Tintype Images of Wounded Civil War Union Soldiers from Pension Application Files in the U.S. National Archives
Today’s post is by Jackie Budell, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
**Please note that the following post contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers.**
It is the unspoken hope of many researchers who visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to rediscover a photograph of a Civil War soldier amid the pages of a Federal pension application file – to put a face with the name – hoping to see the youthful face of a proud soldier in his new uniform.
Instead, you may be surprised to find an image of an older disfigured veteran.
Why do some pension files have photographs and others do not? The answer is EVIDENCE!
Personal photographic images are most often found in pension application files in which the person who sought government aid attempted to provide evidence of injury, identity, or relationship. The objective was to prove one’s entitlement to a pension.
When a veteran applied for a pension based on a war injury, a medical examination photograph taken by a doctor was convincing evidence. As a result, researchers of some pension files today can do more than read about a gunshot wound or amputated limb — one can see it in these rare photographs. These are not formal images showing the veteran in his Sunday-best clothes, but were intended to show what lay beneath his shirt sleeves.
The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (published 1870 -1888) reported that 21,753 men survived the 29,980 amputations that were performed on Union soldiers. Civil War surgeons had limited techniques for mending shattered joints, and amputation was the only option for many soldiers facing infection and gangrene. Veterans with permanent disabilities wrestled with conflicted feelings because society saw their wounds as both badges of honor and signs of weakness.
If a veteran applied for a pension, he feared being seen by his community as unable to provide for his family. Furthermore, the War Department sought to minimize the degree that veterans were dependent on a government pension by drafting strict definitions for ‘grading’ disabilities that determined the rate of pay. The Bureau of Pensions rejected many applications for an ‘increase’ or raise in monthly pension rates by citing a veteran’s ability to adapt to his physical condition and perform basic personal tasks or earn meager wages.
Disabled veterans adapted to their new reality with varying degrees of success. The weight of both physical and emotional effects took their toll causing many to never recover while some ‘fortunate’ men sought new vocations within their means and led surprisingly productive lives.
Many of these veterans reacted to Congressional legislation passed on August 4, 1886 (24 Stat. 220) that increased the pension rate for soldiers and sailors who had lost a limb in military service. The amount of the increase was determined by the extent of the loss (a hand versus an arm, or an arm above versus below the elbow) and whether the pensioner was ”totally disabled” as a result. The law further stated that a person who had lost an arm at the shoulder joint or a leg at the hip joint, or “so near the joint as to prevent the use of an artificial limb,” would have his pension rate increased to $45 per month.
If ever a pension requirement could be supported by photographic evidence, this was it! Some amputees who physically could not be fitted for an artificial limb submitted photos to demonstrate the obvious extent of their wounds; the suffering of others may not have been as obvious in a photo, but still had impact beyond the written word. This legislation generated mountains of paperwork from older veterans who submitted surgeon reports, witness testimony and personal statements to bolster their applications. These primary documents created decades after the war offer first-hand accounts of the day to day challenges faced by Civil War amputees as they aged.
To follow in two blog posts, we chronicle the lives of eight Civil War amputees illustrated by personal tintypes submitted as evidence in the pension application process. These veterans’ experiences can often be reconstructed using primary records preserved in the holdings of the National Archives. Pension application files are key and rich resources, but information can also be gleaned from military service records, regimental field books, hospital records, Federal census returns, government employee directories, registers for the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and more.
Newspaper accounts archived at other institutions can build upon this research and provide a social perspective to flesh out their lives in a way that allows future generations to better appreciate their sacrifices and accomplishments. When the time came to publish an obituary, newspaper reporters reflected on a veteran’s legacy through the lens of his local community.
Many of us have seen the well-known and haunting photographs taken of piles of amputated limbs outside hospitals during the conflict. Limbs without bodies. These relatively rare personal tintypes preserved in pension files inspire researchers to vividly resurrect the stories of these men by bringing their faces to light, not just their wounds. Their testimony – and the look in their eyes – beg us to remember that the war never ended for them.
Visit the National Archives Catalog to see more images from the collection of Civil War-era personal tintypes.
Landsman Philip Dudley – USS Lexington, US Navy
Red River – The Largest Combined Army-Navy Operation of the Civil War
Although born on the east coast in Gloucester, Virginia, Philip Dudley enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Alexandria, Louisiana on March 25, 1864 in the midst of the Red River Campaign. Union forces in the fight included infantry and cavalry troops along with the Mississippi flotilla of the U.S. Navy. The campaign would be the largest combined army-navy operation of the Civil War.
