Feature: “It was a parting with himself, or rather a part of himself” – Tracing Severed Accounts of Disabled African American Union Veterans

by Alexandria Einspahr


On the screen are two articles each featuring a photograph of a shirtless man sitting upright. As disabled Union veterans grappling with the aftermaths of the Civil War, Alfred A. Stratton’s and Lewis (“Louis”) Martin’s injuries seem to project the same narrative: Alfred displays two amputated arms while Lewis’s cross-legged position exposes his amputated left foot and his right arm severed above the elbow. Their similarly fixed stares, however, are where their mirroring severs. Berry Craig’s article in O&P Business News, a nationally distributed periodical for orthotic and prosthetic practitioners, delineates Stratton’s short-lived success story in explicit detail. Despite having both arms torn off from cannon fire at the age of 19, Stratton would go on to be a minister and father of two before passing at the age of 29 (59). Martin’s feature, in turn, appears in Dave Bakke’s editorial in the State Journal Register, a daily newspaper in Springfield, IL, and generates just as many mysteries as it reveals. Bakke explains that Kathy Heyworth, an amateur historian and retired director of the Mini O’Beirne Crisis Nursery, properly identified Martin’s unmarked grave in Oakridge Cemetery in Springfield. Unlike Stratton, Martin’s age at the time of his death cannot be ascertained; rather, Kathy’s extensive hunt through Reconstruction era publications revealed that Martin died sometime in January 1892 from, according to a source the article does not disclose, “exposure & drink.”

The institutional absorption of Stratton’s body and the subsequent rejection of Martin’s functions as a microcosm of the lack of narratives detailing the lived experiences of disabled Civil War African American veterans. As Margaret Humphreys summarizes in her medical historiography of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), black soldiers made up roughly ten percent of the Union army by 1864: “Some 180,000 black men wore the brass buttons of the Union soldier’s uniform. More than 33,000 men were buried wearing it, with 4,000 of them bearing bullet wounds and the rest defeated by disease” (6).  In turn, the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) online exhibition, Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War, notes that amputation accounted for three quarters, or roughly 60,000, of the operations conducted during the war. Despite these overlapping statistics, the NLM does not feature or even refer to wounded black soldiers in its educational archive. Considering Donald R. Shaffer’s observation that African American soldiers experienced higher mortality rates than their white comrades (206), the apparent absence of these veterans and the men who passed from their injuries is jarring [1].


Figure 1: Alfred A. Stratton. Mütter Museum. Historic Medical Photographs, S. 23, 24 Dec. 1869. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

Lewis Martin

Figure 2: Lewis (“Louis”) Martin. National Archive. Photograph by Dr. Reed Bontecu.

While the high rate of illiteracy among USCT soldiers and the lack of official records (Humphreys xii) both undoubtedly play significant roles in explaining why accounts like Lewis Martin’s were left on the battlefield, they fail to justify why more critical work has not been done to restore them. In this vein, the disappearance of these narratives is arguably not just an absence but an erasure. This repositioning resonates with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ claim that white theorists, historians, and politicians have historically erased black subjects “from the written record” (3) of the Civil War in an effort to preserve a “more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry” (2). In the face of these repressive accounts of tragic bravery, tracing representations of black veteran amputees offers a more realistic record that has been shaped by both institutional neglect and black empowerment. Graphing Coates critique to Christina Sharpe’s methodology of “wake work” (13), creating a gathering of historical documents, personal records, and contemporary media sources offers a window into the lives of disabled USCT veterans to demonstrate that Lewis Martin’s story, and those like his, still exists even when seemingly hidden from the academic gaze.

As Colleen Glenney Boggs notes, the 21,753 survivors [2] of amputation who reentered domestic life following the war recast disabilities as a fixture of the quotidian and codified a heteronormative masculinity that relied on heroic acts of sacrifice (43); within the context of these heroic narratives, however, representations of black disabled soldiers often operated as a means of inducing sympathy from white audiences. In Thomas Nast’s two-part political cartoon “Pardon/Franchise,” which appeared in Harper’s Weekly on August 5th, 1865,  Nast depicts a fair-skinned Columbia, Nast’s personification of America, in opposing positions: perched in her Romanesque gown looking down exhaustingly upon white, richly dressed able-bodied politicians and standing aside a dismembered African American soldier still in his Union uniform. One bare arm gently grasps his shoulder while the other gestures towards him. Split between the pages, the caption reads, “shall I trust these men…and not this man?” (488-89). 

