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NEWS | Jan. 3, 2024

JBSA-Fort Sam Houston street renamed after Civil War surgeon-Soldier

By Vincent Hodge, 502nd Air Base Wing Historian, and Steve Elliott, 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs 502nd Air Base Wing

“William Hardee Road” at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston is being renamed as “Letterman Road” under the provisions of Department of the Air Force Instruction 36-2880, Memorialization Program, in memory of U.S. Army Maj. (Dr.) Jonathan Letterman, known as the "Father of Battlefield Medicine."

After the Secretary of the Air Force ordered a review of all divisive names on Air Education and Training Command installations, the 502nd Air Base Wing historian discovered that Lt. Gen. William Hardee voluntarily commissioned in the Confederate States Army in 1861. The request to change the name of the road was approved by Gen. David W. Allvin, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff.

According to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine website, Letterman became the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac in July 1862. When Letterman took command, the Civil War had been raging for more than a year. Letterman had distinguished himself during a long career as a U.S. Army surgeon since his graduation from Jefferson Medical College in 1849.

Letterman planned a reorganization of the ambulance corps which had performed poorly in earlier campaigns, often being used to haul supplies instead of those needing emergency medical care. Once the wounded were brought in, Letterman sketched out a tiered system of care to evaluate and treat each patient.

Before Letterman’s innovations, wounded men were often left to fend for themselves. Unless carried off the field by a comrade, or one of the regimental musicians doubling as a stretcher bearer, a wounded soldier could lie for days suffering from exposure and thirst.

Letterman also started the very first Ambulance Corps, training men to act as stretcher-bearers and operate wagons to pick up the wounded and bring them to field dressing stations. He also instituted the concept of triage for the treatment of the casualties.

In reorganizing military hospitals, his plan saw that every military hospital would have one surgeon in charge, with two assistant surgeons: one to organize supplies and another to keep records. In addition to these three surgeons, hospitals would choose the three most skilled medical officers, as opposed to the three highest ranking, to operate. Letterman also made sure that the regular Army quartermaster was no longer in charge of medical supplies.

The policies put in place by Letterman were important in caring for the wounded. He personally oversaw the Medical Corps’ response to the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.

“I often wondered whether, had I been confronted with the primitive system which Letterman fell heir to at the beginning of the Civil War, I could have developed as good an organization as he did. I doubt it, said Maj. Gen. Paul Hawley, Chief Surgeon of the European Theater in WWII. “There was not a day during World War II that I did not thank God for Jonathan Letterman.”

Letterman’s innovative changes in the delivery of battlefield medical care were widely adopted and established when the United States Congress implemented his changes across the entire U.S. Army.

Letterman’s plan still provides the basis for triage and modern emergency and military medical care.

Letterman resigned from the Army in December 1864, moved to San Francisco where he served as coroner from 1867 to 1872, and published his memoirs, titled “Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac.” He died in 1872 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On Nov. 13, 1911, the Army hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco was named Letterman Army Hospital in his honor.

The Maj. Jonathon Letterman Award for Medical Excellence, awarded annually by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, recognizes an individual and an organization for leading innovative efforts in civilian emergency care, combat casualty care, prosthetic technology, improving outcomes for patients with catastrophic injuries or leveraging today's cutting medical technology to develop new ways to assist military service members or civilians who have suffered severe disfiguring wounds.

1. “Techniques of Civil War medical innovator Jonathan Letterman still used today” by Ronald Wolf,  

2. National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
3. Confederation of Union Generals,
4. Thomas Jefferson University,
5. American Battlefield Trust,