UNION ARMY AMBULANCE CORPS WAGONS AT BELLE PLAIN LANDING MAY 1864

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Item Code: 1054-688

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Scenes of Civil War army camps and depots often give a real chance at seeing army life up close, in detail, and unposed as men go about their tasks unaware of the camera. Sometimes identified as a taken near City Point along the James River, this view seems rather to be of the Union supply depot at Belle Plain, along Potomac Creek, which assumed a strategic importance in May 1864 as the conduit for communication and supply to the Army of the Potomac in Grant’s Overland Campaign. At this location on May 16 and 17, 1864, at least three photographic crews (Gardner’s, Brady’s, and A.J. Russell’s) recorded views of the vast operation and commitment of resources that supported the front line troops.

This view shows part of the encampment and depot at Belle Plain’s “Upper Wharf” and offers lots of detail. Prominent at right foreground are three supply wagons that are hitched up and look ready to head for the front. Two are angled so as to provide a view of the painted designations on their canvas covers. Both have the Greek Cross badge of the Sixth Army Corps on them. One is designated as carrying forage for the Ambulance Corps and the other is designated simply, “Hospital Department.” The insignia of the third cannot quite be made out, but likely also belongs to the medical detachments of the Sixth Corps. Behind them stand Sibley tents with scorched and blackened tops from camp stoves inside, likely the quarters of the teamsters. One bored soldier sits among them next to a large cook stove. In the background wall tents skirt the bank of the river and are set up in clusters. One group seems to be inside some earthworks and may be the remnant of an early defensive position. Other wagons and horses waiting to be harnessed are visible as are a number of soldiers. A supply vessel, apparently unloaded, rests in the water beyond. And, directly above the right hand supply wagon, between two tents along the river, seems to be the darkroom wagon of one of the photographic crews.

The photograph is preserved in a modern frame. The actual mount measures 14 by 11 inches and the albumen image proper is 8.25 by 5 inches. The clarity and detail are excellent. One spot at lower left was a defect in the original negative. Usually attributed to Brady’s photographic crew, the photo has been attributed by some to Russell or Gardner’s group. A printed catalog or inventory number appears at bottom center front. A pencil inscription, not old, on the back of the mount identifies it as taken along the James, but see the Library of Congress citation and Frassanito, Grant and Lee, for an introduction to and the context of the Belle Plain views. Given the prominence of the Ambulance Corps and Hospital Department wagons this would make a great display piece in a medical collection.  [sr]

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