Preservation Can Save Lives
By George Wunderlich
(May 2011 Civil War News - Preservation Column)

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When we think of Civil War preservation issues, it is natural that our first thought drifts towards battlefield preservation. Our battlefields are irreplaceable artifacts that speak directly to the courage, will, suffering and triumph of our ancestors.

These sacred places do not exist only to serve those whose ancestors fought. They act as pilgrimage sites for all Americans to experience, even vicariously, the sacrifice that it took and takes to make America the great country that it is today.

Preserving our battlefields for this purpose is a lofty calling and an absolute necessity, yet it is an incomplete picture. We can, and must, do more if our heritage is to fully form and inform us as a people.

Land is vital to our story, as are artifacts and stories. The museums, archives, libraries and private collections of our country all help put flesh on our understanding of the land we fight so hard to preserve.

Together, the stories, artifacts and land can have a much more profound meaning than any single resource could ever have. This combination not only helps inform our current and future generations; but by studying the sacrifices and triumphs of our past, we can save the lives of our citizen soldiers today.

In 2004, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine was asked to take part in a military medical training program called the Joint Medical Executive Skills Institute Capstone Symposium.

Our first participation was a combination lecture and artifact-based interpretive program. In 2005, we combined this with a visit to the Antietam National Battlefield and McClellan’s headquarters at the Pry House. The result was astounding.

During one particular session in the Pry House Field Hospital Museum where we were discussing Maj. Jonathan Letterman’s role at Antietam, a senior medical officer was visibly shaken and left the room abruptly. When questioned about his departure, his reply stunned everyone who heard it.

He stated that there had been a significant increase in the death rate of soldiers wounded in fighting near Fallujah, Iraq, that seemed unexplainable.

Upon hearing of the interaction between Gen. George McClellan and Letterman, his Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, this current officer realized that during a recent relocation of the medical communications center from the main communications center they had neglected to properly consider the placement of the medical dispatchers.

Unlike Letterman who had direct access to his commander, these dispatchers were working without real-time battle information.

In 1862, Letterman pre-placed medical assets on the battlefield because of battlefield information he gleaned from constant contact with McClellan.

In Fallujah, after the move of the medical communications center, the medical dispatchers no longer had access to this essential information. As he was explaining the situation to us, he was e-mailing his counterparts in Iraq to remedy the situation. We have been told that soon after, mortality rates once again dropped to their previous levels.

It was not simply the preservation of the Pry House that brought this story about. Nor is it only the preservation of the story of Antietam and the artifacts related to medical history.

It was the combination of story, place and artifacts that made the difference. We believe that there are now men and women whose lives were saved because of historical knowledge that was remembered and taught.

Because of this incident (and there have been many more since 2005), over 4,700 federal medical professionals from all branches of the military, Veterans Administration and the Public Health Service, have been given the opportunity to visit these sacred spaces, see the artifacts and hear the stories of the Civil War.

They are more effective at their jobs for having this opportunity. They have come to understand that preservation is more than just about buying land. It is about total preservation and using that preservation to make real changes in our current world.

Thank you all for supporting preservation of our Civil War legacy. Through your efforts, you may someday meet someone whose life you helped save.

Information about the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is available at 301-695-1864, and 


George Wunderlich is Executive Director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.