In comparison to the wounded veterans returning home today, the
story of Jackson's amputated arm demonstrates how far we have come. During the
American Civil War, injuries to limbs often spelled death from infection.
Amputation was seen as a dramatic chance at life--though, as Jackson's case
demonstrates, the prognosis was far from certain. But many managed to survive,
and in the aftermath of the Civil War, the man on the street with a missing arm
or leg was accorded respect. The veteran saluting with a crutch under one arm
became a key symbol of national sacrifice, and the commonalities between white
and black veterans' experiences in the North helped pave the way for the
equal-rights commitments of the postwar Amendments. In time, the common
suffering of Union and Confederate white veterans eased their rapprochement as
Amputations today are far more successful than a century and
a half ago, but they're no less life-changing. Soldiers in America's more
recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come back with arms and legs lost to
improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as well as accidents and battles. But these
injuries can be harder to see: a sophisticated prosthesis might take the place
of a wooden crutch, and the amputated limb might not even register in a passing
glance. This is progress.
But what can the arm in the family graveyard still teach us?
The visibility of amputations and the empathy they
engendered in the post-Civil War public is exemplified by the celebrated story
of General Dan Sickles, who lost his leg to a cannon ball at the battle of
Gettysburg. For years, Sickles visited his amputated leg at the Army Medical
Museum on the anniversary of its loss, blending his personal memorializing with
a public commitment to veterans' affairs. Sickles's leg and the cannonball that
hit it have remained on display, now at the new home for the National Museum of
Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.
In the years after the Civil War, the enormous numbers of
lives lost and bodies maimed made grappling with the war and its lessons
unavoidable. In today's wars, the number of affected is far fewer, and these
injuries are far easier to ignore. But we all suffer when they are hidden.
For those wounded, for those who have lost loved ones, the
arm in the graveyard is a call to see how the part fits within a new,
transfigured whole. Sickles could bring his family to see his amputated leg,
and to think again about what his war experience meant; visitors continue to
stare out at Jackson's arm, and to consider what it meant for the Confederate
Today's soldiers do not have access to these morbid but
compelling relics; they are shattered in explosions, or thrown out, in keeping
with our time, as "medical waste." Even the places where soldiers lose their
limbs are hard to revisit. U.S. soldiers do not fight at home, amidst a whole
society torn by war; they fight a world away, their struggles often forgotten
in everyday conversation. Compared with the post-Civil War era, when nearly
every American had a veteran in the family, even our most moving tributes to
today's veterans feel distant and abstract.
Like an arm in the family graveyard, we could use more
reminders of those sacrifices. As we commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial,
we should be thinking of ways to help our own wounded mourn, rebuild, and
thrive. And just as our nation did 150 years ago, we must integrate that which
we have lost to war into the stories of our lives.