Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Wooden Leg

“A soldier's fortune I tell you plain - is a wooden leg or a golden chain.”

     This quote can certainly apply to the Civil War.  Many soldiers received wounds which required amputations, and those who survived needed prosthetic limbs.  There were prosthetics for arms, legs, hands, and feet, but today I am going to focus on a leg.  This particular leg has an interesting story.

      Sometime in the early 1950s a local farmer was out rabbit hunting in a field near the Monocacy River Bridge in Frederick, Maryland, which is now part of the Monocacy National Battlefield.  As he walked along the river, he noticed something protruding from the mud in the riverbank.  It captured his interest enough to dig it out, and he was quite surprised to discover that it was a wooden prosthetic leg! 

      I should note here that collecting artifacts from any federally-owned property is illegal.  However, at that time the property was privately owned.  The land for the Monocacy National Battlefield was not purchased by the government until 1976.

This prosthetic leg is made of wood, leather, cloth, and metal. It is a right leg with articulated knee, ankle, and toe joints. The hinges at the knee are rusted into their present position. The two circular holes on each side of the leg are for ventilation. The leather is stiff and coated in dirt, the wood is dirty and shows some signs of past insect damage, and the metal is coated with rust. However, the leg is in stable condition. Though it has seen better days, it is in remarkably good shape considering that it was buried in mud for so many years. 

     The farmer kept the leg for many years, and his family reported that since the leg was found on what had been the Monocacy Battlefield, he had always felt it was probably from that battle.  Considering that a soldier with a leg amputation would not have received a prosthetic leg until after his wound had healed and that he would not be sent back into battle, that is pretty unlikely.  It is more probable that the leg was discarded at some point after the battle, possibly after its owner’s death.  Still, it was a very unique find!  In September of 2005, after the farmer’s death, his daughter generously donated the prosthetic leg to the museum in her father’s memory. 

Here you can see that there is a remnant of leather covering the toe section of the foot, and a portion of thick canvas on the underside which appears to be part of a shoe sole.

     This prosthetic leg is becoming quite well-traveled.  It was on display at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, in 2009 -2010 in a temporary exhibit titled, “Deadlier Than Bullets.”  Now it is included in a traveling exhibition hosted by the Virginia Historical Society called, “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia” and it will travel to several venues throughout Virginia until 2015.  Currently it is on display at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia.  It may have been buried in mud for years, but it is still able to tell its story!  

     If you would like to learn more, here are two links which tell about the American Turning Point exhibit:

 Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine


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