Civil War Soldier Beat the Odds and Survived Bilateral Amputation

Doctors marveled at his quick recovery. Fitted with artificial limbs,
Charles N. Lapham, went to college and later landed a job in the U.S. Treasury
Department. He lived to the age of 46.

Battle of Boonsboro

Lapham, a trooper in the First Vermont Cavalry, lost his legs in the
July 8, 1863, Battle of Boonsboro, Md. His cavalry force fought against
Confederate cavalry protecting General Robert E. Lee’s retreat following
his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pa.

A solid cannon shot took away the lower parts of both of Lapham’s
legs. He was taken to a field hospital in Boonsboro, where his wounds were
bandaged while he awaited the surgeons, according to an entry about Lapham on
the Vermont in the
Civil War website.

On July 10, 1863, surgeon L.P. Woods of the Fifth New York Cavalry
removed both of Lapham’s legs.

Speedy recovery

Lapham’s speedy recovery is even more remarkable due to the time
that elapsed before his amputations. Patients who underwent limb removal 2 days
or longer after they were shot had a 50-50 chance of living.

“Delay in treating shattered limbs … led to more pain for the
patient, a higher chance of infection, and a decreased likelihood of
survival,” Ira M. Rutkow wrote in Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War
Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine
. “Once 48 hours had
passed, there was enough bacterial growth that any cutting would spread the
germs through the bloodstream. The result was blood poisoning, which … was
almost invariably fatal.”

  Following his amputations, Charles N. Lapham worked as a clerk in the U.S. Department of Treasury.
  Following his amputations,
Charles N. Lapham worked as a clerk in the U.S. Department of Treasury.
  Image: National Museum of Health
and Medicine Photo #SP154

When Lapham was well enough to travel, the cavalryman was sent to the
Baxter Army General Hospital at Burlington, Vt. He spent 4 months in the
hospital before he was sent home, presumably to Bridgeport, Vt., where he was

“There he depended on friends and family to nurse him, and provide
for him,” the website read. “A year later … he was taken to New
York City where the government paid to have artificial limbs constructed for

Lapham saw E.D. Hudson, MD, who was “one of the first surgeons to
confine himself to the precise construction of extremity prostheses for the
wounded amputee,” wrote Blair O. Rogers in “Rehabilitation of Wounded
Civil War Veterans,” his 2002 Aesthetic Plastic Surgery
journal article.

Hudson found that Lapham’s “right stump is healed and in good
condition, though the supporting cicatrix (scar) at the base is not good.
Regarding the left stump – this forms the most useful, reliable and
comfortable support [for him] and constitutes his chief dependence.”

Life after battle

Lapham was discharged and pensioned by the Army in August 1864.

“Five months after his discharge … he enrolled in the Collegiate
Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. While there he found time to write to [the]
doctor who helped him regain some ‘normalcy’ in his life –
Hudson – who had made his ‘new legs.’ He wrote: ‘I can walk
with ease on level ground, get up and down stairs readily and am getting along
much better than I anticipated in so short a time.’”

Lapham later worked as a clerk in the Treasury Department in Washington.

Rogers quoted from a letter Lapham wrote in 1874: “I am doing
finely with the pair of artificial legs and the aid of canes. I keep improving.
I find no difficulty in getting off or on railway cars, and steamboats, and am
getting about quite independently. I suffer no irritation of my stumps, and
after my experience, in comparing limbs with every other kind, I am satisfied
with my selection.”

Lapham later married, and he and his wife had a daughter. He was buried
in Arlington National Cemetery.

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