What I'm Reading: The Pains of War

We've seen some significant medical advancements over the years. As we think about these advancements in procedures, pain management, cleanliness, etc., it becomes mind boggling to ponder what doctors were able to do centuries ago---and what their patients must have gone through both emotionally and physically on their road to recovery.


In my daily research I stumbled across some interesting images and stories which highlight Civil War era amputations. As I sawed and chopped my way through the images and articles, one thing became clear---we aren't as strong as we once were. Sure we can run faster, jump higher, and dive deeper but could we weather the storms of war and limb loss with the same stoicism as our ancestors?


From a purely photographic standpoint, the images are fantastic. They do what they're supposed to do---tell a story. The photographer(s) who thought to preserve these moments for future generations, with a relatively new technology, were ahead of their time.

The soldier's own words serve as the perfect companion to the images, highlighting what they went through to arrive as you see them. One of the accounts which stood out, was that of J.W. January (above), who as a result of poor living conditions as a prisoner of war, lost the lower half of his legs. His story is a unique in that the amputation was not performed by a surgeon, but rather, by himself. These are his words:

While held captive by rebel soldiers, I was stricken down by an attack of "swamp fever." For three weeks I remained in a delirious condition; the fever abated and reason returned. I soon learned from the surgeon, after a hasty examination, that I was a victim of scurvy and gangrene, and was removed to the gangrene hospital. My feet and ankles, five inches above the joints, presented a livid, lifeless appearance, and soon the flesh began to slough off, and the surgeon,with a brutal oath, said I would soon die. But I was determines to live and begged him to cut my feet off; telling him if he would that I could live. He still refused; and believing that my life depended on the removal of my feet, I secured an old pocket knife and cut through the decaying flesh and severed the tendons. The feet were unjointed leaving the bones protruding without a covering of flesh for five inches. Twelve years after my release my limbs had healed over, and, strange to relate, no amputation has ever been performed upon them save the one I performed in prison.

Each image is more haunting, more impressive, than the next.


Arms and legs missing, these men---war heroes, look into the lens with palpable conviction. They stand tall, they sit up straight. Their absent limbs merely tip of the iceberg in a story their eyes complete.


Washington, D.C., USA 

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©2019 by Taylor Mackay