A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1-November 20, 1863
Nearly 26,000 men were wounded in the three-day battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). It didn’t matter if the soldier wore blue or gray or was an officer or enlisted man, for bullets, shell fragments, bayonets, and swords made no class or sectional distinction. Almost 21,000 of the wounded were left behind by the two armies in and around the small town of 2,400 civilians. Most ended up being treated in makeshift medical facilities overwhelmed…

Gregory Ashton Coco (May 4, 1946 – February 11, 2009) was a student of and a prolific writer on the Civil War.  In these two volumes (each a 2017 reprint by Savas Beattie of the originals), Greg gives us an enlightening tour of too often-neglected aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg – battlefield medical care (Union and Confederate) and the aftermath of the battle.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. Two percent of the population at the time (approximately 620,000) died during the conflict. These numbers may actually be an underestimate of the death toll, given that much of the data regarding deaths of Confederate soldiers was destroyed when Richmond burned on April 2, 1865. More recent estimates based on comparative census data put the figure closer to 752,000.  In any event, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined.

The Civil War left about 1 in 10 able-bodied Union soldiers dead or incapacitated, versus 1 in 4 in the Confederate Army.  Countless soldiers were left disabled in one way or another. Amputations were prolific.  The year after the war ended, the state of Mississippi spent 20% of its annual budget on artificial limbs for its veterans.  We don’t have accurate figures on what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so one can only presume its extent and the lingering suffering it caused.

At Gettysburg, alone, casualties totaled 23,049 for the Union (3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). Confederate casualties were 28,063 (3,903 dead, 18,735 injured, and 5,425 missing), more than a third of Lee’s army.

This era is often referred to in a negative way as the Middle Ages of medicine in the United States. Physicians were practicing in an era before the germ theory of disease was established, before sterile technique and antisepsis were known, with very few effective medications, and often operating 48 to 72 hours with no sleep.  Layer that on something over 33,000 injured in three days of hard fighting, and you can begin to imagine the scope of what Mr. Coco covers in these two books.

Based upon years of firsthand research, Greg’s A Vast Sea of Misery introduces us to 160 field hospitals.  He uses the term broadly, applying it to the complete network of field aid stations and anywhere else that casualties were collected for medical treatment – the full gamut of what today is known as a combat service support system – battlefield medical care.  His is an exhaustive treatment, describing each site by name and location, often supplemented with recollections and first-hand accounts to provide context and flavor.  With his maps and inventory of sites, one could spend days at the battlefield studying this aspect of the battle alone.  In the book’s one appendix, Greg, himself a National Park Service Ranger and a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, provides a concise history of how battlefield guides came to be an organized and certified service at Gettysburg.

In the companion book, A Strange and Blighted Land, Greg deals with the death and destruction that littered the landscape after the battle.  He discusses how the dead and wounded were handled, how prisoners were handled, and the fate of the thousands of stragglers and deserters left behind once the armies departed.  Along the way he describes how and why the Gettysburg National Cemetery and the Gettysburg National Military Park were established.

These are not easy reads, but they are interesting books and necessary for anyone who wants to be well-informed about the American Civil War or even about war in general. A wealth of information in each, Greg did us a great service in writing them, as did Savas Beatie for re-issuing them for today’s audiences.  For an awareness skim-through or a deep dive, these books will serve you well.  Enjoy!

PS, if you are interested in delving more deeply into either of these topics, let me suggest Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign(Kent Masterson Brown) and Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Megan Kate Nelson).  Reviews of both books are available on our website (www.tvcwrt.org).

  Your reviewer is Emil L. Posey, former Vice President of the TVCWRT, now continuing to support by being part of the Stage Crew. His work history spans almost 45 years of military and civilian service to our country.  He retired from NASA/George C. Marshall Space Flight Center on December 27, 2014.  He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland; is a former president of the Huntsville chapter of the National Contract Management Association and is a life member of the Special Forces Association.  He is also a member of Elks Lodge 1648 (Huntsville, AL) and the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society.  He is a dedicated bibliophile and is a (very) armchair political analyst and military enthusiast.