The Author’s Corner with Brian Craig Miller

Brian Miller is Associate Professor of History at Emporia State University. This interview is based on his new book, Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (University of Georgia Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South?

BM: When I was twelve years old, my parents took me to a Civil War battlefield where we watched a grainy old video that mentioned Confederate General John Bell Hood. The only thing I can recall from the movie was that the narrator told us that Hood continued to command an army even after losing the full usage of his left arm and his right leg four inches from the hip. I thought to myself, that guy has to be crazy. Who would do that? Thus, my fascination with John Bell Hood commenced and followed me all the way through graduate school when I wanted to write about Hood from a cultural standpoint. I wondered if anyone had written about what the loss of a limb meant to your personal identity in Civil War America- what it did to personal and internal definitions of manhood. Thus, I started on a decade long exploration of amputation in the Civil War South.

At the same time, I kept receiving photographs in the mail from wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The charitable organization offered photographs of wounded soldiers wearing a prosthetic limb or showcasing their missing appendage in exchange for a charitable contribution. Thus, I believed that this was the perfect time to examine the historical ramifications of amputation on an entire generation of Americans because the story would have to be extended in the future: to tell the story of the hundreds of current men and women who sacrificed part of their own bodies in combat.

As with any historical project, the research tends to lead you down surprising trails that you did not expect at the start of the project. My original plan was to just write about the soldiers who underwent amputation during the war and how the loss of a limb impacted their perception of self. Yet, with so many references to Civil War doctors as butchers (both in early primary sources and in the established scholarship), I started to come across instances of amputees praising their surgeons for their dutiful and skilled care. I found examples of men who rejected amputation because they worried about their position as a man and breadwinner in their relationships back home. I ran across women who actively questioned whether or not they still loved the man they sent off to war because he was about to come home physically incomplete. In the many catacombs of state government records, I perused hundreds of pension files and applications for artificial limbs with men describing being in a state of chronic pain and discomfort. Additionally, I looked at the speeches of legislators who questioned whether or not the state should actually take up the financial burden of supporting a generation of men and women who found themselves devastated by the hard hand of war. In the end, the wide variety of voices from the past allowed me to write a book that examines the surgeons, the patients, the women who loved (or tried to love) amputated men, the difficult homecoming for disabled veterans, and the politics of paying damages to a new class of dependent citizens.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Empty Sleeves?

BM: The challenges amputees posed to southern society were not merely visual and symbolic: injured veterans depended on surgeons to make a proper medical recommendation; on women to provide continued medical care, emotional support, and often basic functioning; on employers to cheerfully accept diminished capacity without seeming to stoop to charity or pity; and on the state to provide prosthetics, validation, and, ultimately, a pension. The process by which this new level of white male dependency–on other men, on women, on employers, and on the state–became societally and culturally accepted (however ambivalently) and was, I argue, a critical facet in the remaking of white manhood in the postbellum South.

JF: Why do we need to read Empty Sleeves?

BM: This is the very first book to fully discuss amputation and its ramifications on southern surgeons, soldiers, legislatures, women, and society both during and after the Civil War. Although the loss of a limb has been an important part of our cultural understanding of the ramifications of warfare, few historians have ventured into a few scale exploration of how medical suffering shaped the lives of Americans after the ink dried at Appomattox. Yet, amputation remains an important part of our popular understanding of the war and its legacy. If you participate in a ghost tour in New Orleans or Savannah, you will stroll past a former hospital site that now hosts apparitions in the form of bloodied surgeons and limbless soldiers who produce puddles of blood in the bathroom sinks. Most Hollywood films that touch on the Civil War, from Gone with the Wind, The Horse Soldiers, and Ride with the Devil to Dances with Wolves and Lincoln utilize the removal of a limb or the sight of the limbless to force audiences to ponder the larger legacy of suffering produced by the repercussions of military conflict.

