When you think about Civil War soldiers what images come to mind? Do you picture one of the countless carte de visite’s soldiers left behind for loved ones to remember them by? Do you see the horrific images of death made famous after battles? Or perhaps you think of camp and the multitude of photographs of regimental life. Very few people will first think of images of Civil War amputees.
Despite their humanity, images of Civil War amputees are not what most people think of when they think, at all, about the Civil War. The war’s human destruction is a topic widely known; the humans who lived with that destruction, often forgotten.
Surely, Hollywood has vivified the gruesome story of battlefield amputations in bloody scenes, where grim faced surgeons forcefully saw off the limbs of helpless soldiers. Reenactments and conferences also address the subject amputees in discussions about Civil War medicine. But the history of the 45,000 veterans with amputations is a subtopic overshadowed by many others.
Over the next few months The Gettysburg Complier will be working with files of disabled discharged soldiers from the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to bring attention to these soldier’s stories. These files include the medical surveys of disabled discharged soldiers. As today’s wounded warriors struggle with the implications of battlefield injury and reintegration into civilian society, the struggles of Civil War veterans are important reminders of our nation’s history of medicine and rehabilitation. Our Civil War Institute Fellows will be showing those struggles through stories of real life soldiers who gave their bodies to their nation.
Issues such as reintegration to civilian society, struggles for employment, family adjustments and relationship difficulties – among many others – are all important to this story. Though fighting for one’s country can be interpreted as the apex of bravery, manliness, and patriotism, the loss of a limb could be construed as a forfeiture of masculinity evoking pity in the context of the era. Many amputees had been farmers and laborers before the war, jobs which required able-bodied men. When they returned home it was difficult to find work and provide for their families. The government did pay pensions, but it was not nearly enough to support a family, nor did all soldiers want to live off the government money as it was seen as a case of charity, a further insult.
The common sight or photograph of veterans with their armless sleeve pined to their chest or the pant leg neatly fold behind their appendage typified men of the era who viewed their loss as a sacrifice for freedom and an outward sign of their patriotism. But reintegration came with many burdens and we hope to highlight this complexity. Our Fellows will be discussing individual case studies in upcoming articles. So tune in and read about the lives and struggles of Civil War wounded veterans.
Library of Congress