James E. Hanger and the Development of Civil War Prosthetics

Posted on by fobbnc

by: Fred Claridge

Editor’s Note: Fred has been an incredible volunteer throughout this year and an active member of our support group, the Friends of Bentonville Battlefield. This is the first of (hopefully) many blog posts Fred will contribute. Read along for a fascinating story of medical history and some insight into our ongoing research at Bentonville.

Part of my work as a volunteer at Bentonville Battlefield involves doing research. We’re always looking for more information on what happened during the battle. I’m especially interested in the medical component – looking to gather bits and pieces about what happened to some of the wounded who were treated at the Harper House field hospital site. I look for written accounts by the surgeons and hospital stewards who treated the wounded there. Patient accounts too.

It’s not easy to find original source material. Much of what can be found has been found already. But we keep trying, hoping we’ll find something new, something that adds to the story of what happened at our site.

Every now and then, I come across something that’s only tangentially related to what I’m looking for – but is interesting nonetheless. Like this story:

James E. Hanger was an 18-year old college student in Virginia when the war broke out. He left school to enlist in the Confederate army. Two days after enlisting, he was involved in what’s considered to be one of the very first battles of the war – the Battle of Philippi. It was more of a skirmish really, involving few troops, but Hanger was seriously wounded when a cannon ball nearly tore off his leg. He was captured by Union forces, and immediately taken to a Union field hospital where his leg was completely amputated by a Union surgeon. 

James E. Hanger

It is widely believed Hanger underwent the very first amputation of the war – the first of over 50,000 amputations done throughout the four years of fighting. After a period of recovery, Hanger was briefly a POW until he was released during a prisoner exchange. He returned home to Churchville, Virginia.

Anyone who has undergone an amputation faces challenges – which vary based on the specific circumstances. But amputees during the Civil War had a particularly difficult time adjusting to their new lives. The economy at the time – moreso in the south – was based primarily on manual labor, so finding gainful employment or a way to fit in to society wasn’t easy if you were missing a limb. Hanger, still only 18 years old, had to deal with that reality.

Shortly, after arriving home, Hanger retired to his room and didn’t come out much. His family was worried that he’d become despondent and withdrawn. But that was not the case; he was working on something.

Hanger actually spent the time in his bedroom working diligently on an artificial leg to replace the uncomfortable and clumsy peg leg issued to him by the Confederate government. He used barrel staves, rubber stoppers and nails to create an artificial leg with a knee joint and an articulating ankle. It had taken him a few months, and was a vast improvement over his original “prosthetic.” 

He began to make the legs for others, eventually patenting his invention when he was just twenty years old. His business grew to the point where he opened up a shop with his brother in Staunton, Virginia. Eventually, he had contracts to mass produce his prosthetic legs for the early equivalent of the Veterans Administration. His company, now national in scope, grew steadily, eventually providing many of the prosthetic legs fitted to World War I amputees. Since that first iteration developed in Hanger’s bedroom, the design was modified constantly over the years and continued to improve, providing amputees with better and better prosthetics. New products were developed.

Patent diagram of J. E. Hanger’s Artificial Leg, patented Feb. 1871

Hanger died in 1919. His company still exists – Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. It’s a billion dollar company with over 250 clinics nationwide and elsewhere around the world. The company serves hundreds of thousands of clients per year. Their prosthetics nowadays are very high tech and have been fitted to veterans with amputations from such recent conflicts as Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Not bad for an 18 year old kid who refused to let a tough challenge get the best of him.

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