Private Bruce Shipman and
the Ambulance Corps of the 76th New York

By Robert Moore, Jr. 1020 Villa St. Cyr, St. Louis, Missouri 63137

I take great pride in writing this story of my great-great grandfather, Bruce Shipman, for your journal, and I know that he would be very pleased to be included. He considered his service in the Civil War with the 76th New York as the greatest single event of his life. I literally would not exist if not for certain twists of fate involving the Civil War, foremost among them Shipman's capture at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 more about that later. But I think the most compelling aspect of the story is that Bruce was such an ordinary guy. He was of average height and build, came from obscurity, did his duty during the war and went back to obscurity afterwards, like thousands of other men. The most unusual thing about his Civil War experience was his participation in the ambulance corps, a very small group of men who had an affect on nearly every man in the regiment at one time or another.

Bruce Shipman was born in 1839 in Springfield, New York, not far from Cooperstown and Cherry Valley. By the age of 16, he was living with a family named Cooper, working for them as a hired hand on their farm. In 1860, he married Nancy Keller, the daughter of a lockkeeper on the Erie Canal, and soon their first child, Ruby, was born.

In April 1861, South Carolina forces fired on Federal Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but as far as I can tell, Bruce Shipman knew little of politics. He lived with his wife and baby daughter on another man's land, tending fields and livestock which were not his own. He probably read about slavery, states' rights and secession, but what impact these issues made on him remain unknown. Life in Springfield, New York, went on, as a nation was split in two and went to war. The Union loss at Manassas, Virginia in July 1861 signaled the beginning of a much longer war than anyone had expected. The people of Bruce Shipman's community began to raise a group of soldiers to go and fight. However, the community was small, and as related in the official history of the 76th New York, the Cherry Valley recruits were consolidated with a much larger group of soldiers from the Cortland area into the 76th. The Cherry Valley group composed companies H,I and K; Bruce Shipman served in Company K.

It would be difficult to discover why Shipman decided to join the army. Patriotism, perhaps. It is doubtful that he was an abolitionist or felt strongly about the slavery issue. He enlisted on November 1, 1861, for a period of three years. He was 22 years old, stood 5' 8 1/2" tall, and listed his profession as "farmer." As of November 6, he put on the uniform of a private in the 76th New York Regiment.

Bruce Shipman drilled throughout November and December. On January 17, 1862, the regiment marched to Albany, where they presented their colors before the state Assembly. The troops were then marched across the frozen Hudson River to the Railroad depot at Renssalaer. They arrived in New York City the following day at noon. By the end of January they were on their way to Washington, D.C., where they served in Fort Massachusetts. During the peninsula campaign in the spring of 1862, the 76th stayed in Fredericksburg, Virginia, repairing railroads.

Bruce Shipman got his first taste of battle with the regiment on August 21st, as the unit was held in reserve while an artillery duel was waged over their heads. A week later, the 76th came under heavy shell fire for the first time at Gainesville, Virginia. Shipman fought as a line soldier at Gainesville and South Mountain, Maryland. But by September 17, 1862, at Antietam, Shipman had been detailed to serve in the newly created ambulance corps. It is difficult to imagine today, but at the onset of the Civil War, there was no system in place for the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield. Ambulances and their hired drivers were under the command of the Quartermaster's Department; stretcher-bearers, consisting of the regimental band and misfit soldiers, were answerable to the regimental surgeons, with no coordination between the two groups.

Union surgeon Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, changed this by establishing an ambulance corps in an order dated August 2, 1862. Under the Letterman system, three ambulances under the command of a sergeant were assigned to each regiment of infantry, two to a troop of cavalry, and one to each artillery battery. Ideally, each ambulance was a four wheeled wagon pulled by four horses, attended by a driver and two privates to act as stretcher-bearers. Each ambulance could carry four wounded men at a time. A second Lieutenant commanded the ambulances of the brigade. By the time of the battle of Antietam, the 76th New York had a sergeant and nine responsible privates detailed to man its three regimental ambulances. Each of these men carried a colt army revolver as a sidearm. The ambulances were gathered and parked by brigade; since the 76th New York was in the Second Brigade, First Corps (composed of six regiments), the brigade ambulance park would have had 18 ambulances attended by 180 men. A medicine wagon and driver, two medical officers, and a hospital steward accompanied each division (composed of two brigades). The Army of the Potomac had an average total of 650 medical officers. Letterman insisted on daily inspections of the ambulances, horses, stretchers, water kegs and other equipment.

The men selected for duty in the ambulance corps were detached from their regiments as a result of their interest, efficiency, and good moral character. No man could be removed from this duty unless relieved by the medical director of his corps. A man found to be unfit for ambulance corps duty would be put back into the ranks immediately. Ambulance corpsman were distinguished in the field by a 2" green stripe around the hat, and a 2" green half-chevron on each sleeve. Soldiers not in the ambulance corps were forbidden to leave the ranks of their units to carry wounded men to the rear. No officer or enlisted man was allowed to use the ambulances for transportation, for themselves or their belongings (this is one reason why the ambulance corpsmen carried sidearms).

