Poor Wrecks and Noble Heroes by Ashlyn Wink

Portrait of Pvt Robert Fryer, Company G, Fifty-second New York Volunteers Reed Brockway Bontecou, photographer April-July 1865 Albumen silver print [found on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/344243965240098687/

Portrait of Pvt Robert Fryer, Company G, Fifty-second New York Volunteers
Reed Brockway Bontecou, photographer
April-July 1865
Albumen silver print
[found on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/344243965240098687/

Private Robert Fryer, five foot two and eighteen years old, looks out from the oval frame of an 1865 carte de visite, straight-backed and unsmiling, with his right hand at his breast. At a cursory glance, the hand appears to be half-hidden, tucked into his jacket in a pose common to portraits of the time. In fact, half of Private Fryer’s hand is missing. It was mangled by an artillery shell at the Battle of White Oak Road, where he fought with the 52nd New York State Volunteers. At Harewood Hospital in Washington, D.C., Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou amputated the young man’s middle, ring, and pinky fingers. Not long after, the doctor took this photograph.

The image belongs to a collection of medical photography compiled by Dr. Bontecou, believed to be the first collection of its kind. The doctor cataloged bullet and bayonet wounds, the damage wrought by artillery, the ravages of infection, and the stumps of amputated limbs. He even photographed a pile of severed feet, which he titled “A Morning’s Work,” in a graphic representation of the alarming regularity of amputation in Civil War hospitals. The scale of the carnage meant that in the years after the war, a large percentage of the population was disabled. This required extraordinary efforts to compensate them for their losses and to provide for those no longer able to provide for themselves.

Amputees’ recompense took concrete form in the establishment of pension systems, and it took the form of social capital in the valorization of the “empty sleeve” and the moral authority accorded to those who wore it. However, these measures could not truly make amputees whole again. Their very visible sacrifices became symbols of masculine bravery, but their disabilities made traditional masculine self-sufficiency difficult or impossible to achieve. Amputees were seen both as noble heroes whose service merited just compensation and as “poor wrecks” doomed to unmanly dependence on others.

This mix of admiration and pity can be seen in an 1865 editorial in the Staunton Spectator, urging the Virginia legislature to provide for disabled Confederate veterans, who were ineligible for federal pensions. It was Virginia’s “solemn and sacred duty” to her “maimed and scarred sons.” The paper stressed the heroism of those who “labored and suffered” for the cause, framing a state pension as payment for service in the field and for duties fulfilled. Yet, “brave and chivalrous” as they were, disabled veterans were also described as “helpless” and vulnerable to “pin[ing] in want and neglect.” Their “prospects in life” had been “blasted” by their misfortune. Their scars and stumps were both badges of honor and symbols of helplessness.

In the North, the pension system was enacted in 1862, before the draft went into effect. It was intended as an incentive to volunteer, and eligibility was tied to injuries incurred in the line of duty. In the years after the war, eligibility requirements were altered considerably to cover more soldiers, their dependents, and their widows. The scale of the program made it incredibly expensive, and by the end of the century over one third of the entire federal budget went towards the pension system. This massive expenditure has been called America’s first social security program and the precursor to the modern welfare state. Like the welfare state, the pension system attracted criticism for perceived corruption and overly generous benefits. One political cartoon from 1882 portrayed a soldier with a spoon in each of his many hands dipping into a bowl labeled “U.S. Treasury,” captioned “The Insatiable Glutton.”

The potential for corruption could be seen in an 1891 Pension Office investigation into allegations that Dr. Bontecou, who served on the local board that rated veterans’ level of disability, had been extracting bribes for more highly-compensated ratings. Bontecou seems to have walked away with his reputation intact, thanks in large part to a letter of support signed by fifty of his veteran patients. Despite these criticisms, the size and expense of the program were a testament to the national commitment to provide recompense for soldiers who had sacrificed their health for the union.

