As soon as Central Park Hospital opened its doors to sick and injured soldiers in the summer of 1862, 43-year-old William Oland Bourne signed on as a volunteer. Over the next two years he became a regular visitor, conducting religious services and befriending his patients, recording their names and histories in his diary. He grew particularly troubled by the plight of amputees, concerned that once the war ended they would be adrift, unable to work or survive on meager government pensions, which varied according to the severity and type of injury. An idea struck: he would start a newspaper, one that would exclusively serve disabled and wounded Union veterans.
In December 1864, Bourne published the first issue of The Soldier’s Friend, hiring amputees to sell it in the railway cars and streets of New York. The tabloid was crammed with useful information: details of bounty and pension laws, collection and distribution sites for the Sanitary Commission, advice on acquiring a hospital directory. Interspersed throughout were bits of Bourne’s own poetry, ads for dysentery cures and prosthetic limbs, and frank advice for disabled soldiers: “Your countrymen sympathize with you, respect you, admire you … when you leave the army do not disappoint them. A man in the world must furnish his own brains, and his own bravery. He may wear an artificial leg or arm, but he can not long wear an artificial nature.”
This venture came as no surprise to those who knew Bourne, who had a long history of devoting himself to altruistic causes, and who adhered strongly to the self-help ethos of the mid-19th century; he believed that the best way to help veterans was to encourage them to help themselves.
Born in Germantown, Pa., in 1819, Bourne grew up under the influence of his father, the Rev. George Bourne, a staunch abolitionist who, while living in Virginia, openly criticized his fellow Presbyterian ministers and church members for the cruel treatment of their slaves. After apprenticing with a New York publisher, the younger Bourne threw himself into educational and labor reform, serving as clerk of the Public School Society and the New York Board of Education. He also volunteered with the convicts on Blackwell’s Island and edited a variety of papers for the Democratic Republican Workingman’s Association, work that prepared him for launching The Soldier’s Friend.
Shortly after the publication of the first issue, Bourne received a letter from a patient at Central Park Hospital. The soldier urged that those like himself, who had lost their right arm during the war, learn to write with their left hand. Bourne reprinted the letter in the May 1865 issue, opining that one-armed veterans might even aspire to obtain clerkships. The following month, he took the idea a step further, announcing a left-handed penmanship contest, with strict rules: Contestants had to have lost their right arm or its use during the Civil War, and not to have been ambidextrous before the war. They must supply proof of their injury with a copy of their discharge certificate or a photograph. Manuscripts should include personal and military details and essays on “patriotic themes.” Men would not be penalized if their prose leaned toward the left. One thousand dollars, including $500 of Bourne’s own money, would be divided among the winners.
Word of the contest spread quickly but did not garner universal interest among left-armed veterans. Competing at penmanship was an impossibility for most black soldiers, since the vast majority were formers slaves who had been denied an education. Even literate African-American soldiers largely felt excluded. As Will Thomas, one of two black veterans who took pen to paper, noted, “I don’t expect to secure a position as clerk, that being proscribed on account of my color.”
Submissions from white soldiers began to flood Bourne’s office — nearly 400 in all — arriving from every state in the Union and from men who had served in every rank between private and colonel. Some copied lines of poetry or Lincoln’s political speeches. Others, like Private Alfred B. Tuttle, aimed for humor and irony. After he had served throughout the entire war, Confederates shot off his right arm outside Appomattox Courthouse — just one day before General Robert E. Lee surrendered. “I was soon taken to the rear,” Tuttle wrote, “cloroform [sic] was administered, and when I awoke I found in the place of my good right arm… nothing but a … stump.”
Private John Whipple had a similar experience. On April 10, 1865, the day after Lee surrendered, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a salute of 200 guns to be fired in honor of the event. “I was detailed as one of the cannoneers,” Whipple reported, “and while doing duty in this capacity the gun was prematurely discharged” — blowing his right arm to fragments. He left the Army, he wrote, “a sadder if not wiser man.”
Many took a different approach altogether, using the opportunity to argue what their disabled bodies should mean in postwar America. The majority of these entrants took pride in their status as “empty sleeves,” refusing to dwell on their physical discomfort or limitations. Their missing limbs weren’t shameful handicaps, but symbols of bravery and masculinity. Private Alfred D. Whitehouse was shot in the right arm during the First Battle of Bull Run; since the Union Army had yet to establish an ambulance corps, he lay on the field for six days until his “shattered arm was full of maggots.” Though he was one of the first men injured in the “great rebellion,” he insisted he never regretted fighting for the Union. Likewise, Phil Faulk praised his “veteran scars” as “richer ornaments than the purest gold.” John Stewart admonished fellow veterans who begged for money rather than trying to find work. They could, he suggested, “use a little more brain power although a little less muscular power” to secure a living wage. In his manuscript, Dorus Bates advised his left-armed comrades to “never get the blues,” telling them, “you will have to go but a short distance to find some poor fellow that is more unfortunate than yourself.”