Pardon-FranchiseFigure 3: Thomas Nast’s two-part illustration “Pardon [left] Franchise [right].” Harper’s Weekly, 5 Aug. 1865, pp. 488–489. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Columbia’s whiteness is an embodiment of her purity, and her physical position towering above male government officials, granted a perspective that would have otherwise been inaccessible to women during this time, allows her to communicate a moralistic outrage on behalf of the wounded man. The heroic yet noticeably silent black soldier embodies the sacrifices of the war while simultaneously masking its cause.

Although the Harper’s Weekly arguably signals a call for equality, it is nonetheless fictional; in reality, a black soldier’s limb loss was often the product of medical neglect rather than a blood-stained act of valor. Lt. Col. William F. Fox’s survey of regiment casualties lists that the 64th and 65th Colored Infantries respectively lost 200 and 100 soldiers due to exposure during the particularly frigid winter months of 1864-65, and many more “suffered amputation for frozen feet or hands” (592). As the medical historian Ira Rutkow notes, expedient amputation was also a common means, if not the only method, of quelling infections such as gangrene or pyemia: a puss forming blood infection that was tantamount to a death sentence (174).

Amputation, then, was undoubtedly a common practice among segregated USCT hospitals in the face of limited resources, which correlates with Humphreys’ observation that “while 2.7 white soldiers died of disease for every single battle casualty, among the black soldiers the ratio was about ten to one” (11). As such, while Boggs argues that the imagery of the “empty sleeve” embodies a reconstructing of “disability’s imbrications with the normative” (43), the multitude of amputations that occurred due to infection and exposure demonstrates that the empty sleeve is an exclusive construct. After all, Lewis Martin did not display his body to demonstrate his valor, or, like Stratton, sell reproductions of his likeness in order to utilize his injuries for economic gain. Rather, as Edward A. Miller points out, a surgeon, Dr. Reed Bontecu, photographs Martin for an anatomical study (95). Martin’s photograph offers no sleeve to pin or war story to celebrate; what it does reveal, though, is that amputated limbs’ symbolic message of bravery is often a construct predicated on an undercurrent of whiteness.


Martin’s exploitation by a white surgeon is a precursor of another often commonly overlooked narrative found in the medical treatment of black troops: amputation as an act of cruelty. A short article in The Christian Recorder on June 25th, 1864 contrasted the humane treatment of recently captured Confederate soldiers in local Union hospitals to the members of the 54th Infantry, arguably the most well-known of all USCT troops because of their depiction in the film Glory,  who were captured at Fort Wagner: “The Charleston papers boasted that but few of the wounded who fell into their hands at the storming of Fort Wagner, got off without losing a limb by the surgeon’s knife, however slight the wounds.” The unnecessary amputations inflicted on the 54th Regiment’s soldiers read as an act of retaliatory pleasure: a delight in the opportunity to use treatment as a professional veil to inflict violence on the black body. Yet, when reviewing an August 1st, 1863 article in The Christian Recorder on the medical treatment of the 54th shortly after the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, it becomes apparent that Union hospitals were not repositories for humane treatment, either:

On the second and fourth days after the first I passed through nearly all the wards of the hospital. On the second day a very large proportion of their wounds had not been dressed, and of course they were very painful. Some lay with shattered legs, or arms, or both; others with limbs amputated.

Cruelty against black soldiers was not an uncommon sight in Union hospitals; Humphreys details a similar example in the court-martial case of Lyman Allens, a U.S. Colored Troops surgeon, who refused to treat a soldier under the defense that “a man with a part of his foot cut off by a piece of shell was not suffering much pain” (71). The lack of anesthesia used to treat the 54th Infantry and the men under Allens’ care is a glimpse into a continued legacy of the transatlantic slave trade which Sharpe succinctly defines: “Black people in the United States receive inferior health care because they are believed to feel less pain” (50). While Glory dramatized the 54th Regiment’s pay inequality and their immense causalties, the film’s final frame of Colonel Shaw’s burial in a mass grave with other fallen soldiers (01:59:23) ignores the fact that those who did survive would continue to experience racist violence at the hands of those who were meant to heal their wounds. More importantly, missing accounts of disabled African American soldiers neatly circumnavigates the fact that medical practitioners used debilitation as a means to neutralize the armed black man.

