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Six Historical Days at the George Spangler Farm Field Hospital

By Barbara Sanders, Gettysburg National Military Park and Cindy Small, Gettysburg Foundation

A visit to the Spangler Farm will help visitors to know the story of the Eleventh Corps’ use of the property as a field hospital, meet and hear from the soldiers, surgeons and caregivers whose stories unfolded there, and contemplate the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg and the lives that were forever changed at this site. Illustration by Luc Herbots, courtesy of LSC Design, Inc.

The medical story throughout the Civil War and at Gettysburg is complex in nature. Each surgeon, each wounded soldier, and each aid worker had his or her own perspective, and the care evolved over the course of the long war. But by visiting one field hospital from this one battle, the complex story about these most chaotic of times can begin to be understood and more fully appreciated. Below is a brief synopsis of six historical days from the George Spangler Farm – one of 160 field hospitals at Gettysburg– where ultimately 1800 wounded from the 3-day battle were treated, and perhaps the best surviving example of a farm used as a corps field hospital during and after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Day 1: July 1, 1863

After the battle at Gettysburg, roughly 27,000 lay wounded in the fields, churches, homes, barns, sheds, schools and other public places in and around the town. The George Spangler farm was selected as a hospital for the 11th Corps wounded because it provided shelter, a water source, buildings for food preparation and surgeries, and plenty of open ground for the eventual erection of tents and the unfortunate creation of burial grounds. It was located between the Taneytown Road and the Baltimore Pike, and could therefore be reached by four-wheeled, horse-drawn ambulances. It was thought, and hoped, that it was far enough away from the lines of battle, and the explosions of shot and shell, to provide effective treatment until patients were well enough to return to their units, or to a major city hospital to fully recover.

Surgeons and assistants readied themselves with make-shift operating tables where instruments, dressings, anesthetics and stimulants were stocked and in close proximity to the doctors and attendants. The hospital staff included surgeons, assistant surgeons who served as recorders and distributed food and shelter, hospital stewards and nurses to dress wounds and dispense medicine.

Day 2: July 3, 1863

The battle raged on for two more days after the hospital was established, the action drawing near enough on July 3 to cause significant alarm as well as to increase the patient count at the farm.

S.C. Romig, from the 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry said in a letter of July 3 written at the George Spangler Farm that he “was laid on the threshing floor of the barn used for a hospital…near the big door. There I had a fine view of the bursting shells coming in our direction [during Pickett’s Charge]. There were at one time six explosions of shells in one moment…They placed me in the lower part of the barn, in a building called a wagon shed. This place was occupied mostly by wounded Rebels.”

Dr. Daniel Brinton, engaged as division surgeon-in-chief at the Spangler Farm’s Eleventh Corps field hospital, wrote in his diary on July 5: “….Four operating tables were going night and day….We worked with little intermission, & with a minimum amount of sleep. On one day I arose at 2 AM & worked incessantly till midnight. I doubt if ever I worked harder at a more disagreeable occupation. On the afternoon of the 3rd we were exposed to a sharp fire of shells. Several horses & one man were killed close to the hospital. Shells fell within 20ft of the room which we were, and we were much in fear that the barn would blaze, which would have been an unspeakably frightful casualty.”

The barn did not blaze, and many of the captured Confederate wounded were then taken to the farm for treatment, including Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead. Division Commander General Carl Schurz toured the 11th Corps Hospital during heavy rains that followed on July 4, 1863 and noted that he: “saw long rows of men lying under the eaves of the buildings, the water pouring down upon their bodies in streams. Most of the operating tables were placed in the open…partially protected by the rain…There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up…their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood…around them pools of blood and amputated arms or legs in heaps…a surgeon, having been long at work…put down his knife, exclaiming that his hand had grown unsteady, and that this was too much for human endurance, hysterical tears running down his face.”

Day 3: July 5, 1863

Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac Jonathan Letterman sent an order July 5 with the following instructions:

The Army may be ordered to move at any moment, and the following arrangements for the care of the wounded on the battlefield will at once be carried into effect…Surgeons in Chief of Divisions will accompany their Commands. One third of the operating staff, & sufficient number of Med Officers, attendants, &c will be left.

