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  • Loss and the Persistence of Memory:The Case of George Dedlow" and Disabled Civil War Veterans
  • Robert I. Goler (bio)

Late in 1866, the United States Army Hospital for Injuries and Diseases of the Nervous System located on the outskirts of Philadelphia (commonly known as "Stump Hospital" by the many amputees who resided within) began receiving unsolicited financial contributions. At the same time, groups of visitors knocked on its doors requesting audiences with Dr. George Dedlow, a quadruple amputee from the Civil War whose account had recently been published in the Atlantic Monthly.1

These visitors and donors were fascinated by the first-person account of Dedlow's transformation from an assistant surgeon with the Tenth Indiana Volunteers to "a useless torso, more like some strange larval creature than anything of human shape" (5). Dedlow describes how he is wounded and captured while lost behind enemy lines. Once he is transported to an Atlanta hospital, his arm is amputated, greatly relieving his painful anguish, and he is moved to a northern hospital. Upon returning to active duty he is injured again, this time in the legs. He undergoes another surgery and upon recovering his senses in a hospital bed, he narrates, "[the attendant] threw off the covers, and, to my horror, showed me that I had suffered amputation of both thighs, very high up" (5). While in the hospital, he contracts a gangrenous infection and loses his other arm. Unable to wear prostheses, "as the stump was always too tender to bear any pressure," Dedlow exists in a liminal state contemplating his fate (5). He discusses the pain and deadened sensations associated with his "phantom limbs" and his reliance on the assistance of hospital attendants for every bodily need, including the transcription of his account. One day Dedlow overhears a fellow patient discussing his spiritualist beliefs and agrees to join him [End Page 160] for a visit to a medium. Dedlow participates in a séance, at which he expresses his skepticism by attempting to call up his departed legs. Suddenly, the medium communicates the message she receives: "United States Army Medical Museum, Nos. 3486, 3487." "Good gracious!" shouts Dedlow, "They are my legs! my legs!" He then proceeds to rise, staggering across the room "on limbs invisible to them or me." After this brief caper, Dedlow "fainted and rolled over senseless." The account ends with him retired, drawing a government pension and awaiting death (11).

"The Case of George Dedlow," a fictional and, at times, tongue-in-cheek account (the legs stagger because they have been kept for several months in a vat of alcohol) was published in the guise of an autobiographical essay. Its true author, S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), later became known as an eminent medical specialist, originator of the "rest cure" for women, and author. Though a fictional character, Dedlow was intensely real to his would-be visitors, who flatly refused to believe the superintendent of "Stump Hospital" when he explained that Dedlow did not live there.2

Dedlow's admirers, while misguided, can hardly be blamed for believing the lurid account of suffering and the supernatural. Much about the postwar experience must have seemed unreal to many Americans. By the time Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met at Appomattox, Virginia, to sign terms of surrender in April 1865, over six hundred thousand men had died and another five hundred thousand were injured. Americans had never witnessed suffering on such a brutal, violent, and massive scale.3 After this traumatic experience, hundreds of thousands of veterans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line returned to their homes hoping to reconstruct their lives, but many were never the same. These men had experienced deprivation, had watched comrades fall in battle and languish from disease, and had seen the landscape and built environment ravished. Having seen the unforgettable, they were scarred, emotionally and physically, for life. Noncombatants also found themselves struggling to accept the physical and emotional changes in their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Across America, those who returned with amputated limbs were an extraordinarily visible group. These veterans provoked a profound mixture of love and horror, fascination and anxiety.

This essay explores...


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pp. 160-183
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