Beneath His Shirt Sleeves: Evidence of Injury

Tintype Images of Wounded Civil War Union Soldiers from Pension Application Files in the U.S. National Archives

Today’s post was written by Jackie Budell, archives specialist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

**Please note that the following post contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers.**

This is an excerpt from two posts about personal tintype images of wounded soldiers in the Civil War Pension Application Files from the Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs (Record Group 15). You can read the full blogs on The Text Message.

It is the unspoken hope of many researchers who visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to rediscover a photograph of a Civil War soldier amid the pages of a Federal pension application file – to put a face with the name – hoping to see the youthful face of a proud soldier in his new uniform.  

Instead, you may be surprised to find an image of an older disfigured veteran.        

Why do some pension files have photographs and others do not? The answer is EVIDENCE!  

Personal photographic images are most often found in pension application files in which the person who sought government aid attempted to provide evidence of injury, identity, or relationship.  The objective was to prove one’s entitlement to a pension.  

When a veteran applied for a pension based on a war injury, a medical examination photograph taken by a doctor was convincing evidence.  As a result, researchers of some pension files today can do more than read about a gunshot wound or amputated limb — one can see it in these rare photographs.  These are not formal images showing the veteran in his Sunday-best clothes, but were intended to show what lay beneath his shirt sleeves.  

The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (published 1870-888) reported that 21,753 men  survived the 29,980 amputations that were performed on Union soldiers.  Civil War surgeons had limited techniques for mending shattered joints, and amputation was the only option for many soldiers facing infection and gangrene.  Veterans with permanent disabilities wrestled with conflicted feelings because society saw their wounds as both badges of honor and signs of weakness. 

If a veteran applied for a pension, he feared being seen by his community as unable to provide for his family.  Furthermore, the War Department sought to minimize the degree that veterans were dependent on a government pension by drafting strict definitions for ‘grading’ disabilities that determined the rate of pay.  The Bureau of Pensions rejected many applications for an ‘increase’ or raise in monthly pension rates by citing a veteran’s ability to adapt to his physical condition and perform basic personal tasks or earn meager wages.     

Disabled veterans adapted to their new reality with varying degrees of success.  The weight of both physical and emotional effects took their toll causing many to never recover while some ‘fortunate’ men sought new vocations within their means and led surprisingly productive lives.    

Many of these veterans reacted to Congressional legislation passed on August 4, 1886 (24 Stat. 220) that increased the pension rate for soldiers and sailors who had lost a limb in military service.   The amount of the increase was determined by the extent of the loss (a hand versus an arm, or an arm above versus below the elbow) and whether the pensioner was ”totally disabled” as a result.  The law further stated that a person who had lost an arm at the shoulder joint or a leg at the hip joint, or “so near the joint as to prevent the use of an artificial limb,” would have his pension rate increased to $45 per month.  

If ever a pension requirement could be supported by photographic evidence, this was it!  Some amputees who physically could not be fitted for an artificial limb submitted photos to demonstrate the obvious extent of their wounds; the suffering of others may not have been as obvious in a photo, but still had impact beyond the written word.  This legislation generated mountains of paperwork from older veterans who submitted surgeon reports, witness testimony and personal statements to bolster their applications.  These primary documents created decades after the war offer first-hand accounts of the day to day challenges faced by Civil War amputees as they aged.     

These veterans’ experiences can often be reconstructed using primary records preserved in the holdings of the National Archives.  Pension application files are key and rich resources, but information can also be gleaned from military service records, regimental field books, hospital records, Federal census returns, government employee directories, registers for the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and more.  

Newspaper accounts archived at other institutions can build upon this research and provide a social perspective to flesh out their lives in a way that allows future generations to better appreciate their sacrifices and accomplishments.  When the time came to publish an obituary, newspaper reporters reflected on a veteran’s legacy through the lens of his local community.       

Many of us have seen the well-known and haunting photographs taken of piles of amputated limbs outside hospitals during the conflict.  Limbs without bodies.  These relatively rare personal tintypes preserved in pension files inspire researchers to vividly resurrect the stories of these men by bringing their faces to light, not just their wounds.  Their testimony – and the look in their eyes – beg us to remember that the war never ended for them.   Visit the National Archives catalog to see more Civil War-era personal tintypes.


Red River – The Largest Combined Army-Navy Operation of the Civil War

photo of man w/bushy hair and beard, from waist up, no shirt, showing amputated right arm just below the shoulder
Photographic image from the approved ‘Death or Disability/Old Wars’ pension file (NAID 74624425) of Landsman Philip Dudley, U.S.S. Lexington, SC 2274 (NAID 200157659)

Although born on the east coast in Gloucester, Virginia, Philip Dudley enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Alexandria, Louisiana on March 25, 1864 in the midst of the Red River Campaign.  Union forces in the fight included infantry and cavalry troops along with the Mississippi flotilla of the U.S. Navy.  The campaign would be the largest combined army-navy operation of the Civil War.  

The USS Lexington was among several dozen naval vessels in this campaign commanded by Admiral David Dixon Porter.  Dudley was in service aboard this timberclad gunboat for less than a month when he faced a hailstorm of musket fire from the enemy on the shore of the Red River in April 1864.    

He was wounded by a gunshot to his upper left arm and it was amputated to save his life.  He recovered at Hospital Pinkney,  a hotel property in Memphis, Tennessee that had been confiscated by General Ulysses S. Grant and turned over to Fleet Surgeon Ninian A. Pinkney to be converted to a naval medical facility.  

Dudley was discharged on June 10, 1864.  His disability was shown to be “total” and he immediately began collecting a survivor’s pension of $8 per month.

b&w photo of same man, combed hair and beard, facing forward, shirt on with right side exposed to show amputated arm
Additional photographic image from the approved ‘Death or Disability/Old Wars’ pension file of Landsman Philip Dudley, U.S.S. Lexington, SC 2274 (NAID 200157658)

Philip Dudley received modest increases in his pension payment as the law allowed during the next two decades reaching a high of $35 per month.  

On August 4, 1886, Congress passed legislation that raised the pension rate for veteran amputees who physically could not be fitted for an artificial limb.  

At the time, Dudley was living in Carbondale, Illinois.  This above tintype image was taken by photographer J.W. Bird in that town and it was submitted with Dudley’s application to the Bureau of Pensions the following March 1887.   

The photograph, in addition to his physician’s affidavit, supported his claim by showing that Dudley’s arm was amputated so near the shoulder joint as to prevent the practical use of an artificial limb.  The stump was too short, and the scar was soft, tender and painful.  His application for an increase was approved at the highest rate for loss of an arm – $45 per month.  

In addition to collecting his pension benefit, Dudley made his living as the owner of a grocery store in Carbondale even though he could not read or write as recorded in the 1900 U.S. Federal census.  His daughter Catharine worked as a clerk in the store.

In a form that Dudley completed for the Bureau of Pensions in 1898, he claimed that both his wives were dead.  Without a living widow or minor-aged children, his pension ended when he died March 25, 1901.  He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Carbondale.

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