Inspirations of War: Innovations in Prosthetics after the Civil War

By Savannah Labbe ’19

In early 1861, a Confederate soldier named James Edward Hanger waited on the ground to die. Minutes before, his left leg had been shot off above the knee while he was sitting with his comrades in the loft of a barn in Philipi, Virginia. As soon as the cannonball burst through the barn, the rest of the men fled, leaving Hanger behind. He was found by enemy troops and brought to a doctor, who amputated his leg. Hanger became the first person to have a limb amputated during the Civil War. When one thinks of Civil War injuries, amputations often come to mind, and, to be sure, there was an unprecedented number of amputations performed during the Civil War. Surgeons on both sides performed at least 60,000 amputations during the war and 45,000 patients survived the surgery.

Soldier with an amputated arm. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This increasing number of amputees presented a new problem. Before the Civil War, peg legs and other prosthetics were not very common, but now there was a new demand for this kind of product. James Hanger, who had been sent to Camp Chase until he was exchanged two months later and sent home to Churchville, Virginia, was so frustrated with his peg leg that he stayed in his room for months, trying to build a better one. He was aided in this endeavor by his engineering education from Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, which he attended for two years until he dropped out to join the Churchville Calvary at the start of the Civil War. When he emerged from his room at Camp Chase, he had created a comfortable leg that had a foot and hinged at both the ankle and knee. He wanted to share his creation with other veterans, so he set up Hanger Inc., which is still one of the largest prosthetic manufacturers today.

Many others took up the call to create prosthetic limbs, and the industry blossomed after the war, especially as the government paid for Union veterans to buy replacement limbs. Since Confederates had rebelled against the government and were not considered to be veterans, they were not eligible for this program, although some states such as North Carolina and Virginia set up programs similar to the federal one. By 1870, the federal government had paid $500,000 for 7,000 veterans’ limbs. Of course, some probably did not actually get a limb since the federal government just gave the stipends to the soldiers and allowed them to spend it how they pleased. However, most of them likely did buy a limb in order to walk better or to feel normal and whole again. In addition, ideas of manhood and masculinity during this time period stressed self-sufficiency, and especially for veterans who had lost a leg, amputations made it much easier for them to walk around and fulfill a normal masculine role. However, many veterans did view their amputated limbs with pride, as they served as an outward mark of their bravery and sacrifice for their country.

The Civil War created a change in government policy regarding veterans. In the Revolutionary War, Congress struggled to pay the Continental Army, both during and after the war, and many veterans did not get nearly as much payment as they were promised. In addition, pensions for Revolutionary War veterans were rejected by the public because they believed it would diminish the patriotic nature of veterans’ service. The Civil War was the first time that the government really showed much concern for its veterans. The most vocal advocates for government recompense for veterans were the limb manufacturing companies themselves. Their campaign was so successful that they got the federal government to pay for research grants for innovations in prosthetics as well as limbs for any Union veteran that needed one. Civil War soldiers not only received limbs but also pensions and government hospital care, after much lobbying by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The GAR was a political organization, which allowed it to accomplish so much in a way that veterans of the Revolutionary War could not, due to public fear that a strong military establishment would form an upper, aristocratic class and could possible use force to radically change the government or impose their will on the people. The Civil War was when the government, at the behest of groups like the GAR, began to assume responsibility for their veterans and felt like they had a debt to repay them.

Many parallels can be drawn between the Civil War and the present. Since 2003, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been losing limbs at twice the rate of previous wars, including the Civil War. Like in the Civil War, this has provoked innovation in the field of prosthetics. In the Civil War it was all about making the limb comfortable, but now the focus is on making the limb just like the one that was lost, making it realistic and able to move around and even grab things, in the case of prosthetic hands. Computer chips and wireless technology are being utilized to make “robot hands” that are mobile and able to pinch, grip, and flex. There have even been some limbs made with sensors that are able to pick up small signals from the brain and move  in response. This research is again being funded by government grants in order to meet the need of veterans, just like in the Civil War.

Throughout history, conflict has been the driving force for change, with war being the ultimate conflict. While war causes immense suffering, it also has the ability to create, to inspire. As the author Stephen Cushman puts it, war can be a “belligerent muse.” Not only does it provoke innovations in science and technology like prosthetics, it inspires works of literature and art. War creates specific needs, and those needs are often met by advancements in science. It can be the driving force of not only inherently harmful technology, such as the atomic bomb, but it can also be used to help. War also has the ability to transform, as one can see in the example of the change in the relationship between the government and veterans. The Civil War really established a precedent for repaying the debt owed to veterans who sacrificed so much to preserve the ideals that the republic was founded upon.


