Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs by Guy R. Hasegawa. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 0809331306. $24.95.
The American Civil War acted like a battering ram on the human body. Debilitating diseases incapacitated soldiers for weeks and months. Gleaming bayonet blades, soaring shrapnel and shells and leaden bullets tore through flesh, crushed bone and splattered blood. Battles and accidents left thousands wounded. Damaged men arrived at a makeshift hospital, where surgeons performed up to 60,000 amputations, discarding arms, legs, fingers and toes. For decades, Civil War scholarship focused on battles and leaders, rather than the extensive medical ramifications of the war upon the human body. When it comes to amputees, few monographs explored the removal of a limb and how nearly 45,000 veterans dealt with this physical transformation. Thankfully, in the last few years, several historians, such as Jeff McClurken, James Marten, Megan Kate Nelson, Susan Mary-Grant, Brian Matthew Jordan and myself, have rectified this scholarship chasm with various explorations of how a missing limb altered the mind, body, and postwar life of the Civil War soldier.
In his newest study, Guy Hasegawa examines efforts on behalf of the Union and Confederacy to supply prosthetic limbs during the Civil War. Prior to the outbreak of war, the prosthetic limb industry existed throughout several northern cities. The rapid explosion of the railroad industry, the advancements in designing and utilizing dangerous machinery and the opening of more mines created a plethora of empty sleeves that fostered an entrepreneurial spirit to construct prosthetic devices. Benjamin Franklin Palmer, Douglas Bly and E.D. Hudson manufactured useful devices to assist the victims of industrial accidents. Manufacturers competed, advertised and showed off their mechanical wonders at exhibitions and county fairs. Unfortunately, the author does not provide an estimate of how many amputees roamed about antebellum America. Had the Mexican War produced a large number of amputees that accelerated efforts to construct prosthetics?
A majority of this well-researched but brief study focuses solely on the efforts to provide prosthetic devices exclusively during the war years. In the United States, the established prosthetics industry provided an avenue for the federal government to seek assistance for disabled soldiers. On July 16, 1862, the Congress appropriated $15,000 to purchase limbs. Army Surgeon General William Hammond garnered the authority to distribute the limbs, as Congress continued to appropriate more funds through the final years of the war. Manufacturers quickly bid for the lucrative government contract, as the federal dollars paid the provider fifty dollars for each prosthetic leg. Damaged soldiers and sailors had to travel to a designated hospital, where the manufacturer assigned to the hospital measured and fitted the device. The program underwent revision, in order to allow wounded soldiers and sailors the chance to procure the limb outside of a designated hospital, but still at the same rate of fifty dollars. Artificial arms later arrived in the midst of giving the patients more choices in terms of limb manufacturers. Hasegawa estimates that amputees required 6,400 legs and 5,500 arms in the North during the war.
The Confederacy faced a multitude of challenges when it came to providing artificial limbs. The South did not have a pre-established prosthetics industry and potential materials to construct the devices proved expensive and hard to find as the fighting continued. The Confederacy also did not see prosthetic devices as a paramount issue, as the Congress failed to act, which forced the formation of a private organization in Richmond: The Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers (ARMS). Through the tireless efforts of William Allen Carrington, ARMS raised some initial funds by way of private donors to finance artificial limbs. However, funds evaporated, skilled workers disappeared through enlistment in the war and prices soared on simple manufacturing items like leather and screws. In the midst of what could be considered insurmountable challenges, ARMS provided about 430 prosthetic legs over the course of fifteen months.
Hasegawa deserves a tremendous amount of credit for his extensive research into records pertaining to the federal government and ARMS. However, I was disappointed the author did not spend more time on the years after the Civil War. The volume concludes with just a few paragraphs on the efforts of the federal government and various southern states to continue prosthetic programs. Some southern states underwent an extensive political debate, especially Arkansas, Texas and Kentucky, over extending financial aid to damaged veterans. At the same time, the author only occasionally references actual amputees. How did damaged soldiers react to their newly acquired prosthetic device? Did officers stand a better chance of acquiring a limb during the war over the common soldier? Minor criticisms aside, Hasegawa has produced an important examination of the early efforts to care for wounded warriors.
Brian Craig Miller is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair of History at Emporia State University. His most recent publication is A Punishment on the Nation: An Iowa Soldier Endures the Civil War.