This post is by Jonah Estess, Digital Project Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 60,000 amputations were performed during the Civil War. This equates to about three out of every four wartime operations. A large percentage of those soldiers had hand or arms amputated. For those who did not die from trauma, blood loss, or infection as a consequence of the surgery, further challenges to their daily lives lay ahead. How would one dress? How would one safely carry his child? Additionally, a cultural aversion to left-hand penmanship led parents and instructors to force many children to write with their right hands. For right-handed soldiers who were raised in this manner, the trauma and social stigma attached to left-hand penmanship would have posed yet another hurdle to overcome. These soldiers were now faced with the challenge of re-acquiring the means with which to communicate in writing their thoughts, emotions, business, and observations. What a fundamental, yet brittle faculty!
In its Civil War Treasures digital collection, the New-York Historical Society has chosen to highlight papers related to the work of William Oland Bourne (1819–1901), a clergyman and chaplain at Central Park Hospital, journalist, and editor of The Soldier’s Friend, a Civil War era periodical. A selection of his papers, which date from 1862 to 1868, sheds light on the significant portion of veterans whose participation in contemporary communication culture was hindered by the loss of a right hand or arm. Like many of his contemporaries, Bourne would have been shocked to learn of the number of wounded Union “boys” who had survived the war, but had suffered all kinds of injuries. In 1868, from his office at 12 Centre Street, Bourne assembled a committee of high profile New Yorkers–New York State Governor George E. Fenton, President of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Reverend Henry Whitney Bellows, the poet and editor of the New York Post, William Cullen Bryant, the author George William Curtis, the philanthropist William E. Dodge, Jr., the industrialist and philanthropist Howard Potter, and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. The purpose of the new committee was to establish an “Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship,” a competition for soldiers who lost their right arm during the war.
Cash prizes totaling $1,000 (or between $14,920 and $15,940 in buying power in today’s dollars) were given out to twenty-eight of the 300 competition participants. The money would have delighted any soldier, and the committee took special pride in making that happen. Penmanship, Bourne believed, should be celebrated and rewarded because the nature and skillfulness of it marked one’s irrefutably triumphant return to civilian life. For example, an award of twenty-five dollars was given to Jesse S. Pendergrast of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment “for exceptional circumstances, having lost his right arm and two fingers and part of the thumb of the left hand.” Other awards were given out for literary merit and ornamental penmanship. The leftward sway and rightward swoop of the letters, the uniformity in style, the simple beauty of penmanship signified the resilience of the young and middle aged men who fought for the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union, only to find that the consequences of war followed them home. These consequences included limited job opportunities and would complicate one’s daily routine. Yet, the three hundred exhibition participants would uncover hidden dimensions of individual potential in the day-to-day.
Bourne’s exhibition garnered nationwide attention. On May 21, 1866, the Soldiers and Sailor’s Union of Washington, D.C. formally resolved that Bourne’s competition and exposition of left-hand penmanship was most estimable. They regarded his work as a “mission… deserving the hearty support of every patriot…” Individuals also lauded Bourne for the exhibition, asserting that with great determination and resolve, soldiers who had lived the trauma of having lost a right arm could return to civilian life. Phineas P. Whitehouse, Corporal in the 6th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, wrote a letter to Bourne to be printed in Soldiers Friend. “Many of you have an idea that this can never be done to any degree of perfection; but in this you are greatly mistaken. You have no idea how readily you can make your left hand do the same things formerly done by your right, if you are really in earnest, and take hold of the pen with a determination to succeed.” For Whitehouse and others, to keep on writing was to keep on marching.
The New-York Historical Society has chosen to highlight this collection, as well as Sarah Blunt’s letters (discussed in Part 1 of this post) because they are indeed Civil War Treasures. The two collections reveal the significance of the written word for those in service of the Union and for those who survived the conflict. The battle over the abolition of slavery was over, and America now had to rebuild its union. What then would be the role of Sarah Blunt, and William Oland Bourne and the soldiers within whom he inspired greater courage? Jocelyn Wills, Professor of History at Brooklyn College once said that one of the best things about studying history is that “you get to read dead people’s mail.” Reading the written word of those long (and not so long) gone is fascinating in its own right; history can be studied for the sake of history. But furthermore, the utility of the written word from the American Civil War (or any other period of recorded history) rests in its ability to show different aspects of the human experience and condition. Sarah Blunt, William Bourne, and American Civil War veterans needed letters as a means of practical communication, and to share their experiences and fight against life’s challenges. For all of us, their handwritten words provoke reflection on our own day and the days to come.
To access the fully digitized collection of the William Oland Bourne papers related to left-hand penmanship, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16694coll47/id/186
To access all other fully digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures Collection, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47