Letterman's system was first tested at Antietam, where it functioned well. In battle after battle thereafter, the efficient ambulance corps evacuated thousands of wounded men from harm's way. Sometimes the wounded men were moved while still under enemy fire, but most of the time a lull, truce, nightfall, or the end of a battle was when the bulk of the evacuations were performed. The battles became progressively more brutal each time the armies clashed. Bruce Shipman picked barely living men up off the fields of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. By the end of 1862 just 225 of the original 1,000 men of the 76th New York were still in the ranks.

Ambulance corps of the 57th New York - National Archives photo

On July 1, 1863, the 348 men and 27 officers of the 76th New York entered the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, along with the First Army Corps under General Reynolds. Within a half hour of fighting, 27 men were dead, including Major Grover, and 124 were wounded. The work of the ambulance corps was interrupted, however, as Confederate forces overwhelmed the Union troops, driving them back through the town. Many men were captured, including Bruce Shipman. Held prisoner during the remainder of the battle, Shipman was lucky, for he was not taken south with the retreating army of General Lee on July 4. Instead, he went along with the other prisoners captured on July 1 to a "parole camp" in Baltimore, Maryland. Most Union soldiers taken on subsequent days of the Gettysburg battle were forced to accompany the Confederate Army in their retreat, and eventually ended up at Andersonville.

Bruce Shipman, however, was somehow able to get a furlough from the Baltimore parole camp before his exchange came through, and in August 1863, he went home to upstate New York. His reunion with his wife Nancy and daughter Ruby must have been bittersweet, for his duty would be to return to the army and complete his three-year enlistment, only about half over. The importance of this visit home to me is inestimable, however, since my great grandmother was conceived during the autumn of 1863. In early October, Bruce Shipman returned to the parole camp, was exchanged, and returned to the 76th New York, encamped at Culpepper, Virginia. He witnessed the battle of Mine Run, and the execution of Private Winslow Allen for desertion in December 1863. Pvt. Shipman was given several special duties when active fighting tapered off each winter. At various times he served as the regimental mail carrier, pioneer, and the Major's orderly. Perhaps he was good with horses due to his years as a farm laborer.

On May 5, 1864, Bruce Shipman was lucky once more, as the armies clashed in the Battle of the Wilderness. Because he was detailed to the ambulance corps, he was not in the advanced position of the 76th, which was surrounded by Confederate forces. Nearly half the regiment was captured and sent to southern prisons; enlisted men went to Andersonville.

As Lee's troops dug in for the final act of the war at Petersburg, members of the ambulance corps, including Bruce Shipman, were assigned to the stationary hospitals constructed at City Point, Virginia. An efficient evacuation system for the wounded was instituted, with trains bringing casualties to the James River, where they were loaded on steam hospital vessels for the short trip to City Point. As soon as the army had settled into the routine of Petersburg, Bruce Shipman went AWOL. I believe that he somehow made his way home to Springfield, New York to see his new baby daughter, Jennie, my great grandmother. Perhaps there were complications with the birth, or trouble on the farm. Perhaps his commanding officers even turned a blind eye, or gave him a pass. Officially, he was listed as being AWOL, the only instance of this serious infraction in his entire war record. Within a month he returned to camp at City Point, now with only six months left to go on his enlistment.

The wounded continued to pour into the hospitals. The 76th N.Y. lost 341 men during the war; 175 in combat, 166 of disease. During the course of the war, 110,070 Union troops died in battle, and 94,000 Confederates. The total number of deaths from all causes was approximately 258,000, or 1/10th of the U.S. population at that time.

On November 5, 1864, after three years of service, Bruce Shipman's tour of duty was legally over. He had done his duty to his country, and the end of the war was in sight. He was at home in Springfield, New York when Lee surrendered to Grant five months later. He left the army to return to his family in New York State, and was given his $100 bounty. Perhaps he used it to move his family from the Cooper farm to a farm of their own. By 1865, state census records show that the Shipmans owned their own 200 acre spread. Bruce and Nancy Shipman went on to have five more children, for a total of seven.

Bruce Shipman was returned to obscurity. He died in 1927 at age 88 in Richfield Springs, 20 miles from where he was born. The Civil War, and his role in it, would remain the single most exciting event of his life. The same was true for literally thousands of men, north and south. All returned to the struggles of day to day life after the war. Bruce was luckier than many. He survived the war without a serious mishap, unwounded, un-mutilated, and able to work until the day he died.

I have spent many years researching this story, which was compiled from the official history of the 76th New York, Bruce Shipman's war record and pension papers from the National Archives, census data, the family Bible, and books and articles about the U.S. Army medical department and Civil War ambulance corps. It was my privilege in the late 1980s to work for the National Park Service at the Gettysburg battlefield, and live in a pre-Civil War home in the town. Although my major historical interest is not the Civil War, my ancestor's participation in that conflict makes the war seem very real, and not so distant, to me

Originally published in the May, 1996, issue of the Guidon, the newsletter of the Major Grover Civil War Roundtable. For more information about the Guidon, e-mail editor Mike Brown

Picture from Carlisle Barracks. 

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- last updated July 6, 1999