Unfortunately, the establishment of this massive pension system did not necessarily restore amputees’ “blasted prospects.” In the years after the war, Dr. Bontecou received a letter from a self-described “poore reck,” a former patient named Alexander Rider, who was wounded in South Carolina in 1862. “i have paide well dear for fighting for my contrary,” Rider wrote, “and can never enjoy the fruits of it i have not walked for thirteen years.” His pension, which he decried as insufficient, appears to have been his only form of support. He practically begged the doctor for a visit and, as a special favor, for the gift of an accordion, as music was the only thing that could “drive away the dark clouds from [his] sick room.” Exaggerated for sympathy (and an accordion) as it might have been, Rider’s letter painted a bleak picture of a veteran pining in want and neglect.

This helplessness, specifically the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family, carried a heavy stigma. As historian E. Anthony Rotundo explained in his 1992 book American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era, participation in the workforce was a vital component of masculine identity at the time: “If a man was without ‘business,’ he was less than a man” (168). To remedy this, state governments instituted policies of preferential hiring for veterans. Social conventions in favor of patronizing the businesses of veterans also sprang up, as illustrated by a notice in the Staunton Vindicator in 1866. The paper announced that Colonel Peyton had opened the Virginia Hotel Feed and Livery Stable and Repairing Shops, and took care to inform readers that the colonel had lost an arm at Second Manassas. “We bespeak for him the patronage of a generous public, who should always take pride in rewarding a gallant and unfortunate soldier.” Gallantry became social capital, convertible to cash in a roundabout way.

Preferential access to trade permits was another form of compensation. An 1865 editorial in the New Orleans Times argued that, “This is a mercantile nation, and it is befitting that military reward should not be in the shape of ribbons and crosses… but in… mercantile privileges.” This would help the veteran to help himself, allowing him to achieve masculine self-sufficiency and take on a provider role for his family. However, the complex bureaucracy that arose to administer such privileges grew into an “intricate labyrinth of petty formalities,” which could sometimes require a pension attorney or other specialist to navigate. The editorial condemned the bureau for forcing a man “whose empty sleeve and scarred face” were evidence of his character, like other veterans, to “beg as a favor what they should claim as a right.” Dr. Bontecou’s patient Alexander Rider may have sought charity, but other veterans were uncomfortable with even the appearance of it – and with good reason. To be perceived as a “poore reck” could be socially costly.

Men’s traditional roles as providers meant that the financial consequences of disability could very easily become romantic consequences. Before the war, a man who had lost a limb was usually considered unable to support a family and therefore unmarriageable. To return to a sweetheart or fiancée with an empty sleeve was to risk rejection. James H. Berry, a second lieutenant from Arkansas with a missing leg, was flatly told to “let the whole matter drop” when he asked his sweetheart’s father for her hand in marriage, on the grounds that he would never be able to “provide a good living.” The couple married despite her father’s wishes, causing a seventeen-year family rift. John Redding, a Confederate soldier from Georgia, offered to release his fiancée from their engagement after his leg was amputated in 1863, as did another man from the same county. Both women chose to marry their wounded soldiers. Not every amputee was so lucky. Confederate General John Bell Hood, who lost a leg and the use of one arm, tolerated the ambivalence of pretty Sally Preston for more than a year before she broke off their engagement. Where some women saw noble heroes, others saw maimed and helpless wrecks. Confederate leaders promoted special consideration and affection for amputated veterans as exactly the kind of recognition due to those who served the cause. “To the young ladies,” Jefferson Davis advised in an 1864 speech, “I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve.” Those who had sacrificed were to be compensated with respect and status.

Among those women who took his advice, some discovered a particular kind of power in their sweetheart’s dependence on them. When her fiancé, Major General Richard Ewell, lost a leg in 1862, Lizinka Campbell Brown wrote to him: “whereas I thought before you ought to marry and could very well marry a younger woman, now I will suit you better than any one else, if only because I will love you better.” His blasted prospects and considerably narrowed romantic options served to strengthen her sense of security in the relationship.

