New Online: William Oland Bourne Papers

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell for the Gazette, the Library of Congress staff newsletter.) 

As a hospital chaplain during the Civil War, William Oland Bourne collected the names of the wounded soldiers he tended and, in doing so, noticed a terrible trend: Many soldiers used their left hands to sign his autograph book because their right arms were missing.

How, Bourne wondered, could these grievously wounded men adapt – to the amputation of their arms, to postwar life, to new jobs – and how could he help?

Bourne had an idea: a left-handed penmanship contest for previously right-handed veterans who suffered the loss of their right arms in combat – a small way to demonstrate self-reliance, adaptability and the skills necessary to find postwar employment.

A penmanship sample submitted by Alfred Whitehouse, incorporating his own photo. Manuscript Division.

A penmanship sample submitted by Alfred Whitehouse, incorporating his own photo. Manuscript Division.

More than 60 years after the war, the entries in the two contests staged by Bourne found their way to the Library of Congress and, last month, were placed online – a collection of some 1,500 items that includes photographs, pamphlets and nearly all the contest submissions.

The Wm. Oland Bourne Papers were donated to the Library in 1931 by prominent New York bookseller Gabriel Wells.

“The penmanship contest entries in the Bourne collection not only provide evidence as to the experiences of Civil War soldiers who lost limbs during that war specifically, but they also speak to a longer history of the reintegration of wounded veterans back into civilian life and the different ways individual veterans interpret their military service,” said Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

In addition to his work as a chaplain, Bourne served as editor of The Soldier’s Friend, a newspaper dedicated to veterans’ needs and published late in the war and for several years after. He saw firsthand the terrible injuries suffered by Union soldiers and sailors and witnessed their efforts to adapt to disability – experiences that inspired his penmanship contests.

Men who had been right-handed before the war – particularly those who had performed manual labor – might need a new line of work. The contest, Bourne thought, might help them demonstrate their adaptability, that they had the skills to support themselves.

“Penmanship is key to getting a government position,” a contest ad in The Soldier’s Friend read.

Penmanship contest participant J.S. Pendergrast. Manuscript Division.

Penmanship contest participant J.S. Pendergrast. Manuscript Division.

The contests offered cash prizes and emphasized the quality of penmanship. They attracted hundreds of entrants – not all of whom precisely fit the criteria.

Lewis Horton lost both arms in a naval accident. Undeterred, he entered a letter – certified by a justice of the peace – that he claimed he wrote using his teeth.

Pvt. J.S. Pendergrast of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry lost his right arm – and two fingers and part of the thumb on his left hand. The judging committee awarded him $20 for a letter produced under “exceptional circumstances.”

In some entries, the penmanship is remarkably neat, the letters well-formed and the presentation even artistic. Alfred D. Whitehouse produced an elaborately illustrated page bearing his photograph and dedicated to the “Left Arm Corps.”

In others, the difficulty adapting is plain. “For some, it’s more halting and it’s clear that it’s a struggle for them,” Krowl said.

Some veterans filled their entries with poetry, some simply copied text to demonstrate their penmanship. Most, however, told their own stories.

Pvt. John F. Chase of the 5th Maine Artillery received a Medal of Honor for heroic action during the Battle of Chancellorsville in spring 1863 and was badly wounded atGettysburg two months later.

Chase lay untended on the battlefield for two days and, after being picked up, received no medical attention for three more – doctors assumed he had no chance to survive.

Penmanship contest participant John Chase. Chase identified his many wounds with pen marks on the photo. Manuscript Division.

Penmanship contest participant John Chase. Chase identified his many wounds with pen marks on the photo. Manuscript Division.

But he did, and he described his experiences in his contest entry – a letter accompanied by a photograph on which Chase marked his many wounds in red pen.

“I lost my right arm near the shoulder, and left eye,” Chase wrote, “and have forty other scars upon my brest and shouldr caused by peaces of fragments of a Spharical case shot, at the battle of Gettersburg, july the seccond 1863.”

John Bryce of the 1st New York Volunteers described the surgical amputation of his arm – and the effects of anesthesia – in an essay titled “How I Felt Under Cloriform.”

“Set sail as a vessel sailing through the air,” Bryce wrote. “I had a narrow river to cross, which seemed very deep. … I felt no pain during the cutting of my arm. It seemed pleasant while in the stupor.”

The first contest closed in February 1866 with an exhibition of nearly 300 entries at a New York hall festooned with inspirational banners: “Disabled but not disheartened,” “Our disabled soldiers kept the Union from being disabled.”

The display drew big crowds and many dignitaries, including Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard, who himself lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862.

The first contest was such a hit that Bourne decided to stage a second competition in 1867.

For that contest, Bourne enlisted major Civil War figures – among them, Grant, Adm. David Farragut and Gens. William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan and George Meade – to each choose a prizewinner and write a letter to him.

“While we have been accustomed to regard the loss of the right arm as almost fatal to a useful, and consequently happy life,” Sherman wrote to contestant Caleb Fisher, “these samples show how nature substitutes wisely and well one other arm.”

A century and a half later, Krowl said, those letters do something more – Bourne’s contest unintentionally preserved stories that otherwise might never have been told.

“This might be the only place their recollections are captured,” Krowl said. “Unless they filed for a pension and gave their life stories in their claims, this may be the only place they told their life stories or expressed what they felt about losing their arms.”

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