Brockley on Lang, 'Fighting in the Shadows: The Untold Story of Deaf People in the Civil War'

Harry G. Lang
Janice Brockley

Harry G. Lang. Fighting in the Shadows: The Untold Story of Deaf People in the Civil War. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 272 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56368-680-1.

Reviewed by Janice Brockley (Jackson State University) Published on H-War (October, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Harry G. Lang brings to light the many stories of deaf people in the Civil War, both civilians and soldiers. He documents an impressive number of deaf people who served as soldiers, worked as noncombatant support, advocated in the press, and in other ways participated in the war. Lang reveals “a previously untold deaf experience during the war” (p. x). He is less persuasive in his argument that the Civil War was an empowering experience for deaf people as a whole.

Lang provides a concise and helpful description of the situation of deaf people in the antebellum era. There was a growing community of deaf people joined together by the deaf residential schools, the use of sign language, and a growing deaf press. Many other deaf people were isolated from the growing deaf community, using home signs (informal signs developed within a family), writing, and other methods to communicate with the surrounding hearing community. Many, though not all, of these individuals were isolated and socially marginal, struggling to find work and companionship.

Lang describes some outstanding individuals, including Lauren Catherine Redden, the deaf female journalist and poet; Edward Floury, the racist, deaf separatist who urged both the deportation of blacks to Africa and the creation of an independent deaf state in the West; and Edmund Booth, newspaper editor and publisher, who covered the Civil War and advocated for a range of causes. The bulk of the book focuses on the more ordinary deaf individuals who participated in the war. Ultimately, what is most striking are the similarities of the deaf and hearing experiences of the Civil War. Deaf school boys, like hearing boys, formed mock militias and drills. The deaf community, like the hearing community, split between North and South, breaking communal ties. Despite both militaries’ restrictions against deaf enlistees, a number of deaf men sought to serve, some succeeding.

There were some distinctively deaf experiences during the war. The grimmest were the many deaths of deaf soldiers and civilians who were shot by sentries for failing to respond to a challenge or command to halt. The many deaf men who served in the armies and militias faced additional dangers. “We can only surmise,” Lang states, “how many partially or fully deaf men were killed during the war as a result of not hearing commands during battles” (p. 53).

The war was also a creator of deafness, both temporary and permanent. Thousands of Civil War soldiers were partially or fully deafened by the noise of battle, concussion, exposure, illness, and wounds. Some soldiers were discharged while others continued to fight or even reenlisted. Veterans struggled to adjust to deafness after the war. Many faced complications like tinnitus and vertigo as well as posttraumatic stress disorder. Struggling to communicate with even family and friends, many “felt isolated from hearing society for the rest of their lives” (p. 218). They found it difficult to hold down jobs due to audist attitudes and physical challenges. Angered by the difficult process of applying for pensions and low pension rates, deafened veterans organized the “Silent Army of Deaf Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines,” which successfully fought for increased pensions.  

Deaf schools were central institutions for the deaf community. They were profoundly affected by the war, particularly in the South, and “with this disruption came a slowdown of the growth of the deaf community that had been fostered by the schools for forty years” (p. 109). Students practiced military drills, knitted socks for soldiers, and avidly followed the war news. Some Southern students and staff were trapped at Northern schools, unable to return home during the war. Southern schools were overwhelmed and many of their campuses were taken over by Confederate authorities. Willie J. Palmer, superintendent of the North Carolina Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, managed to keep his school operating by serving the Confederacy. The school sewed uniforms, printed military training manuals and currency, and manufactured cartridges and bullets.   

Lang argues that the war “empowered” deaf people and “provided them with an opportunity to help dispel their image as ‘unfortunates’ and develop an identity as American citizens no longer pushed to the margins of society” (p. 207). Lang clearly demonstrates that the Civil War was an empowering experience for some deaf individuals. Redden built a national reputation as an author and poet among deaf and hearing readers. Frederick A. P. Barnard left University of Mississippi to become an influential, progressive president of Columbia College. It is unclear that this empowerment was broadly shared. Deaf African Americans in particular faced the double burdens of racism and audism. Many remained “illegally in bondage in areas of the South” (p. 224). Free African Americans were treated as second-class citizens in the deaf community. Deaf people in general soon faced a push to eliminate sign language, which undermined deaf children’s education and drove many deaf people out of teaching.

Fighting in the Shadows provides an interesting look at the experiences of deaf people in the Civil War. The book also illustrates the diversity of deaf lives in the nineteenth century. With many photos and an emphasis on individual stories, the book is appropriate for a general audience interested in deaf history or an unusual perspective on the Civil War.

Citation: Janice Brockley. Review of Lang, Harry G., Fighting in the Shadows: The Untold Story of Deaf People in the Civil War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

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