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.

Science, Signals, and Service: The Smithsonian Institution’s Role During the Civil War

By Danielle Jones ’18

Today, the Smithsonian is known for its world-famous exhibits, massive collections of American and natural history artifacts, and its contributions to research around the world. But many people don’t know the role the Smithsonian played during the Civil War. The Smithsonian Castle was finished in 1855 and would become the first home of the research center, the library, and the US Museum. The government recognized the importance of the Institution and, after war was declared, the US Secretary of War ordered Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian Secretary, be issued twelve muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition “for the protection of the Institute against lawless attacks.” The building was in a vulnerable position because it was situated in between the Capitol Building and the White House, and cut off from the rest of the city by the Washington Canal . The Institution was witness to soldiers on parade, as well as to the thousands of wounded soldiers sent back to the city after the First Battle of Bull Run. It suffered no war damage, but suffered from financial woes because Congress was more focused on paying for the war than paying the interest on the Smithson bequest. The inflation and currency devaluation of the era also affected finances.

Image of the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC, with the unfinished Capital Building in the Background. The hand-written caption, “Washington, D.C. April 1865” is incorrect because the castle was terribly damaged in a fire in January of 1865. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Continue reading “Science, Signals, and Service: The Smithsonian Institution’s Role During the Civil War”

Securing the High Ground: The Civil War Roots of Aerial Reconnaissance

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

In this era of rapidly advancing technology, debate about aerial surveillance abounds. In March of this year, the Pentagon released its 2015 Inspector General report entitled “Evaluation of DoD’s Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for Support to Civil Authorities,” which revealed that the Pentagon had flown spy drones over the U.S. for non-military purposes.  Historically, the drone had been used primarily by the military in war zones, but with increased availability and applicability here at home, UAS use has expanded to include public agencies, commercial entities, and private citizens. Surveillance by air, however, is not a new concept. The strategy dates back to the French Revolution during which the French Army formed balloon companies to observe the enemy. Nearly 70 years later, during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate armies would experiment with tactical air power through the use of balloons for battlefield reconnaissance. The experiment found little support or practical utility, but the efforts of balloonists John La Mountain and Thaddeus Lowe were pioneering and spurred further innovations.

Lowe observing the battlefield from his balloon "Intrepid." Photo via the Library of Congress.
Lowe observing the battlefield from his balloon “Intrepid.” Photo via the Library of Congress.

Union General Benjamin Butler, commander at Fort Monroe, contacted ballooning pioneer John La Mountain on June 5, 1861 to discuss wartime use of balloons for determining the enemy’s position and strength.  La Mountain arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia and made several ascents in his balloon, providing aerial reconnaissance of Confederate forces at Sewell’s Point, Norfolk, and Yorktown. His ascent on August 3, 1861 would be historic. On this date, he secured his balloon to the gunboat Fanny which then steamed out into the waters opposite Sewell’s Point. From an altitude of 2000 feet he observed Confederate positions. For a brief moment, the Fanny was an aircraft carrier, arguably the first in the United States and the predecessor to the imposing carriers ported today at Sewell’s Point, site of the current Naval Station Norfolk. La Mountain would make one more ascent from the deck of a ship in August 1861, after which he provided General Butler with a report and rough diagram of his observations.  He offered a proposal to Butler for continued aerial surveillance operations by balloon, which was forwarded to the War Department. No action was taken. Continue reading “Securing the High Ground: The Civil War Roots of Aerial Reconnaissance”

Jelly Beans, Sporks, Cowboy Hats, Oh My!: Patents and Inventions from the 1860s and 1870s

By Alex Andrioli ’18

What do jelly beans, printing presses, sporks, and cowboy hats have in common?

I know it kind of sounds like a joke, but I’m serious! The similarity among the four is that they were all invented or patented during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. It is easy to forget that life went on while the United States was swept up in a horrific war, but  weapons were not the only things produced in the 1860s and 1870s.

In 1861, you might have seen advertisements from a Mr. William Schrafft, a Boston candy maker, who advised people to send his jelly beans to Union soldiers. You could send your Billy Yank some delicious jelly beans on the front because there was no better cure for dysentery than the sweet taste of candy from home. Though jelly beans surfaced in America in 1861, their origin is shrouded in a sugar-coated mystery. It is popularly believed that the jelly bean is the result of the tasty union between the centuries old Turkish Delight, a Middle Eastern treat made of soft jelly and confectioner’s powder, and the Jordan Almond, an almond covered in a hard, candy coating.

Where could you read this advertisement for Schrafft’s jelly beans, you might ask? A newspaper would be the most likely place, especially if you do not live in or near Boston. You could pick up a copy of your local newspaper to find an advertisement for Mr. Schrafft’s jelly beans, but then you start to wonder, “Where did this newspaper come from?” How was it printed, and how can there be so many similar papers like it? It seems like everyone has the same exact copy as you on this fine morning.

Though it’s not William Schrafft’s advertisement, this is an advertisement for Charles Copeland’s Confectionery in Boston, Massachusetts. This ad was in a guidebook for Boston in 1867 and could be similar to an ad that Schrafft might have put out for his jelly beans. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Though it’s not William Schrafft’s advertisement, this is an advertisement for Charles Copeland’s Confectionery in Boston, Massachusetts. This ad was in a guidebook for Boston in 1867 and could be similar to an ad that Schrafft might have put out for his jelly beans. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Jelly Beans, Sporks, Cowboy Hats, Oh My!: Patents and Inventions from the 1860s and 1870s”

A Prussian Observes the American Civil War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

This post is the second part in a series on Captain Justus Scheibert and international observation of the American Civil War. Read Part 1 of the series here.

“Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke.” Wikimedia Commons.

Helmuth von Moltke, the elder of the two notable Generals von Moltke and who made his fame in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, is noted for allegedly describing the American Civil War as nothing but “two armed-mobs” running around the countryside and beating each other up, from which very little of military utility could be learned. While a proper source for this quotation cannot be pinned down, and it may never have even been uttered at all, it serves as a rather succinct description of how Prussians would ultimately view the military legacy of the Civil War. In his official observations for the Prussian military commander, Captain Justus Scheibert makes an effort to impart what he viewed as the importance of the conflict to military thought and tactics, though he often focuses his writings on the ways in which American warfare was inferior to Prussian methods.

On a grand tactical scale, Scheibert divides the progression of the war into three phases. He characterizes the first phase of the opening days of the war as being disorderly and confused, defined by haphazard skirmishes lead by men who had not yet truly come to grips with warfare (a rather von Moltke-esque description). The second stage, from roughly 1862 to Gettysburg in 1863, represented a maturation of tactics, with special emphasis now being placed on learned battle formations such as the offensive column, giving a sort of linear character to the fighting. The third phase, from Gettysburg to the end of the war, was one focused upon defensive, at least from the Confederate point of view that Scheibert takes. Grand retreats and movements were a thing of the past as advances were, as Scheibert observes, now made inch by inch as each army fortified and refortified across the landscape. Continue reading “A Prussian Observes the American Civil War”