Of Life and Limbs

by Laura Bergheim

The leg of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren entombed in the wall of the Navy Yard is not as odd as it might seem: The missing limbs of other military men from the Washington area have been similarly memorialized. When Major General Daniel Sickles lost his leg at Gettysburg around the same time Dahlgren lost his, he generously donated the limb, and the cannonball that shot it off, to the Army Medical Museum (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine, located at Walter Reed Army Medical Center). Every year on the anniversary of his loss, Sickles would visit his limb at the museum and drink a toast in its honor, a tradition that was much tittered over in Washington's social circles.

When Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot in the arm by his own men during the battle near Fredericksburg, Virginia, his personal physician amputated the wounded arm in a futile attempt to save his life. The arm was buried in a field behind the farm-house (called Elwood) where the surgery was performed, and a grave marker, which still stands, was erected to memorialize the burial site of the "Arm of Stonewall Jackson."

Why this fascination with preserving limbs? The Civil War left more Americans severely maimed than any other conflict. In American history, and the near-mythic number of limbs lost during the war may explain the sentimental devotion and even obsession about the missing parts. In fact, one of the most successful businesses in Washington during the post-Civil War era was the J.E. Hangar Company, which manufactured prosthetic limbs. To advertise its product line, the company published photographs documenting prosthetically equipped veterans at work and play throughout the Washington area.

Laura Bergheim, The Washington Historical Atlas, Who Did What When and Where in the Nation's Capital, 1992, Woodbine House, Rockville MD.; page 293.