The Ambulance: An Artillery Support Vehicle
[This article was originally published in The Artilleryman Magazine, Vol. 39, No. 2, Spring 2018. Republished in 2018 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 23, No.1 with permission.]
The ambulance is probably not often thought of when Civil War enthusiasts discuss the finer points of the organization of the field artillery but it should be. Ambulances were support vehicles found within the artillery parks from the very onset of the war and remained present in the parks until the very end of the conflict. I know that ambulances as artillery support vehicles are not widely acknowledged within the Civil War artillery community. I do hope that this article at least makes Civil War artillery enthusiasts aware that the ambulances had a definite presence in the artillery parks of the American Civil War, both in the north and in the south.
Over the past 30 or 35 years I have read numerous accounts in diaries and letters of Civil War artillerymen discussing the ambulances within their batteries. About twenty years ago I found a list of Quartermaster’s Stores submitted by Capt. A.P. Rockwell of the 1st Light Battery Connecticut Volunteers. On the 28th of July, 1862, Capt. Rockwell returned to the Quartermaster Department one light four-wheeled ambulance in good condition (one mattress short) and two sets of ambulance wheel harnesses (see image). But, I still did not have any official documentation connecting the ambulances and the artillery until Terry Reimer, Director of Research at the NMCWM, pointed out to me GENERAL ORDERS NUMBER 147, HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC; Camp near Harrison’s Landing, Va., August 2, 1862:
“The following regulations for the organization of the ambulance corps and the management of ambulance trains are published for the information and government of all concerned. Commanders of army corps will see that they are carried into effect without delay:
…The allowance of ambulance carts will be 1 transport cart, 1 four-horse and 2 two-horse ambulances for a regiment; 1 two-horse ambulance for each battery of artillery, and 2 two-horse ambulances for the headquarters of each army corps. Each ambulance will be provided with two stretchers…”
After the success of the Medical Department’s ambulance corps at Antietam in September of 1862, General Orders No. 147 was adopted by all the other armies in the north. By February of 1864, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring all U.S. Regulars and state volunteer units to follow the guidelines set up by General Orders No. 147.
The Confederate high command also followed the example of the U.S. Medical Department where and whenever possible. As one might expect in the Confederate Army due to shortages, ambulances in the Confederate artillery parks were nowhere as common as their northern counterparts.
At the onset of the war the ambulance was an optional support vehicle acquired by some battery commanders, but after General Orders No. 147 and by mid war, ambulances within the artillery parks were a common sight.
Now with the addition of a Wheeling ambulance at The Starkville Civil War Arsenal, I have added the role of ambulances in the artillery as one of my programs. I am often asked how many ambulances were made during the war years for military use. I have not yet found that information as of this writing. I can give you two items of information which lead me to believe that large numbers of ambulances were produced for the war effort.
First, on January 15, 1863, the Army of the Potomac listed on its inventory report 1,384 ambulances available for duty. Remember the Army of the Potomac was just one of sixteen armies in service to the Union during the Civil War. The second point of interest is that during the year of 1865 ending on June 30, the repair depot at City Point, VA, repaired 2,414 ambulances in just six months. Remember this is just one of the many repair depots in service during the war.
The battery photograph used for this article is Battery A of the 4th U.S. Artillery. This battery was commanded by Capt. Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, and was decimated. All of the officers were killed in action. The battery had to be totally reorganized and re-armed. Most of the work of rebuilding the unit fell on the shoulders of Lt. Charles Nelson Warner. I am going to use his words from The War Time Diary of Charles Nelson Warner 1862-1865 to tell some of the story of reorganizing Battery A 4th U. S. Artillery:
“July 18, 1863 Saturday
Was relieved from duty with Battery D 2nd Artillery and ordered to report to Lieut. King commanding A 4th U.S. Artillery.
July 19, 1863 Sunday
Got new horses. Marched from Berlin across the river to Leavittsville to Wheatland, 15 miles where we encamped. Some trouble with the new horses, so many.
July 25, 1863 Saturday
Boots and saddles at daylight, marched till 12M. 15 miles to Warrenton where we camped.
July 27, 1863 Monday
Went to Warrenton to see about our ordnance stores, shoeing of horses and getting an ambulance.
July 28, 1863 Tuesday
Rec’d our battery wagon and forge and other ordnance stores.
July 30, 1863 Thursday
Went to Hd. Qtrs. to get requisition for ordnance stores approved.
July 31, 1863 Friday
Rec’d horse equipment. Battery was inspected.
Sept. 19, 1863 Saturday
In camp near Culpeper.
Sept. 22, 1863 Tuesday
Had photographs taken of the battery and officers of the battery. Were inspected by the major.”
The ambulance and battery wagon that Lt. Warner writes about in his diary are the ones you see in the Alexander Gardner photograph of Battery A 4th U.S. Artillery. Gardner took the photograph near Culpeper, VA, on September 22, 1863. The officer on the white horse out front is Capt. Rufus King. Lt. Warner is the first soldier on horseback to the right of the fourth cannon from the left.
Now that an ambulance is in the rolling stock collection at The Starkville Civil War Arsenal, I believe it is the only facility in the country which has the capability to display all of the standard Civil War artillery carriages and support vehicles at one place at one time. I invite you to make an appointment and come see the collection by calling 662-323-2606 or you can view the rolling stock collection online at StarkvilleCivilWarArsenal.com.
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About the Author
Duffy Neubauer is curator of The Starkville Civil War Arsenal. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse; B.S 1975, M.S. 1978. Public lecturer. Recipient of the Honorable Order of Saint Barbara Medal, the only military medal awarded to non-military personnel.