Amputation, as one historian has noted, is the “symbolic wound” of the American Civil War. One estimate places the number of wartime amputations at 60,000, three-quarters of all the operations undertaken during the conflict. Around 45,000 of these men are thought to have survived. Often regarded as the quintessential symbol of the conflict’s butchery, a popular image has endured of half-trained surgeons lopping off limbs of soldiers forced to acquiesce in unanaesthetised agony. In recent years new scholarship and public history programmes are challenging many of these stereotypes, such as the myth surrounding the absence of sedatives. Although there were some horror stories, there can be little doubt that amputation saved thousands of lives. This is brought into stark relief when we encounter the cases of some of those who did not have amputative surgery. In this post we take a look at five such men, three Pennsylvania Irish and two New York Irish, who for differing reasons did not go under the surgeon’s saw–with mixed results. (1)
Private John Fleming, Company E, 81st Pennsylvania Infantry, Fredericksburg
Irish emigrant John Fleming left behind his Irish-born wife Jane and daughters Margaret (b. 1857) and Rachel (b. 1859) in Philadelphia’s 13th Ward to enlist in the 81st Pennsylvania. The couple had married in Schuylkill Falls in 1849. At Fredericksburg on 13th December 1862 the regiment were part of John Caldwell’s First Brigade, Hancock’s First Division of the Second Corps. John had to step over the bodies of his countrymen from the Irish Brigade as he marched forward towards Marye’s Heights directly in their wake. Somewhere during the assault, he was struck in the foot. John was evacuated to Stone Hospital in Washington D.C., where the following letter was written just over a month later:
Washington DC Jan 16th/63
Dear Madam. Yours was duly rec’d of the 2nd and now I hasten to answer you. This morning at half past one o’clock your husband died, and will be buried to day at the Soldiers burying ground. Before he died he said he would like to see his wife. I asked him concerning those papers all that I could get him to say was that he told you before he left home. When he came here he had a bad foot which had ought to of been amputated on the battle field. It was in the state of mortification. There was all done for him that could be done. When he came here he had forty dollars and yesterday I sent it by express to you and I would be happy to learn wether you receive it. I enclose you the receipt.
P.S. If there is any thing more you wish to know I would be happy to inform you. (2)
Preventing the mortification that cost John his life was precisely the reason that amputation was so common during the Civil War. In this case, for whatever reason, the foot was not removed. It was a decision that ultimately cost John Fleming his life.
Private Arthur Mulholland, 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company F, Gettysburg
Irish-born labourer Arthur Mulholland had departed Philadelphia’s 8th Ward to join the Irish regiment in 1861. At home were his wife Mary, whom he had married in 1842, and at least one minor child, Ellen (b. 1853). After more than two years of service, it looked like Arthur was headed home, as an injury to his leg in June 1863 caused him to be granted a discharge for disability. But before it could be fully processed Arthur and the regiment were on the march, headed for Pennsylvania and a showdown with Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. On the climactic third day of the action, he and the 69th were in position at The Angle, the very vortex of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge. Arthur became one of only a handful of 69th men to be captured, carried back across the field into Rebel lines and a future as a Prisoner of War. Though accounts as to his fate varied, he seems to have eventually succumbed while incarcerated in Andersonville. His wife Mary later heard the following version:
…he was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg he was then taken to Belle Island Richmond Va…before his capture he was hit on the leg by a piece of a flying rail when he got to Richmond his leg mortified from the effects of the wound and they wanted to amputate his leg but he would not let them they then sent him to Andersonville where after confinement for some time he died and was buried there. (3)
Arthur was far from the only soldier to refuse amputation, particularly when it was being offered by enemy surgeons. Whether his was the right choice or not is impossible to determine; his fate may have been sealed either way. However, it is probable that had his limb been amputated in Richmond he would have been exchanged, in the process escaping a transfer to Andersonville– a move that proved to be a death sentence.
Corporal Andy Ward, 54th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company E, Third Winchester
23-year-old illiterate Irish emigrant labourer Andy Ward was enrolled in the 54th Pennsylvania on 7th March 1864. He had left his almost 70-year-old mother Rose and younger sister Nancy at home in Conemaugh, Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Now part of the Army of West Virginia, Andy was brigaded with his fellow Irishmen of the 23rd Illinois, “Mulligan’s Irish Brigade”. He spent most of his service in the Shenandoah Valley, and had already come through some bloody battles before the Battle of Third Winchester/Opequon on 19th September 1864, where he was gunned down. Three weeks later, the following was penned to his mother:
Headquarters 2d Div Hospital Army West Va.
