Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Benjamin Forrest, a fourth year medical student at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. He has just completed an intercalated degree programme in the History of Medicine which saw him travel to archives and libraries in the United States. Today, he explores the Union Army’s Ambulance Corps during the Civil War drawing on first hand accounts in NLM manuscript collections.
Early in the American Civil War, no organised system of battlefield evacuation existed. Regimental bandsmen were ordered to transport the wounded; the outcome was a muddled system where wounded men could suffer on the battlefield for over a week. The horror of the unnecessary suffering of injured soldiers compelled officers to improve frontline medical provisions.
On August 2, 1862, under the instruction of Jonathan Letterman, the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, General George B. McClellan issued General Orders 147 and created the United States Army’s first full-time, dedicated Ambulance Corps. These orders determined the structure, training and role of the service; and crucially, they were a blueprint for the creation of subsequent Ambulance Corps later in the war. This instigated a major improvement in battlefield medicine. However, the new service challenged contemporary ideas concerning wartime humanitarianism, suffering and military authority. So, the corps was often met with hostility and neglect from the rest of the army.
In the Army of the Potomac, the Ambulance Corps soon demonstrated its worth. At the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, all the Union wounded were evacuated from the battlefield within twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, despite its success, the service received hostility from the military.
First, the service was opposed due to the supposition that it restricted the military’s authority and activity, as officers surrendered power to medics. This point of contention resulted in a physical relegation of the Ambulance Corps. In his diary of 1864, now in the manuscript collections of the National Library of Medicine, Lieutenant W.H. Whyte repeatedly notes that, during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7, his ambulances were neglected and left to follow the rear of the army’s wagon train.
Captain Elliot Pierce, in his letter-book now held at the National Archives and Records Administration, reported a similar experience on May 3, 1863; the army’s wagons blocked roads and prevented his ambulances from supplying medical assistance to engaged troops. However, most strikingly, Pierce believed that many military officers did not even know the Ambulance Corps existed. Early Civil War medical historian Louis Duncan claims the service is ‘never mentioned in the report of a general officer’—meaning one could read all these reports and never learn that the Union Army even possessed an Ambulance Corps. So, the service was not only actively opposed by officers who knew of its existence, but was also neglected entirely by others who had no knowledge of it altogether.
Second, besides being held in contempt for its infringement upon military authority, the Ambulance Corps was shunned due to the belief that it was ineffective and staffed by slackers. Thomas McParlin, Letterman’s successor as Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, said the Ambulance Corps did not always follow advancing troops into battle as they should have. However, because of the military’s neglect, as described by Whyte and Pierce, ambulance-men often struggled to perform their role effectively. Furthermore, an event from stretcher-bearer Private Heyward Emmell’s diary (held by the Madison Historical Society in New Jersey, a transcribed copy is available at NLM) demonstrates that ad hoc skirmishing meant ambulance-men could not be aware of all ensuing clashes. On October 15, 1863, Emmell records that he and his fellow stretcher-bearers were cooking dinner when a mêlée began nearby. Nevertheless, they rushed into action, even attempting a dangerous shortcut that drew Confederate gunfire, and joined the engaged soldiers. Emmell’s account shows that ambulance-men were often unfairly labelled slackers; instead, they were willing to put themselves in danger to perform their role.
The Union Ambulance Corps’ efficacy saved countless soldiers the agony of days languishing on the battlefield. In the words of Louis Duncan, ‘[it was] the best care of the wounded the world had ever seen’. And yet it was not appreciated by the American military fully during the war. Nevertheless, the system set a new precedent for humanitarianism on the battlefield and has formed the backbone of American military medicine during every conflict since.