December 1862, year two of the American Civil War: Poet Walt Whitman was looking for his brother George among the casualties. A newspaper listed the younger Whitman as wounded during a battle in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Of the many horrific scenes Walt witnessed, one of the most jarring was a wagon piled to the brim with severed arms, legs and hands. To his surprise and relief, he ended up finding George alive and well, but by that time, Walt had seen too much to go back to his life in New York. He decided instead that he needed to help. Visiting the hospitals of Washington, D.C., daily, he tended to the young soldiers dying wholesale of sepsis and typhoid fever. Many of them had simply arrived at the hospital too late to get help [source: Murray].
Roughly a year later, in the early days of July 1863, the hills around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, were thundering with artillery fire. Through the smoke and chaos soldiers watched with amazement as a grim, bearded man on horseback rode the battlefield shouting commands to his men, heedless of the rain of bullets. The man was Dr. Jonathan Letterman, and his men were not combatants but medics bearing stretchers [source: U.S. Army]. In the thick of battle they were bravely collecting the wounded from the field with the aim of getting them to a medical facility as quickly as possible instead of waiting until the fighting was over. This was a radical new approach to battlefield care. It was here at Gettysburg that the American practice of emergency medical response was born [source: Werman].