Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Booknotes: The Left-Armed Corps

New Arrival:
The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans edited by Allison M. Johnson (LSU Press, 2022).

Allison Johnson's The Left-Armed Corps is definitely a one of a kind study. It "collects and annotates a unique and little-known body of Civil War literature: narrative sketches, accounts, and poetry by veterans who lost the use of their right arms due to wounds sustained during the conflict and who later competed in left-handed penmanship contests in 1865 and 1866." What an ingenious way to address a multiplicity of related issues of historical significance, from the physical and emotional trauma of battlefield wounding and limb amputation to the challenges surrounding recovery and the uphill climb many veterans faced when it came to reintegration into society and productive employment.

From the description: "Organized by William Oland Bourne, the contests called on men who lost limbs while fighting for the Union to submit “specimens” of their best left-handed “business” writing in the form of personal statements. Bourne hoped the contests would help veterans reenter the work force and become economically viable citizens. Following Bourne’s aims, the contests commemorated the sacrifices made by veterans and created an archive of individual stories detailing the recently ended conflict. However, the contestants and their entries also present visible evidence―in the form of surprisingly elegant or understandably sloppy handwriting specimens―of the difficulties veterans faced in adapting to life after the war and recovering from its traumas. Their written accounts relate the chaos of the battlefield, the agony of amputation, and the highs and lows of recovery."

"A detailed introduction provides background information on the contests and comments on the literary and historical significance of the veterans and their writings." Contestants are introduced with a photo (where available), unit information, and a often pretty extensive annotated biography. Of course, that is followed by the full text of the writer's contest submission.

Johnson made a sound decision in organizing the great multitude of writing "specimens" by theme. In that way the collection can best "highlight issues crucial to the experiences of Civil War soldiers, veterans, and amputees, offering invaluable insights into the ways in which former fighting men understood and commemorated their service and sacrifice." Such organizing themes include "political and philosophical treatises by veterans, amateur but poignant poetic testaments, and graphic accounts of wounding and amputation." Other themes address enlistment motivation (to include details regarding the civilian to soldier transformation), soldier life, battle descriptions, the immigrant experience, and discussion of what life was like as an amputee.

The Left-Armed Corps contextualizes and "makes accessible this archive of powerful testimony and creative expression from Americans who fought to preserve the Union and end slavery."

1 comment:

  1. Amazing book. Shows incredible stoicism of the amputees, all muting their suffering and anguish. Also a powerful evidence of the experiences of Union soldiers. Must read for those wanting to understand the Civil War from the soldier’s perspective.


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