Segment from Beach Bodies

The Sleeve Makes the Man

Ed speaks with Megan Kate Nelson about the proliferation of so-called “empty sleeve” narratives in poems, stories, songs, and artworks that glorified amputee veterans returning home after the Civil War.

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This transcript comes from an early version of the show. There may be small differences between the audio and transcript.

ED: We’re going to end our show today with a look at a slightly different part of the body, the missing part. Amputation had been around for a long time, but it was not until the American Civil War when chloroform was first used as an anesthetic, that the operation became commonplace.

40,000 Northerners, 20,000 Southerners, returned home as amputees. And with a loss of limbs, came a crisis of manliness. How could these men support their families without the use of their natural arms and legs? Would their women still love them? Were they still complete men, even if they had parts of their body missing?

In the years during the Civil War, there emerged a new genre of poems and songs, stories and pictures, all of which gave voice to this anxiety. Here’s an example from an 1862 poem. It’s written from the perspective of a soldier writing home to his fiancee, to report that he’s lost an arm in battle.

MALE SPEAKER: But I’ve something else, Dear Mary, to say. And I’d say it if it cost me life. I’ve thought of it well, there’s no other way. You’re released from your promise to be my wife. You’ll think me foolish, at first. Then you’ll think of the loose, armless coat sleeve at my side, and you’re proud and sensitive heart will shrink from the thought of being a cripples bride.

ED: This image of an empty sleeve figured centrally in many other works of art from the 1860s. Historian, Megan Kate Nelson writes about this theme in her book, called Ruined Nation; Destruction and the American Civil War. She told me what the empty sleeve represented.

MEGAN KATE NELSON: What it represented was the soldier’s bravery and his patriotism, and also his manliness. That he had that sort of emptiness of his sleeve, and most often, the sleeve was kind of pinned up, right? So it was a coat that was made for a man with an arm, but the arm was no longer there. And so you see what he had been, and then what he is now.

And that transition was enabled by all of these very positive virtues that the soldier had demonstrated on the field of battle. And so empty sleeve literature was really this positive narrative of wounding in the war. And also of amputation, that this man had acquitted himself so well on the battlefield and had given his limb for the country and had survived to tell the tale.

And another important component of this was that the soldier, then, would go on to marry his sweetheart, usually a sweetheart he had had and had been courting before the war, before his wounding, when he was a whole man. He would marry her, and have children, and be able to work, and sort of be fully reintegrated into American culture.

ED: So it’s ironic, you know, the one reason that we have so many images of amputees after the Civil War is that in earlier wars they might have died. And so, it’s a kind of strange good news, in a way, that they were able to go on with their lives. Albeit, in that disabled form.


ED: And you have a powerful picture in your book of a double amputee with his wife and his numerous children. And she’s holding the ball that apparently wounded him. Is that right?

MEGAN KATE NELSON: Yes. That photograph is amazing. I think it’s so amazing they brought the ordinance in as part of the family. But yes, and this idea– because there was a lot of concern and anxiety that amputees would not be able to procreate. They would not be able to fulfill the sort of gender role as a husband and a father.

And so there were many visual images of soldiers with young children communicating the point that they could still have children and contribute to the future of the nation, just as they could have contributed their limb to the cause.

ED: So were there differences in the way that black soldiers and white soldiers experienced these losses?

MEGAN KATE NELSON: The issue of black veterans and amputees is a really interesting one. Because, in many ways, the empty sleeve literature, and the conversation surrounding African American soldiers and their injuries, was very similar to the conversation about white soldiers.

And there’s a very famous series of paintings called A Bit of War History, by Thomas Waterman Wood. It’s three different images that track the movements of the fugitive slaves, to the black soldier, to the veteran. And in that final image of the veteran, the black soldier is an amputee. And there’s a very positive spin, I think, in that image that goes along with the empty sleeve literature themes.

But, this was really complicated. Because before the war, and during the war, as well, black bodies meant something very different in American culture than white bodies. And there are the visual rhetoric and also the written rhetoric about slavery, really focused on damage to black bodies in slavery, usually through the medium of the whip.

So their war story sort of continued their giving of their own bodies to this larger purpose. So the narrative as was more complicated with them, although it did share many of the same kinds of ideas and images as with the bodies of wounded white soldiers.

ED: Megan Kate Nelson is a Lecturer at Harvard University. Her new book is called Ruined Nation; Destruction and the American Civil War.