Remembering the Veteran: Disability, Trauma, and the American Civil War, 1861-1915

Erin Corrales-Diaz is a graduate student in the Department of Art at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She was a Research Fellow at the Center in 2013-2014. Here is a report on her work in the collections. My dissertation, “Remembering the Veteran,” examines the complex ways in which American artists attempted to interpret war-induced disability after the Civil War. In my analysis of pictorial representations of disabled veterans by George Inness, Winslow Homer, Thomas Nast, and others, I argue that the veteran’s broken body became a vehicle for exploring the overwhelming sense of loss in the war's aftermath. These artists began to shape a visual discourse about the nineteenth-century American disabled male body marked by a dialectic between an aestheticized ideal and the reality of affliction. My dissertation is the first study to historicize the nineteenth-century American visual culture of war-inflicted disability and diverge from the emphasis on death in previous Civil War scholarship to consider the ways that representations of war survivors addressed the lingering trauma of the sectional conflict. As I employ visual culture, or a history of images, as my methodological approach, I seek to move beyond the established art historical canon to investigate visual experiences not typically associated with the fine arts, such as popular culture, mass media, and medical illustrations. As a result, I turn to the chromolithographs and engravings in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1870-1888), ephemera produced for the U.S. Sanitary and Soldiers’ Homes Fairs, and documentary surgical photography, as key artworks for my first chapter on artistic attempts to represent pain and suffering. Prior to my PACHS research trip to Philadelphia in summer of 2015, my research had been focused on the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office and hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area. As a result of my visits to the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I expanded my chapter to include the perspective of the medical and artistic communities of Philadelphia, offering a more rounded interpretation of medical knowledge and a geographic expanse of the war’s effects. My first stop was the Library Company of Philadelphia’s rich and diverse collections of ephemera, prints, and newspapers (the majority of which were in the John A. McAllister Collection of Civil War Era Printed Ephemera, Graphics and Manuscripts), in which I found materials relating to sanitary fairs, refreshment saloons, and soldiers’ homes that drew upon the visual motif of the disabled veteran. As specific establishments in Philadelphia where soldiers could obtain necessary medical care and rest, these places tended to represent wounded soldiers on broadsides and tickets as a sentimental visual strategy to encourage donations by those on the home front. Also within the collection were harrowing carte-de-visites of emaciated Union prisoners from Andersonville being examined by surgeons. These CDVs invoked the authority of medicine and the photographic medium to persuade northerners to continue supporting the Union. One photograph, which I found most useful and compelling, documents the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln in New York City. One can identify Dr. Palmer’s Arm and Leg storefront just beyond Lincoln’s coffin. The juxtaposition of a prosthetics showroom and the mass of mourners highlights how the trauma and aftermath of the war operated on both a local and national level. My next stop was the special collections at the University of Pennsylvania, where I studied rare periodicals. Frequently, wounded soldiers in hospitals would develop and print their own newspapers as a way to disseminate information throughout the site and provide entertainment to the suffering. As these newspapers were typically printed on poor-quality paper and issued in limited runs, they tend to be difficult to find. UPenn happened to have a copy of the West Philadelphia Hospital Register from 1863, which is filled with poems and short stories written by the soldiers. Such newspapers provide an intimate perspective as to the daily lives of wounded soldiers and provide a context in which to understand some of the medical images, such as Edward Stauch’s Hospital Gangrene of an Arm Stump (1863), I analyze in my dissertation. I also examined The Sword and the Pen, a subscription-based periodical used to raise money for the 1881 Soldiers’ Home Bazaar in Massachusetts. Authors included Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps whose short stories about neglected, disabled veterans finding a safe haven in government-sponsored homes fill in the historical gaps about the difficult lives of former soldiers decades after the war. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a large collection of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, writings are housed, was the third location I visited. During the Civil War, Mitchell worked at the Turner’s Lane Military Hospital in Philadelphia, where he witnessed the debilitating effects of war upon the human nervous system. The CPP has Mitchell’s files on particular medical cases and, most importantly, his follow-up studies on soldiers who endured amputation decades after the war. These documents not only helped me to understand Mitchell’s scientific basis for his work of literary fiction, “The Case of George Dedlow” from the July 1866 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, but they also allowed me a window into the language of suffering used by physicians, which offers a counterpoint to artistic works displaying the soldier in pain. A particularly note-worthy find was a small pamphlet entitled, The Consciousness of Lost Limbs, by William James that describes the phenomenon of phantom limbs including a section on psychic research relating to spectral nature of amputated body parts. I am grateful for the encouragement and assistance of the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, which, in addition to granting financial support for this work, allowed me to advance my project and add necessary primary source material to my dissertation.

Erin Corrales-Diaz