By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
In the decades following the Civil War, the sight of armless or legless men on the streets of American cities was common. Though some amputations resulted from industrial accidents, most of these men were Union veterans who had lost limbs in battle. Because of the large size and slow speed of Minié balls, soldiers unlucky enough to encounter one in battle endured flesh shredded and bone shattered. Given the lack of antibiotics or even an understanding of germ theory, the only way a surgeon could save a life was often to remove a limb.
Antebellum prosthetics were little more than hooks and pegs. Disabled veterans could expect to be at the front of the line when government jobs, like those at post offices, were doled out. The 1865 cartoon in Franklin Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, intended to be humorous, captured the common expectation that men who had lost hands would soon be fitted with hooks.
Men ultimately were fitted not with hooks but rather with more realistic prosthetics. After the Civil War, the prosthetics business was booming, and the federal government was integral in financing this nascent industry. The visibility of such disabilities encouraged government action. Like the money spent on pensions and soldiers’ homes, subsidies benefiting prosthetics manufacturers were usually viewed as logical compensation from a thankful nation for the sacrifices made on the battlefield.
Expectations that men could be remade were high. As Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., wrote in 1863, “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. A mechanical art which provided for an occasional and exceptional want has become a great and active branch of industry. War unmakes legs, and human skill must supply their places as best it may.” Dr. Holmes believed that “the melancholy harvest” of war would be solved by the inventions of men like Benjamin Franklin Palmer of Philadelphia.
Palmer, an amputee who had started his business in 1846 in New Hampshire, was the most famous and successful prosthetics manufacturer of the era. He personally held five U.S. patents for artificial limbs. Palmer, and his fellow artificial limb manufacturers, called on the federal government to repay a debt to those who had prevented the “dismemberment” of the nation. In so doing, some grew rich in what was a competitive marketplace for prosthetics. Men like Palmer and A.A. Marks of New York City presented themselves as humanitarians more than profit-seeking businessmen. Yet, profit and innovate they did. The Patent Office approved about 150 patents for artificial limbs and assisting devices between 1861 and 1873. By 1870, the federal government had paid out half a million dollars for 7000 artificial limbs for Union veterans.
The advertisements and testimonials for prosthetics were at times worthy of the “Age of Barnum.” In Palmer’s pamphlet encouraging federal spending on his artificial arms, Will the American Government Present an Artificial Arm (Not a “Clutch”) to the Mutilated American Soldier?: Petition of Three Hundred Soldiers, disabled soldiers lauded Palmer’s invention as both realistic and functional. One wrote, “The hand I am perfectly satisfied with; I can do anything I expected to do with it, and a great deal more; in fact, I can do almost anything.” Another, referring to the masculine job of directing a team of horses, wrote, “In driving, of which I have a great deal to do, I grasp them almost as firm as with the natural hand.” He went on, “in eating, I use the fork with the greatest facility.” Other pamphlets advertised artificial legs with assertions that men with prosthetic legs could now easily dance with their sweethearts. Manliness had been returned to them.
In reality, such prosthetics, constructed of wood, leather, and rubber, were heavy and unwieldy. Many men found hooks more useful. Palmer’s artificial arms and legs were designed to disguise a disabled veteran’s disability. Returning “manliness” meant responding to the gaze of others. They were far less a functional assistive technology.
An image by Winslow Homer published in Harper’s Weekly just after the war ended captures the anxiety around gender roles that disabled Civil War veterans must have experienced. In the print, a veteran who has lost an arm sits in a carriage looking distraught. It is the woman who drives.
Douglass, Darwin DeForrest. The Douglass Patent Artificial Limbs. Springfield, Mass.: Bowles & Co., 1865. https://archive.org/details/65140480R.nlm.nih.gov.
Hasegawa, Guy R. Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Herschbach, Lisa. “Prosthetic Reconstructions: Making the Industry, Re-Making the Body, Modelling the Nation.” History Workshop Journ al, no. 44 (Autumn 1997): 22–57.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Felloes.” The Atlantic Monthly 11, no. 67 (May 1863): 567–80. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.18109461&view=1up&seq=580
“Maimed Men – Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War,” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/lifeandlimb/maimedmen.html
Palmer, Benjamin Franklin. Will the American Government Present an Artificial Arm (Not a “Clutch”) to the Mutilated American Soldier?: Petition of Three Hundred Soldiers. Philadelphia, 1863. https://archive.org/details/101224473.nlm.nih.gov.