James Marten on his new study of an injured Civil War Veteran.
My current project is a book on the post-Civil War life of James R. Tanner—who, as “Corporal Tanner,” became perhaps the best-known common soldier of the war. His story offers some obvious connections to the experiences of present-day veterans and society’s responses to the injuries that many inevitably endure. Tanner joined the 87th New York as a seventeen-year-old in late 1861. Less than a year later, at the Battle of Second Manassas, a shell fragment ripped away one of Tanner’s feet and so mangled the other one that a surgeon had to amputate it at a crude field hospital. Tanner survived and became, in turn, a War Department stenographer (sitting just a few feet away from a dying President Lincoln, he recorded the testimony given by witnesses to the assassination), a lawyer, a civil servant, a Republican operative, a claims agent, and a nationally known orator who gave lectures like “The Soldier’s Life: The Grave and the Gay.” He became perhaps the most famous disabled person in America.
Tanner was one of about 1.1 million military casualties in the Civil War (including more than 600,000 who died of disease or in battle) and one of about 60,000 who survived the loss of an arm or leg. By comparison, in addition to over 6300 deaths of American service men and women, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in injuries to 33,000 more. Improved body armor and medical care—both on the battlefield and in military hospitals—have allowed many to survive wounds that would have meant certain death only a generation ago. But with survival comes the need to adjust to physical and mental scars, to adapt to lives without legs or arms, to come to grips with being a different person than the one who went off to war. These veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a wealth of resources on which to draw, ranging from families to Veterans’ Administration hospitals and clinics to non-profit support groups (for one example, see http://cause-usa.org/main/index.cfm). The media coverage of their treatment, their struggles, their evolving relationships with families and communities, and their success in overcoming the pain and suffering, provide some of the most striking images of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.