John James Carson drove the ambulance that transported the wounded ‘Stonewall’ Jackson from the Chancellorsville battlefield to Guiney’s Station.
In the early morning hours of May 4, 1863, an ambulance bumped along dark Virginia roads, hauling the victim of the war’s most famous friendly fire incident, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, away from the dangers of the front line.
Young Georgian John James Carson held the reins of that ambulance. Well aware of the great responsibility, he gingerly guided his wagon down the rutted dirt roads, trying his best not to cause Jackson more pain. It was a challenge; he had 26 miles to go before he reached Guiney’s Station.
When Carson, born in 1842, enlisted in 1861, he thought he would see the glory of war as a member of the 12th Georgia Infantry. During the regiment’s first fight at Allegheny Mountain on December 13, however, a bullet mangled his left hand, and he later lost what remained of his middle finger to the surgeon’s blade.
Carson rejoined his unit before his wound had fully healed, and was captured at Front Royal, Va., on May 30, 1862. Lucky enough to be exchanged, he returned to Confederate lines in August; however, still bothered by his hand wound, Carson accepted an assignment to a 40-wagon reserve ambulance unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, under the direction of the venerable Dr. Harvey Black. He was serving in that capacity during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
In January 1916, Carson sent a handwritten memoir of his experience transporting the wounded general from the battlefield to his grandaughter, Mary Clare Higgs, and a portion of that account follows:
“We had just come in from the battle field with a load of wounded, on returning down through the field Hospital tents, Capt. Horn, who was in charge of the ambulances, was riding opposite me. (He remarked, pointing to an arm, that had just been amputated; with the coat sleeve left on it.) John, do you recognize that arm? It was Gen. Jacksons arm & I knew it by the well worn gold braid that was on the sleeve. It seemed as if my heart would break….I cried like a child.
The next morning after that, Dr. [Hunter] McGuire, Gen. Jacksons Staff Surgeon, Called on Capt. Horn for one of his most careful drivers to drive the ambulance to carry Gen. Jackson from Chancellorsville to Guiney Station where he died. I was the man detailed by Capt. Horn.
Dr. McGuire was the other only [sic] person that rode with the Gen. The roads were in bad shape, as the army had just passed over them. When I would come to a bad place, that I could not evoid I would call the Dr. attention and he would place one hand on the Gen. brest & the other on his back, in order to steddy him.
Gen. Jackson talked a great deal on the way. When the road would admit of it, I could listen to what he said. One of the most important things…was that he had stated seasons of prayer, that was when he had a call to nature it did not make any difference what the surroundings was, that he dismissed every thing else from his mind, and sent up thanks giving to Allmighty God for his blessings and asked a continuation of the same.
He is dead, yet he liveth, and I thank God…that it was my lot to hear him talk….”
The wounded general was put up in the Chandler Plantation office near Guiney’s Station, and Carson remained nearby during his convalescence. In his memoir, Carson claimed that when Jackson’s wife, Anna, arrived with their infant daughter, McGuire advised Anna not to see her wounded husband. She disagreed, Carson remembered, and told the doctor, “‘I can bear any thing for Gen. Jacksons sake.’”
The ambulance driver witnessed one poignant meeting between the general and his daughter, Julia: “As his [right] hand was bandaged & stretched out on the bed, they set the baby down by his hand and he laid her little hand in his, and he tryed to move his fingers to grasp her had, but could not.” Carson did not describe his own feelings when Jackson died on May 10, but given his earlier reaction to Jackson’s amputation, he more than likely was upset.
After his Allegheny Mountain wound finally healed, Carson transferred back to the 12th Georgia. At the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, a Union bullet hit him in the back—an injury, he said, that was like “scalping off a piece of my backbone.”
Carson later returned to action, but was wounded again at the Third Battle of Winchester, this time in the right arm—an injury severe enough to cause that arm to be shorter than his left. The combined wounds left him so weakened that he was furloughed home, which is where he was when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Carson never signed an oath of allegiance to the Union, and he was never discharged from the Confederate Army. In 1916, a few years before he died in Bluffton, S.C., Carson wrote, “I am still a Rebel, but don’t mean any harm by it.”
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.