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Monday, December 28, 2015

Honorable Scars - Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War

Excerpted from: nlm.nih.gov

"It is not two years since the sight of a person who had lost one of his lower limbs was an infrequent occurrence. Now, alas! there are few of us who have not a cripple among our friends, if not in our own families."
Physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1863


The vast numbers of men disabled by the conflict were a major cause of concern for Rebel and Union leaders. Some worried about preventing idleness and immoral behavior, while others focused on the economic hardship veterans would later face if they could not find employment after the war. Proposed solutions included wartime work as cooks, clerks, and hospital attendants, pensions and convalescent homes for those discharged from the army because of their disability, and funds for the purchase of artificial limbs.

Rebuilding the Body
Almost 150 patents were issued for artificial limb designs between 1861 and 1873, as the industry expanded to accommodate the veteran population. In 1862 the Federal government allocated Union veterans $75 to buy an artificial leg and $50 for an arm, and by 1864 the Confederacy was also providing financial assistance for such purchases. The payments usually covered the cost of the device and travel to a showroom for it to be fitted.

Returning to the Army
The Invalid Corps was established by the federal government in 1863 to employ disabled veterans in war-related work. Soldiers were divided up into two battalions, based on the extent of their injuries. The first carried weapons and fought in combat. The second, made up of men with more serious impairments, served as nurses, cooks, and prison guards. Despite the rigorous workload, members of the Invalid Corps (known as the “Cripple Brigade” among their former comrades ), were not offered the generous financial awards granted to re-enlisting soldiers and new recruits in the Union. Nicknamed “Inspected-Condemned” after the initials stamped on faulty goods, the Invalid Corps was renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps in 1864 to put an end to the mockery.

A large proportion of disabled veterans in both the North and the South did not wear artificial limbs. Many did not even apply for the money they were eligible to collect because of negative attitudes to the idea of charity. Moreover, pinning up an empty sleeve or trouser leg, instead of hiding the injury with a prosthesis, made their sacrifice visible. Displaying an “honorable scar” in this way, especially during and immediately after the war, helped amputees to assert their contribution to the cause.

Life Without A Limb
Veterans who had lost an arm learned to use their remaining limb instead, and could utilize specially-designed devices to tackle everyday tasks. Such strategies were especially important because many prosthetic designs had only limited function and could also be uncomfortable, particularly if the wounds from injury or surgery had healed badly. Moreover, an artificial limb might prove too expensive to repair or replace over the course of a lifetime.

Sacrifices Forgotten
The selflessness of soldiers fostered great respect in the years after the war. Pension payments were increased regularly, and men pursuing political office often found that their obvious injury proved useful in attracting voters. Yet as Americans sought to put the memory of the conflict behind them, they increasingly ignored the plight of aging, disabled, impoverished veterans. Instead, memorializing the dead and asserting national patriotism became the focus of Civil War remembrances, and the image of the disabled soldier became one of a money-grabbing dependent.

Image 1: Recruitment poster for the Invalid Corps, 1860s

Image 2: An artilleryman who had one leg taken completely off at the knee", drawings from the diary of Alfred Bellard, 1860s

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