South Church Hospital
Winchester Va October 11th 1864
Miss Worosey Ward
Your letter to Andy Ward came into my hands today, but not till some two hours after Andy’s death. Andrew Ward died in South Church Hospital at 10 O’Clock this morning, after suffering intinsely three weeks from a wound of the left thigh, which fractured the bone so near the body, we could not hope for an amputation being successful, although he often wished us to amputate, as he suffered so much. He was burried in, or near the Methodist Cemetery where all the Union boys lay, making a long row who have fallen in the cause of their Country.
I also enclose three finger rings two of them broken, but he wished them sent to his Mother. He had not money, clothing, or other valuables, and made no expression of any thing except the finger rings.
We had hoped he would recover until three days ago, but when I told him he could not live, he seemed contented, not frightened, and this morning the Priest was with him for some time, as he requested it.
I sincerely sympathize with you in the loss of your noble son and brother, for I am sure he was a good kind brother and son, from the manner in which he spoke of his mother. Having had none except an hospital acquaintance with him, I belong to the 91st Ohio Reg, but feeling you would gladly learn anything concerning him, have taken the liberty to open your letter to him and will enclose it with this.
W.G. Newton A. Lurg 91st Reg
In Charge 2d Div Hospl 8th A.C. (4)
Andy was clearly desperate for amputation, a marker of the intense pain which the young man was feeling. But the location of his injury precluded it as an option, and so his fate was sealed.
Private Thomas Hughes, Company K, 69th New York State Militia & Corporal Thomas Fagan, Company B, 14th Brooklyn, First Bull Run
In the case of each of the three Pennsylvania Irishmen, their inability or refusal to have an amputation contributed towards their deaths. But such decisions did not always end badly. A case in point is the story of Thomas Fagan and Thomas Hughes. Fagan had been shot in the left arm at First Bull Run, Hughes in the right. The former takes up their story:
[I was] wounded at the Battle of Bull Run, Va., July 21, 1861, in the left arm. [I] was then taken prisoner by the enemy, and taken to Centreville, Va., where [I] met…Hughes for the first time, and Hughes then told [me]…he had been wounded in the same battle in the right arm and side. While at…Centreville, in rebel-hospital, both suffering from their wounds, they were told that the Surgeons would come around the next morning. They were advised to consent to the amputation of their arms, and were told that otherwise the probability was that mortification would set in and cause death. [I] and…Hughes spent the entire night, consulting with each other and considering the matter in all its bearings, and finally decided to run the risk of mortification, and not to consent to amputation. This night and the attendant circumstances will never pass from [my] memory. (5)
For both Thomas Fagan and Thomas Hughes, the decision they made after that agonising night proved to be the correct one. Both survived and recovered. Thomas Hughes even went on to enlist in the 155th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, only to be wounded once more in an almost identical location at Petersburg on 22nd June 1864.
Thousands of Irish Americans had to grapple with decisions over amputation during the Civil War. Though that decision was occasionally theirs to make, often circumstance took it out of their hands, as it did for Andy Ward. In many instances, a failure or inability to amputate cost men their lives. For others, particularly early in the war when surgical methodologies were more haphazard, their decision to reject medical advice paid off. Yet every one of those who made that choice–men like Thomas Fagan and Thomas Hughes–knew that it was a gamble that could cost them their lives.
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1) Grant 2014: 701, Figg & Farrell-Beck 1993: 454: (2) John Fleming File, 1860 Census; (3) Arthur Mulholland File, 1860 Census; (4) Andy Ward FIle, 1860 Census; (5) Thomas Hughes File;
John Fleming File.
Arthur Mulholland File.
Andy Ward File.
Thomas Hughes File.
Laurann Figg and Jane Farrell-Beck 1993. “Amputation in the Civil War Physical and Social Dimensions” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 48, Issue 4, October 1993.
Susan-Mary Grant 2014. “‘Mortal in this Season’: Union Surgeons and the Narrative of Medical Modernisation in the American Civil War” in Social History of Medicine 2014, Volume 27 (2).
Meg GroelingDecember 15, 2019 8:43 pm
Major Jonathan Letterman, the “Father of Battlefield Medicine,” and top surgeon for the Army of the Potomac, felt that more lives could have been saved if MORE amputations had been done. I have given this a lot of thought–since it was usually post-operative infections that killed soldiers, and since there was little other than nascent germ theory, perhaps ultimately it made no difference. Amputees had a rough time of it if they survived, but only because technology for a workable prosthesis barely existed. Additionally, funds were low for providing amputee appliances, especially in the South. It has not been since the Civil War that America has seen the number of amputees that we see now. Weapons and ammunition change, and once again soldiers are losing limbs at unbelievably large numbers. Amputation is never good, but the world has made great strides in treatment, rehabilitation, and appliances that make navigating the world again have a much more satisfying outcome.
Thanks for this piece.