Wednesday, December 11, 2013

James Hangar--A Teenager's Legacy

by Pat Granstra

When men lost their lives in the Civil War, their families lost sons and brothers, husbands and fathers–  and the world lost their potential.  Forever incalculable, the magnitude of those losses can only be suggested by acknowledging the accomplishments of those who survived the conflict.  Here is the story of a teenager whose single day of military service became a boon to soldiers of both sides.

 Throughout the morning of June 3, 1861, a young Confederate soldier lay unconscious and bleeding in a stable near Philippi, in northwest Virginia (now West Virginia).  Four hours after a Union cannonball tore through his left thigh, soldiers of the 16th Ohio Volunteers found him and summoned their surgeon, Dr. James D. Robinson, to the scene.

Determining that the lad’s life could be saved only by immediate amputation, Dr. Robinson performed surgery on a table improvised from a stable door.  During a 45-minute operation (done without benefit of anesthetic), he removed the young Confederate’s leg seven inches below the hip and stitched a flap of skin over the wound.  Dr. Robinson did not know he had completed the first of over 50,000 Civil War amputations.  He also did not know that the successful outcome of his surgery would impact not only his patient but also thousands of amputees long after the war.


Robinson’s patient  was eighteen-year-old James Hanger from Churchville, Virginia.   A sophomore majoring in engineering at Washington College in Lexington at the start of the war, Hanger chose the Confederacy over the classroom and returned to Churchville to enlist in the town’s cavalry troop as two of his older brothers had done.  He was not among the orignial enlistees, but when an ambulance corps rolled through town on its way north to support the Churchville Cavalry and other Confederate forces under Colonel George Porterfield, young Hanger rode with it.

Outside Philippi on the evening of June 1, the ambulance corps encountered the Churchville Cavalry among Confederate forces retreating south before vastly superior Union forces.  Along with several other young men, he enlisted the next day.   The night of June 2 brought heavy rain, and as Hanger later wrote, the new soldiers “did not move, perhaps on account of the rain and the belief that the enemy would not march in such rain and darkness.”

In reality, the more experienced Union soldiers, two columns of them, had marched,  intending to trap the rebels between them at Philippi.  The weather had not deterred them, but it did upset their timing.  One column fired its opening shots before the other was in position, a misstep that afforded most of the southern soldiers an escape route.

Writing later, Hanger claimed he was hit by the third shot of a skirmish newspapers ostentatiously hearlded as the first land battle of the Civil War.  “The first two shots,” he wrote, “were canister and directed at the Cavalry Camps, the third shot was a 6 pound solid shot aimed at a stable in which the Churchville Cavalry Company had slept.  This shot struck the ground, richochedtted [sic], entering the stable and struck me.”

Robinson’s quick action and surgical skill saved Hanger’s life, and competent post-operative care, first in a private home and later in a Union hospital near Philippi, prompted a quick recovery.  Within a few weeks, Hanger’s stump healed sufficiently for him to be fitted with a wooden leg and sent to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio.  He next went to Norfolk, Virginia as part of a prisoner exchange and returned to his parents’ home near Churchville in August.

Hanger’s impressive three-month recovery from near death was about to eclipsed by his activities of the next three months.


Upon returning home, young James went upstairs, said he wanted to be left alone, and locked himself in his room. His parents respected his wishes, feeling that he needed time alone to come to grips with his life-changing injury.  They left meals and personal care items outside his door.  When he asked for oak barrel staves, they provided them. When buckets of wood shavings appeared outside his door, they assumed his was whittling to pass the time.  When he asked for pieces of metal, leather, and rubber, they complied.  When, after three months, he finally came downstairs, they were amazed.

Hanger had clumped upstairs on a clumsy wooden leg in August, but in November, he walked downstairs on the world’s first articulated prosthetic leg with knee and ankle joints.  Rather than succumbing to depression as an amputee, the former engineering student had turned to invention, designing and handcrafting a revolutionary artificial limb.

The leg functioned so well that Hanger was able to complete his enlistment committment by serving in the Stauton Home Guards.  While doing so, he was asked by other amputees to fashion limbs for them.  As the war dragged on and the number of amputations increased, Hanger realized that he and his penknife could not keep up with demand and set up production factories, first in Staunton and later in Richmond.  On March 23, 1863, he received Patent #155 “for an artificial limb” from the CSA patent office.  The following August, he filed patent papers for a newer, better version.  James Hanger, at age twenty, was a businessman.


The end of the war did not bring an end to Hanger’s business, but it did bring changes. In 1871, Hanger returned to Churchville and produced prosthetics there.  Within a short time, the Commonwealth of Virginia contracted with him to produce limbs for veterans, and he expanded his business.  He also filed for additional patents, this time with the United States Patent Office.  In 1883, he moved the main office of J. E. Hanger, Inc. to Washington, D. C.

Hanger, who had married in 1873, moved his family to Washington as well.  Eventually all six of his sons joined in managing the ever-growing business.  Although Hanger officially retired in 1905, he continued to work on behalf of the firm.  He traveled to Europe following World War I to study amputation techniques there and made corresponding adaptations to his prosthetic devices.  He also picked up contracts in England and France.  When he died on June 15, 1919, his Washington-based company had branch offices in London and Paris as well as in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and St. Louis.


In 1989, J. E. Hanger, Inc. was purchased by Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc., one of largest producers of prosthetic limbs and related services worldwide.  The legacy of a Civil War teenager continues to enable hundreds of thousands of people across the world to regain normalcy following amputation.

From: Civil War Primer


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