The USS Lexington was among several dozen naval vessels in this campaign commanded by Admiral David Dixon Porter. Dudley was in service aboard this timberclad gunboat for less than a month when he faced a hailstorm of musket fire from the enemy on the shore of the Red River in April 1864.
He was wounded by a gunshot to his upper left arm and it was amputated to save his life. He recovered at Hospital Pinkney, a hotel property in Memphis, Tennessee that had been confiscated by General Ulysses S. Grant and turned over to Fleet Surgeon Ninian A. Pinkney to be converted to a naval medical facility.
Dudley was discharged on June 10, 1864. His disability was shown to be “total” and he immediately began collecting a survivor’s pension of $8 per month.
Philip Dudley received modest increases in his pension payment as the law allowed during the next two decades reaching a high of $35 per month.
On August 4, 1886, Congress passed legislation that raised the pension rate for veteran amputees who physically could not be fitted for an artificial limb.
At the time, Dudley was living in Carbondale, Illinois. The above tintype image was taken by photographer J.W. Bird in that town and it was submitted with Dudley’s application to the Bureau of Pensions the following March 1887.
The photograph, in addition to his physician’s affidavit, supported his claim by showing that Dudley’s arm was amputated so near the shoulder joint as to prevent the practical use of an artificial limb. The stump was too short, and the scar was soft, tender and painful. His application for an increase was approved at the highest rate for loss of an arm – $45 per month.
In addition to collecting his pension benefit, Dudley made his living as the owner of a grocery store in Carbondale even though he could not read or write as recorded in the 1900 U.S. Federal census. His daughter Catharine worked as a clerk in the store.
In a form that Dudley completed for the Bureau of Pensions in 1898, he claimed that both his wives were dead. Without a living widow or minor-aged children, his pension ended when he died March 25, 1901. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Carbondale.
Corporal Leopold Masins – 66th New York Infantry
Member of the Left Handed Penmanship Corps
On August 25, 1864, Leopold Masins was engaged in tearing up the track of the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad during the Second Battle of Ream’s Station, Virginia, when he came under “furious attack” by Confederate cavalry. The Minié ball that pierced his right forearm broke the bone requiring an amputation the next day at a field hospital some 17 miles away. By the end of the month, he was recovering at Lincoln General Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he wrote a letter to his wife by holding a pen in his left hand for the first time. He considered the handwriting to look “pretty well.”
One year after his discharge in December 1864, Masins became a member of what was informally known as the “Left Handed Corps.” The name referred to Union disabled veterans who participated in one or both left-handed penmanship contests in 1865 and 1867 sponsored by William Oland Bourne, editor of the monthly journal, The Soldier’s Friend. The contest was inspired by Bourne’s service as a chaplain at the Central Park (NYC) Hospital where he witnessed many right-handed men trying to adapt to left-handed penmanship while signing his autograph book. Veterans were encouraged to submit an original ‘specimen’ of their left-handed penmanship in the form of a poem, patriotic essay or personal narrative describing their experience in the war. The cash prizes for winners were desirable, but the underlying purpose was to encourage self-reliance and retraining to “fit themselves for positions of honor and usefulness.”
Masin’s contest entry from December 1865 was written in German, his native language, and provided many details of his three years service in the war. He recounted how until Ream’s Station he had “luckily escaped all the bullets in so many hard-fought battles with the exception of a few scratches from stray bullets which (he) did not mind.” Writing of the amputation of his right hand, he praised the skillful surgical work of Dr. Wichert (likely Wishart) of the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry.
After making a full recovery, he was eventually transferred to Boston for one day to receive an artificial hand before being discharged just a few days before Christmas 1864. He concluded that it was very difficult to secure civilian employment after the war but that he finally succeeded in February 1865 by “fervently” calling upon the city’s Postmaster, James Kelly, who had promised him the first vacancy and kept his word.
Masins continued in public service as a letter carrier until no longer physically able due to rheumatism and the pain in his amputated arm. Once he retired in December 1876, Masins had only his pension of $30 per month and the support of his family to manage basic needs. Multiple applications for an increase in his pension rate through the 1880s and 1890s were denied, notably his 1885 application that included this tintype to show the “shortness and smallness” of his stump. In fact, Dr. C.S. Wood of New York City stated in the accompanying affidavit that although Masins “has an artificial hand and arm, he can make no use of it what(so)ever after making several efforts to do so.” Dr. Wood pointedly declared that Masins can “make no use of his (artificial) arm except to carry it in his coat sleeve.”
