From the head up, 19-year-old Charles H. Wood could have been posing for his senior portrait. At any rate, his noble countenance suggests a person far more mature and prepared to graduate than I in my own rogues’ gallery of commencement pictures taken this past June. Evident in those photographs is only raw petulance at being asked, yet again, to strain my head at a neck-snapping angle, then stupidly hold an artificial rose before my lips as though it were a flute. Charles, on the other hand, looks like a decent person who posed like he was told. If you fix your gaze upon his face, you see a boy who might one day have been president.
Except his face, one among many at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library’s “Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863–1866,” is the last to register at first glance. Instead of a future president, you see a man missing a left arm. Blown off by gunshot at the Civil War battle of Petersburg, Va., 1865, the arm was amputated on the field, leaving in its place a dimpled stump. Charles would not die of injury-related complications, but his was a rare example of wartime treatments progressing according to plan. With an average of 504 deaths per day, and more men dying from uninformed surgical interventions than actual injuries, the Civil War left in its wake fodder for an unfortunately comprehensive photographic catalog of battlefield wounds.
Compared with the other images on exhibit, Charles’ is relatively tame. Photographed on his deathbed, the 18-year-old private Henry Krowlow was only vaguely corporeal, a wasted skeleton upon which flaccid limbs of uneven lengths were draped. The violently mustachioed Thomas H. Mathews was marked by an even more violent saber gash below his left eye. An image of John Miller evoked a jigsaw where someone cruelly forgot to piece in his left thigh. His hands cradle a gangrenous stump that resembles more a crusty boule than the remains of something that once promoted mobility.
The photographs were drawn from the compilations of Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, chief surgeon at the Harewood U.S. Army General Hospital in Washington, D.C. Bontecou, believed to have originated the application of photography to military surgical history. He intended the photos to be of educational value to future doctors while maintaining portraiture conventions. Soldiers’ faces are `free of the requisite grimaces, replaced instead by stoic expressions evincing none of what was surely intolerable pain. In one example of convention, Thomas L. Roscoe, too weak to set his head straight upon his shoulders, was propped against the wall with a wooden plank. Even with his back to the photographer, his hands were neatly arranged on his knees, and his head betrayed only the slightest droop.
It is a theme common to the entirety of Bontecou’s work: a jarring disfigurement is no grounds for an inartistic presentation. It was an intelligent move that does not hide but rather dramatizes the reality of his subjects’ suffering. Rather than the crumpled, wasted faces of the weak, we see the enduring, steadfast faces of the strong. We sympathize with and pity the former, but the latter wins our respect.
In the library foyer one can find background to the doctors themselves and their medical practices. Medical practitioners quickly deduced that illness and injury would pose a more significant threat to life than bullets and bayonets, and established the United States Sanitary Commission to ensure improvements of wartime medical treatment. Lest we think these emissaries of Asclepius saw nothing but whitewashed hospital interiors, here on display are the books and writings of Civil War doctors — in a letter by a Confederate surgeon, the author describes helping himself to a “churn of excellent buttermilk” one moment and being nearly shot at the next. A hallmark of wartime medical practice was the element of surprise, both in the volatility of the surroundings and the nature of encountered maladies. Doctors, nurses and volunteers — most notably, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott, who wrote copiously about their experiences — were as entrenched in the turbulent proceedings as their warrior patients.
We expect bravery on the battlefield, exulting in the boldness of our heroes who know no fear. Less expected is bravery from the prone on their silver gurneys, wincing at the slightest touch like children before their first vaccines. Pry the guns from their hands, and gingerly lift their crisp uniforms from their battered bodies, and suddenly they are no longer soldiers but patients, free to fear as much as they like.
Yet in these photographs is a palpable defiance, not the anxious tremors of the fallen. Perhaps these men and boys were just following Bontecou’s instructions, angling their stumps and scrapes bravely before the camera because that is how they were asked to pose. Consider, though, what brought them to war in the first place: the relentless pursuit of principles on which their entire lives, and the endurance of their homeland, would rest.
Charles H. Wood was fighting for his country. And what is an arm to a country, anyway?