Civil War amputee Robert Alexander Hannah apparently did not seek a patent for his artificial leg, unique as it was.
He purportedly crafted a prosthesis that featured a bull’s hoof for a foot.
The fate of Hannah’s bovine brace is unknown. But his rare government-issued leg is a featured exhibit at the Bentonville Battlefield, near Four Oaks, N.C.
“It was his ‘Sunday-go-to-meetin’ leg,” Donny Taylor, site manager at the Tarheel State park, said. The leg is possibly the sole surviving prosthesis from a North Carolina program that provided free artificial limbs to Civil War veterans.
Hannah was a Confederate foot soldier who lost his left leg, and nearly his life, at the battle of Gettysburg, Pa., not Bentonville, site of one of the war’s last battles.
Hannah, from Anson County, N.C., reputedly was a Confederate soldier to his dying day, according to newspaper columnist W. Curt Vincent. Hence, he would not have wanted his prosthesis displayed on Yankee turf, the old soldier’s grandson, Duncan Hannah of Red Springs, N.C., told Vincent.
Grandpa Hannah joined Company K of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment shortly after the war started in 1861. He was a seasoned combat veteran by the summer of 1863 when his outfit headed north with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s storied Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee collided with Gen. George G. Meade’s famous Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg July 1-3.
Hannah fell on the first day of the bloodiest battle of America’s bloodiest war. The 26th North Carolina charged up a slope toward the legendary “Iron Brigade,” consisting of infantry backed up by cannons.
When the Confederates got close, the artillerymen in blue blasted the graycoats with deadly canister shot — dozens of small iron or lead balls closely packed together in sawdust inside a tin container.
Often erroneously called “grapeshot,” even by soldiers, canister shot claimed the lives or limbs of hundreds of soldiers on both sides. In effect, the ammunition turned cannons into big shotguns.
Surgeons removed the ball from Hannah’s head in short order. But they reportedly waited a month before amputating the limb which was, by then, infected, oozing pus and threatening to kill the 28-year-old soldier.
The leg was removed just below the knee, according to Vincent’s 2005 article in The Robesonian newspaper of Lumberton, N.C.
He quoted Duncan Hannah’s gruesome details of the operation: “They didn’t take shot of out limbs back then, they just whacked it off. At first, they thought a bone sticking out of a leg was his, but it turned out to be someone else’s. They also think that grapeshot that hit him went through someone else first.”
Robert Hannah was lucky to be alive. Historians say the 26th North Carolina suffered more losses than any outfit, Union or Confederate, at Gettysburg. By the end of the battle, more than 700 of the regiment’s 800 men were listed as killed, wounded or missing.
Hannah recovered. Though minus a leg, he farmed and opened a turpentine mill near Wadesboro, the Anson County seat. In his spare time, he whittled his own peg legs before he heard about the state program that offered amputee veterans free train trips to Raleigh, the state capital, to be fitted with artificial limbs at no cost, Vincent wrote.
Hannah got his new leg in 1867. “He became one of the 1,550 to take advantage of the program,” Vincent explained.
Hannah’s prosthesis is made of wood, metal and leather. “It looks fairly natural,” Taylor said. “It has what looks like toes on it. They spring back and forth.”
The Jewett Leg
The inventor, ironically a Boston Yankee named Samuel B. Jewett, got the prosthesis patented shortly after the war ended in 1865. His limbs wound up supporting many former Confederate soldiers in several ex-Confederate states. North Carolina reportedly was the first one to start a free prosthesis program for disabled veterans.
Jewett, according to his 1910 obituary in a Laconia, N.H., newspaper, “was a natural mechanic and skilled workman.” His patented leg “was generally considered the best thing of the kind at the time.”
According to Vincent, the Jewett Leg became Hannah’s “Sunday and square dancing leg; he used other artificial legs, including one that had a bull’s hoof on it for the foot for less formal occasions.”
Although Hannah said his grandfather “was a real mess,” meaning a cutup, the old soldier remained more than physically scarred by the war. “When he’d be out in the dry corn stalks in the fall, sometimes you could hear him screaming. Apparently, the wind would blow and the dry stalks would rub together and he thought it sounded like men marching, and he’d have flashbacks.”
Robert Hannah died in 1917 at age 81 years. Duncan Hannah ended up with the leg. He confessed to playing with the old relic when he was a child.
For years, the leg stayed propped in a corner of the Hannah house. At one time or another, its hollow insides became a depository for “a candy wrapper, a dime and a baby’s tooth,” according to Vincent.
Ultimately, Duncan Hannah concluded that the leg belonged in a museum. So in 2004, he sent it to the Bentonville Battlefield as a long-term loan.
“He was a Confederate right to the end — a real hard-core Confederate,” Vincent quoted Duncan. “He named all of his sons after Confederate generals and refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance. He even insisted that he be buried in a gray suit, not a blue one.”
Duncan also said his grandfather asked not to be interred with his Jewett’s Leg. He said “he wouldn’t need it where he was going.”
At the Bentonville Battlefield visitors’ center, a Civil War era crutch and surgeon’s amputating kit are displayed in a large glass case alongside the limb.
“It’s a popular exhibit,” Taylor said. “When a lot of people think of artificial legs they think of peg legs like pirates wore. People don’t realize how much money states like North Carolina put into providing soldiers with good artificial limbs.”
North Carolina spent $81,310.12 on the program between 1866 and 1870, according to a 2004 Associated Press story about Duncan Hannah lending the leg to the battlefield museum.