For the surgeons remaining behind at the Spangler Farm, and other large corps hospitals, this meant a significant reduction in staff, with little if any decrease in the amount of wounded to be cared for. One member of the Christian Commission tending to the Gettysburg wounded responded: “What! Take away surgeons here where a hundred are wanted, and where, if the men have not immediate help, hundreds must die for want of attention. But so it is, and we can do no better.”

This image of the George Spangler Farm ca.1890 shows the house, barn and small outbuildings such as the smokehouse and summer kitchen, collectively, depicts the image of a traditional late 19th century farm. The unidentified people in the forefront may be George Spangler’s son, Beniah and his family.

Day 4: July 7, 1863

Supply wagons, with tents, tools and food preparation utensils among other necessities for treatment of such a large group of men, finally arrived in Gettysburg and made their way to all major field hospitals. The wagons had been waylaid due to Union General George Meade’s order of July 1 that “Corps Commanders of the Artillery Reserve will at once send to the rear all their trains (excepting ammunition wagons and the ambulances), parking these between Union Mills and Gettysburg.”

Justus Silliman, 17th Connecticut Infantry, was being treated at the Spangler Farm and recalled, “…all the hospital tents have been put up and are filled, the barn is also crowded and hundreds of shelter tents (are) occupied yet the wounded are so numerous that some have yet to lie out in the open air.

While supply wagons created movement into the field hospitals, efforts gained momentum to move wounded out of the field hospitals to home, or to board trains to Baltimore or Washington, D.C. Dr. Henry Janes, in charge of all the consolidated hospitals in Gettysburg, sent communication to the army surgeons that “the trains will start tomorrow… you may send those able to walk, and who are decently clothed. About 300 can be sent in each train.” For some doctors, too far out of town and too busy with the work at hand, this was the first they’d heard that the trains had not been running and that the “walking wounded” they had sent to town already had been without food and shelter for days.

Day 5: One day in early August

The Spangler Farm field hospital closed during the first week of August, but the days prior to that closure were some of the most heart-wrenching of all. The order to move the remaining wounded soldiers from the Corps Hospitals to the Camp Letterman site was difficult. Dr. William Norris noted the difficulties with the First Corps, and one can only imagine similar trauma for the 11th Corps soldiers travelling from the Spangler site, when he wrote: “I sent those capable of transportation to Harrisburg and most of our stumps by ambulance to the General Hospital, our comp fractures of thigh and leg I had carried in stretchers and as the distance was a mile and a quarter it was a considerable undertaking.” With the closing of the 11th Corps Hospital at the Spangler Farm, George Spangler and his family would begin the long difficult process of rebuilding their farm, including the preparation and compilation of claims for damages to the property.

The Gettysburg Foundation has initiated work to return the farm to its 1863 appearance and as a site to better understand the stories of this place. The Spangler barn is pictured here before preservation and rehabilitation efforts which will move forward as funding allows.

Day 6: July 2013, 150 Years Later

But the historical days for the George Spangler Farm didn’t end in 1863. In 2008 the farm was purchased by the Gettysburg Foundation to preserve and protect this historic place and remind future generations of the significance of the site.

To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Foundation will open the Spangler Farm to visitors to gain a better understanding of the care of the wounded at Gettysburg. Through the use of letters, diaries, memoirs, official records and personal accounts, visitors will hear stories of acts of individual kindness, of bravery and courage, of charity and love, loyalty and patriotism and will meet the wounded who suffered, those who treated them, and the people who cared for them as they coped with the traumatic experiences of battle and its aftermath.


More Articles:

A Unique Commemorative Opportunity
by Elle Lamboy, Gettysburg Foundation, Volume 24, Issue 2

The George Spangler Farm: 11th Army Corps Hospital 
by Wayne E. Motts

In Their Words: Recollections of Visitations at Gettysburg After the Great Battle in July, 1863
by Silas Felton and Wayne E. Motts, courtesy Gettysburg Magazine, Issue No. 46