On National Handwriting Day, a Look at Poems Submitted to Left-Handed Penmanship Contests by Civil War Veterans

Today is National Handwriting Day! While many of the Library’s digital manuscript collections offer wonderful examples of 18th, 19th, and 20th century handwriting for you to peruse, our Wm. Oland Bourne Papers is the only collection of which I’m aware that offers a direct focus on penmanship, with a healthy offering of poetry to boot.

William Oland Bourne (1819-1901) was a reformer, poet, editor, and clergyman who served as chaplain at Central Park Hospital during the Civil War. As noted in a special essay accompanying the Bourne Papers:

While at Central Park Bourne collected in autograph books the names and stories of many of the servicemen he encountered. In some instances he noted on the page when a soldier wrote a reminiscence with his left hand, due to amputation or other disability of the right hand as a result of war wounds.

Bourne’s awareness of so many right-handed men having to adapt to left-handed penmanship inspired the contest he sponsored for the “Left-Armed Soldiers of the Union.”

Bourne held two penmanship contests, one in 1865-66 and one in 1867, with prize money offered for the top specimens in each. The content of contest entries could vary, though as a handbill for the 1867 contest notes, “writers must furnish a sketch of their military history.” Beyond that, however, “original essays, poems, tales, incidents and anecdotes of the war may be added, and are earnestly desired.”

1866 handbill advertising left-handed penmanship contest for soldiers and sailors. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers: Left-hand Penmanship contest; Broadsides, 1866-1867.

1866 handbill advertising Bourne’s second left-handed penmanship contest for soldiers and sailors. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

Henry C. Allen. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers: Left-hand Penmanship contest; Photographs, primarily of Left-hand Penmanship contest participants, circa 1861-1865.

Henry C. Allen. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

Browsing the Bourne Papers, I came across many poems included among the soldiers’ penmanship samples. Of the 270 entries submitted to the first contest, at least fifteen of them includes either original poems or poems copied from other sources. And of the approximately 118 entries in the second contest, at least eight feature poems.

One of the soldiers who submitted an original poem as part of his entry was Henry C. Allen, of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. A mechanic before the war, Allen was injured at Rapidan Station, Virginia, on September 14, 1863, and had his right arm amputated. Allen writes that his poem, “To the Union Soldiers,” was inspired “by the vetoing of the Freedmans Bureau Bill by President Johnson, and . . . sent as an extra contribution to the long list of . . . specimens of left hand penmanship.” In the poem, he discusses ways that injured veterans such as himself could contribute to society and help ensure that all American citizens remain free:

Comrades, now the war is over
Is there nothing we can do.-
To defend our country’s honor
From a blind, relentless foe?

“Yes, there is!” is quickly answered
By every “Union Soldier” brave.
“We can vote, and use our influence,
Our nations honor, still to save.”

Here is the first page of Allen’s finely-penned poem:

"To the Union Soldiers." Poem by William C. Allen. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

“To the Union Soldiers.” First page of poem by William C. Allen. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

Notwithstanding Allen’s contribution, my favorite handwriting sample in the collection was submitted by Thomas A. Perrine (Second Sergeant, Co. G, 140th Pennsylvania Infantry), who lost his arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Perrine included in his entry a 17-stanza poem titled “Sinistra Manu Scripta” (which he translates as “A Sinister Manuscript,” a sinisterly clever play on the Latin word for “left,” sinistra). Here is Perrine’s wonderfully-designed title page for his poem:

"Sinistra Manu Script." Poems submitted by Thomas A. Perrine. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

“Sinistra Manu Scripta” (title page). Poem submitted by Thomas A. Perrine. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

And the first page of Perrine’s poem:

"Sinistra Manu Scripta" (first page). Poem submitted by Thomas A. Perrine. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

“Sinistra Manu Scripta” (first page). Poem submitted by Thomas A. Perrine. Wm. Oland Bourne Papers.

Later in my research I learned that Perrine’s entry was awarded a $20 first prize for ornamental penmanship, so clearly the contest’s judges were just as impressed as me!

As I mentioned, not all poems included in contest entries were original. Joseph K. Byers, for instance, copied William Knox’s “Mortality,” or, “Oh, Why should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud?”Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poemin his entry. Another soldier, Alfred D. Whitehouse, copied one of Bourne’s own poems, “The Press,” as part of his submission for the 1867 contest. Readers may wonder whether this was a thinly veiled attempt to influence Bourne, the contest’s sole judge….

To explore the range of original and copied poems included in soldiers’ entries, and to sample the soldiers’ oft-impeccable penmanship, at the end of this post I list and link to all of the entries I found that include poems. Unless otherwise noted in the entries, the poems are thought to be the soldiers’ original work. In addition, I supply the number of the entry assigned during the contests; the name, company, regiment, and rank of the soldier, when available; and the site and date of the soldier’s injury. This information is taken from information compiled by the Library’s Manuscript Division.

I’ve only touched on the history of Bourne’s penmanship contests in this post. For a full report, I strongly encourage you to read the special essay accompanying the Wm. Oland Bourne Papers, ”William Oland Bourne, ‘The Soldier’s Friend’, and the Left-Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867.”

Finally, for anyone who reads the essay and wants to delve more deeply into the Wm. Oland Bourne Papers, take note! The Bourne Papers is one of several Library collections included on our crowdsourcing project, By the People,  through which you and other members of the public can volunteer to transcribe, review, and tag documents from our digitized collections. The goal of the project is to make our historic documents fully searchable by keyword, and to make them accessible to people with visual impairments or people who have difficult reading the handwriting of the original documents. If you’re a lifelong learner, scholar, teacher, or student, By the People offers a great way for you to learn more about American history and to contribute to sharing that history with others. Once you learn more about By the People and how to participate, jump right in and start transcribing soldiers’ letters and other items in the Bourne Papers.


Entries with Poetry in William Oland Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship Contest Entries (First Contest, 1865-66)

Entries with Poetry in William Oland Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship Contest Entries (Second Contest, 1867)

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