Masins died in January 1897 at the age of 60. He is buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens County, New York.
Sergeant Luke Kelly – 2nd Rhode Island Infantry
A Lifetime of Service – From Volunteer Soldier to War Department Clerk
James and Margaret Cecelia (Flynn) Kelly left their native Ireland and emigrated to the U.S. about 1837 with their first child, Patrick. They added four more children to the family born on American soil, including Luke who arrived in Bath, Virginia (now West Virginia) in March 1844.
The family eventually put down roots in Providence County, Rhode Island where Luke was attending school when the Civil War broke out. He was among the first to enlist in June 1861 and served in nearly every engagement with the Army of the Potomac for the next three years – until the Battle of the Wilderness when his sacrifice became life-changing.
The Battle of the Wilderness began on May 5, 1864 and was the first fight between President Lincoln’s newly-appointed commander in chief of the Union Army, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Grant’s new strategy was to attack with all his forces at once, destroying the Confederate armies rather than taking territory. As a result, his Union troops suffered heavy casualties in the frenzied combat that took place in the dense woods of Virginia known as the Wilderness.
Sergeant Kelly was in the fight on that first day of Grant’s offensive toward Richmond. He was one of 12,037 soldiers wounded during the three-day battle that opened what became known as the Overland Campaign.
The unit surgeon, George W. Carr, stated in an 1865 affidavit that a musket ball entered the lower third of Kelly’s right arm and passed along the humerus bone splintering it to within an inch and a half of the shoulder joint. Carr performed the amputation of Kelly’s arm at the field division hospital noting that the ball passed through the armpit and buried itself beneath the muscles of Kelly’s breast. The ball could not be found at the time of the surgery but was extracted later. Dr. Edwin Ebert described what remained of Kelly’s arm in a later affidavit as a “stump, if it can be called one, being too short …” and that it “entirely disqualified (him) from using an artificial limb….”
Kelly first recovered in Fredericksburg, Virginia and was then transferred to Lincoln Hospital in Washington, D.C., DeCamp Hospital in New York City and finally to Lovell General Hospital back in his home state of Rhode Island. He was sent home in November 1864, left to shape a new life as a disabled civilian.
In 1868, Kelly and his widowed mother relocated to Sauk County, Wisconsin and it was there he met Anna “Annie” Rooney who became his wife in May 1875. The couple farmed there despite his disability until 1877 when they made their next move to Benton, Newton County, Missouri. Besides farming, Kelly served as a county assessor and was twice elected county treasurer. Of particular note in Goodspeed’s History of Newton County (1888) is Kelly’s stint as a 1880 census enumerator for Benton Township which required recording pages and pages of handwritten data while traveling from house to house. Kelly had certainly adapted to work with one arm and perhaps re-trained himself at a young age to write naturally with his left hand.
Luke and Annie’s family grew to include at least eight sons (all named in Luke’s will). His last son was born in Washington, D.C. – the next and final home for the Kelly’s.
Though the true reason is now lost to history, perhaps Kelly sought a more secure career opportunity when he relocated his family to the nation’s capital to join the Federal Government workforce in June 1893. He was first appointed as an “assistant compiler” in the Rebellion Records Office of the War Department. This office was responsible for the publication of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, a massive collection of first-hand land warfare accounts published between 1881 and 1901 and organized into 70 volumes. The “OR” as it is commonly known, plus a companion Atlas, are still used as authoritative research sources today.
In addition to Kelly’s work documenting the Civil War’s military history, he supported the personal interests of his fellow local veterans by serving as Commander of the John A. Rawlins Grand Army of the Republic Post #1 and Colonel in Encampment #69 of the Union Veteran League. Among other causes, these organizations supported legislation to increase the pension rates of war veterans and their dependents.
Kelly received a veteran’s pension from his date of discharge and he applied for increases to his monthly rate as subsequent laws were passed. He last applied for an increase under the Act of March 2, 1903. When he died on May 16, 1907 at age 63, he had been receiving $55 per month which was the rate allowed a veteran “for the loss of an arm too near the shoulder joint as to prevent the use of an artificial limb.”
Although Kelly’s official cause of death was a “cerebral hemorrhage,” a Washington, D.C. reporter from The Evening Star newspaper was compelled to include this sentence in his obituary:
“It is said that his death was hastened by the wearing character of his duties at the War Department, which finally caused his resignation.”
