William Oland Bourne was a New York City reformer, author and editor, not a physician.

Nonetheless, he believed it was important to heal Civil War amputees emotionally as well as physically. So from 1865 to1866, he sponsored a national left-handed writing contest for Union soldiers and sailors who had lost their right arms in battle.

Bourne was editor of The Soldier’s Friend, a small monthly newsletter. He assumed the amputees were right-handed, Jalynn Olsen Padilla wrote in “Army of ‘Cripples:’ Northern Civil War Amputees, Disability, and Manhood in Victorian America,” her 2007 history doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware.

“Little more than three months after Appomattox and the end of the war, ‘Left-Handed Penmanship’ was one of the first public spaces that made literate and gave validation to the stories Civil War soldiers had to tell,” Benjamin Cooper wrote in TheArizona Quarterly in 2011.

In his article, titled “Franklin H. Durrah, John William De Forest, and the Varieties of Military Experience,” Cooper added, “Not just soldiers, but specifically mutilated soldiers, were directed to apply. And while this restriction might in part stem from a morbid curiosity about amputees and how they functioned with their disabilities, it seems more likely that for Bourne, Harper’s, and the general passers-by on the street, the visible effects of war and sacrifice on the bodies of soldiers demanded some form of immediate public expression.”


Image: Collection of The New-York Historical Society

A chaplain at Central Park Hospital during the war, Bourne helped soldiers and sailors readjust to civilian life, particularly those who were disabled. His newspaper was filled with “inspirational stories, information about bounty payments and pension laws, and advertisements for everything from patent medicines to artificial limbs,” Padilla wrote. “Bourne…decided to sponsor the left-handed contest to inspire men with missing right arms to practice writing and to seek work as clerks and bookkeepers….Bourne believed that the best way to help disabled veterans was to encourage them to help themselves,” Padilla explained.

To boost interest in his unique competition, Bourne offered $500 of his own money for prizes. “He also advertised the contest in The Soldier’s Friend, in popular periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, and in handbills,” she wrote.

Only right arm lost

According to contest rules, any man who lost his right arm in military service could compete.

“He may write an original or selected article upon a patriotic theme, and he must write not less than two nor more than seven pages upon fine letter paper of ordinary size, leaving an inch margin at the sides, top and bottom of the paper. The writer must also give his name in full; his regiment, company, and rank; the list of battles in which he was engaged; the place where he lost his arm, and his post-office address.”

Bourne lined up seven other men to help judge the contest, including New York Gov. R.E. Fenton, poet William Cullen Bryant, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and the Rev. H.W. Bellows of the US Sanitary Commission. The other judges and the Sanitary Commission chipped in $500 additional prize money. The $1,000 total would be awarded in prizes ranging from $20 to $200.

Two hundred-seventy armless veterans entered the contest. Bourne displayed all of the entries in New York and Washington to rave reviews. A reporter said the handwriting proved that “No Yankee loses his heart with his arm.”

Encouraged by the number of entrants and the strong public support for the contest, Bourne, in 1867, sponsored a second competition. It offered ten $50 prizes, each one named for a Union general.

Bourne required entrants to furnish proof of their disability by submitting a copy of their discharge certificate, a photograph or an affidavit attesting that they were amputees, according to Padilla.

Most of the amputees had sufficient pre-war schooling “to write clear and sometimes eloquent accounts of their war experiences.” A few were barely literate and “in wavering, childlike penmanship, the men explained that they had been struggling to read and write after the war ended,” Padilla wrote.

Value of penmanship

The writings of many amputees reflected Bourne’s faith in the value of penmanship — the typewriter was yet to be invented — as a job skill “that required mental rather than physical energy.” Writing offered the disabled veterans who performed manual labor before the war a chance for “financial and personal independence,” Padilla wrote. She quoted contestant Seth Sutherland of Ohio, a former army sergeant: “Penmanship is necessary to any man who wants to get along through this world on one wing.”

Following contest instructions, 75% of the left-handed penmen wrote about camping, marching and combat.

“The men described their military experience as a welcome adventure and celebrated their bravery in the face of danger,” Padilla wrote. But “amputees who focused on their wartime heroism minimized for public consumption the suffering they surely endured.”

At the same time, the contestants hoped to show the country that their wartime experience had not damaged them.

“They minimized any discussion of physical injuries and argued that — emotionally and psychologically — they were the same men who had marched off to fight,” according to Padilla.

Many of the amputees took advantage of the federal government’s offer to give them $50 toward a prosthesis. One ex-soldier mailed Bourne a letter written with his prosthesis. Another sent a photo of himself playing a violin with his prosthesis.

“By showing their successes with artificial limbs, heroic soldiers minimized their disabilities, hoping to show that they had come home unscathed,” Padilla wrote.

Cooper wrote that Bourne’s contest represented “a larger cultural tendency immediately following the war that symbolically wanted to undo the trauma of the conflict through a mnemonic sleight of hand.”

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