The Beginnings of the Letterman System
WILLIAM ALEXANDER HAMMOND BECAME SURgeon general of the Army of the United States just as the great Peninsula Campaign was beginning. The Army of the Potomac, under General George B. McClellan, was transported from the Washington area to the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. McClellan planned to drive up this peninsula from Fort Monroe, still under Union control, to threaten Richmond. The Confederate army would be forced to defend the capital of their upstart nation and could be destroyed. Since the U.S. Navy controlled the oceans and the wide York and James Rivers, McClellan could supply his huge force from vessels. But delivering the correct supplies to the correct location proved much more difficult in practice than in planning.
The medical director of the Army of the Potomac was Charles A. Tripler, a well known doctor of the Old Army who had written a manual on military medicine. His communiqués to the Surgeon General's Office exuded confidence in March, before the army left Washington, but experience in the field led to unexpected difficulties.
15 March 1862
To: Surgeon-General Finley, U.S. Army.
I have the honor to request that field supplies for 140,000 men may be put up by the medical purveyor immediately, to be transported with Major General McClellan's army wherever it may be ordered. I have appointed Assistant Surgeon Bartholow medical purveyor for this Army.
14 April 1862
To: Surgeon R. C. Wood, Acting Surgeon General.
I learned this morning by telegraph that a portion of the supplies ordered from New York a month ago has reached Fort Monroe. Their arrival is most timely as our field supplies are almost exhausted.
18 May 1862
To: The Surgeon General, Washington D.C.
The supplies that left Washington on the 11 th have not yet reached here. I suggest that medical supplies be sent in charge of a special agent. … Medical supplies have been found stored under other supplies in the hold of vessels, and detained there for weeks in this river.
19 May 1862
To: Brigadier General W. A. Hammond, Surgeon General, U.S. Army.
I stated that unless certain supplies for which I had telegraphed that day reached me in 5 days, this army would be in peril. It is now 10 days later and they are not here. … The army is marching today and a battle may occur at any time. We are not prepared for it.
20 May 1862
To Surgeon General W. A. Hammond.
We are this instant receiving the cooking utensils and furniture and the liquors sent by Dr. Lamb. On the invoice with the letter are 100 ounces of quinine. I do not know how much of this has been ordered. A requisition for 2,000 ounces was forwarded last week.