- Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North by Sarah Handley-Cousins
Sarah Handley-Cousins’s Bodies in Blue is as much about the pressures that compelled Civil War veterans to conform to ideal forms of manhood as it is about the material consequences of illness and wounds on human flesh. In a solidly researched analysis of data from the Medical and Surgical History of the War (1875–88) as well as a poignant reading of case files, court proceedings, and letters, Handley-Cousins attests to the double bind that acted like a tourniquet on the [End Page 129] lives of many disabled soldiers: the soldier compromised by war wounds or chronic illness resulting from service was thought undeserving of a pension if he believed it was his due, whereas those whose stoicism kept them from seeking help managed to exemplify the qualities of ideal manhood, of “bearing their suffering with fortitude” (p. 40).1
Bodies in Blue continues the work of a number of disability historians by enlarging definitions of disability to include the perils of mental and physical illnesses not generally visible in public.2 Indeed, “soldiers, civilians, and institutions grappled with disorders that did not easily fit into existing cultural narratives of manhood and sacrifice” (p. 2). The fourth of the book’s six chapters is devoted to the postwar travails of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Bowdoin College rhetoric professor and hero of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, who at Petersburg sustained a bullet to the hip, which, passing through his body, wrought havoc on his ureter and bladder. To say that he bore the pain ever after scarcely does it justice. Undergoing multiple surgeries from 1864 to 1883 that attempted repair of urological function (even as Mainers elected him governor), Chamberlain hid constant pain and discomfort from others. Handley-Cousins’s deft reading of his private papers shows the costs of passing as able-bodied. Not only did the missile, which rendered him impotent and unable to properly urinate, compromise his marriage, but the Pension Bureau’s rejection of his appeal for additional support in the 1890s literally added insult to injury. He died in 1914 of wound infection, having borne fifty years of misery under a self-imposed gag order.
It wasn’t much better for less luminary soldiers, even those with amputations. Handley-Cousins observes that despite being symbols of the war’s collective catastrophe, amputees constituted only 7 percent of the Union’s disabled harvest. The disabled might land in the Veteran Reserve Corps (VRC), but many felt stigmatized by being labeled invalids and having to don light blue uniforms, separating them from regimental comrades. What awaited them postwar was the cultural belief that their missing appendages consigned them to failures of strength and self-sufficiency—debilities perceived as conduits to pauperism. Black soldiers could not even qualify for the VRC; if disabilities leveled them, they went back to their segregated USCT units.3
As the nineteenth century wore on and conservatives tired of a pension system that they believed was indiscriminately generous and riddled with fraud, veterans who insisted they were unable to work due to traumatic war injuries of [End Page 130] body or mind were accused of relinquishing their manhood. Of particular note were frequent vetoes of pension bills by President Cleveland, who thought little of men psychologically traumatized by service—even those who committed suicide. Such attitudes were the legacy of surgeons and high-ranking officers who, by mid-1862, had determined that rheumatism, the nineteenth-century term for osteoarthritis, could not prompt a disability discharge. Even Roberts Barthalow, an elite surgeon, took a dim view of patients who complained of heart disease, a condition he thought feigned by malingerers.
Among the most disturbing aspects of Handley-Cousins’s analysis is her consideration in chapter 3 of Army Medical Department administrators’ assumption that soldiers’ bodies were their property. When Surgeon John Brinton, a University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College graduate, was authorized to collect specimens...