Civil War Hospital Cars to Boston

Sanitary Commission hospital car exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair. Image from New York Public Library Digital Collections, original here (unrestricted)

The Executive Committee of Boston Associates of the United States Sanitary Commission (now there’s a mouthful) set a high priority on extending hospital car service from New York to Boston. More informally known as the “Boston Branch”, the Boston Associates organized in 1863 to manage special relief efforts in the city and to aid returning Union soldiers in whatever capacity necessary. The activities and motives of the Boston Branch are explored thoroughly in my dissertation-in-progress. I devote a few pages to the operation of the hospital cars but if I had the space and time, I wish I could devote an entire chapter to them. I find them sort of fascinating. Maybe an article topic for the future.

Hospital car interior, Harpers Weekly, February 27, 1864

The Sanitary Commission hospital cars were cutting edge and a vast improvement over cramming sick and wounded men into a passenger car (or worse, an open box car), forcing them to change trains several times on their arduous way home. The stretchers on the cars were hung on elastic bands and the wheels of the car itself built with extra-strong shock absorbing springs so as to avoid jostling the men. The cars included stocked medical cabinets, a small stove for preparing coffee and meals, and other implements for cleanliness and comfort. They were manned by an Army Medical Bureau hospital steward and nurse and often additional Sanitary Commission volunteers.

During their roughly two years of operation the Boston Branch brought 27,503 sick and wounded men homeward via the hospital cars.

[Sources: United States Sanitary Commission, Executive Committee of Boston Associates, No. 1, Report concerning the special relief service of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in Boston, Mass. for the year ending March 31, 1864, (Boston: Prentiss & Deland Printers, 1864), 9; and Third and Final Report of the Concerning the Special Relief Service in Boston, Mass for the Year Ending March 31, 1866, 5.]

Published by Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate

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