Sunday, January 10, 2016

Napoleon Perkins Loses His Leg

By Megan Kate Nelson, 5-29-13

Napoleon Perkins dragged himself toward the plank road behind the Chancellor house, shot and shells plowing up the ground all around him and apple blossoms drifting into his hair. Moments before, during some of the fiercest fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, Perkins had been unhitching one of his horses from a Fifth Maine artillery caisson when a rebel shell struck him in the right leg just above the knee. At first he did not realize how badly he had been wounded; but when he tried to walk to the rear, his leg buckled and nearly severed in two. Perkins managed to reach the road and began to crawl across it, but could go no farther. Dizzy but still conscious, he watched the Chancellor house and the nearby woods catch fire and burn, killing many of his comrades who had been similarly wounded in the fight, but could not flee the flames.

Luckily, Perkins’ friends soon found him, cinched a rope around his leg above the wound to form a tourniquet and carried him on a blanket for three miles to the nearest field hospital. There, a group of surgeons prepared to amputate his leg, but Perkins objected. His resistance was not unusual; many Union and Confederate soldiers recoiled at the thought of amputation. Mid-19th-century gender conventions invested a great deal of meaning in the whole white male body; the loss of an arm or leg, they well knew, would result in the loss of masculinity, and of status and power.

The surgeons sighed and acceded to Perkins’ wishes, loading him on an ambulance that bumped and rocked its way northward over Virginia’s frightful roads for two days. “One can hardly realize what I suffered with that shattered leg,” Perkins wrote in his memoir. By the time he had been placed aboard railroad cars and then a steamer for Washington, his leg was “swollen as large as the skin would allow.”

Perkins was ultimately sent to St. Aloysius General Hospital, a set of wooden barracks attached to a Catholic church. The days he spent at St. Aloysius “seemed very long and some of the nights longer”; the pain of the wound and the swelling in his leg kept him awake most of the time. One morning, a surgeon making his early rounds looked sharply at Perkins’ leg and then went to fetch the other doctors. Perkins’ right foot was gangrenous and he would not live another three days without an amputation. Again, the 20-year-old private resisted. He had seen friends die after amputations or go crazy, tearing at the bandages around their stumps. The surgeon’s pronouncement had an air of finality about it, however, and there was a chance he would survive if they took off the leg. Perkins agreed to the surgery.

On May 23, 1863, almost three weeks after his injury, Napoleon Perkins lost his right leg to the Civil War. He was one of around 60,000 Union and Confederate soldiers to undergo amputations during the war, and one of about 45,000 to survive his surgery. It took two doses of ether and one of chloroform to knock him out. But he swam up through the haze twice during the surgery, and was fully awake when the surgeons tied up his arteries and sewed the flesh over his bone.

Once his stump began to heal, Perkins learned to navigate hospital corridors on a pair of crutches. He told his physicians that he wanted to be discharged, but first he wanted to be fitted with an artificial leg. So a few days later, Perkins found himself on the grounds of the Government Hospital for the Insane, later known as St. Elizabeths, part of which had been converted into a general hospital for amputees.

There were 80 men in this ward, soldiers from every state in the Union. They spent their days here as they had in camp — talking, playing cards, writing home. Every now and then, a large group would secure passes and visit theaters, racetracks and other places of amusement in Washington, attracting “considerable attention.” This was a pleasant time for Perkins; at St. Elizabeths he found a camaraderie that he had been missing since his injury. He was not anxious or embarrassed about his missing limb, and could talk about future plans with men who felt a similar sense of loss.

After a few weeks, it was Perkins’s turn to be measured for an artificial leg. The American prosthetics industry had grown considerably during the antebellum period; newly constructed factories and railroads took hands, feet, arms and legs from their workers with alarming frequency. Limb manufacture expanded even more rapidly during the Civil War, a result not only of the proliferation of war amputees but also of the establishment of a federal program in the spring of 1862 that provided artificial arms and legs for Union veterans.

Perkins was one of more than 6,600 men to acquire prosthetics as part of this federal program. Samuel B. Jewett, the New Hampshire cousin of the prosthetics manufacturer George Jewett, who had patented one such artificial limb, called the Salem Leg, measured and fitted Perkins. When he received the finished leg, Perkins went out in the grove behind St. Elizabeth and did more falling than walking as he learned to use it. He was anxious to get accustomed to his new leg because he was about to be discharged; he wanted to wear it home so that his injury “would not seem so bad to my mother.”

Finally, on Dec. 7, 1863, Perkins collected his pay, applied for his pension and boarded a train for New Hampshire. His troubles were not over, however. As Perkins and other veteran amputees recovered from their surgeries, they had to renegotiate their place in society. Could a veteran amputee woo women, marry, procreate and work to support his family? During a time in which citizenship was seen as “embodied” in adult white males, could an amputee be considered a full citizen?

For the next 10 years, Perkins traveled from New Hampshire to Ohio to Montreal and back again, working a series of temporary factory jobs. Most employers turned him away, feeling sorry for him but having “no work that a one leg man could do.” Perkins lived from hand to mouth on his pension benefits ($8 a month initially), and it was not until he married a woman named Jennie Shedd and took over a harness shop in 1873 that he began to prosper. He attributed all of his subsequent success to the “industry and good management of my wife,” although he continued to struggle with the physical and emotional pain that his amputation produced. “No one except those who have lost a leg as near the body as I have,” he wrote in his memoir, “can realize what it means.”

On May 3, 1913, Napoleon Perkins sat down on his porch with James Loomis, who had found him on that roadside, bound up his wound, and carried him to the field hospital 50 years before. They talked about old times for several hours, rehashing the events of that day and the terrible toll the Battle of Chancellorsville took on the Fifth Maine battery (6 men were killed and 22 wounded, a casualty rate of about 40 percent). Perkins survived the battle and the surgeries that took his leg. And he, like all veteran amputees, carried the marks of the war’s violence back home.

Sources: Napoleon B. Perkins, “Memoirs,” New Hampshire Historical Society; G.T. Stevens, “Letter to the Members of the 5th Maine Battery Association”; Guy R. Hasegawa, “Mending Broken Soldiers”; Laurann Figg and Jane Farrell-Beck, “Amputation in the Civil War”; Brian Craig Miller, “The Women who Loved (or Tried to Love) Confederate Amputees,” in “Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges,” Stephen Berry, ed.

Megan Kate Nelson
Megan Kate Nelson teaches in the history and literature program at Harvard. She is the author of “Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War.”

Image: A Civil War field surgeon about to amputate a leg.Credit National Archives and Records Administration



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