Brink, Tracy Vonder. “The Man Who Built a Better Leg.” Cricket 44, no. 9 (July 2017): 21. Accessed February 10, 2018.

Clarke, Frances M. War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Cushman, Stephen. Belligerent Muse. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Daloz, Kate. “A Call to Arms (And Legs) in the Civil War and the Iraq War.” Huffington Post, n.d. Accessed February 11, 2018.

Gannon, Barbara A. “A Debt We Never Can Pay, A Debt We Refuse to Repay: Civil War Veterans in American Memory.” South Central Review 33, no. 1 (Spring2016 2016): 69. Accessed March 3, 2018.

Herschbach, Lisa. “Prosthetic Reconstructions: Making the Industry, Re-Making the Body, Modelling the Nation.” History Workshop Journal, no. 44 (1997): 22-57.

Disturbing and Informative: The Mütter Museum’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits Exhibit on Civil War Medicine

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits is the perfect place to get your Mercy Street fix while awaiting a possible second season. Left to right in the glass jars: A wax model of an arm with smallpox made around 1850, a wet specimen of ileum (final section of small intestine) with typhoid fever, and a wet specimen of a colon with a dysentery ulcer. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum.

“In my dreams, I always have the use of both my hands,” Lt. Col. Henry S. Huidekoper confided in a letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia surgeon, on February 10th, 1906. Such a statement seems very odd because to have two hands doesn’t feel like a big deal, especially in a dream, but it’s easy to take for granted. For Huidekoper, having two hands, even if it was only in his dreams, was something worth writing about to a doctor.

Lt. Col. Huidekoper was just twenty-four years old when he served in the 150th Pennsylvania on the first day of combat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. On that day, his regiment was in battle near McPherson’s Farm when he was shot through the joint of his right elbow. He walked over a mile under enemy fire to St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic Church, where he had his right arm amputated while “never quite losing consciousness.” Forty-three years later, at the age of 67, Huidekoper had long since learned to cope with life as a “one-handed being,” as he described himself in the letter to Mitchell. Continue reading “Disturbing and Informative: The Mütter Museum’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits Exhibit on Civil War Medicine”

Special Collections Roadshow–Episode 9: Medical Kit

By Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16

For our ninth episode we welcome our guest Dr. Ian Isherwood ’00 to talk about a Civil War medical kit and how to do research relating to Civil War medicine, as seen in the PBS series Mercy Street.

Special Collections Roadshow was created by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in the Spring of 2014. It showcases various artifacts from Special Collections at Gettysburg College.


Clements, Lt. Col. Bennett. A Medical Record of the Army of the Potomac by Jonathan Letterman, M.D. and Memoir of Jonathan Letterman, M.D. Knoxville, TN: Bohemian Brigade Publishers, 1994.

Devine, Shauna. Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Rutkow, Ira M. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. New York: Random House, 2005.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004.

U.S. Army Medical Department. Illustrated Manual of Operative Surgery and Surgical Anatomy. San Francisco, Norman Publishers, 1990.

U.S. Army Medical Department. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-65). Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870.


Clark Gardner: The Curious Case of Mr. Rich and Mrs. Gardner

By Brianna Kirk ’15

The story of Clark Gardner, his double amputation, and his pension records are still surrounded by two other clouds of ambiguity concerning his neighbor and friend, Edward A. Rich, and Gardner’s wife. Rich relayed information to a special examiner about the nature of Gardner’s injuries. He claimed to know Gardner before the war began, revealing that Gardner had running sores on his right leg prior to enlisting in the 10th New York Heavy Artillery. This made the amputation he received in 1879 a result of this pre-existing condition instead of the sickness Gardner claimed to acquire from Staten Island.

Gardner CSR1

Continue reading “Clark Gardner: The Curious Case of Mr. Rich and Mrs. Gardner”

Competing Stories: The Gardner Saga Continues

By Brianna Kirk ’15

In 1893, two Philadelphia doctors from the Mütter Museum sent surveys to Civil War amputee veterans in order to compile records on their war amputations circa thirty years after seeing combat. One of those surveys found its way into the hands of Clark Gardner, a fifty-four year old double amputee vet who served in the 10th New York Heavy Artillery. (An introduction to Garnder can be found here.) Gardner’s responses to the survey are quite compelling and provided vivid details about his war amputations, the healing processes, difficulties he encountered, and artificial limb usage.

