Browne on Johnson, 'The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans'

Allison M. Johnson, ed.
Patrick Browne

Allison M. Johnson, ed. The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. 416 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7707-5; $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8071-7746-4

Reviewed by Patrick Browne (Boston University) Published on H-CivWar (January, 2023) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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William Oland Bourne, chaplain of the Central Park Hospital during the Civil War, began publishing The Soldier’s Friend, a newspaper dedicated to providing information and advice to soldiers and veterans, in 1864. In the course of his work at the hospital, Bourne collected signatures from the soldier inmates. He was, according to Allison M. Johnson in her new book, The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans, particularly struck by those signatures painstakingly recorded in “sinister” handwriting (derived from Latin for “left”) by veterans who had lost the use of their right hand either through disability or amputation (p. 1). This inspired Bourne to organize two left-handed writing contests through his paper to encourage amputees to learn to write with their left hands and to showcase their ability to overcome their catastrophic wounds, obtain employment, and achieve self-sufficiency. Bourne, his contests, and the contestants' writings are often briefly referenced in histories of Civil War veterans as an important example of a successful public campaign to promote employment of disabled veterans or to illustrate the public’s need for stories of veterans’ patriotic sacrifices and inspirational recoveries. In presenting this extensive collection of contest submissions by the so-called left-armed corps, Johnson not only carries this body of literature beyond its previous anecdotal usage but also centers the experiences and motivations of the disabled veterans themselves. She focuses not on the public reception of these messages but on what the amputees had to say and explores why they needed to say it.

While the lion’s share of this anthology is naturally devoted to the veterans’ writings, Johnson nonetheless engages compellingly with the current historiographical discourse pertaining to Civil War veterans and amputees in her introduction, as well as in brief introductory remarks to each chapter. Two major historiographical themes are emphasized throughout. First, Johnson insists, the writings of the left-armed corps refute historian Gerald Linderman’s theory of “hibernation” on the part of veterans (p. 36). This notion alleges a reluctance or deliberate refusal on the part of veterans to write or speak about their war experiences until the 1880s, when they felt more at ease to share their stories in whitewashed terms. Second, the amputees’ writings, Johnson argues, run counter to the notion, upheld by several historians, that veterans generally preferred to emphasize brotherhood and reconciliation with former Confederates. Johnson demonstrates that the left-armed corps were more than willing to record their strident condemnations of the Confederate cause and wrote in graphic terms of the horrors of combat, their amputations, and the difficulties of recovery. In short, as Johnson states, the left-handed corps refused “to suffer in silence or sanitize their experiences” for the sake of national reconciliation (p. 149).

The excerpts collected in the first three chapters deal with aspects of military life shared by virtually all soldiers, whether wounded or not. Chapter 1 includes selections addressing mustering and marching, the accounts comprising chapter 2 pertain to the soldiering life, and chapter 3 illuminates the experience of battle. As they deal with the general experiences of soldiering, these chapters should be valuable to any scholar seeking accounts of a typical Union soldier’s motivations and specifics of their service. Chapter 3 is especially rich with detailed, and at times deeply poignant, descriptions of particular battles which would improve any historian’s account of these actions. Alonzo L. Mabbitt’s story of trying to save a stranded wounded soldier during the Assault on Port Hudson and Phineas P. Whitehouse’s description of the doomed charges at Fredericksburg are difficult to forget. As Johnson points out, the evident desire to document their experiences in vivid detail during an era of presumed veteran reticence “united the contestants, just as much as their missing or disabled limbs did” (p. 79).

Chapter 4, “Wounding, Amputation, and Recovery,” is the logical centerpiece of this work and is certainly one of the most valuable recent sources on this subject. Writers of medical histories of the war will find unique source material here, as the contestants write in a remarkably clinical manner about their wounding and amputation, providing details that dispel many myths promoted by Hollywood depictions of ruthless, bone saw-wielding surgeons. Almost without exception, the soldiers treated by Union medical staff speak very highly of those who methodically evaluated their wounds and performed the amputation, typically with the use of chloroform or ether. The contestants usually recalled the names of their surgeons. The accounts provide useful insight on the presence of civilian relief workers, especially women, for whom the contestants recorded much praise and gratitude. The presence of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions offers interesting material for scholars of those organizations.

The next three chapters offer topical groupings on immigrants, aspiring poets, and political commentators. Chapter 5, “New Americans,” provides interesting perspectives on the mind-set and motivations of mostly English-speaking immigrants who fought for their "adopted country" (p. 184). Chapter 6, “The Poets,” presents entries written in verse. Some of these poems deal with romantic themes—particularly the heartache of soldiers fearing, or actually experiencing, rejection by their loved ones. Throughout the book, Johnson comments on the gendered anxieties of amputees. This is consistent, she states, with historian Sarah Handley-Cousins’s observations on the “gendered crisis” endured by amputees as they experienced dependency and a loss of masculinity.[1] Johnson’s chapter “Politics, Philosophy and Patriotism” provides interesting perspectives on “larger political and societal repercussions,” including secession and civil rights for formerly enslaved people (p. 282). The consistent condemnation of the Confederate cause and the widespread, though sometimes qualified, support for Reconstruction and voting rights for black men offers further evidence of the left-armed corps’ desire to speak their minds even if their views defied reconciliationist rhetoric.

The final chapter, “Life as One-Armed Men,” is intended to shed light on the post-amputation struggles of these veterans as they attempt to create a new life and achieve self-sufficiency. The contestants, however, do not have so much to say about their struggles but rather focus on exhortations to their fellow members of the left-handed corps to improve their condition in life, seek employment, and to improve their minds as well as their bodies.

Johnson’s annotations are extensive throughout, offering explanations of military terms, troop movements, and various battles, making the letters highly accessible to nonspecialists. Johnson’s detailed appendix listing the contestants and vital information on their service provides a valuable resource for researchers who may wish to delve further into this body of work. The wide variety of sources Johnson utilized includes census records, newspapers, GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) records, and in some cases private family papers. The topical arrangement of excerpts sometimes results in the splitting up of accounts over multiple chapters. While there is a loss in continuity, the advantages of grouping excerpts by subject (particularly in the chapters on battle and amputation) far outweigh this minor inconvenience. This collection represents a valuable source not only for historians of Civil War veterans but for anyone studying the experiences of the Union soldier.


[1]. See Sarah Handley-Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Citation: Patrick Browne. Review of Johnson, Allison M., ed., The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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