Double-Amputee Recorded Lincoln’s Final Moments

Cpl. James Tanner became a stenographer in Washington, DC, after he lost
both legs in the Civil War at the age of 18 years. The double-amputee had no
idea that his new job would make him an eyewitness to one of the greatest
tragedies in American history just a few years later.

On the night of April 14, 1865, he was dispatched to the Petersen
boarding house, opposite Ford’s theater. Barely 21 years old at that time,
he “was called upon to take notes of the first official evidence
regarding” the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Capt. James E.
Smith wrote in The Career of Corporal James Tanner in War and
. “…This duty brought him the sad privilege of standing by
the bedside of the dying President.” Lincoln succumbed on the morning of
April 15.

  A Famous Battery and Its
Campaigns, 1861-’64. Washington D.C.: W.H. Lowdermilk & Co..

Tanner nearly perished on Aug. 30, 1862, in the Second Battle of Bull
Run, Va. Confederate cannon fire mangled his feet and legs, necessitating

A native of Richmondville, N.Y., Tanner joined the 87th New York
Infantry at age 17 years. He advanced from private to corporal and received his
baptism of fire in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Gen. George B.
McClellan’s unsuccessful attempt to capture Richmond, the Confederate

Lost the blackberry

Near Richmond, he was almost killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Smith
quoted Tanner: “We were stationed in a field filled with blackberry
bushes, and it didn’t take us long to find out that the berries were ripe
and plentiful. I stood my gun against a tree and proceeded to fill up an
ever-aching void (in those days) in my interior. The shells were flying pretty
thick over us…I had just secured a great big berry and was about to put it
in my mouth when a shell hit the tree where my gun was standing and a shower of
branches and bark struck me. I thought the top of my head was gone, but felt
very much relieved when I found that I had nothing worse to show for this close
call than an enormously swelled lip. But I lost the blackberry.”

He lost his leg a month later.

Tanner’s outfit was under heavy shellfire near a winding northern
Virginia stream named Bull Run. It was about 3 p.m. on Aug. 30, according to
Smith: “As the only means of saving them the men were ordered to lie close
to the ground…While thus hugging the earth, his face to the foe, his
musket at a ready, a hurtling fragment from a bursting shell struck the brave
young corporal’s left lower leg, nearly severing the foot at the ankle,
and then shattering the right leg below the knee into a mass of crushed flesh
and splintered bone.”

Tanner said he was lying with one heel over the other: “I had been
talking with the sergeant-major of the 105th Pennsylvania, and knew his
position from the chevrons on his sleeves, but was ignorant of his name. The
first intimation I had of the extent of my injury was when he jumped to his
feet and exclaimed: ‘My God! Look at that poor boy with both feet

There was no stretcher handy, so Tanner’s comrades improvised,
according to Smith. Tanner recalled: They “twisted a musket in on each
side and lifted me to their shoulders. Neither of my legs had been entirely
severed; my feet were hanging by shreds of flesh. The blanket was short, and
lying on it on my face, I looked under and saw my feet dangling by the skin as
they hung off of the other end. Some kind-hearted soul gently lifted them and
laid them on the edge of the blanket.”

Tanner’s mates carried him to a nearby field hospital. He was
unconscious and apparently near death. “…The surgeons at once
amputated both legs about four inches below the knee,” according to Smith.

The Confederates drove the Union army from the battlefield as they had
in the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. The retreating blueclad soldiers
had to leave Tanner and more than 200 other seriously wounded soldiers to the
mercy of the Confederates.

Six of the wounded men had lost seven legs. Tanner was the
double-amputee, according to W.A. Shute of the 13th Massachusetts Infantry
Regiment, one of the wounded. Surgeons had removed his leg.

Shute remembered: “The first night we passed there with the dark
canopy of a stormy sky for a covering, which eventually dissolved and poured
down on us a drenching rain. Though this was disagreeable enough to us poor,
helpless fellows, yet I have often thought since that it may have been a
blessing in disguise by the unstinted application of cold water it afforded to
our fevered limbs.”

Two days later, the Confederates transported the Union amputees to a
nearby house, which had been converted into a hospital. On Sept. 2, they agreed
to parole their captives, meaning the soldiers could go home after promising to
fight no more.

Meanwhile, the men spent the next 10 days and nights in a tent next to
the house. Food and care were in short supply, Shute said: “The first four
days, especially, we came pretty near being starved….Then we received some
supplies under a flag of truce, but had to divide with ‘our friends, the

Nerve and patience

The weather was very hot, and there was nobody to attend the soldiers
except a Union hospital steward who stayed behind with the wounded, Shute said.
“…It is no wonder that we all suffered dreadfully, and some died
whose lives might have been saved under other surroundings. I lay next to
Tanner and, although he was but a boy of eighteen, I never saw a wounded
soldier bear his misfortune with more nerve and patience.”

On Sept. 9, ambulances transported the wounded Union soldiers to their
army. Shute continued: “…Though we had a long and wearisome ride
through the night, its miseries were wonderfully relieved by the thought that
it was towards our ‘ain counteree’ that we were going.”

The next morning, the ambulance train reached a makeshift hospital at
Fairfax Seminary. Smith said that Tanner battled hard to live, though the odds
were “terribly against him.”

According to Smith, the soldier survived, thanks to “a vigorous
constitution and a stern determination to live…His courage never faltered,
and when he began to improve his first thought was: “‘What can I do,
thus crippled, to hold my place among men?’”

Eventually, he was sent to Schoharie, N.Y., near Richmondville, to
recover. “He was skillfully fitted with artificial limbs, which he soon
learned to manage passably well,” Smith wrote.

Friends got him hired as assistant doorkeeper for the New York
legislature at Albany. He held other jobs until 1864, when he became a War
Department stenographer.

After he left the War Department, Tanner became a lawyer. He became
commissioner of pensions in Washington, where he died in 1927 at age 83 years.

“Chivalry in its best sense did not perish when the steel-clad
knights and men-at-arms passed away with the advent of powder and rifled
guns,” Smith wrote. “….Among the gallant array whose names have
won deathless renown on the sanguinary fields of our great Civil War none is
more widely esteemed, or is more deserving of his fame that hero of the rank
and file known of all men as ‘Corporal Tanner.’”

For more information:

  • Smith J. A Famous Battery and Its Campaigns, 1861-64. The
    Career of Corporal James Tanner in War and Peace; Early Days in the Black Hills
    With Some Account of Captain Jack Crawford the Poet Scout.
    D.C.: W. H. Lowdermilk & Co.; 1892.

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