It appears that brand-new UMUC alumnus Dan Stouffer (BA, History) already lives by the creed that Jermaine Montgomery (BS, Criminal Justice), a 2015 stateside student commencement speaker, encouraged fellow graduates to embrace: “Make every professional move undeniably bold—strive for nothing but excellence and accept no substitutes.”
Stouffer made it a point to reach out to staff at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM), in Frederick, Maryland, about his undergraduate thesis, “Officer Autopsy: Dissecting the Legacy of Jonathan Letterman.” In it, Stouffer posits that Letterman’s contributions to medical advancement were overrated and exaggerated. “I was curious if they would be interested in reading it,” he said.
Indeed. Museum staff responded that they would be interested in publishing it! Stouffer’s thesis would appear in a special edition of their proprietary journal for NMCWM members, Surgeon’s Call, which contains more scholarly articles than the museum’s newsletter does. They would also provide an opportunity for Stouffer to rebut critiques of his take on Letterman’s legacy by NMCWM cofounder Gordon E. Dammann, master docent Robert Slawson, and programming coordinator and historian Kyle Wichtendahl.
Jonathan Letterman, an American surgeon, was promoted to medical director of the Army of the Potomac by U.S. Army Surgeon General William A. Hammond and is generally known as the father of modern battlefield medicine. He is widely credited with creating an independent ambulance corps, developing and implementing a triage system, reforming field hospital operations—and saving countless thousands of lives in the process. He features prominently in the museum’s account of Civil War medical history.
Stouffer grew up surrounded by Civil War history and has always been interested in the subject. He lives within a comfortable drive of the battlefields at Monocacy, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Manassas. But before his work on his thesis, he had never visited the NMCWM.
“I thought it was important to write about something I was passionate about and thought it was silly not to take advantage of the [museum]. It’s a resource most people don’t have available to them,” Stouffer said.
That’s how he came to pay the museum his first visit. “I went to see what jumped out at me, what captured my interest,” he said.
And that’s where his passion for Civil War history and his passion for the discipline of history would collide. “I was fascinated, intrigued, impressed by Letterman’s contributions to Civil War medicine. But I wondered,” Stouffer said.
“Letterman is either a brilliant man who became well versed in the matter of managing medical care on the battlefield in a short amount of time, or he had some significant assistance from others. A lot of initiatives that he created started in Europe, during wars he never fought in. Now you start to infuse all these other people and their experiences. What did Letterman originate? What did he borrow?”
Stouffer set out to discover the answers and contribute to a more current understanding of Letterman’s life and achievements. His thesis argues that while Letterman’s role has been inflated, that of his friend and mentor, William Hammond, has been underrated and often overlooked.
Under Hammond’s direction, the number of field hospitals was greatly increased. He founded the Army Medical Museum—known today as the National Museum of Health and Medicine—as a research laboratory to study battlefield injuries and develop improved treatments. Hammond shaped the U.S. Sanitary Commission, promoted Letterman, and supported his reforms on the front.
It was through Hammond’s initiative that Letterman’s ambulance system was subjected to testing and refinement before it was fully implemented across the Union army. “Hammond was a brilliant and ambitious and very accomplished man who really helped spiral things in the right direction,” Stouffer said.
“What makes Letterman so important is that his plan was implemented, repeated, served as a model for others, and basically survives to this day. But it’s also important that we give credit where credit is due, so the followers of history have a more complete, more accurate, and more interesting account,” he added.
This newly minted historian, who is already making professional contributions to the literature, plans in the next few years to fully indulge a third passion—teaching. Stouffer, a paraprofessional educator with the Montgomery County school system, is returning to UMUC this fall to work on his Master of Arts in Teaching.
He said he’s particularly drawn to mentoring high school students. “I want to provide the wonderful tools that were instilled in me by my parents to as many students as possible. They’re at a very critical point in their lives, getting ready to enter the workforce, to step out on their own, to make decisions that will affect their lives, potentially the rest of their lives. I’d like to teach them the lessons that I had to learn the hard way.”
No doubt he’ll also develop in his students a love of learning, an appreciation for history, and the confidence they need to make their own bold moves.