and speculating as to how long I could hold up my finger before it would be shot off, for the very air seemed full of bullets,” wrote Army Correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin. 

Air Force Col. John Wightman talks with medical school students about what medical care providers faced during the Battle of Antietam on Aug. 20. (Photo Credit: Ian Neligh)
Air Force Col. John Wightman talks with medical school students about what medical care provides faced during the Battle of Antietam on Aug. 20.
(Photo credit: Ian Neligh)

It was during that ferocious battle that Union Major Jonathan Letterman implemented his ideas for reshaping the Army’s Medical Corps, earning him the nickname the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.” 

Letterman developed a system for organized evacuation of wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Letterman’s system coordinated use of aid stations, an ambulance corps, and field hospitals, saving countless lives. 

Army Lt. Colonel Craig Myatt, Ph.D., the course director who oversees the Antietam march, says students graduating from USU meet the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command Basic Officer Leadership Course requirement to engage in some type of “staff ride” exercise or, in this case, a “staff walk.” 

The goal of a staff ride is to give current military personnel a perspective on historical incidents and decisions. The school adopted the idea for all students, regardless of which branch they are in, to help give them a sense of military medical heritage.

“We’re able to conduct staff rides by taking officers, or those who are due to be newly commissioned, out to those locations and literally walking the terrain and taking advantage of terrain features, and examining leadership decisions that took place there on the battlefield,” Myatt says, adding the staff ride tradition goes back more than 100 years for the Army. At USU, the Antietam walk has been taking place for the past 30 years. 

According to Myatt, touring the Civil War battlefield helps students look at the decisions made by

Cannons at Antietam battlefield.
Nearly 300 students took part in USU's annual trip to
the battlefield of Antietam on Aug. 20. Their goal was to
learn about the heritage of modern-military battlefield
medicine. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh)
Letterman, which helped the Union more effectively clear the battlefield of the wounded than the Confederate Army.

“It was part of the beginning of a new system that Jonathan Letterman put in place at Antietam which ultimately served the Union well, and again almost nine months later at the Battle of Gettysburg,” Myatt says. “… Letterman instituted a system that ultimately improved battlefield care and treatment, as well as evacuation for the Union Army and the United States military… going into World War I and World War II.”

At Dunker Church the students learned about the initial culmination point for the Union attack; at the infamous cornfield, it was care under fire.  The students heard about 19th century tactical field care at the David Miller Farm House, and how that served as the forerunner of 21st century tactical combat casualty care. In small groups, medical school students, students from the Graduate School of Nursing, and students in the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program marched down Smoketown Road to the Mumma Farm House, to Burnside’s Bridge, the Sunken Road, and other integral battlefield points.

Dr. Dale Smith, professor of Military Medicine and History, stands with a group of students by a line of cannons and points at the historic battlefield still wet from a recent rainstorm. 

“Think about the terrain, that’s where you’re engaging today,” Smith says. “That’s the one piece we can’t recreate at USU is the terrain. What can you see? Who can see you? What obstacles are there? How can they be used?”

Smith says coming out of Antietam, Letterman took an idea called “the ambulance corps,” an organized group to get wounded soldiers off the battlefield, and turned it into a multi-echelon medically-commanded system of battlefield care.

“It took time to convince the (commanders) that he needed all the pieces — but he got them,” Smith says. “… From that modern doctrine emerged. It’s what we teach (today).”

Smith questions the students about how they would conform to a battle where the ground changed hands eight times between the North and the South. 

“Do you have the flexibility and mobility to move with that kind of fluid battle — or are you better off being less proximate and achieving more continuity? How do these work together?” Smith asks. “Think about that on the real ground, where people did it and one person really created something.”

A group of students walking through Antietam.
USU students hiked to historically important sites around Antietam and listened to lectures from university faculty and volunteers from the National Museum
of Civil War Medicine. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh)


‘Angel of the Battlefield’

Jake Wynn, director of interpretation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, stands before a group of students alongside Smoketown Road. In the battle, it was a crucial but crowded thoroughfare during the fight.

“You have wagons, you have columns of men, you have artillery being used along this road heading toward the battlefield,” Wynn says. “This becomes a massive traffic jam and this traffic jam isn’t just isolated to this section of road… this is a terrific jam that exists all the way back to Frederick, Maryland — 25 miles east of here.”

The medical supplies were stuck in this traffic jam and unavailable for the wounded. It was along this route that a nurse volunteer named Clara Barton arrived with supplies and helped the doctors operating in a nearby farmhouse, Wynn says. Given Union supplies hadn’t yet reached the battlefield, Barton saw soldiers bandaged with corn husks.

“We had expended every bandage, torn up every sheet in the house, and everything we could find, when who should drive up but our old friend Miss Barton, with a team, loaded down with dressings of every kind, and everything we could ask for,” wrote Union Brigade-Surgeon James L. Dunn.

Barton offered the supplies and bandages that she had gathered together over the past year herself and immediately worked to relieve surgeons, helping when and wherever she could. 

Dunn added she worked tirelessly day and night to help and when he left four days after the battle, Barton was still helping the wounded and dying. 

“When I returned to the field hospital last week, she was still at work, supplying them with delicacies of every kind, and administering to their wants, all of which she does out of her own private fortune,” Dunn said, calling her the “Angel of the Battlefield,” a nickname which stuck.

Dr. Dale Smith standing with cannons at Antietam.
Dr. Dale Smith, professor of Military Medicine and History listens as a group of medical school students from the Uniformed Services University of the
Health Sciences learn about the Civil War Battle of Antietam. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh)

At one point during the fighting, a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed a man she was giving water to. When it was too dark for the surgeons to see, she went and retrieved lamps from her wagon so they could keep working. When it was done, she collapsed, sick with typhoid fever. Delirious, she was returned to Washington, D.C., in the back of a wagon. When she regained her strength, Barton returned to the battlefields to help the wounded. She would later create the American Red Cross. 

Air Force Lt. Colonel (Dr.) Leslie Vojta stands with students by the edge of the infamous cornfield where most of the fighting occurred. The group she speaks with are all enlisted military members looking to someday become military medical officers.

The sounds of cannons are long gone and the rattle of muskets forgotten, but USU, its faculty, and students ensure the lessons of Antietam continue for the next generation of military doctors.

“We have to take the lessons from Antietam, and at the other battles in American history, and apply them forward,” says Vojta.