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Antietam Medical Miracle by Brandon S. Miller

Antietam Medical Miracle by Brandon S. Miller

The bullets were whizzing like sheets of heavy rain; men were falling all around me. My hands loaded, aimed, and fired my musket almost without a conscious thought, as if it were inborn and instinctive. Smoke filled the air around me, obstructing my vision. When the order to point came, all I could do was point my musket forward and pull the trigger. The men around me continued to fall; I realized that I was going to die that day. The death I imagined however, whether it involved the stinging pain of a musket ball tearing through my chest or the forceful blast of an artillery shell, would have been life compared to the living death that I received. A bullet ripped through my leg and I collapsed into the mud. My unit advanced, then fell back. I was alone. As the smoke parched my throat and blood drained from my leg onto the ground beneath me, I slipped into a lifeless haze. Around me the rattling muskets sounded faint, till my only conscious connection to the battle that raged above me was the occasional flash of powder that caught my eye. The long afternoon of intense heat finally gave way to the cool night. My face went pale, but not from the freezing air that surrounded my weakened form; I was losing blood, fast. The only relief I had ahead was another day lying helpless in the world’s merciless sun, praying that I wouldn’t be killed by a stray musket ball.

The average soldier during America’s War Between the States knew that if you caught a bullet that didn’t send you to the fiery throne of God, you may just wish it had. It was common for wounded, dying men to lay on battlefields for days after combat ceased, many dying of thirst simply because they were too weak to stand, much less limp back to camp. In some cases, even if you did manage to rise, you’d probably be killed by an enemy soldier keeping watch over the battlefield. Reasons for this lack of efficiency varied, but mostly the problem dwelt with disorganization in the armies’ Medical Corps. Surgeons would take to the field with the soldiers, set up hospitals wherever they could, and treat a few wounded from there. Unfortunately, even if you were lucky enough to be brought off the field by your comrades, the hospitals were first-come, first-served and many men died as they waited for their turn while less severely wounded patients were treated first.   Another reason for the inefficiency was simply that casualties from a battle between two major armies were so overwhelming that no real plan had been formed to deal with them. The bloodiest single day of the war cost 22,720 casualties, who fell along the northern edge of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862.

It was hard to believe that anything good could come out of that day-long battle know as Antietam, much less that it could end up saving thousands of lives. However, God used this overwhelming number of deaths to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new plan, authored by Union Major Jonathan Letterman, which would forever revolutionize both military and civilian medical treatment forever. Jonathan Letterman had the huge job of healing and caring for the 9,550 Union soldiers wounded on this bloody day. The task was huge, but Letterman had a plan. Instead of dealing with the wounded the traditional way (A particular type of chaos known only in combat situations) Letterman set up a system that would become common place, not just in the army, but in towns and cities all across the globe.

In June of 1862, U.S. Army Surgeon General promoted him to the rank of Major and appointed him Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac. Only three months later the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania.   An intelligence slip on the part of one of Lee’s carriers landed the positions of the entire Army of Northern Virginia in General McLellan’s hand. In fact, McLellan was so confident that he could crush his enemy that he said, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.” Considering Lincoln’s habit of firing generals he deemed incompetent, McClellan had personal motivation to hit Lee hard, and not stop till his enemy bowed, or the latter part of his statement could very well come true. The Southerners however couldn’t back down because they found themselves pushed up against Antietam creek. Retreat for Lee was impossible. Both armies now had more motivation than usual to fight to a bloody end. And thus they did. Letterman’s new triage stations, Ambulance Corps, and field hospitals, were able to cope with the massive flow of wounded men who fell on this gruesome day. Antietam’s casualties were so huge, and the battle happened so quickly, that it proved the system’s potential to save hundreds of lives in battles, wars, years, and centuries to come.

Letterman’s new process included the use of triage to determine the severity of the soldiers’ various wounds, as well as delivering immediate stabilizing treatment for each soldier. This alone saved hundreds of lives, as men who needed immediate attention were helped first. After a patient was stabilized, he could either be transferred to a temporary field hospital, in a location determined before the battle commenced, to receive lifesaving surgery, or he was transported to permanent hospital in a nearby city where he could fully recover. This process, however required a mode of transportation, and Letterman scrambled to find new ambulances in the days before the battle, most of which had been left behind during McClellan’s panicked retreat down the Peninsula. Thankfully he was able to find enough ambulances and drivers to completely remove Union wounded from the field within twenty-four hours of the battle. Letterman’s Ambulance Corps that proved so successful in this battle and those that followed, that Congress was forced by public outcry to establish a similar corps in each Union army.

Today, this system of medical care saves lives not only in the military, but also in the civilian population. We have combined the immediate stabilization and the transportation in the modern Mobile Intensive Care Unit, but the principles Letterman introduced remain. According to George Wunderlich, the executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, “Every time you see an ambulance run down the road as a result of a 911 call, that is the Battle of Antietam going down the road in front of you.” God gave Letterman a plan, a vision, and an opportunity to change medical practice. When Letterman acted on that vision, countless lives were saved and Letterman’s ideas continue to save lives today. Although the casualties of Antietam were horrific, God ironically chose The War’s bloodiest day to spotlight a new technique of medical care that would save thousands of lives in time to come.