Thus, while both the Union and Confederacy appropriated the white soldier as a hero of states’ rights, the injured black combatant explicitly demonstrates not only the cost of the war but its cause: the systematic exploitation and maiming of black bodies. As such, the dismembered USCT veteran is a more accurate representation of Brian Matthew Jordan’s claim that disabled veterans embodied “the politics of remembering and forgetting the war’s causes and its ultimate consequences” (125). Unlike their white comrades, USCT veterans had to use their personal losses as a means to remember the lives that were lost both to slavery and to the battlefield and to remind state officials of the valiant actions that U.S. history refused, and arguably still refuses, to fully acknowledge.

In the face of this erasure, personal accounts of disabled veterans during the war function as a precursor of Sharpe’s wake work as evident in W.M. Waters’ letter to The Christian Recorder on April 15th, 1865. A member of Company K in the 26th Regiment, Waters explains that he writes on behalf of the men who the world seems intent on forgetting:

As nobody seems to take any interest in the 26th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, I will endeavor to write a few lines for the benefit of all concerned, hoping our friends at the North, whom we have left behind while we went forward to fight for the defence [sic] of our Union, would be glad to hear from us.

Waters’ letter encapsulates Sharpe’s proclamation that “to tend to the Black dead and dying” means maintaining a steady vigilance (10). In a war where fallen members of USCT regiments could often not share their stories, the soldier applauds the sacrifice of his colonel who lost his limb, and subsequently his life, for his men:

At the battle of Honey Hill we lost our Colonel, who was leading his brigade through the field of battle, when a rebel shell struck his leg. Amputation soon took place, which caused his death. The 26th admired and trusted in him, as a friend and a brave man. We greatly mourn his loss.

Waters’ account carefully curates a balance of private and public mourning. While the second-person pronoun emphasizes the camaraderie of his troop, a signifier that they have endured a loss that only their group could ever truly understand, he also invites his readers to take up their emotional work. By reading about his grief, the reader in turn counteracts Waters’ opening statement that no one “seems to take any interest in the 26th Regiment U.S Colored Troops.” Waters also enacts vigilance by curating his letter’s relationship to history. Rather than waiting for history to acknowledge their participation, he directs its gaze: “On John’s Island, in the month of July 1864, the 26th won laurels for herself worthy to be recorded on the pages of history.” The question remains: have we accepted Waters’ challenge to not forget his men and maintain our vigilance?

Waters’ letter is a powerful reminder that the disabled men of the USCT are not gone; they are in our historical archives, in our local newspapers, and most importantly, scattered in unmarked graves throughout the country. As Shaffer notes, with a decade of difference in life expectancy in the late 19th century, African American soldiers faced higher mortality rates than white soldiers off the battlefield as well: “More than half of the white men who had joined the Union and Confederate armies and navies were still alive in the 1890…but less than 30 percent of African Americans survived” (55). Whether from their injuries or their subsequent poverty, black amputees most likely accounted for very little of this survival number. As such, Lewis Martin has not been the only disabled soldier relegated to an unmarked grave. By carefully curating which narratives appear in our history books, we do a disservice to the soldiers like Martin and W.M. Waters who could not simply ignore the information that made them uncomfortable.

Overlooking the reports and personal accounts of disabled USCT veterans is ultimately a self-masochistic amputation of our own historical body. In this sense, a Christian Recorder article dated from August 22nd, 1895 entitled “A Parting with a Leg” metaphorically encapsulates the United States’ fractured relationship to its own past:

An old soldier told a reporter of the most affecting parting he ever had in his life. It was a parting with himself, or rather a part of himself. He was in an engagement before Petersburg and had the misfortune to come in contact with a piece of broken shell which exploded near him, and which succeeded in shattering his leg. Amputation was necessary, and shortly after he was lying in his tent. As he looked up he saw a cart piled up with legs and arms of others who had been unfortunate in the engagement, and right on top he recognized his own leg. “It was sad parting,” he said, “to see a part of you going away never to be returned again. I can never tell you what strange feelings came over me, and to this day I can see that fine black horse hauling my leg away to its last resting place.”