Additionally, the scope alone beckons a full-scale study of amputation. Unfortunately, we have no idea how many Confederate soldiers lost a limb, as record keeping emerged in a scattered fashion early in the war and several boxes of medical records ended up destroyed when the Confederacy abandoned Richmond, as Union commander Ulysses S. Grant approached the city. Although some historians have wondered if studies that examine a small portion of the population are worthy, thousands of amputees returned home to thousands of family and community members who now had to face a world that had traditionally little room for the disabled. As time passed, hundreds of legislators debated the merits of spending tax dollars on caring amputated, aged, and dilapidated veterans. Thus, in many ways, amputees brushed by the threshold of every farmstead and homestead across the South.

The American Civil War produced an entire generation of wounded, disfigured, and disillusioned men who returned to a world they no longer recognized. Many survived to lead meaningful lives even as they coped with the new realities of emancipation, destruction, and defeat. But their sheer number and peculiar circumstances made them impossible for the culture to ignore. Much has been written about how American culture adjusted to the sheer amount of death meted out by the Civil War. But less has been written about those who did not quite die, who died in part and returned to bear living witness through their ravaged bodies to the steep cost of war. Thus, I hope that Empty Sleeves is an early and important step of what becomes a detailed investigation of how southern society absorbed the massive medical trauma of the Civil War.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BM: I have always had a love of history since my childhood. My brother, sister, and I would fight the Civil War in our backyard every summer (they were Yankees, while I donned Confederate gray) with our plastic swords and wooden muskets. On numerous family vacations, my parents took us to Civil War museums and battlefields. We would go spend a week at Disneyworld and then stop at Andersonville on our drive home. Yet, I entered college more interested in biology and medicine. During my sophomore year at Penn State, my best friend, Justin Rodkey, invited me along to his Civil War class on an afternoon when I did not have to work or attend class. Gary Gallagher delivered a very compelling lecture that afternoon called “Background for Emancipation”. I sat mesmerized for the hour and fifteen minutes, as Gallagher wove humor and personal stories into a very compelling and fast-paced narrative. As I walked out of the hall, I thought, I did not know you could do THAT for a living: to get paid to talk about something that you so clearly love. I decided then and there that I wanted to be a professional Civil War historian.

JF: What is your next project?

BM: My next book project, which is under contract with the University of Georgia Press, will be an exploration of Walt Disney and Civil War memory (tentatively entitled Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln: Walt Disney’s Civil War Memory). In particular, I will examine the iconic attraction Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which first appeared at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City and then opened a year later in Disneyland (where it has been ever since) and a shorter version that opened as part of the presentation in the Hall of Presidents at Disneyworld. Walt Disney’s personal admiration for Lincoln led to the development of this fascinating pop culture site, which opened in the midst of a very contentious Civil War centennial celebration that found itself mired over the larger meaning of the war. Disney significantly shaped the public memory of the Civil War through an audio animatronic figure that utilized Lincoln’s own words to showcase ideals of freedom and democracy in Cold War America. After spending a decade in “dark history” and reading about so much pain and suffering, I needed some time researching and writing about the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

JF: Certainly sounds entertaining! Thanks Brian.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

One thought on “The Author’s Corner with Brian Craig Miller

  1. In this post and in the one on Islam and the “fabric” of American history I’m seeing resonances with the commentary on the Gordon Wood business—the admonition to respect the pastness of the past. I agree entirely, and use the language of “strange/familiar” in my own teaching to convey that.

    There appears to be a contention (not by you John, but in the non-academic conversation) that asking questions relevant to us today is by default the imposition of a partisan agenda. But these two posts demonstrate that relevance to our own lives and times is not the same as a partisan agenda. Brian Craig Miller’s inquiry about amputation in the Civil War era is prompted by observations about amputees from our own wars. President Obama’s allusions to Muslims in early America has political implications, indeed, but if it prompts a greater interest in developing historical knowledge about the lives and experiences of enslaved Muslims (apart from the Founders’ opinions of them), that’s a good thing.

    This conversation between ourselves and historical people, however, makes porous any strict distinctions about pastness/strangeness and relevance/familiarity. This all has little to do with Wood’s other concern about the inability of historians to mount a national narrative, but with thinking about how and why we ask new question about the past, and how we as academics explain that to the public keen to charge us with “revisionism” when we find new things in history.

    Just a thought.


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