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Pry House Museum

By George Wunderlich


April 2006

>Many of our nation's battlefields were originally preserved as outdoor classrooms for the military. While many still serve in this venerable capacity, the focus has shifted from the training of our future military leaders to the more benign purpose of accommodating caravans of tourists and school buses.

The individuals on military staff rides now find themselves just another bus in the sea of vehicles that adorn our nation's battlegrounds.

While the focus has indeed changed, so too have our reasons for preserving these sacred spaces. However, this is not always the case. The Pry House Field Hospital Museum (PHFHM) on the Antietam Battlefield is something of a throwback to our earliest preservation efforts.

In 1844 Phillip Pry built a beautiful brick farmhouse on a ridge overlooking the Antietam creek near Keedysville, Md. This large structure served him well until September 1862, when his peace was shattered by the arrival of two rival armies that were poised on opposite banks ready to engage in what would become the bloodiest single day in our nation's history.

This fine house would have the distinction, and curse, of serving as the headquarters for the Army of the Potomac as well as a field hospital. Gen. Israel Richardson of the 2nd Corps was treated in this house and died in one of the upstairs bedrooms in November, nearly two month after the battle.

It was in Pry House that Gen. George B. McClellan planned and directed the Battle of Antietam. While this event is interpreted in the new museum, there is another less well-known set of plans that were developed in this house.

Maj. Jonathan Letterman was the Medical Director for the Army of the Potomac and served with McClellan's staff at the Pry. After directing the medical department both during and after the battle, Letterman began a monumental task there in October 1862. He personally reorganized the medical department and laid out plans for our first organized evacuation system.

He also reorganized the medical command and control structure, codified field hospital administration and reinvented the medical logistical operations of the Army of the Potomac.

The Letterman Plan survives in various forms to this day and is the basis for the most sophisticated trauma care system in the world "" that of the United States Military.

The National Park Service (NPS) purchased the house in the 1970s and, despite a terrible fire that destroyed the interior of part of the house, restored it to its original 1862 appearance. Unfortunately, the house was never opened to the public as it served as both an office for the park and a residence for the staff.

This all changed in 2004 when the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM) and the National Park Service entered into an historic arrangement to open the property to the public. The house was cleaned, repainted and reopened as the Pry House Field Hospital Museum. The original barn was cleared for further renovation, and the parking areas were expanded.

In April 2005, the house was opened to visitors for the first time. Manned by NMCWM staff, the park and museum share costs of renovation, while the museum pays all utility costs and the Park maintains the grounds and building structures.

While the primary focus of the PHFHM was originally centered on the public, the military staff ride has become this museum's most important role. Groups of doctors, nurses, medics, medical planners and logisticians descend on this property regularly to better understand Letterman and his impact on their modern systems.

It turns out that many of Letterman's original conclusions and processes are as valid today as they were in 1862. These modern caregivers study these similarities so as to better understand how to modify and reform the current system for future conflicts.

The museum's comprehensive training is provided in cooperation with the Joint Medical Executive Skills Institute Capstone Symposium. This is the highest level of training offered to military medical administrators. The course is offered three times a year with each session lasting five days.

Attendees come from all military medical commands and the United States Public Health Service. One full day of the five is reserved for a tour of Antietam and the Pry House.

Former course director Commander Lori Frank said the following about the training:"Your efforts, both directly and indirectly, have proven indispensable to those military officers in harms way and those leading Federal treatment facilities in garrison who are fighting one common cause "" the global war on terrorism. You are making better, stronger, and more confident leaders of us all."

We are very proud of these efforts.

In a way the Pry House is a return to the very origins of battlefield preservation. When the War Department first purchased land on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, it was as a training ground for officers. It was designed to help them learn from the past so they could be more effective in the future.

Later, the battlefield became a place for the public to renew their patriotism and ponder the actions of so many brave men and women from both sides of the conflict.

So it is with the Pry House today. We have had the privilege to assist the National Park Service in opening this remarkable home. It now serves a new generation of military leaders, while it offers a new perspective for all to ponder on those fields of glory and pain.

We hope that as word of this site spreads, we will see more visitors coming to the site. Surely this will come with time. However, for preservation reasons, we hope that this partnership between the NMCWM and the NPS will inspire other partnerships to both preserve and protect our Civil War heritage.


George Wunderlich can be reached by calling (301) 695-1864, mailing Director@civilwarmed.org, or writing National Museum of Civil War Medicine, P.O. Box 470, Frederick, MD. Those wishing to visit the NMCWM or the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on the Antietam Battlefield should call (301) -695-1864 for directions and hours of operation.

George Wunderlich is Executive Director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He has developed new historically-based training programs for the National Park Service, Joint Medical Executive Skills Institute Capstone Symposium, the U.S. Army Medical Regiment (AMEDD), the Presidential Management Fellows of the Office of Personnel Management and other civilian and government organizations. He speaks on various Civil War topics and can be regularly seen on the History Channel, A&E, PBS and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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