In parting with a critical piece of our history, we have inadvertently parted with ourselves; yet, a black horse did not simply haul our lost narratives to an unknown resting place. Rather, the plethora of unmarked graves recasts the very soil of the United States as a site of mourning, and as such, its residents eat, drink, and breathe Sharpe’s vision of an inhabitable wake work (18). Inflicting institutional violence on the black body, whether on the streets of Sanford, Fl., Staten Island, or Ferguson, Mo., then, is not only an abuse of the justice system, but an act of sacrilege to a resting place. Lewis Martin and W.M. Waters are both a part of America’s cultural legacy and its biological ecosphere, and, in turn, its residents must be the prosthesis who continue their work. In this light, the reemergence of Martin’s full narrative is proof that it can be done. Following his initial article, Dave Bakke released an update about Martin’s gravesite in October 2013. Bob Davis, an African American Civil War reenactor, contacted Heyworth after reading about her research, and together, the two Springfield residents raised funds to memorialize the fallen soldier. The internet became a gathering space, which led to an outcry of funds from the public and donations from local businesses, including a gravestone by the Arnold Monument of Springfield. Martin’s photograph is now a permanent fixture of his gravestone: both a memorial to his sacrifice and a reminder of the narratives yet to be recovered.


[1]  A brief note on terminology: while I advocate for person-first statements in academic discourse and disability studies’ scholarship, this paper will also utilize condition-first terms, such as disabled African American soldiers. The purpose is to linguistically unify blackness and disability, which is a relationship that has been severed by historical records that cast amputation during the Civil War as an exclusively white experience. I also utilize the adjectives black and African American interchangeably in my descriptions, but it is worth noting that these two terms have their own origins and implications. In her preface notes, Humphreys directs her reader’s attention to Orlando Patterson’s 1998 monolith Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries for a more in-depth discussion on the usage of these two terms (xiii, note 6).

[2] This number is found in both Brian Matthew Jordan’s’ article (127) and Brian Craig Miller’s monolith Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (39). Jordan notes that this is a conservative estimate considering that there were no medical statistics during the first eighteen months of the war and subsequent records were often incomplete (127). I would also add that this number does not account for racial disparity, so it is unclear how many African American soldiers are represented in this statistic.\

Alexandria Einspahr is a current M.A. student in English at Villanova University and the graduate assistant for the Office of Learning Support Services. Her primary area of interest is the intersection of disability studies and gender in Victorian novels.

Works Cited

“A Man Knows a Man.” Harper’s Weekly, 22 Apr. 1865.

“An Inhuman Outrage.” Douglass’ Monthly, Aug. 1863.

Bakke, Dave. “Black Civil War Veteran’s Grave Identified at Oak Ridge.” The State Journal-Register, 16 May 2012. 

—. “Public Comes through for Civil War Icon.” The State Journal, The State Journal-Register, 13 Oct. 2013.

Boggs, Colleen Glenney. “The Civil War’s ‘Empty Sleeve’ and the Cultural Production of Disabled Americans.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 41–65. 

“Charleston.-The Storming of Fort Wagner.” The Christian Recorder, vol. 3, no. 31, 1 Aug. 1863.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?.” The Atlantic, 5 Dec. 2011, 1-12.

Craig, Berry. “Civil War Amputee Ended Up a Minister, Husband and Father.” O & P Business News: Linking the Orthotic and Prosthetic Profession, vol. 18, no. 18, 15 Sept. 2009, pp. 58–69. 

Humphreys, Margaret. Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Jordan, Brian Matthew. “‘Living Monuments’: Union Veteran Amputees and the Embodied Memory of the Civil War.” Civil War History, vol. 57, no. 2, June 2011, pp. 121–152.

“Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War Exhibition Home.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 30 July 2013.

Miller, Brian Craig. Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Miller, Edward A. The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois the Story of the Twenty-Ninth U.S.  Colored Infantry. University of South Carolina Press, 1998. 

Nast, Thomas.  “Pardon/Franchise.” Harper’s Weekly, 5 Aug. 1865, pp. 488–489.

“Parting with a Leg.” The Christian Recorder, vol. 43, 22 Aug. 1895.

Rutkow, Ira M.. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. [First paperback edition]. Stackpole Books, 2015.

Shaffer, Donald R. After the Glory: The Struggles of the Black Civil War Veterans. University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 

“Surgery After Battle.” The Christian Recorder, vol. 4, no. 26, 25 June 1864.  

Waters, WM. “Letter from the 26th U.S.C.T.” The Christian Recorder, vol. 5, no. 15, 15 Apr. 1865.

Zwick, Edward, director. Glory. Tri-Star Pictures, 1989.


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