Another shift in the gender balance of power was reflected in the popular sentimental literature put out by publications like Harper’s Weekly. In an 1865 short story, “helpless, one-armed” Captain Harry Ash arrives home to the unpleasant surprise that his dainty sweetheart, Edna, has learned to drive a coach. “I grieve to see a woman unwomanly,” he says, until Edna persuades him of the necessity of her taking on conventionally masculine tasks to compensate for his disability. After they marry, she holds the reins when they travel, but “his eye is on the road and his voice guides her; so that, in reality, she is only his left hand and he, the husband, drives.” Though his helplessness gives her the freedom to take the reins, the story is careful to preserve his leadership role in the relationship. The accompanying illustration, however, shows her holding the whip and reins confidently, her husband closemouthed next to her as if he is simply along for the ride. For many amputees, disability necessitated some reversals of the traditional relationship between husbands and wives. A man reliant on his wife to button his coat, pin his sleeve, or cut his food had to become accustomed to a woman protecting and providing for him to some extent. To compensate for this emasculating dependence, the literature of the time emphasized veterans’ physical limitations as evidence of heroism. “I should think a woman’s love would grow deeper with every scar and wound,” declares one female character in the Dollar Monthly Magazine, “for each one is a living witness of his nobleness!”

This nobility lent amputees a level of moral authority that was reflected in their popularity as characters in the more didactic works of sentimental literature. Whether they were portrayed as heroic or helpless, disabled veterans often imparted moral lessons to the characters around them. Publications like Our Young Folks featured stories in which a child learns the importance of charity through kindness to a “poor lame soldier, who had to walk on crutches.” In another moralistic story, a child expresses pity for a one-legged man, only to be corrected by his mother. The man’s missing leg is proof of valor, she says. Ennobled by his suffering, the amputee is qualified to offer words of wisdom to the child about perseverance in battling the devil and the temptations of sin. His moral authority extends even to the realm of religion.

War wounds served as badges of honor in another way: a missing limb gave added weight to a veteran’s political opinions. In 1868 an editorialist in Portland, Maine’s Daily Eastern Argus came to the defense of the attendees of a recent Veterans’ Convention. “Mendacious correspondents” had tarred these politically active veterans as “bummers, thieves, and deserters.” In response to this “infamous slander,” the editorialist characterized one of the veterans as “a man of irreproachable character… who, with his one remaining arm, bore up the colors of his country, for his devotion to which he wears an empty sleeve.” Here, the empty sleeve is held up as irrefutable proof of patriotism and personal integrity. In another example from 1874, an anonymous veteran wrote to the Daily Inter Ocean to express his concern over the anti-African American and anti-Republican violence in Louisiana. “I have one arm now, and wear an empty sleeve,” he wrote. “I do not grumble, I am content, only my wish is that my good arm may not have been taken in vain.” As the “bloody shirt” provided justification for righteous retribution, so the empty sleeve did rhetorical work for those who wore it. This man used it to advocate for compelling loyalty again “at the point of the bayonet.” He was otherwise willing to “cease regrets for [his] losses during the rebellion.” Here the heroism and not the helplessness is the source of the moral authority.

Private Fryer left no record of his feelings on the matter. He returned home to New York, applied for a pension, married, became a minister, had two children, and eventually settled in Indiana. His pension was transferred to his wife after his death in 1918. His missing fingers seem to have interfered very little with his professional life; in the 1880 census records, the box next to his name for “maimed or disabled” remained unchecked. He has left us no written statement about what those three missing fingers meant to him. There is only the photograph, in which he sits, proud almost to the point of defiance, holding up his hand for the camera. What was ostensibly a picture of a wound, “healing kindly” as Bontecou noted, became instead a dignified portrait of a painfully young man who appears unashamed of the damage done to his body.


Primary Sources:

Primary documents for the 52nd New York State Volunteers can be found: The 52nd New York State Volunteers.

Primary documents on Robert Fryer found at Ancestry.com

Daily Eastern Argus, June 27, 1868

New Orleans Times, Jan 25, 1865

Staunton Spectator, Oct 24, 1865

Staunton Vindicator, June 8, 1866.


Further reading:

On the portrayal of disabled veterans in postwar sentimental literature, see Jalynn Olsen Padilla, Army of “cripples”: Northern Civil War Amputees, Disability, and Manhood in Victorian America (University of Delaware, 2007). On romantic relationships of disabled Confederate veterans, see Stephen Berry, Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Part 6) (University of Georgia, 2011). On the history of masculinity in this country see E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (Basic Books, 1994). On the history of the welfare state see “Historical Background And Development Of Social Security” (http://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html).