James Markham Marshall Ambler

James M. Ambler (1848–1881)

James M. Ambler was a Confederate cavalryman during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and, after the war, a United States Navy surgeon. Ambler graduated from medical school in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1870 and joined the Navy, serving on various ships and at the Norfolk Naval Hospital. In 1878, he reluctantly volunteered for service with an Arctic expedition aboard the Jeannette, a ship commanded by George W. De Long. The ship became imprisoned by ice late in 1879, and Ambler did well to keep the crew not only alive but relatively healthy. Still adrift in June 1881, the Jeannette struck ice, which crushed its wooden hull. While a few of the crew's thirty-three men survived, many froze to death, drowned, or starved, including Ambler, who died with De Long sometime around October 30, 1881. MORE...

 

James Markham Marshall Ambler was born on December 30, 1848, at the Dell in Fauquier County, the second of four sons and second of five children of Richard Cary Ambler, a physician, and Susan Marshall Ambler. At age sixteen Ambler joined the 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiment and served during the closing months of the Civil War. He attended Washington College in Lexington from 1865 to 1867 and the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, from which he graduated in 1870.

Ambler practiced medicine for four years before joining the U.S. Navy in 1874 as an assistant surgeon. His duty assignments included service aboard the screw tug USS Mayflower, the gunboat USS Kansas, and the steam frigate USS Minnesota. While Ambler was serving at the Norfolk Naval Hospital with the rank of passed assistant surgeon (one qualified by examination) in 1878, his superiors suggested that he volunteer to serve as medical officer of an Arctic expedition then in preparation. Although he was not eager to go, he felt duty-bound to sign on after few responded to the call for volunteers. The expedition was undertaken with some support from newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, who provided a 142-foot ship, the Jeannette, which became a naval vessel by special legislation. The expedition's commander, George Washington De Long, planned to take advantage of what was believed to be a warmwater Japanese current and approach the North Pole via the Bering Strait.

On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette steamed out of San Francisco with a crew of thirty-three. The ship was slow and was delayed several times. It entered the Arctic Ocean late in the season and became icebound on September 6, far south of where De Long had hoped to encounter the polar ice cap. Imprisoned in the ice pack, the Jeannette drifted in the polar currents for the next twenty-one months. Ambler's skillful practice of preventive medicine preserved the crew's health. A daily ration of lime juice prevented scurvy, and Ambler rigged a distillery to produce potable water from the salty sea ice. He also established rigorous standards of sanitation and hygiene. Except for an outbreak of lead poisoning caused by badly soldered food cans, everyone stayed remarkably healthy by the standards of nineteenth-century polar exploration. The only exception was the ship's navigator, who suffered an acute eye affliction, syphilitic iritis, which required constant attention. Ambler operated on him fifteen times under primitive conditions, yet the patient survived the painful surgeries and the ensuing hardships.

On June 11, 1881, ice crushed the Jeannette's wooden hull. The men left the sinking ship and began a long trek over the ice, dragging small boats and tons of supplies. Ambler tended the sick and part of the time commanded the crew opening the way through crevasses in search of stretches of open water. After an ordeal of nearly three months, the sailors reached the edge of the pack ice. By then bad weather, soaked bedding, short rations, and physical exertion had taken their toll. Three boatloads of weakened men set out for Siberia's northern shore, where their inaccurate charts showed nonexistent settlements along the Lena River. On September 12 a fierce gale sank one of the boats, drowning its crew, and separated the other two. Siberians rescued one contingent, but De Long, Ambler, and twelve other men became hopelessly lost in the Lena Delta's maze of channels and inlets.

On October 9, 1881, with food supplies exhausted, De Long offered Ambler a chance to join the two strongest crewmen as they departed to seek help. The pair eventually reached safety, but Ambler chose instead to remain with the sick. The starving men gnawed strips of leather from their boots, and one by one they died. Ambler closed his journal with a farewell letter to his family on October 20. The last entry in De Long's journal was dated October 30, 1881. It recorded the deaths of several men. Ambler was still alive then and was probably the last of the party to die.

Late in March 1882 Chief Engineer George Wallace Melville, leader of the expedition's survivors, found the frozen bodies of De Long's team members. In 1883 another U.S. Navy party went to Siberia to retrieve the remains, returning them to New York in February 1884. Ambler's body was buried in the Leeds Episcopal Church cemetery near Markham in Fauquier County.

Time Line

  • December 30, 1848 - James Markham Marshall Ambler is born at the Dell in Fauquier County.
  • 1865 - At the age of sixteen, James M. Ambler joins the 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.
  • 1865–1867 - James M. Ambler attends Washington College in Lexington.
  • 1868–1870 - James M. Ambler attends the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
  • 1870–1874 - James M. Ambler practices medicine.
  • 1874 - James M. Ambler joins the U.S. Navy as an assistant surgeon. His duty assignments include service aboard the USS Mayflower, USS Kansas, and USS Minnesota.
  • 1878 - While serving at Norfolk Naval Hospital, U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler volunteers to serve as medical officer of an Arctic expedition.
  • July 8, 1879 - The USS Jeannette steams out of San Francisco with a crew of thirty-three, including U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler. The ship plans to approach the North Pole via the Bering Strait.
  • September 6, 1879 - The USS Jeannette, with a crew of thirty-three, including U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler, becomes icebound in the Arctic Ocean.
  • June 11, 1881 - Ice crushes the wooden hull of the USS Jeannette, icebound in the Arctic Ocean since September 1879.
  • September 12, 1881 - A fierce gale sinks one of three boats full of crewmembers from the USS Jeannette, icebound in the Arctic Ocean since September 1879.
  • October 9, 1881 - U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler decides to remain with the USS Jeannette's commander and other crew members lost in the Arctic Ocean rather than join two others in search of help.
  • October 20, 1881 - U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler, stranded with other members of the USS Jeannette in the Arctic Ocean since September 1879, records in his journal a farewell letter to his family.
  • October 30, 1881 - George W. De Long, commander of the USS Jeannette, stranded in the Arctic Ocean since September 1879, records his final journal entry, noting the deaths of several men. U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler is still alive but likely dies soon after.
  • March 1882 - Chief Engineer George Wallace Melville, leader of the survivors of the USS Jeanette's failed Arctic expedition, finds the frozen bodies of commander George W. De Long and surgeon James M. Ambler, among others.
  • February 1884 - The body of James M. Ambler, who died in a failed Arctic expedition, is returned to New York. He is buried in the Leeds Episcopal Church cemetery near Markham in Fauquier County.

References

Further Reading
Herman, Jan K., "Ambler, James Markham Marshall." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, 114–115. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Herman, J. K., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James M. Ambler (1848–1881). (2013, July 8). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Ambler_James_M_1848-1881.

  • MLA Citation:

    Herman, Jan K. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "James M. Ambler (1848–1881)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 8 Jul. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 8, 2010 | Last modified: July 8, 2013


Contributed by Jan K. Herman and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography