The Soldiers Last Tattoo

It seems that every Civil War film – fiction or documentary – has the obligatory field hospital scene, where a surgeon uses a crude saw to amputate a limb, accompanied by the screams of the totally conscience victim patient.  That’s the fascination with museums of Civil War medicine.  They’re houses of horror that operate year-round, not just around Halloween.

The field hospital for the Union at Antietam was at the Philip Pry farm, on the eastern edge of the battlefield.  The farmhouse was built in 1844 as a home for Philip and Elizabeth Pry and their six (at the time of battle) children.  Union Commander George McClellen co-opted it for his headquarters because it was built on a hill, overlooking the battlefield.  There’s a wooden overlook next to the house, where we could view the battlefield in the same spot as General McClellan.  All I saw were the tops of trees.

Along with being General McClellan’s headquarters, it also was headquarters for Union medical director, Jonathan Letterman.   Dr. Letterman is credited with being the father of battlefield medicine and the house was, according to its website, “the birthplace of military and emergency medicine.”  It served as a hospital for officers, while the barn was a field hospital for enlisted men.

The house is now the Pry House Field Hospital Museum, a satellite of National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.  There are exhibits on civil war medicine, on Pry house and family history (a Pry family member was there on Saturday, to answer questions about the family and house), and an operating room scene showing a doctor operating on Major General Joseph Hooker, who was shot in the foot at Antietam.  The museum website says that the barn has displays on field hospitals, but it wasn’t open when we were there.

President Lincoln was at the house in October 1862, to visit Major General Israel Richardson, who was a patient there.  A Halloween season ghost story: Richardson died in November, at the Pry House, in the room formerly occupied by the Pry children.  After the Union moved out and the Prys returned to the house, the children refused to enter the room, citing…sighting…the ghost of General Richardson.  It became storage.

The Prys sold the house in 1874 and it went through several owners before the NPS bought it in 1976 and restored it (mostly) to its 1862 state.

There’s a medicinal garden at the back of the house.  The guy in charge of the garden, who says he knew nothing about gardens until he was made responsible for this one, blogs about it.

From the hospital, it seems natural to move on to the Antietam Battlefield National Cemetery, as many patients did.  It’s just a couple of miles down the road.

Originally, the dead from the Antietam battlefield were buried where they fell, most anonymously, in mass graves. Seven hundred men were buried on the Roulette farm, near the Visitor Center.

In 1865, the state of Maryland bought 11 acres on which to establish a cemetery.  In the beginning, the plan was that it would hold both Union and Confederate soldiers.  But both sides were having none of that, so it turned into a Union cemetery, with the Confederates scattered amongst other graveyards nearby.

Before they could bury the Antietam dead at the cemetery, they had to find and disinter them from their original graves, and identify them.  That took about two years.  The cemetery was dedicated by President Andrew Johnson on September 17, 1867.  Ten years later, it was bought from Maryland by the federal government.

The center of the cemetery is dominated by a granite statue of a Union infantryman.  Officially called “Private Soldier” and nicknamed “Old Simon,” he was designed in Connecticut, sculpted in Rhode Island, and exhibited in Philadelphia, before making his way to Sharpsburg and dedicated on September 17, 1880.

This is the memorial for the 20th New York volunteer infantry, made up mostly of German immigrants.  The German translates to: “Erected in memory of our fallen comrades by the survivors of the regt.”  It says the same thing on the other side, in English.  Their motto was “Bhan Frei,” German for “Clear the way.” Which must have been a common Civil War motto, because the Irish Brigade used “fág an bealach,” also “Clear the way.”

There are 4776 Union remains from the battles of the Maryland campaign buried at the Antietam national cemetery, 38% of which are unidentified.  There also are about 200 non-Civil War dead buried there – veterans from wars between the Civil War and Korea, and their wives.  The cemetery was closed in 1953.  Exceptions have been made, most notably in 2000 for the burial of a local U.S. Navy seaman who died in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and for four Civil War soldiers whose bodies were found near Bloody Lane in 1988.

The small stones are markers for graves of the unknown.  And the six regular gravestones off by themselves in the upper right hand corner of the picture above: the segregated graves of African-American soldiers from WWI.

In a circle around Old Simon are tablets featuring verses of the poem Bivouc of the Dead, written by Theodore O’Hara in honor of his fellow Kentucky soldiers who died in the Mexican American war.  It became popular after the Civil War and appears at many Civil War cemeteries.  The first verse is this:

The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat the soldiers last tattoo.
No more on life’s parade shall meet that brave and fallen few.
On fames eternal camping ground their silent tents are spread,
and glory guards with solemn round the bivouc of the dead.

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2 Responses to The Soldiers Last Tattoo

  1. What a neat place to visit – looks like a lot of information at the museum. And the cemetery looks peaceful.

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