Civil War Amputee Defended Union in Confederate Assault on DC

Union Brigadier General Halbert Eleazer Paine rode home to Wisconsin on the first steamboat to go up the Mississippi River after the fall of Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La., in 1863.

Paine was missing most of his left leg, so the trip was not a pleasure cruise. Nor did he stay home for long.

Halbert Eleazer Paine resumed combat duty after working as a lawyer.

Halbert Eleazer Paine resumed combat duty
after working as a lawyer.

Image: Public domain Wikimedia Commons.

The amputee general was back on active duty in about 3 months. He even returned to combat, briefly, in 1864.

Paine is not a well-known Civil War general, “but he had a most distinguished military career,” wrote Ezra J. Warner in Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders.

Indeed, the army rewarded the Ohio-born commander’s bravery by promoting him to brevet major general before he left the service as the Civil War was ending in 1865, Warner added.

Paine was 37 years old when he lost his leg, and nearly his life, leading a bloody and unsuccessful pre-dawn attack against heavily fortified Port Hudson on June 14, 1863. At the time, Port Hudson and nearby Vicksburg were the only Confederate strongholds left on the Mississippi River.

Paine was “in the very act of leading his division” when an enemy rifle bullet smashed his thigh, wrote Richard Biddle Irwin in History of the Nineteenth Army Corps, published in 1892. Paine had “received his well-earned commission as brigadier-general” just 9 days before, added Irwin, a corps veteran.


In peacetime, Paine had taught school in Mississippi and practiced law in Milwaukee. His law partner was early Republican party leader and influential German immigrant Carl Schurz, who would be a Union general during the war and secretary of the interior afterwards.

In May 1861, a month after the war began, Paine became colonel of the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, which the army later converted to the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry.

Paine, who ended up fighting in Louisiana, shared Schurz’s politics and his staunch anti-slavery and pro-Union views.

“He offered the paradox of a dedicated abolitionist who on the one hand refused to return fugitive slaves to their masters, but on the other would not burn Baton Rouge, although expressly ordered to do so by his superior, Benjamin F. Butler,” Warner wrote.

Paine’s superior at Port Hudson was Ulysses S. Grant. He was determined to capture the massive Confederate fortifications at Vicksburg and the smaller Confederate bastion at Port Hudson, thus opening the Mississippi to Union control from its source to its mouth.

Grant led the bulk of his army against Vicksburg while his other troops moved on Port Hudson. He ended up besieging both locations, starting in May 1863.

Vicksburg and Port Hudson crowned high bluffs furrowed with deep trenches and studded with large cannons. Thousands of Confederate troops defended both towns.

Ill-fated assault

Paine helped lead an ill-fated assault that began at 3:30 a.m. on June 14. The Confederates drove back the Union troops, who suffered many losses.

Paine was shot off his horse at the head of his troops.


“The slight ridges produced in cultivating a field of cotton, was all the protection he had from the enemy’s fire,” according to E.B. Quiner’s 1866 Military History of Wisconsin. “All day he lay in this place with the hot sun pouring down upon him, unable to change his position, and suffering intensely from thirst, which was partially alleviated by a canteen of water thrown to him by a wounded soldier near him.”

Union troops were not able to rescue Paine until after nightfall, according to Quiner’s book.

Paine was taken to the Hôtel de Dieu Hospital in New Orleans where doctors tried to save his mangled leg. Nine days later, surgeons removed it at the thigh, Irwin wrote.

On July 4, the Confederates gave up Vicksburg. Port Hudson fell to the Union army on July 9.

A man among men

“A few days after the surrender, in order to avoid the increasing dangers of the climate, Paine was sent to his home in Wisconsin on the captured steamer Starlight, the first boat that ascended the river,” Irwin wrote. “Thus the Nineteenth Corps lost one of its bravest and most promising commanders, one who had earned the affection of his men, not less through respect for his character than by his unfailing sympathy and care in all situations, and who was commended to the confidence and esteem of his associates and superiors by talent and devotion of the first order joined to every quality that stamps a man among men.”

After convalescing in Milwaukee, Paine went to Washington, DC in September 1863 to serve as an army lawyer, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

But when Gen. Jubal A. Early and his Confederate soldiers raided Washington in July, 1864, Paine returned to combat duty. He “performed much valuable service” especially when he took command “of the forces stationed between Forts Totten and Stevens,” Warner wrote.

President Lincoln, whom Paine admired, watched the Union troops successfully defend the city.

Later in the war, Paine was given command of the District of Illinois. After earning his second set of general’s stars, Paine resigned from the army on May 15, 1865.

Almost immediately, Milwaukee voters elected him to Congress on the Republican ticket. He aligned himself with the liberal Radical Republicans. They favored an end to slavery, supported citizenship and voting rights for African Americans and wanted a stricter form of Reconstruction — the federal policy of readmitting the Confederate states to the Union.

After serving three terms in Congress, Paine stayed in Washington and practiced law. By then, Schurz was interior secretary and wanted Paine to be his assistant. Paine declined but in 1878, he agreed to be commissioner of patents. “In this capacity he introduced the use of typewriters into the Federal bureaucracy — a marked achievement for the time,” Warner wrote.

Paine died in 1905 at 79 years old and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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