“[I] won’t go home to be a burden:” The Enduring Pain of Amputation

In the early morning hours of July 3, as the contest for Culp???s Hill dragged on into a second day, Union commanders took advantage of a slight pause in the fighting to replace exhausted men. Relatively fresh troops, among them the 28th Pennsylvani…

By Brian Johnson ’14

In the early morning hours of July 3, as the contest for Culp’s Hill dragged on into a second day, Union commanders took advantage of a slight pause in the fighting to replace exhausted men.  Relatively fresh troops, among them the 28th Pennsylvania, were sent forward to relieve their comrades manning Culp’s Hill’s upper entrenchments.  Just as they were arriving in line, Confederate troops, having been provoked by the sounds of movement, surged toward their position.  During the ensuing two-hour firefight, the 28th Pennsylvania drove off repeated charges.  After being relieved for a few hours, the 28th found itself back in line where it again had to stave off repeated enemy onslaughts.


When 24 hours of almost constant fighting drew to a close after dark, the regiment was finally able to begin assessing its losses.  While few in number, amounting to only twenty-five, the men profoundly felt the loss of each casualty.  Among the fallen was Corporal James D. Butcher, a man whose death seems to have been especially memorable for one of his company sergeants, Ambrose Hayward.  As Hayward quickly scribbled a note (see below) to his father near Williamsport, Maryland, he and the rest of his regiment were about to “fall in” for an expected battle that he predicted would be “terrible”; such an adjective was telling for a man who had just experienced the fighting at Gettysburg.  Just before he concluded the hasty letter, something must have prompted Hayward’s thoughts to return to the death of Corporal Butcher as he abruptly referenced him by name.

Digital scan of Ambrose Hayward’s letter courtesy of Special Collections at Musselman Library.

Perhaps what led Hayward to think of Corporal Butcher’s death in the ominous moments preceding battle was not just their friendship that had also become a casualty, but also the poignant circumstances surrounding Butcher’s death.  After having been wounded in the leg during the intense fighting on Culp’s Hill, Butcher was carried to a field hospital at the nearby Henry Spangler farm.  Surgeons informed him that they were going to amputate his injured leg, but despite what must have been an agonizing wound, Butcher was composed enough to understand what he was being told and to muster a reply: no.  One of the 28th Pennsylvania’s drummer boys – probably detached to assist the wounded – witnessed the scene and remembered it above all others he saw at the hospital that day.  Addressing the drummer boy as he lay in the Spangler yard, Butcher told him “…they won’t do it (amputation), for I will shoot the first man that touches me.”  His rationale for refusing the procedure was simple but ambiguous: “I am married and won’t go home to be a burden on my wife.”  By the time that surgeons returned to him to again try to amputate, Butcher was dead.  The next day, Sergeant Hayward and two other comrades arrived at the hospital where they buried their fallen corporal in the Spangler house yard.  Considering how much Butcher’s death had affected the drummer boy, it seems probable that it had the same effect upon others and that someone at the hospital felt compelled to describe the previous day’s scene for Butcher’s three comrades.

As he lay in the Spangler house yard, Butcher must have contemplated the long-term consequences of his wounding, thoughts that could only have compounded his agony.  Because he had a wife, Butcher could have counted himself lucky in one sense because he would have had at least some semblance of a care network if he were to return home.  If he survived his wounds yet was unable to work, he could also count on modest financial assistance in the form of a Federal pension for disabled veterans, put in place the summer prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.  Many other men who had no such network were forced to seek institutional care that was reliant upon a patchwork of private and local charity.  Nevertheless, Butcher, like all seriously wounded men, was confronted with a future filled with difficult personal and economic transitions.  If he had survived his wounding with or without amputation, Butcher doubtless would have been unable to perform the manual labor from which most men in the 1860s fulfilled their role as breadwinner; the drummer boy recorded not only Butcher’s words but also the particularly grievous nature of his leg wound.  Beyond the economic burden that such a loss of productive capacity would have entailed – the Federal disability pension was eight dollars per month, probably less than what Butcher could have earned as a laborer – a man’s sense of worth and masculinity could also be profoundly diminished with the loss of his breadwinning role.  Not only would Butcher have been a lesser man in his own eyes, but he also faced the Industrial-Age stigma surrounding dependents that was especially harsh against men.  Thus even as Butcher refused amputation because he did not want to “go home to be a burden” to his wife, the stakes of disability were equally high for himself.

Some understanding of just how gravely disability was viewed can be gained by Corporal Butcher’s refusal of surgeons’ recommendations and how such a refusal likely impacted his chances of survival.  In a war in which devastating wounds were so frequent and the state of medical knowledge so primitive, prescribing amputation was extremely common yet still potentially beneficial for those who endured it.  Well over 250,000 Union soldiers suffered gunshot wounds during the war; of that number, 30,000 then lost a limb to amputation.  For a veteran unit like the 28th Pennsylvania, the men were doubtlessly aware of how unimaginable of a trial the procedure could be for a patient.  A Confederate surgeon’s manual recommended that as soon as amputation was decided upon, it be “performed before reaction set in, while the patient had his sensibilities depressed by the shock [of his wounds].”  Yet despite the physical pain, many soldiers probably realized their increased likelihood of survival once their shattered arm or leg was removed.  Butcher’s stubborn refusal might seem contradictory then, given that his wound was severe enough that total convalescence was unlikely and amputation could not have hurt his chances for survival.  The most plausible explanation for his choice is that Butcher, who seems to have been remarkably composed, realized that no scenario existed in which he could avoid permanent disability, with or without his leg.  His refusal of amputation was more likely an acknowledgement of this reality and, given the procedure’s potential to help one survive, likely reveals the startling preference of death over enduring his wound’s long-term social and economic consequences.  As Corporal Butcher saw it lying in the Spangler house yard, going home “to be a burden” was not as desirable as not going home at all.

For further reading on fight for Culp’s Hill:

Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

On the letters of Sergeant Ambrose Henry Hayward:

Orr, Timothy J. Last to Leave the Field: The Life and Letters of First Sergeant Ambrose Henry Hayward, 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2010.

On the enduring consequences of wounds and disability for Civil War veterans:

Kelly, Patrick J. Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans Welfare State, 1860-1900.

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