We learn from this report that Kelly had resigned his clerk position in the Adjutant General’s Office about two months before his death. Was it the work that caused his medical condition, or the medical condition that made work difficult?
Sergeant Luke Kelly inspired a tradition of military service in his immediate family, and he lived long enough to see his first son enter the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Four of his sons served in 20th century conflicts despite observing a disabled veteran’s daily challenges in their own household. Philip Sheridan Kelly served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Signal Corps during World War I. Three other sons graduated from West Point and chose regular Army military careers – Colonel Peter Kenrick Kelly received the French Croix de Guerre (Silver Star) for gallantry in action in WWI; Colonel Edward Luke Kelly served in the Coast Artillery Corps and was a veteran of both world wars; and Brigadier General Paul Boyle Kelly was a highly decorated officer who served throughout World War II and into the Korean War.
Sergeant Kelly and sons Edward, Peter and Paul all rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sergeant Hezekiah Weesner – 20th Indiana Infantry
“Like the Arm of a Statue of Bronze”
Sergeant Hezekiah Weesner was posted on the firing line during the second day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. The enemy charged and he arose on his right knee to fire when a bullet pierced his right shoulder, shattering the joint.
Medical care at that time required the shoulder joint be intact to attach an artificial limb; thus, it was decided that his arm would not be amputated. Weesner called this his “great misfortune.”
The farmer turned soldier was discharged for disability in July 1864 having served three years. He began collecting a survivor’s pension in November 1864 at the rate of $6 per month.
This pension rate was considered “3rd grade” for a gunshot wound resulting in a disability equivalent to the loss of a hand or foot. Weesner claimed his disability was total and permanent, equivalent to the loss of an arm. Weesner’s pension was legally increased in subsequent years to $30, but never to the amount given to those who had lost a limb.
Weesner appealed to the Commissioner of Pensions in a letter written September 1883 stating that, “For almost a year my arm was bandaged to my side with the forearm across my breast. … My shoulder is all shrunken away as you can see from the enclosed photograph and the arm almost to the elbow is small and no longer has any strength. … From the day I was wounded to the present time, there has never been a moment that I have not suffered pain, and at times very great …..”
This photograph of Hezekiah Weesner was taken circa 1890 in Wabash County, Indiana. Weesner submitted multiple views of his wound to the Pension Bureau along with medical reports and witness accounts to bolster his repeated requests for an increase in his monthly pension check, claiming he was totally and permanently incapacitated for manual labor. He clarified that he required the regular aid of another person for basic tasks.
He wrote this on October 18, 1890 to the Secretary of the Interior:
I cannot get my right hand to my head. I cannot extend my arm in any direction. The only movement I can make with it is the bending of the elbow joint, and that joint must always be in the same position …. From the elbow up, the arm adheres to my person, fixed and immobile like the arm of a statue of bronze.
Despite the photographs and descriptive testimony, Weesner lost his case. The Assistant Secretary to the Commissioner of Pensions summarized the decision in June 1892 that, “Great as the disability of the arm is, the Department cannot deny that it is less than total ….”
The extended Weesner family must have been reeling from the effects of the war for many years. In addition to Hezekiah’s life-changing disability, there was an empty chair at the table with the death of his brother, Greer, in March 1864 of pneumonia in service with the 75th Indiana Infantry.
Another Weesner brother, Clarkson, compiled a history of Wabash County, Indiana in 1914 that documented the family’s history back to their great-great-grandfather, Michael Weisner (alternate spelling) who was opposed to war as a Quaker (of the Religious Society of Friends). His pacifist beliefs induced him to “run away from home” in his native Germany in the 1750’s and emigrate to America, settling in Stokes County, North Carolina. It was Hezekiah’s grandfather, also named Michael, who relocated to the midwest in 1824 ultimately founding the Quaker settlements of eastern Indiana. It is interesting to consider that Hezekiah and Greer were raised in the Quaker tradition, yet were motivated to fight for the Union cause.
Hezekiah left Indiana and moved to Seattle, Washington in his old age, perhaps to receive the support of family members. He died there on July 18, 1917 at the age of 79. His widow, the former Manerva Clayton, collected the pension until she died in April 1919.
NEXT: See more Civil War-era personal tintypes and discover their disabled veteran stories in Part Two of this blog post
For further reading:
- “Civil War-Era Personal Tintypes Exposed: Your Questions Answered” by Jackie Budell
- Act of August 4, 1886 (Google Books)
- “A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude” – Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861 – 1885 by Claire Prechtel-Kluskens (National Archives Prologue magazine; Spring 2010)