Artificial Limbs

Continue reading “Competing Stories: The Gardner Saga Continues”

Tales from a Boston Customs House: “Worthy” Suffering

By Sarah Johnson ’15

Despite Francis Clarke’s argument that men who suffered in exceptional ways, such as amputees, were regarded as national martyrs and held up as the emblem of sacrifice to the nation, this argument cannot be applied wholesale to all exceptional sufferers in the post-war North. Although men who lost limbs in battle were often remembered in terms of glory and treated as national heroes, those who suffered in non-heroic ways, such as prisoners of war and the victims of non-combat related accidents, were often treated as less deserving of honor.

Brian Matthew Jordan, discussing amputees, argued that the empty sleeve of the veteran itself embodied the idea that he has termed the Won Cause, a counterpart to the Lost Cause tradition. Within the Won Cause, veterans had not lost their arms, but instead sacrificed them for a just cause. The sight of a pinned-up sleeve noted the bearer’s integral role in a moral cause. And yet, the way in which a veteran suffered might shift the way he was perceived in society.


Continue reading “Tales from a Boston Customs House: “Worthy” Suffering”

Tales from a Boston Customs House: “Living Monuments”

By Sarah Johnson ’15

The image of the amputee is a classic one in the memory of the American Civil War. Francis Clarke has argued that the long-suffering and sacrificial Union amputee became a national martyr to the righteousness of their cause. While this view was manifested in various ways throughout the postwar North, the case of double-arm amputee Lewis Horton serves to give depth insight into–and possibly push back against–this argument.

Continue reading “Tales from a Boston Customs House: “Living Monuments””

Tales from a Boston Customs House: Recovering from Trauma

By Sarah Johnson ’15

After losing both arms in a gunnery accident aboard the USS Rhode Island in 1863 and being told he would not live, Medal of Honor recipient Lewis Horton resolved that he would recover and be with his family again soon. The double amputation, completed within an hour of the accident, was successful, but Horton lost a significant amount of blood and could merely wait and hope. Eighty days after amputation, the ligatures — cords left in the limb to hold arteries closed until they had sufficiently healed — were removed, and healing commenced quickly. Shortly after, he was discharged and the process of learning to live as a double-amputee began.

Continue reading “Tales from a Boston Customs House: Recovering from Trauma”

“Home Again:” The Contrasting Experiences of Richard D. Dunphy and Lewis A. Horton

By Sarah Johnson ’15 and Kevin Lavery ’16

Union veterans returning home from the war in 1865 faced a myriad of experiences and reacted to the return to civilian life in a variety of ways. Richard D. Dunphy and Lewis A. Horton, both double-arm amputee veterans of the Navy, ably demonstrate the differences in experience and reaction to the war and life afterwards.

It is estimated that about 45,000 men survived amputations, causing the first widespread demand for artificial limbs in American History. The post-war period saw the first government subsidized limbs for qualifying soldiers. Experiences with these early models of artificial limb varied, however.

Kevin: Although Dunphy reported that one model of prosthetic arm allowed him to write and eat without assistance, he did not frequently use them later in life. His wife lamented this fact, saying that instead he was content allowing strangers to transact his business for him. In another deposition, an acquaintance describes how Dunphy could “take up a glass of soda off the counter between his teeth and hold his head up and drink it down,” depicting how he had adapted to his disability.

Sarah: Horton tried to use prosthetic arms, but found them to be “tiresome, of no use.” Noting that he had no control over his six-inch stumps, it makes sense that he would not like prosthetic arms if he could not manipulate them. Horton rehabilitated in a different way, learning to write with the pen in his mouth and re-teaching himself how to sail his beloved yacht. Continue reading ““Home Again:” The Contrasting Experiences of Richard D. Dunphy and Lewis A. Horton”

Richard D. Dunphy: To Him, a War Goes On

By Kevin Lavery, ’16

Although I have so far treated Richard Dunphy as a man who achieved heroism through valor and suffered greatly for it, there is another side to his character that I have not yet explored. In 1899, his wife, Catherine, accused Richard of being too irresponsible to handle his own pension money. Furthermore, she accused him of abusing his family and failing to pay his bills. To resolve this conflict, the Bureau of Pensions sent Special Examiner E. G. Hursh to Vallejo to investigate. He collected about a dozen depositions in order to evaluate the validity of these claims. Richard Dunphy may have overcome this adversity – as I wrote in my first piece about him – but the question remains of whether he should have been allowed to, given the evidence against him.

Did Richard fail to pay his debts?

Catherine explains that “as a rule he pays his saloon bills first, leaving his grocery and other family bills unpaid for some future time.” The other depositions confirm this fact, although Hursh believes it to be exaggerated considering how nice a home he owned, “even with the luxury of a piano.” A review of the investigation after Richard’s death, however, indicates that the house was overvalued and “must have been made while either drunk or otherwise irresponsible.” Continue reading “Richard D. Dunphy: To Him, a War Goes On”