Your Civil War Geek has two seemingly all-encompassing passions. I’m a Civil War Re-enactor and I’m a Volunteer Firefighter and an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT). Through one passion, I’ve learned more about the other passion. In this installment, I’m going to talk, just a little bit, about how firefighters contributed to both sides in the Civil War, as well as, how battlefield medicine during the Civil War contributed to Emergency Medical Services (EMS). While I have not done enough research to provide a comprehensive list of firefighters and medical personnel who fought or contributed services in the Civil War, I hope to provide a little spark to get my fellow firefighters, EMT’s, nurses, and paramedics to become excited about the history of their profession, and create a few new Civil War Geeks in the process.
In 1861, after the assault on Ft. Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to respond to the national emergency. Volunteers in the Northeast and in western territories flocked to recruiting stations to answer the call. Among those volunteers were groups of fire-tested type-A personalities, namely volunteer firefighters. Initially two regiments from New York, consisting of volunteer firefighters, answered the President’s call. Called Fire Zouaves, they adopted a gaudy dress of bright red baggy pants and a fez or turban for headgear. In Pennsylvania the 72nd Regiment which became known as Baxter’s Fire Zouaves joined the fight. The Union was not the only side to see firefighters contribute regiments during the Civil War. A significant portion of the crew of the CSS Virginia (AKA the Merrimack) were volunteer firefighters. At the beginning of the war, the Atlanta Mechanic Fire Co. No. 2 formed a unit and fought under that name. In addition to the fire service thousands of nurses and doctors would begin to change the mindset of front line medical care.
Heading south of the town of Gettysburg on the Emmetsburg Road, just before the intersection of the Wheatfield Road, is a unique statue about fifty or so yards to your left (east). The monument shows a 19th century soldier standing shoulder to shoulder with a late 19th early 20th century firefighter holding a trumpet, wearing a leather fire helmet, and sporting the classic fire service’s handlebar mustache. This is a monument to the 73rd New York (Fire Zouaves) Regiment. On the 2nd of July 1863, this regiment commanded by Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys fought bravely as part of Major General Daniel Sickles’s Third Corps. At one point in the battle, as the 73rd witnessed units of the 114th Pennsylvania being pushed back by confederate Major General William Barksdale’s Mississippians. The 73rd fired a volley into the oncoming Mississippians. “The Seventy-third’s color sergeant fell; the next man to hold the flag was struck in the arm by a minie ball; and then a third man grasped the staff and held the banner high (Pfanz, 1987 p. 330)”. Although pushed back to Union lines later on the 2nd day, the 73rd New York demonstrated that indomitable spirit that lives in firefighters today. Many witnessed this spirit through the bravery of the firefighters who entered the World Trade Center on 9/11.
1862 Clara Barton, a True Combat Medic:
When you get down to it, EMS is combat medicine. The roots of EMS go back as far as the recorded history of combat. During the Civil War care for the combat wounded was rudimentary at best and definitely a male dominated service. The Civil War, believe it or not, was one of the first major instances in American History, of women serving as medical professionals extremely close to the front lines of battle.
Nurse Clara Barton is perhaps one of the best known of these front line caregivers. In the early morning of September 17th 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s newly re-organized Army of Northern Virginia encountered the right wing of Major General George B. McClellan’s army of the Potomac north east of the sleepy town of Sharpsburg Maryland on the banks of the Antietam Creek. The morning fight which dominated the northwestern side of the battlefield consisted of struggles simply named by geographic and agricultural descriptions (The East Woods, The West Woods, The Cornfield, & Dunker Church). Barton arrived at the at a concealed position near the Union lines proximal to the Poffenberger’s orchard. Along with her orderly she brought desperately needed bandages, stimulants, and other medical supplies. She worked alongside Union Surgeon and close friend, Dr. James Dunn (Priest, 1989).
