The National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Mission: The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is the premier center for the preservation and research of the legacy of Civil War medical innovation.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM) was established in 1990 by a group of scholars and medical professionals who desired to share their interest in Civil War medicine with the public.  What began as a private collection of medical artifacts from the Civil War has grown into an organization as vital and relevant as the plan that Dr. Jonathan Letterman developed nearly 150 years ago while at the Pry House on the Antietam battlefield.  The legacy of the Letterman Plan breathes life into the artifacts preserved and interpreted at the NMCWM. The Museum has expanded beyond the doors of our original site to include two satellite museums: the Pry House Field Hospital Museum and Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office; the Letterman Institute of professional development; and the NMCWM Press, a publishing center.

George Wunderlich, NMCWM Executive Director, has often said that if we study history for history’s sake, then it is no more than a hobby.  But when we are able to engage a modern audience with historical perspectives, innovations and insights and help them to relate those innovations and insights directly to their life and world today, we are helping to change our community and our world for the better.   One of the most relevant lessons that history teaches us is the importance of clarity of mission.  Our mission can only be achieved by the realization that the NMCWM is in fact a living institution that utilizes the history of Civil War medical innovations to inspire, engage and encourage.  We inspire our society by connecting the lessons of the past with the challenges of our world today.  We engage the broadest possible audience and partners, and encourage innovative and collaborative scholarship.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Our main museum, located in historic downtown Frederick, Maryland, contains five galleries, over 1200 artifacts and knowledgeable docents as well as a gift shop and research facility. It is located at 48 E. Patrick Street in the Carty Building, a building that once belonged to furniture maker James Whitehill in 1832, and was the site of his undertaking business, which he sold to Clarence Carty after the Civil War.  Nestled in historic downtown Frederick, MD, considered the crossroads of the Civil War, the Museum is surrounded by eclectic museums, shops and restaurants as well as scenic vistas and numerous yearly special events.

The History

The creation of The National Museum of Civil War Medicine started as the idea of Gordon E. Dammann, D.D.S., whose collection of medical artifacts from the Civil War forms the core of the Museum’s holdings.  Dr. Dammann began collecting in 1971, and felt that a museum would be a good way to share his collection and the story of Civil War medicine with the public.   With the help of F. Terry Hambrecht, M.D.; Sam Kirkpatrick, M.D.; John Olson; the Reverend John Schildt; and Thomas Adrian Wheat, M.D., the idea began to take shape.  The Museum was incorporated in 1990, and the Board of Directors began the search for a location for the Museum.

With the support of the Governor of Maryland and the Mayor and Aldermen of Frederick City, in August 1993 the Board chose to locate the NMCWM in Frederick, Maryland.  Placing the Museum in Frederick was a strategic decision designed to attract the large number of tourists who visit the area every year.  The city is centrally located within a thirty-minute drive to five major Civil War battlefields: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Antietam, Maryland; South Mountain, Maryland; and Monocacy, Maryland.  It is also near the major tourist destinations of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland.  The Carty Building, a city-owned building in the heart of Frederick’s historic district, was chosen as the site of the Museum.

Once a location was established, the board began a fund-raising campaign and hired the Museum’s first executive director in March 1994.  Local banks, the City of Frederick, Frederick County and numerous private citizens donated to the cause.  The board and staff’s efforts received a major boost when the State of Maryland awarded the Museum a $1 million challenge grant for the much-needed renovation of the historic Carty Building.

A membership program was instituted and the Museum began publishing its quarterly newsletter, Surgeon’s Call.  On June 15, 1996, the first exhibits were opened to the public.  These exhibits included dioramas, cases and informational panels on recruiting, camp life, medical evacuation, field hospitals, pavilion hospitals, and the home-front.  The displays were highlighted by a Confederate ambulance on loan from the Lincoln Memorial University, a nineteenth-century holding coffin, stretchers, amputation kits, uniforms of medical personnel, and numerous other medical and surgical items.

In July 1997, the Museum received a $1 million gift from the Judge Edward S. Delaplaine Charitable Trust, fully matching the State of Maryland’s challenge grant.  Plans for the major renovation of the building and the design and installation of new exhibits began in earnest, and a temporary location was found so that the Museum’s exhibits, store and research library could remain open to the public.

A team featuring the exhibit designers, board members and staff planned the layout and the content of the new exhibits in the renovated building.  The restrictions imposed by the floor plan of the historic structure had to be considered in the design process, but the goal of the team was to tell the story of Civil War medicine in much the same order as it would have been experienced by the soldiers themselves.  In the finalized layout, the first gallery establishes the context for the Museum by discussing the state of medicine and medical education at the beginning of the war.  The remaining galleries follow the soldiers through recruitment, camp life, the evacuation of the wounded, field dressing stations, field hospitals, and pavilion hospitals.  The last gallery highlights specific subjects such as indigenous plants used by the surgeons, embalming the dead, the Civil War hospitals in Frederick, and a comparative look at modern military medicine.

On October 21, 2000, the newly-renovated Museum opened its doors to the public.  In addition to the two floors of exhibit galleries, the Museum features a large Dispensary Store at the front of the building, the Delaplaine Randall Conference Room on the second floor, a secure, climate-controlled collections room, and a research center and administrative offices on the third floor.

The Experience

Visitors to the NMCWM will find a unique center of Civil War history, guiding them through 150 years of medical history as well as Civil War camp life, hospital life, African American life, the role of women and children during the war, and many more aspects of American history during the Civil War era. The NMCWM highlights the challenges faced by Civil War doctors and surgeons and the resulting innovations that led to the today’s modern military medical system.

Our museum sites begin with displays and artifacts highlighting general medicine in the 1800s progressing into wartime medicine and civilian life.  We look at the faces of those who were treated and their caregivers,  reading their stories and memories puts a human face on the medicine of the time.  A space in each museum is dedicated to Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac.  His cohesive plan of triage, evacuation, hospital and supply organization not only saved the lives of countless Civil War soldiers, it continues to save lives on today’s battlefields in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in civilian life wherever emergency medical help is needed.
 
The interactive experience that is the National Museum of Civil War Medicine not only gives a snapshot of Civil War medicine, including dentistry, veterinary medicine and medical evacuation, it allows visitors to put faces and names to those who fought, were injured, the surgeons and caregivers who tended them.  The experience is a personal one, engaging visitors in the stories of soldiers, surgeons, hospital stewards, nurses and those who volunteered, as they gain an understanding of the medical advances of the time.  For some, a bit of family history may be found as well.  The Museum has a research department willing to help those with questions about ancestors that were injured in the war.