Union soldiers convalesce in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Before the war, the town was home to about 5,000 people. In May of 1864, after the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, nearly 22,000 wounded men reportedly sought care there. (James Gardner/Library of Congress)
The mass of casualties suffered in the war was staggering. During General Grant’s Virginia campaign alone, an average of 2,000 men were wounded each day, and by the war’s end, countless soldiers had lost limbs.
In the 1860s, Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia physician, began to study the neurological effects of the wounds he was seeing. He was also a writer of fiction, and in the midst of his investigations, he composed a short story incorporating many of his findings.
The story was impressive for its scientific detail, but what made it particularly jarring was its bizarre supernatural ending (reprinted here). The narrator, a doctor who joins the Union army, recounts how he loses his limbs to battle and infection until at last he is nothing but “a useless torso.” Seeing that he has fallen into a depression, an acquaintance invites the doctor to a spiritualist meeting at which, the acquaintance claims, participants commune with the dead. What happens next was meant to be “absurd,” Mitchell would later explain. But because the story was not clearly marked as fiction, some Atlantic readers mistook the doctor for a real person, and the story’s events as fact.—Sage Stossel
A man from a neighboring ward fell one morning into conversation with the chaplain, within ear-shot of my chair. Some of their words arrested my attention, and I turned my head to see and listen. The speaker, who wore a sergeant’s chevron and carried one arm in a sling, was a tall, loosely made person, with a pale face, light eyes of a washed-out blue tint, and very sparse yellow whiskers. His mouth was weak, both lips being almost alike, so that the organ might have been turned upside down without affecting its expression. His forehead, however, was high and thinly covered with sandy hair. I should have said, as a phrenologist, Will feeble,—emotional, but not passionate,— likely to be an enthusiast or a weakly bigot.
I caught enough of what passed to make me call to the sergeant when the chaplain left him.
“Good morning,” said he. “How do you get on?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “Where were you hit?”
“O, at Chancellorsville. I was shot in the shoulder. I have what the doctors call paralysis of the median nerve, but I guess Dr. Neek and the lightnin’ battery will fix it in time. When my time’s out I’ll go back to Kearsage and try on the school-teaching again. I was a fool to leave it.”
“Well,” said I, “you’re better off than I.”
“Yes,” he answered, “in more ways than one. I belong to the New Church. It’s a great comfort for a plain man like me, when he’s weary and sick, to be able to turn away from earthly things and hold converse daily with the great and good who have left the world …”
“It must be a great comfort,” I replied, “if only one could believe it.”
“Believe!” he repeated, “how can you help it? Do you suppose anything dies?”
“No,” I said. “The soul does not, I am sure; and as to matter, it merely changes form” …
“Come to-morrow with me, and you shall see and hear for yourself.”
“I will,” said I, “if the doctor will lend me the ambulance.”
It was so arranged, as the surgeon in charge was kind enough, as usual, to oblige me with the loan of his wagon, and two orderlies to lift my useless trunk.
On the day following, I found myself, with my new comrade, in a house in Coates Street, where a “circle’’ was in the daily habit of meeting. So soon as I had been comfortably deposited in an arm-chair, beside a large pine table, the rest of those assembled seated themselves, and for some time preserved an unbroken silence. During this pause I scrutinized the persons present. Next to me, on my right, sat a flabby man, with ill-marked, baggy features, and injected eyes. He was, as I learned afterwards, an eclectic doctor, who had tried his hand at medicine and several of its quackish variations, finally settling down on eclecticism, which I believe professes to be to scientific medicine what vegetarianism is to common sense, every-day dietetics. Next to him sat a female,—authoress, I think, of two somewhat feeble novels, and much pleasanter to look at than her books. She was, I thought, a good deal excited at the prospect of spiritual revelations. Her neighbor was a pallid, care-worn girl, with very red lips, and large brown eyes of great beauty. She was, as I learned afterwards, a magnetic patient of the doctor, and had deserted her husband, a master mechanic, to follow this new light. The others were, like myself, strangers brought hither by mere curiosity. One of them was a lady in deep black, closely veiled. Beyond her, and opposite to me, sat the sergeant, and next to him the medium, a man named Blake. He was well dressed, and wore a good deal of jewelry, and had large, black side-whiskers,—a shrewd-visaged, large-nosed, full-lipped man, formed by nature to appreciate the pleasant things of sensual existence …
The medium … addressed himself to me. “Sister Euphemia,” he said, indicating the lady with large eyes, “will act as your medium” …
“Think, if you please, sir, of a spirit, and she will endeavor to summon it to our circle.”
Upon this, a wild idea came into my head. I answered, “I am thinking as you directed me to do.”
The medium sat with her arms folded, looking steadily at the centre of the table. For a few moments there was silence. Then a series of irregular knocks began. “Are you present?” said the medium.
The affirmative raps were twice given.
“I should think,” said the doctor, “that there were two spirits present.”
His words sent a thrill through my heart.
“Are there two?” he questioned.
A double rap.
“Yes, two,” said the medium. “Will it please the spirits to make us conscious of their names in this world?”
A single knock. “No.”
“Will it please them to say how they are called in the world of spirits?”
Again came the irregular raps,—3, 4, 8, 6; then a pause, and 3, 4, 8, 7.
“I think,” said the authoress, “they must be numbers. Will the spirits,” she said, “be good enough to aid us? Shall we use the alphabet?”
“Yes,” was rapped very quickly.
“Are these numbers?”
“I will write them,” she added, and, doing so, took up the card and tapped the letters. The spelling was pretty rapid, and ran thus as she tapped in turn, first the letters, and last the numbers she had already set down:—
“UNITED STATES ARMY MEDICAL MUSEUM, Nos. 3486, 3487.”
The medium looked up with a puzzled expression.
“Good gracious!” said I, “they are my legs! my legs!”
What followed, I ask no one to believe except those who, like myself, have communed with the things of another sphere. Suddenly I felt a strange return of my self-consciousness. I was reindividualized, so to speak. A strange wonder filled me, and, to the amazement of every one, I arose, and, staggering a little, walked across the room on limbs invisible to them or me. It was no wonder I staggered, for, as I briefly reflected, my legs had been nine months in the strongest alcohol. At this instant all my new friends crowded around me in astonishment. Presently, however, I felt myself sinking slowly. My legs were going, and in a moment I was resting feebly on my two stumps upon the floor. It was too much. All that was left of me fainted and rolled over senseless.
I have little to add. I am now at home in the West, surrounded by every form of kindness and every possible comfort; but, alas! I have so little surety of being myself, that I doubt my own honesty in drawing my pension, and feel absolved from gratitude to those who are kind to a being who is uncertain of being enough himself to be conscientiously responsible. It is needless to add, that I am not a happy fraction of a man; and that I am eager for the day when I shall rejoin the lost members of my corporeal family in another and a happier world.
Read the full text of this story here.