On October 23, 1863, F.M. Stoke paused from his duties at the Gettysburg Hospital to write a letter to his brother. More than three months had passed since Union and Confederate troops had brought war to the rolling ground of rural Pennsylvania, but reminders of the recent conflict were everywhere. Stoke apologized for the span of time since his last letter home. He had been busy lately writing letters for the patients in the hospital and had found no time for even a brief note for his own loved ones. Things were going well enough at the hospital, he wrote.
The impromptu clinic was located about a mile east of town (about where Ewell formed his battle line, he added) and consisted of large tents set up over approximately eighty acres of land. The tents were organized in “streets,” much as in military camps, an outline that made the hospital look nearly like a city of its own. When he first arrived, there were already 5,000 sick and wounded convalescing in the tents and it was not uncommon for seventeen men to die in one day.
In the field south of the hospital tents, wrote Stoke, was a large graveyard. Here, in rows of rough wooden headboards inscribed with the name, state, and regiment of the man who lay thereunder, were the bodies of the countless men who had perished at the hospital in the months following the battle. Nearly all the dead were Confederate veterans, Stoke noted, although he does not specify whether this was because they made up the majority of patients or if it was because most Union dead were near enough to home to be sent there. Many bodies were embalmed and sent to friends—both a dead-house tent and embalming tent were located beside the hospital. When it came to the disposal of amputated limbs, the process was decidedly more clinical. After amputation, the limbs were packed into barrels, buried until thoroughly decomposed, and then exhumed to be sent to the Medical College in Washington, D.C. for study.
F.M. Stoke dispassionately relays these grim details of hospital life to his brother. Stoke not only faced the horrible aftermath of battle in the hospital, but, even three months after the final shots had been fired in Gettysburg, reminders of the war lay everywhere around town. Trees across the battlefield were riddled with Minié balls, their timber rotten. The ground was blanketed in “everything that goes to make up the horrors of a battlefield”: not only bodies and lost limbs, but abandoned knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, hats, caps, and blankets, all smeared with clotted blood and brains. At Devil’s Den, the dead and dying who had fallen between the great rocks now rotted away in the mud and rain water; these “miserable looking being[s]” had to be hooked on long poles with iron hooks and hoisted up for disposal. For the heavily decomposed bodies around the battlefield, heads and limbs fell off “at the slightest touch.” Stoke notes that “The visitor is shocked at every step while passing over this vast charnel house.”
Whether called away for hospital work or simply unable to dwell further on the nightmarish refuse of battle, Stoke ends his letter abruptly: “No more. Write soon. Our battle line was eight miles long over the roughest ground I ever saw.”
In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, F.M. Stoke was a witness to carnage of every imaginable variety. But then, not only the carnage of battle would serve as a grim reminder of the summer’s combat; the last of the soldiers wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg would not leave until the end of November 1863. Even months after the battle, those living in Gettysburg would find themselves surrounded by its haunting vestiges. For those who witnessed the months before the creation of the National Cemetery and the organized cleanup of battlefield carnage, Gettysburg was not simply the site of a battle that would forever symbolize the lengths a nation would go to preserve itself. It was also a brutal image of the horrific wounds of war.
F.M. Stoke letter, 26 October 1863. CWVFM-111 Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.
[Incidents of the war. A harvest of death, Gettysburg, July, 1863]. Timothy H. O’Sullivan: Philp & Solomons, c1865. Accessed at Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Call Number Illus. in E468.7. copy 2. Reproduction Number LC-B8184-7964-A DLC (b&w film neg.).