GETTYSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Paul Semanek, Spangler Farm Site Coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, started his day by posting a yellow flag on the red bank barn at the site. If you were a Civil War soldier and got wounded in battle, this was a flag you really wanted to see–The flag of an army field hospital.
During the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 the farm of George and Elizabeth Spangler became the field hospital of the 11th Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac. It was suggested they leave for the duration.
“Well, George and Elizabeth, they weren’t going anywhere,” says Semanek. “So they stayed here, along with their four children, at the time, for the entire time it was used as a field hospital.”
The Spanglers helped care for the wounded. According to Semanek, there were more than nineteen hundred of them, both Union and Confederate.
“What we like to do is point out to our visitors what the Spanglers saw, what they heard, and- sometimes we forget-what they smelled, what it must have smelled like. And can you imagine going through that ordeal, you and your children?”
Surgery took place by the barn, in the open. But there was a good reason to do that–it seems surgery in the Civil War was not quite as primitive as Hollywood would have us believe.
“Anesthesia was used in probably ninety percent of all Civil War surgeries, both ether and chloroform,” Semanek explains. “There wasn’t a whole lot of biting on the bullet or biting on a stick. These men did have anesthesia.”
Which is why the surgeons worked outside–fumes from the anesthetics would have built up indoors, knocking out doctors and patients alike.
Another piece of advanced medical technology the Spanglers would have seen were the ambulances used to transport soldiers to the field hospital. A replica of one of these wagons is on exhibit at the farm.
“One of the biggest innovations, believe or not, are the springs,” says Semanek. “We have reports from wounded men, that were brought to various hospitals, in ambulances that didn’t have springs, that they would rather lay on the side of the road and die than go in the ambulance.”
The ambulances had folding seats that could accommodate three men lying down, or up to ten soldiers sitting up. It also carried its own water supply. The design worked so well, it wasn’t replaced until the coming of the internal combustion engine in the early 20th century.
The field hospital finally closed on August 5th of 1863. In the years that followed, the farm passed through several owners before being purchased by the Gettysburg Foundation in 2008.
“And ever since then,” says Semanek, “it’s been an ongoing, loving restoration of this property, trying to bring it back to what it would have looked like, during the Battle of Gettysburg.”
On May 29, the Foundation will host its first event of the year at the farm, a free Family Day. Living historians will be on hand to give visitors a feel for what life was like for soldiers and civilians.
After Family Day, the farm will open on weekends from June 11th through August 15th, and during the anniversary of the battle. Entrance to the farm is included in the admission to the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.