This month the Richard B. Russell Jr. Special Collections Library’s book club is reading Brian Craig Miller’s Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War. The first meeting of the book club is tomorrow evening at 5:30 pm, so today we’re running an excerpt from the book that details one amputee veteran’s struggle to come to terms with how losing a limb diminished his prospects at finding a mate.
Confederate amputees often felt a tinge of regret or a burst of panic in the hospital bed as they wondered if women would accept their physical deformities. Kate Cumming, when nursing amputated patients, commented, “I constantly hear the unmarried ones wondering if the girls will marry them now.” Despite such overwhelming concerns, the men seemed in solid spirits. Cumming recalled, “We have a room with seven men it, who have lost a limb each. it is a perfect treat to go into it, as the men seem to do little else but laugh.” The men routinely told Cumming to call on the women to come see these particular men, since they would make “excellent husbands, as they will be sure to never run away.” She hoped that the women of the South would reset their attitudes toward the disabled male and work to end the suffering of the many men who had only performed their duty.
Amputated men sought advice from nurses about how women back home would perceive their injuries. One limbless Confederate asked his nurse, “When do you think my wound will be well enough for me to go to the country?” The soldier requested a speedy return home because he worried that his woman back home might reject him or move on. The nurse confidently predicted, “Ah, but you must show her your scars, and if she is a girl worth having she will love you all the better for having bled for your country and you must tell her that ‘it is always the heart that is bravest in war that is fondest and truest in love.’ ” The soldier seemed content with the response and went back to regaining his full strength to once again return home.
Walter Waightstill Lenoir, a Confederate soldier who lost his right leg at the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862, also worried about how amputation would now alter his life and romantic prospects. He noted in his diary that his head filled with thoughts of what he would have to give up now that he had lost a limb. “First I thought of my favorite sport of trout fishing, which I would have to give up,” he wrote. “Then I thought of skating, swimming and partridge hunting, my other favorite sports which it also occurred to me that I could never enjoy again.” Yet, sports did not appear first and foremost on his list of sacrifices. Lenoir confessed that “before all these things I thought sadly of women; for I was not old enough to have given up the thought of women. . . . it may not seem very creditable to me that I thought first of the mere enjoyments which I was to lose with my leg. But such were my poor unworthy thoughts.”
The loss of a leg transported Lenoir from a world of independence to one where he had to reassess dependency and accept assistance from those who could facilitate his survival. During his recovery, Lenoir remained particularly dependent on Mrs. Samuel A. Chancellor, who spoke to him “in that sweet, kind woman’s voice that thrills the heart of the sufferer as nothing else can, inquiring after my situation and wants.” Once he returned home, his greatest fears materialized, as Lenoir did not marry and lacked any true romantic prospects. In order to survive financially, Lenoir spent his first postwar months dependent on some slaves who assisted him in farming. He wrote to his sister, “You know that I had made up my mind before the war that I would not be again a slave owner. . . . Circumstances have made me a slave owner.” Prior to his military service, Lenoir wrestled with the morality of slavery and declared he would live an independent life without any connection to the institution. Amputation shifted Lenoir’s internal perceptions about slavery and forced him to now remain dependent on his slaves for his health and welfare. While a dependency on slaves compromised Lenoir’s principles, he had no choice. His survival necessitated an enhanced dependency on slavery until emancipation forced Lenoir to look elsewhere in order to deal with the difficulties of disability.