The Battle of Antietam would go down in American History our bloodiest single day. Despite the carnage of WWI & WWII we have yet to encounter a single day as bloody as this one. Over 24,000 soldiers on both sides were killed, wounded, or missing, in a little over 12 hours of fighting. Roughly 20% of the forces engaged would become casualties in this battle (Kennedy, 1998). Clara Barton would work tirelessly throughout the day, and for three more days. She worked so close to the combat, that a bullet passed through her clothing, missing her, but killed the soldier she was fighting to keep alive (Sears, 1983). Between 1861 and 1968 combat medicine evolved from just nurses and surgeons to combat medics, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and flight medics. Today with rapid transport, many traumatic conditions (whether combat or otherwise) once ruled out as imminently mortal became survivable.
First Female Army Doctor Mary E. Walker
Dr. Mary Walker, one of the first women to graduate from a medical school, had to fight to practice her profession on the battlefield. At the beginning of the Civil War combat medical services as a physician was limited to only men. Indeed, many of the nurses, attendants, and almost all of the surgeons and their attendants were men. Despite thousands of years of women ministering to men, gender stereotypes relegated women to rear area hospitals with limited roles. Victorian morals of the time required women to dress in impractical outfits bordering on physiologically unhealthy. Mary Walker eventually was able to procure a contract position as a doctor to the Army of the Cumberland (Burns, 2013). She served alongside male doctors close to the action and sharing the same risks.
Dr. Walker was captured by Confederates in 1864 near the Tennessee/Georgia border, wearing the practical clothing her male counterparts wore. She was offered freedom if she would change her clothing to the corseted full length dresses that women of the time traditionally wore. She refused and was subsequently imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia. After the Civil War, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson (Burns, 2013). She was the first woman in United States history to receive this award. Despite her accolades as a physician, after the war, she would continue to fight for women’s rights and be arrested for not wearing clothing befitting a woman. Fortunately for hundreds of thousands of trauma victims, women in medicine and EMS today, no longer have to wear ridiculous gender restrictive uniforms. They wear, scrubs, bunker gear, or jumpsuits suited to the task rather than assumptions of what a particular gender should wear.
The 72nd Pennsylvania at Gettysburg
Through a number of leadership faults during the first two years of the war, the 72nd Pennsylvania part of Baxter’s Fire Zouaves, had a lackluster reputation. On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, these men redeemed themselves at the Bloody Angle. While Pickett’s charge on the last day of battle is often viewed as a futile failure, the fighting at the Bloody Angle near the Union center was muzzle to muzzle and hand to hand. At one point in the fight the confederates managed to fire a volley into the Pennsylvanian’s causing them to stagger. A determined color sergeant named William Finecy clung to the staff of the unit’s colors. Dazed and wounded in the action, Fincey refused to relinquish his colors, even to his own Brigade Commander General Alexander Webb. Webb ultimately had to threaten to shoot him to secure the colors (Wert, 2001).
The anecdotes I’ve related above are only a snapshot of the great men and women who came from their communities to fight for their country. Emergency services have a rich history in the United States and should be celebrated just as much as any other profession. The key to honoring these men and women is to take some time and learn their history. We take so many of our advantages for granted. The men of the New York and Pennsylvania fire brigades left their communities to save their country. Today hardly a county in the United States doesn’t have at least one first responder, doctor, nurse, or paramedic that has either served, or is in the National Guard or Reserves. Like their ancestors of the 1800s, they serve both inside and outside of the military for their country and their communities.
Sincerely, Your Civil War Geek
Patrick D. Stoker, PhD
US, Army (RET). Firefighter/AEMT
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Bizzare. Charleston, SC. The History Press.
Foote, S. (1986). The Civil War a narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, NY: Vintage
Hattaway H., & Jones, A. (1991). How the North won: A military history of the Civil War.
Urbanna, ILL: University of Illinois Press.
Kennedy, F. (1998). The Civil War battlefield guide 2nd Ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company
McPherson, J. (2003). This hallowed ground: A walk at Gettysburg. New York, NY: Crown
Petruzzi, D., & Stanley, S. (2009). The complete Gettysburg guide. New York, NY: Savas Beate,
Pfanz, H. (1987). Gettysburg: The second day. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina
Priest, J. (1989). Antietam: The soldier’s battle. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Sears, S. (1983). Landscape turned red: The battle of Antietam. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.
Wert, J. (2001) Gettysburg: Day three. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.