At the start of the Civil War, the wounded were often, inadvertently, left on the battlefield for days before being moved for treatment.
Untrained litter bearers using discarded doors, ladders and other improvised items transported the wounded, and were sometimes found drunk on medicinal liquor or hiding themselves from the front line.
The idea for an Ambulance Corps was proposed in 1862 and, after several attempts, was approved by Congress in March 1864. Like other regiments, the 96th Illinois Infantry had little in the way of a system for getting wounded and dead off the battlefields before the Ambulance Corps was created.
Six "stalwart men" were selected to serve in the 96th's Ambulance Corps as stretcher bearers, including George Smith (1842-1915), a farmer from Millburn. All of these men were of "good size and were chosen as being possessed of considerable strength and good courage."
At the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain in June, 1864, Smith and fellow stretcher bearer, Harlow Ragan, carried 16 men to the hospital one and half miles away, traveling a total of 50 miles in a period of 20 hours.
According to the regiment's history, "It was a terrible day's work for them, and they were not unfrequently [sic] the target of Rebel sharpshooters."
Despite this hazardous work, Smith's letters home - preserved in the museum's Minto Collection - were unusually cheerful, but often contained a longing to return home. They relayed a bit of whimsy when he wrote to his sister, imagining he was home enjoying huckleberry pie and "old turenne apple sauce and Sitron [sic]."
He opens another letter with: "I am going to peek in and see someday so look out. I want some more of those big apples from the old spider. Such apples as those cost .05 [cents] a piece here and sour at that."
Only a few of his letters mention specific fights or battles in the three years of his enlistment. In one, he tells of bedding down in camp at night to the "flash of gunn [sic] & shell along the line, like heat lightning along the horizon of a warm summers night with the exception of the heavy jarring report."
In 1865, George Smith returned home to Millburn to farm and breed stock.
On July 10 and 11, the museum will host its 19th Civil War Days encampment at Lakewood Forest Preserve. Several of George Smith's letters will be on exhibit. For more information please visit www.LakeCountyDiscoveryMuseum.org.