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