Sometimes artifact donations for the museum are simply the result of my being in the right place at the right time. A couple of years ago when I was staffing the museum’s table at the Gettysburg Civil War Collectors Show, I was approached by a dealer who wanted to know if the museum would be interested in the donation of a Civil War stretcher. I had to take a look at it of course! I was pleased to be able to make out the “U.S. National Wagon Works” and the “Tompkins Stretcher / 1864” painted labels on the frame. The show was about to close, so I had to make a few frantic phone calls to locate a vehicle large enough to transport it. The stretcher was gratefully accepted and brought back to Frederick that evening.
This stretcher is in good condition, though I was disappointed to see that it had been “restored.” The wooden frame of the stretcher and the metal hardware are original but have been repainted, except in the area of the labels. The canvas, the leather straps, and the wood frame for the bonnet are newer replacements. Fortunately, this label was left untouched. If you look carefully, you can make out the “U.S. National Wagon Works” across the top, and “Philadelphia” along the bottom. The stretcher is constructed on a painted wooden frame with two handles at each end, a canvas-covered bed with attached pillow, and a folding bonnet at the head end. The bonnet can be raised and secured in place. The head end of the bed can be elevated slightly using metal brackets. When elevated, there is a small pocket formed in the canvas beneath in which small items may be stored. The leg portion is divided into two sections, and each section is independently adjustable using leather straps with buckles. A tarred canvas is rolled onto a crosspiece below the leg rests and is held in place with two leather buckled straps. The canvas can be unrolled and used to cover the patient in case of bad weather. The middle of each side of the frame is hinged to allow it to be folded in half. When unfolded, the frame is secured with a sliding bolt on each side. The legs of the stretcher can also be folded flat against the frame. When the legs are unfolded, a metal pin holds each leg in place, and each pin is secured to the stretcher frame by a strip of black leather. Tompkins stretchers also had two removable, padded armrests, as well as wheels and elliptical springs which could be attached to the stretcher. These features are unfortunately missing from this stretcher. Here you can see the bonnet of the stretcher raised, which would have protected the patient from the sun or rain. Union Brevet Brigadier General Charles Henry Tompkins (1830-1915) designed the stretcher which bears his name. In his patent letter for this stretcher he writes, “This invention relates to certain novel improvements in the construction of stretchers which are particularly designed for the safe and comfortable transportation of wounded soldiers from the battle-field to the hospital, or to some other convenient locality where they can receive proper attention. The main object of my invention is to so construct a stretcher that it can be adjusted and adapted to afford support and the greatest possible comfort to wounded limbs or other parts of the body which may be wounded; at the same time provision is made for folding the several parts of the stretcher into a very compact space, so as to occupy the least amount of space when packed away, as will be herein-after described. Another object of my invention is to so construct a stretcher that it can be quickly mounted upon wheels and springs, and readily converted into a light and portable ambulance when it is necessary to move the sick and wounded considerable distances and other means of transportation are not at hand.” I’m sure there were many Civil War soldiers who were grateful for his invention! Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.