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Sergeants Robert A. Pinn and William H. Thomas: African American Entrants in William O. Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867

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This post was written by Paul LaRue, a retired social studies teacher in Washington Court House, Ohio.

Most teachers appreciate good penmanship, or at least legible handwriting, and the Library of Congress holds the collection of one of the most fascinating penmanship contests in United States history. The human cost of the American Civil War was unprecedented, and newspaper editor William O. Bourne wanted to do something for disabled veterans.  According to the National Institute of Health, there were approximately 60,000 amputations performed on Civil War soldiers and sailors. In 1866, Bourne organized a unique left-handed penmanship contest for Union veterans who had lost the use of their right hand. Veterans were encouraged to submit a letter they had written using their left hand and a total prize money of $1000.00 was offered. The Library of Congress holds the many of the entrants’ letters and other information on Bourne and the contest.

Information about William Oland Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship contests, 1865-1867

The rules of the contest specified that the letters:

  • be two to seven pages in length,
  • have a patriotic theme,
  • describe the entrant’s military service, and
  • list full name, rank, regiment, and company.

Approximately two hundred thousand African American soldiers and sailors served in the Union Army and Navy, sharing the hardships of Civil War service, including coming to terms with the physical injuries suffered in combat. Three hundred and eighty-three Union soldiers and sailors submitted letters in the contest, including two African American soldiers.

First Sergeant Robert A. Pinn and Sergeant William H. Thomas both served in the 5th Regiment United States Colored Infantry  (U.S.C.I.), and their letters give some insights into African American Civil War service.

First Sergeant Robert A. Pinn’s entry, Wm. Oland Bourne Papers: Left-hand Penmanship contest
Sergeant Will H. Thomas’s entry, Wm. Oland Bourne Papers: Left-hand Penmanship contest


Ask students to examine the first pages of the Pinn and Thomas letters, and then to read and transcribe the letters. One strategy to support students who are not comfortable reading cursive is to assign one paragraph from a letter to pairs of students, and then jigsaw with other pairs to read the full page. What do they notice about how each writer begins his letter? What do they wonder about the writer? As time allows, assign students to read additional pages of one or both letters. Invite your students to generate a list of the challenges African American Civil War soldiers faced, including the impact of their injuries.

As an extension, students might research combat injuries in the Civil War versus injuries from current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students might also research the lives of First Sergeant Robert A. Pinn and Sergeant William H. Thomas. One soldier was a Medal of Honor recipient, the other soldier became a controversial author following the Civil War. African American History Month provides students an opportunity to study the service, sacrifice, and contributions of African American Civil War soldiers.

Share your students’ discoveries in the comments!

Comments (2)

  1. This is a fascinating source for many reasons. Thank you for sharing this. And do we know who won the $100,000? I wonder what happened to him.

  2. What a great way to help students who feel a little out of place because they are a “lefty”!

    This can also teach resilience and overcoming something as painful as losiing a limb and/or having to adjust to a new lifestyle when tragedy hits.

    I too want to know what happened to the winner. $1,000 was a LOT of money back then!

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