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.
Modern programs for disabled soldiers were foreshadowed by similar efforts following the Civil War. Congress established a pension system for disabled soldiers and the families of deceased soldiers that ended up costing billions of dollars more than the war itself and became one of the models for the Social Security system established in the 1930s. Southern states funded smaller pensions for Confederate veterans and their survivors. Dozens of state governments and the federal government founded soldiers’ homes for men who could not support themselves; indeed, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS) grew from three branches in 1869 to about a dozen by the turn of the century and was transformed into the Veterans’ Administration in the 1930s. (Milwaukee hosted one of the original branches of the Home; the Gothic Revival towers hulking over Miller Park are part of the old Main Building of the Northwestern Branch of the NHDVS.
Although the institutional responses to wounded and disabled Civil War veterans did, indeed, resemble in many ways modern responses to the military victims of war, the ways in which Americans thought and talked about disabled veterans in the last third of the nineteenth century differed substantially from our responses to disabled veterans in 2012. Accounts of veterans maimed in today’s conflicts tend to dwell on the tragedy of their physical and mental traumas and on their extraordinary efforts to rebuild their lives, including amputees running marathons or achieving professional distinction in public office or business.
Nineteenth century sensibilities about disabled people were quite different. Representations of disabled survivors offered graphic accounts of the continued pain and suffering caused by missing limbs, unhealed wounds, and chronic disease. But newspaper and magazine articles tended to stress pity over sympathy, as well as the inevitability of rather pathetic dependence rather than the possibility that men might transcend their injuries.
All of which brings us back to Corporal Tanner. Tanner managed to hold important public offices (as Brooklyn tax collector and U. S. Commissioner of Pensions, among others), travel thousands of miles a year as a lecturer, and run his own business as a pension claims agent and attorney. He managed to get around with two canes and on prosthetic legs that creaked and inflicted him ceaseless pain. He was the model of the self-made man of the go-go Gilded Age.
Yet despite the self-sufficiency of this double amputee—or, perhaps, because of it—newspaper accounts of this very public man virtually never failed to remind readers of the disability that he had worked so hard to conquer. Using terms that early twenty-first century Americans would find unthinkable, editors and reporters frequently reminded readers, in the words of an Arizona headline, “How Corporal Tanner is Maimed.” More often than not, reporters commented on Tanner’s canes, his prosthetics (sometimes referring to them simply as “wooden legs” as though he were a pirate), and his difficulty in getting around. A newspaper for veterans reported a series of toasts to notable old soldiers, including “Corporal James A. Tanner: a soldier without legs but with plenty of brains.” Another story trumpeted an upcoming visit of “The Legless Corporal”—even though the Confederate shrapnel had carried away only his feet—while another congratulated him on winning election as head of a veterans’ organization: he “must be credited with making an excellent race for one who lost both legs at Bull Run.” A rather striking reference to his condition came during the election of 1888, when Tanner was one of the most active campaigners for future president Benjamin Harrison. A Democratic newspaper in Oregon allegedly published a piece “sneering at [Tanner] because he had both feet shot off in fighting for the Union.” The Republic paper responded that the Corporal “may have had his feet shot off, it is true, but the Democratic Party of this state [will] have its head shot off by Republican ballots” in the upcoming election.
To his credit, perhaps, Tanner seems to have embraced the disability that set him apart. He frequently told the story of a well-meaning woman who visited him in the hospital shortly after he lost his legs; he’d hoped that she was bringing something to eat, but all she left him was a pamphlet inveighing against the sin of dancing. He joked once about a doctor in a small town where Tanner suddenly took ill; after what must have been a pretty superficial examination, he assured the Corporal that soaking his feet would cure what ailed him. And on a number of occasions, Tanner told the story of giving up his socks to another veteran because he, of course, didn’t really need them.
More substantively, Tanner was active in the reorganization of the American Red Cross early in the twentieth century, serving on its board and publishing an extended and gruesome account of his wounding and subsequent treatment in the Red Cross Magazine as the organization prepared for the possibility of the United States entering the First World War.
Jim Tanner was a run-of-the-mill soldier whose life was changed irrevocably by war, not because he led a charge up a hill or rose to great rank, but because as a teenager he was lying in exactly the wrong spot at the wrong time. He became known for many things during his long life—despite the constant pain and suffering that his injuries caused, he lived until 1927—but it seems as though the drive and ambition that thrust him into the public eye might have been the product of his disability: like any soldier suffering a devastating wound, he became someone else on that bloody Virginia hillside. That his infirmity was so frequently remarked upon by his fellow Americans may insult our modern sensibilities, but it may also have been a constant inspiration to push harder, to make something out of the hand he had been dealt (indeed, Tanner was an inveterate poker player). As such, he may have more in common than we would expect with the disabled veterans of the wars of the twenty-first century.
James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. For more on Corporal Tanner and other Civil War veterans, see his Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America. He frequently blogs on Civil War topics, such as slavery, veterans, and inspiring future Civil War historians.