Photo Essays

Civil War Portraits of the Broken Bodies Sent Home

Robert Fryer. Amputation of third, fourth, and fifth metacarpals. PVT, Company G, 52nd New York Volunteers. Wounded March 25, 1865 at the Battle of Hatcher's Run, Virginia (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Robert Fryer. Amputation of third, fourth, and fifth metacarpals. PVT, Company G, 52nd New York Volunteers. Wounded March 25, 1865 at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, Virginia (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)

Many of the soldiers who survived the carnage of the American Civil War returned home broken. The death toll is estimated between 600,000 and 750,000, a number still unrivaled in any American conflict, but the survivors often left something of themselves behind on the battlefields. According to the US National Library of Medicine, around 60,000 of Civil War surgeries were amputations (3/4 of the total of all the war’s operations).

On the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s Flickr, portraits of these wounded soldiers show the grim resilience, military pride, and shocked resignation in their faces. Sometimes posed in their uniforms, or even with just a formal sword, they contrast heroic attitudes with their harrowing injuries. The portraits include those taken at hospitals to show the success of surgery, which was then still a rudimentary medical art, often performed right on the battlefield with chloroform for anesthesia, if anything at all. Legs and arms splintered by musket balls were sawed off with such frequency that there was sometimes a line, soldiers waiting and watching the mound of limbs growing ahead of them. Other portraits were self-commissioned at photography studios as souvenirs on the way home.

When they finally returned to their communities, many of these men were unable to work and, despite improvements in veterans services, ended their lives in poverty. This led to a rise in prosthetic manufacturing, although some men continued to wear their empty sleeves as a point of sacrificial pride. Below are some of these images, from a time when photography itself was also growing as a widely accessible memento. You can view more of them here (a warning that many are graphic).

John L. Gray, "Gangrenous condition of gunshot wound of foot. PVT, Company F, 12th, Virginia Infantry. Injured at the 1864 Battle of Petersburg" (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
John L. Gray. Gangrenous condition of gunshot wound of foot. PVT, Company F, 12th, Virginia Infantry. Injured at the 1864 Battle of Petersburg. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Jason W. Joslyn, "Excision of head & 4 inches of shaft femur, prosthesis in place. PVT, Company I, 7th New York Heavy Artillery. Injured at 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor" (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Jason W. Joslyn. Excision of head & 4 inches of shaft femur, prosthesis in place. PVT, Company I, 7th New York Heavy Artillery. Injured at 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
John Mencke, Excision of head of humerus. CPL, Company E, 7th New York Volunteers. (1866) (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
John Mencke, Excision of head of humerus. CPL, Company E, 7th New York Volunteers (1866) (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Hiram Williams. Amputation of leg and foot, shell wound. PVT, Company K, 98th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Injured at the 1865 Battle of Appomattox. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Hiram Williams. Amputation of leg and foot, shell wound. PVT, Company K, 98th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Injured at the 1865 Battle of Appomattox (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Neil Wicks, "Scabies of both legs, PVT, Company C, 4th US Colored Troops," stereograph (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Neil Wicks. Scabies of both legs, PVT, Company C, 4th US Colored Troops, stereograph (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
E. B. Gates. Amputation of the leg. CAPT, Company H, 4th Pennsylvania Reserves. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
E. B. Gates. Amputation of the leg. CAPT, Company H, 4th Pennsylvania Reserves (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Sgt. Carlton H. Lovell, 14th New York Heavy Artillery. Wounded June 2, 1864 at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia. Photographed by H. Hirschinger at 388 Bowery, New York. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Sgt. Carlton H. Lovell, 14th New York Heavy Artillery. Wounded June 2, 1864 at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia. Photographed by H. Hirschinger at 388 Bowery, New York (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
David D. Cole. Artifical leg applied. CPL, Company A, 2nd New York Cavalry. Injured April 2, 1865 at the Battle of Amelia Court House. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
David D. Cole. Artifical leg applied. CPL, Company A, 2nd New York Cavalry. Injured April 2, 1865 at the Battle of Amelia Court House (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
J. M. Dain. Excision of forearm due to shot fracture. SGT, Company C, 38th Wisconsin. Wounded December 8, 1864. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
J. M. Dain. Excision of forearm due to shot fracture. SGT, Company C, 38th Wisconsin. Wounded December 8, 1864 (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Peter Shrup. Shell wound of left leg lower third fracturing tibia. PVT, Company B, 16th New York Cavalry. Wounded April 5, 1865 at the Battle of Fort Hell, Virginia. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Peter Shrup. Shell wound of left leg lower third fracturing tibia. PVT, Company B, 16th New York Cavalry. Wounded April 5, 1865 at the Battle of Fort Hell, Virginia (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Aaron Shertzer. Axe wound of left foot. PVT, Company J, 87th Pennsylvania. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Aaron Shertzer. Axe wound of left foot. PVT, Company J, 87th Pennsylvania (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
H. F. Wallace. 1LT, Company I, 15th Michigan. Wounded April 6, 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
H. F. Wallace. 1LT, Company I, 15th Michigan. Wounded April 6, 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Thomas H. Mathews. Gunshot fracture of inferior maxilla & zygoma. CPL, Company I, 198th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Wounded March 29, 1865 at the Battle of Petersburg. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Thomas H. Mathews. Gunshot fracture of inferior maxilla & zygoma. CPL, Company I, 198th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Wounded March 29, 1865 at the Battle of Petersburg (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Danford Clements. Gunshot fracture of humerus. PVT, Company F, 11th Connecticut Volunteers. (1866) (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Danford Clements. Gunshot fracture of humerus. PVT, Company F, 11th Connecticut Volunteers (1866) (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Jacob T. Hertzog. Gunshot wound of right elbow, excision of elbow joint. PVT, Company K, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Wounded October 22, 1862 at the Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina. (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Jacob T. Hertzog. Gunshot wound of right elbow, excision of elbow joint. PVT, Company K, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Wounded October 22, 1862 at the Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina (via National Museum of Health and Medicine)

View more medical history images from the National Museum of Health and Medicine on Flickr.

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