Some of their comrades, however, offered a bleaker, more candid assessment of their new reality: their injuries rendered them lesser men who would require the sympathy and assistance of others to survive. James Anthony admitted that he had entered the contest only for the prize money, as he had three small children to support, and begged Bourne to “tell me what you think of my chance.” Alonzo Amsden sent Bourne a graphic shirtless picture of himself, showing his mangled right arm and a gaping exit wound on his back. He had been a minister before the war, he wrote, and now couldn’t dress himself or sit upright without excruciating pain. Robert J. Rothwell, who had been lucratively employed as a blacksmith in Ohio, compared his postwar life to slavery and acknowledged that his disability had destroyed his self-esteem. “My arm is off at my shoulder,” he concluded. “I am forever ruined for looks or anything else.”
On March 2, 1866, the panel of judges — among them Gov. Reuben Fenton of New York, the elder Theodore Roosevelt, and the Harper’s Weekly editor George W. Curtis — announced 28 winners. The first prize of $200 went to Franklin Durrah of Pennsylvania, who, in careful script, offered a stoic account of his experience camping and fighting with his regiment. Ira Broshears of Indiana, winner of an award for literary merit, wrote a biography of his lost “best friend” — his right arm — and recalled its many uses: hoisting him up trees, playing baseball, swinging a scythe. When the Southern states rose up in rebellion, the arm didn’t hesitate to sign up to fight. How desperately he missed his arm, buried under “some cedar, pine, or palm” in Virginia. Without it, he concluded, he was merely “a cripple with a broken constitution hastening probably to an early grave.”
Thomas Perrine, winner of a $20 award for ornamental penmanship, submitted the most unusual entry, describing his service, the loss of his arm, and a few attendant problems entirely in verse. “Sinistra Many Scripta” (“A Sinister Manuscript” — “Sinister” being a play on the Latin term for “left”) read in part:
A shrapnel burse above our heads
And filled us with alarms;
A fragment struck my Humerus vein,
And so I grounded arms
They bore me to a hospital
And gave me chloroform
I slept, and when I woke again
Was minus a right arm…
These negroes all, Judge Taney said,
“A White man’s rights do lack.”
The rebels left no right to me —
I might as well be black.
After distributing a promotional handbill that called the veterans “Disabled, But Not Disheartened,” Bourne opened an exhibit of the contest entries in Washington, D.C., drawing large crowds and rave reviews. One reporter declared that the manuscripts proved that “No Yankee loses his heart with his arm.” General Ulysses S. Grant, accompanied by Theodore Roosevelt and the mining mogul William E. Dodge, Jr., arrived at the hall one afternoon and spent an hour perusing the manuscripts. Upon leaving, he remarked: “These boys write better with their left hand than I do with my right!”
The contest’s resounding success inspired Bourne to hold another; this time, he received only 100 entries and judged all of them himself. The Soldier’s Friend ceased publication in September 1869 but Bourne continued his charitable work, ministering to the prisoners at Blackwell’s Island and serving on the Board of Education. As an effort to rehabilitate soldiers, his contest met with mixed results. John Whipple, victim of a cannon accident, forged a career as a farmer and lived well into the 20th century. Thomas Perrine, the poet, only 19 when he lost his arm, attended law school at the University of Michigan and subsequently moved to a boardinghouse in Minneapolis. Although “the stub of the right arm” brought him trouble and pain, he married the inn’s housekeeper, moved to Denver, and also became a successful farmer.
On the other hand, Alfred Tuttle, who lost his arm just before Appomattox, later became a public charge; a New York jury found him a “habitual drunkard… incapable of the management of his affairs.” The optimistic Dorus Bates married in 1877 and had a daughter the following year. Unable to find work, he committed suicide shortly after her second birthday. The top prizewinner, Franklin Durrah, would never go on to become a clerk, as Bourne had hoped and anticipated. Not long after Durrah submitted his manuscript, a doctor declared him “deranged” — what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder — and sent him to an insane asylum.
For most of the next 40 years, Durrah lived with his mother in Philadelphia. When he was so out of control that he had to be “tied,” she sent him to various mental institutions. In an affidavit, she apologized for her son’s slovenly appearance, explaining that he would not wash himself unless urged to do so but it was “not safe to urge him at all times.” He wandered the streets, muttering to himself and threatening the neighbors — the same neighbors who testified that he had been a “sound, healthy, and moral young man” before the war. Eventually his mother committed him permanently to the Penn Hospital for the Insane, where he spent the rest of his life. “No one can say how far his wound was instrumental in causing the loss of his mind,” one doctor told pension officials, yet he added, “the arm was all that he appeared crazy upon.”
Karen Abbott is the author, most recently, of Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Her website is karenabbott.net.
SOURCES: William Oland Bourne Papers, 1837-1881, New-York Historical Society; U.S. Civil War Papers, 1850-1917, Columbia University Special Collections; Frances M. Clarke, “War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North”; Laurann Figg and Jane Farrell-Beck, “Amputation in the Civil War: Physical and Social Dimensions”; Jaylnn Olsen Padilla, “Army of ‘Cripples’: Northern Civil War Amputees, Disability, and Manhood in Victorian America”; Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, “Union Soldiers and the Northern Home Front: Wartime Experiences, Postwar Adjustments”; Charles F. Cooney, “The Left-Armed Corps,” Civil War Times Illustrated 23 (1984); The Soldier’s Friend, December 1864; The Soldier’s Friend, May 1865; The Soldier’s Friend, June 1865.