Riotto on Handley-Cousins, 'Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North'

Sarah Handley-Cousins
Angela Riotto

Sarah Handley-Cousins. Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019. xiii + 186 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-5519-1.

Reviewed by Angela Riotto (Army University Press) Published on H-SHGAPE (November, 2020) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

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In recent years, historians of the American Civil War have increasingly turned their attention to studying the “dark” side of the war: the trauma, the devastation, the ruin, and despair. Sarah Handley-Cousins adds to this growing scholarship with her consideration of the broader social and cultural understanding of war-related disabilities in the Civil War North. Building on the works of historians and scholars of disability, she analyzes Union soldiers’ disabilities through the social model of disability. Instead of understanding disability as a problem that needs to be fixed, the social model considers disabilities as social and cultural constructs. By studying how the US government, civilians, and United States soldiers understood and reacted to trauma and disability, Bodies in Blue reveals that these disabled men were “just as likely to be used, rejected, separated, and distrusted as they were to be honored” (p. 3).

To explore the multifaceted interpretations of war-related disability, Handley-Cousins begins her book with the war years and traces Union soldiers’ and veterans’ struggles into the twentieth century. She organizes her book into six chapters, each focusing on how Union soldiers, veterans, and institutions grappled with war-related disabilities. She begins with the Invalid Corps, later renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps. As the first institution established to respond to the growing numbers of disabled soldiers, the corps allowed for men to still serve the United States, even if not on the battlefield. Closely examining soldiers’ accounts, Handley-Cousins argues that the corps unknowingly created a hierarchy of disability and related anxieties. She further contends that members of the Invalid Corps found themselves in the awkward space between soldier and invalid, where they were categorized simultaneously as able and unable. These wartime anxieties foreshadowed disabled veterans’ later challenges with the pension system, the topic of a subsequent chapter. 

Just like the soldiers serving in the Invalid Corps, those called the “walking sick” also occupied a liminal space between abled and disabled. Many of those who served in the former balked at being considered disabled. Handley-Cousins explains that the walking sick, however, actively sought the label. By examining courts-martial records, Handley-Cousins dives deep into society’s expectations of “true” soldiers (p. 47). She finds that surgeons, officers, and civilians preferred, accepted, and propagated stories of idealized Union soldiers who bore suffering with grace, strength, and stoicism. The men who complained, straggled, or failed to do their duty did not fit this ideal. Even if sick or wounded, Union soldiers were expected to grin and bear it. Just as applicants for pensions later found, men who claimed impairment and asked for help—even if direly needed—were considered weak and unmanly soldiers. 

The author then turns her attention to the Army Medical Department and Museum to examine the morbid interest in the war’s destruction of men’s bodies. The Army Medical Museum collected and displayed parts of soldiers’ broken bodies to be studied, and once collected, these parts were no longer the property of those to whom they once belonged as long as they served in the United States Army. The author relates several heartbreaking stories of Union soldiers who were denied access to their own amputated limbs. Even more horrifying, she reveals that race compounded matters, and some surgeons considered themselves even more entitled to black bodies. Dead or disabled, these bodies, black and white, ceased to represent the honorable soldier and became objects to be used and studied.

The heartbreak continues with the case of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. By exploring Chamberlain’s private suffering and his very public life as a war hero, Handley-Cousins complicates historians’ understanding of manhood and sacrifice. Chamberlain is known for his valiant actions at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg and his postwar tenure at Bowdoin College, but few know of the severe hip wounds that plagued him for the rest of his life. Chamberlain lived for decades with a painful wound concealed under his clothing. By simultaneously existing as a war hero and disabled veteran, Chamberlain complicated the Civil War North’s notion of the disabled, dependent veteran who needed a pension to survive. As Chamberlain’s story proves, not all those who applied for pensions embodied the trope of the “empty sleeve” (p. 70). Chamberlain’s experience illustrates the diversity of experiences of Civil War disability. 

After her enlightening discussion of Chamberlain, Handley-Cousins shifts her focus to other disabled veterans and their fights with Northern institutions. On one hand, the author examines the Pension Bureau. Just like many of those walking sick who were labeled malingerers or weak for asking for help, disabled veterans also had to walk a fine line between worthy and weak. Pensioners had to appear honorable, and disabled enough, to be considered worthy of assistance, but not too broken or desperate. Veterans had to fit into the Bureau’s and society’s preconceived notions of how a disabled veteran should act and look. Adding further complication, Handley-Cousins explains that those who suffered from mental illness did not fit into any construct and thus struggled to obtain acknowledgment and support. Using patient case files from three institutions along with inmates’ correspondence, Handley-Cousins considers how former Union soldiers and their families experienced war trauma and institutionalization. She notes that the mentally disabled also occupied a liminal space between living and dead. For many, “the vacant chair remained empty, but so too did the grave” (p. 132).

There are many strengths in this book and few weaknesses. One potential shortcoming is the author’s choice to take soldiers and veterans at their word about their own experiences. She admits that it is possible that these accounts were embellished or fraudulent, but she contends that these sources are vital to understanding Union soldiers’ experiences. While she supplements these sources with courts-martial proceedings, newspapers, and asylum records, it would have been interesting to see her analyze the accounts as constructed narratives. By analyzing them as constructions, perhaps she would have also revealed these soldiers’ interpretations of their disabilities, real, fraudulent, or imagined. This, however, does not detract from the author’s contribution to the study of Civil War-era disability. Handley-Cousins proves that soldiers, civilians, and institutions struggled to come to terms with war trauma and its many manifestations, both visible and nonvisible. Disabled veterans challenged cultural narratives of manhood, sacrifice, and what it meant to be an honorable citizen-soldier worthy of recognition and care. Bodies in Blue deserves to be on every Civil War reading list, as it highlights just how much the war affected many of those who fought in it.

Citation: Angela Riotto. Review of Handley-Cousins, Sarah, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

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