It is not two years since the sight of a person who had lost one of his lower limbs was an infrequent occurrence. Now, Alas! there are few of us who have not a cripple among our friends if not in our own families.
— Physician Oliver Wendell
Confederate General John Bell Hood was crippled by the Civil War. His disabilities were so severe that only in the desperate straights of the 1860s could anyone imagine a man with his useless left arm permanently in a sling and no right leg going back to the army to fight another day. General Hood was, by no stretch of imagination, impaired.
At Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, Hood led his brigade into action on the second day of the battle. When he was hit, he took shell fragments in the bicep, elbow, forearm and hand of his left arm. The injury did not require amputation, but the arm had sustained such muscle and nerve damage that it hung uselessly at his side for the rest of his life. Most of the time he kept it in a sling. Only a few months later, he was hit again. On September 20, 1863 he was shot in the right leg, in the thigh near his hip. Confederate medical officers amputated that night, and the procedure went well. Still, by all odds, Hood’s chances for recovery were slim.
Amputations like Hood’s, in the upper third of the femur, show a death rate of more than 50% in all cases, and a third of these died within five days of the amputation. The danger of post-operative infection was great as well. It was the main cause of surgical mortality, North or South. “Hospital gangrene,” as the name implies, was most common when a patient stayed in the unclean wards of Civil War hospitals. Due to his status as an officer, however, Hood never stayed at a field hospital. He received personal care and special attention from the Confederate medical staff.
On September 21 he was carried by ambulance–an unpleasant mode of travel in itself!–fifteen miles to the family home of a member of his staff. Hood’s Divisional Chief Surgeon Dr. John Darby accompanied the commander during his convalescence. So did Hood’s amputated right leg. The hopes for a recovery were very slim, and the general consensus was that Hood and his leg should be reunited in burial.
General Hood beat the odds. By October 8 Hood spoke of returning to duty. By late October, Hood was doing well enough to travel to Dalton, Georgia, where he then took a train to Atlanta. On November 10 he continued on to Richmond. Paul E. Schneider, M. D. wrote in Medical-Military Portraits of Union and Confederate Generals (1968), “His stump healed promptly, but remained painful, and because it was so short an artificial limb was hard to fit.”
Nevertheless, by mid-January General Hood was able to ride a horse, although mounting one required three aides to get him into the saddle. His wooden leg had to be fixed in the stirrup, and Hood and his crutches had to be strapped to the various riding accouterments. After spending the winter in Richmond with Jefferson Davis, Hood convinced the Confederate president that he was well enough to return to the field. He arrived in Georgia in February, 1864 as a new corps commander in the Army of Tennessee. On July 17, Hood took over command of that army from General Joseph E. Johnston. A year later, he left the Confederate army a severely disabled veteran of the Civil War.
Hood was not alone. The War Between the States generated more wounded soldiers than any war in American history. In its aftermath, a huge new population of disabled men had to be accepted back into society. These former soldiers had to be taken care of and provided for, and their losses had to be understood, defined, and accepted. In a speech at Macon, Georgia, Jefferson Davis called upon the women of the South to take heart. He told them that the war was not lost, although Atlanta had fallen. He claimed that the “limping soldier” would be the new aristocracy of the Confederacy. “To the young ladies I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve.”
Union soldiers who returned from the war had pensions and medical benefits. The widows and families of those who did not return had survivor’s benefits. Confederate families had nothing. It was up to the civilians of the defeated South to make room for their wounded warriors in any way they could. Southern white manhood had been defined by values of strength, bravery, honor and self-sufficiency. Losing a limb severely impacted the way these values were defined after the war, especially by men whose sacrifices were for naught.
There were many tragedies, of course. Suicide rates, murders and commitments to southern “lunatic asylums” rose greatly after the way, and continued until just before the turn of the century. Still, most southern veterans learned to accept their new reality. Afraid that they would be useless, they came home anyway and made a living, and not without help from the women they left behind. 92% of all women who were of marrying age in the South during the Civil War eventually married. Slowly, southern men redefined their roles.
Within the historical community, little work has been done on these issues. There has been more analysis of Union post-bellum life but then, the Yankees kept good records. The story of disabled Civil War veterans may be one of the most compelling stories yet to tell. There is one more thing concerning General Hood, however . . .
Miss Sally Preston, “Buck” to her friends, was an early love interest of the General. He apparently was a less-than-gallant courtier in Miss Preston’s eyes. She did not even like him much when he was whole. She liked his rank, but the man? Apparently not so much. She strung Hood along for a while, pretending to be engaged to him and then denying it to anyone who would listen. When he returned to Atlanta in 1864, minus a workable arm and a leg, it was to get things straight with Sally. She never offered a definitive answer to the public, but she probably dumped the now-maimed General John Bell Hood privately. Her allegedly adoring public turned on her quickly. The ‘most beautiful woman in the South” lost her reputation as a patriotic Confederate. She was publically excoriated, ignored, and pointed out as a bad example to little girls. Her expensive party dresses hung unused in her wardrobe and, under a cloud, she gradually faded from history. Good riddance, I say.