By Jane Malone
There are times when you just need
In September 1863, after weeks of daily deaths at Camp Letterman,
Dr. Henry Janes, the surgeon in charge, thought his patients needed something positive to lift their spirits. Camp Letterman, located about a mile east of Gettysburg on U.S. Route 30, was the general hospital established in Gettysburg after the July battle for the most seriously wounded soldiers. Both Confederate and Union soldiers were being treated there. And now money was available. Three Philadelphia churches contributed $1,100 to the Christian Commission to make this party possible. Sept. 23 was the date chosen for the event.
The Sept. 22, 1863 issue of the Gettysburg Sentinel newspaper reported that camp surgeons and volunteer nurses were busy planning “an interesting and grand entertainment” for the “wounded and sick.” They arranged for food to be brought to the camp and organized an event in which every soldier, bedridden or ambulatory, could participate. “Committees have been appointed for different wards to see that no one is neglected. Extensive tables have been prepared for all who are able to come to them.” For those who could walk, trays laden with food were brought into the wards. “The streets of the Camp have arches across them with patriotic designs and the whole affair has been got up with great taste and reflects much credit on the kindheartedness and generosity of those who have had the matter in hand,” the Sentinel reported.
On Sept. 23, even the weather cooperated. The day was sunny and warm enough to bring many of the wounded to the tables filled with food. In its Sept. 29 account of the event, the Sentinel called it a banquet. The paper noted that the Christian Commission and the ladies of Gettysburg “spared no time, nor influence in collecting from the county, and themselves preparing, a very large amount of the choicest delicacies, and devoting hours and days to systematize the affair.” In all, 500 chickens, 30 hams, 50 tongues, oysters, pies, cakes, peaches, grapes, watermelons, and cantaloupes were brought to the camp for the men. The paper reported that 1,183 men were fed that day. It was a banquet!
After the meal came the entertainment. The Sentinel reported foot races, gander pulling by the cavalry*, scrub races**, and greased pole climbing. Many of the events pitted the Union and Confederate soldiers against one another. A band, brought in from York, entertained the men with a minstrel show in which some of the performers were recovering soldiers. Ice cream was served as it grew dark, and at about 10 p.m., the party finally ended.
Sometimes you just need a party, even in the midst of death and suffering.
*Gander pulling is a “blood sport” that is pretty horrible for the gander.
**In scrub races, the participants are either amateurs or just plain unskilled runners.
Jane Malone serves on the Adams County Historical Society Board of Trustees.