The missing limbs

Doctors had neither the experience nor technology to adequately repair the shattered
limbs and mangled bodies that were more quickly amassed by the larger armies and
more potent weaponry. Moreover, because Civil War surgeons had to care for so
many wounded, they often did not have the time to perform tedious reconstructive
operations. Thus, amputations and resectioning of joints — that is, the removal
of bone — became standard practice. While amputations had been performed for
centuries, sterilization and post-surgical infections were still not yet understood.
Despite the imprecise procedures and frenzied, unsanitary conditions, the survival
rate for amputees was surprisingly high. This left large numbers of maimed veterans
trying to make their way in the economically devastated postbellum South.

Confederate amputees obviously found their lives irrevocably altered. The hero’s
welcome faded as Southerners memorialized their dead and contended with the war’s
emotional and economic consequences. Phantom pain, the ghostly sensation of pain
from a missing limb, vexed the maimed soldiers as the ghosts of the dead haunted
the South. Perhaps to capitalize on Southern loyalties and sympathies, Confederate
amputees initially made no effort to hide their wounds. They pinned up their shirt
sleeves and pants legs proudly and were heard to make statements such as ‘at least
I lived’ or ‘it was a small price to pay for the cause.’

North Carolina quickly became a leader among Southern states in providing artificial
limbs or, for those who could not use prostheses, monetary commutations to its
maimed Confederate veterans. The policies for the program, the first of its
kind among the former Confederate states, changed and grew with the public’s
support. But despite postwar economic hardships, North Carolina unwaveringly
provided assistance. The result constituted a noble effort by North Carolina’s
government to assist the maimed survivors of the ‘lost cause’ to once again
become productive members of their communities. In reality, however, providing
limbs and commutations proved to be more of a psychological than economic benefit
to the veterans. Even in that regard, the state’s largesse could not erase the
bitterness some veterans felt over the price that they had already paid for
that piece of cork or willow sculpted into the shape of their missing appendage.

© Copyright 2006, The News & Observer Publishing Company

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