We’ve written before about how warfare can alter a whole country’s perceptions of limb loss. This has happened in our own society to a degree, as amputee soldiers have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. But a more profound transformation occurred in the United States after the Civil War, in which an estimated 60,000 men lost limbs. That amounted to more than half of 1 percent of the nation’s adult male population at that time, and more than 1 percent of adult males below age 40.
Photographs depicting piles of severed limbs behind the field surgeon’s tent have become almost a cliche—a visual shorthand for the war’s savage physical toll. Those images weren’t widely circulated in the postwar nation, because the emotions they brought forth were too unpleasant. But the men once attached to those limbs couldn’t be kept out of view. They inhabited every community, evincing the trauma the Civil War had inflicted on the whole society.
To insulate itself from the deep pain symbolized by all of those absent arms and legs, the culture recast limb loss as the highest form of patriotism—a symbol of victory, rather than of loss. This framing was common in postwar novels, plays, posed photographs, and newspaper editorials, helping comfort the able-bodied (if not the amputees themselves) that all was right again in the world.
Popular songs were another vehicle for this process of sanitizing war-caused limb loss. We found about a half-dozen examples in the Library of Congress’s collection of Civil War-era sheet music. No doubt there were other tunes that didn’t survive long enough to be archived. But these specimens help to illustrate how Americans attempted to cope with the wounds (physical and psychological) that lingered long after the shooting stopped.
The Empty Sleeve
There are at least two songs with this title. One, composed by Henry Badger, set to music the words of a poem written by David Barker, who in turn was inspired by a speech delivered by Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard. The general lost his right arm in 1862 at the Battle of Fair Oaks, but resumed his command the following year and led troops in the Battle of Gettysburg. He led the Freedmen’s Bureau in the postwar South, charged with integrating emancipated Blacks into the nation’s economic and political life, and eventually founded Howard University, to this day one of the nation’s leading Black institutions. Here’s the climactic stanza:
Though it points to myriad wounds and scars
Yet it tells of a Flag with stripes and stars
And points to the time when our Flag shall wave
O’er a land where there breathes no cowering slave
Up to the skies let us all then heave
One proud hurrah for the empty sleeve!
For the one-armed brave with the empty sleeve!
A second tune by this title was published in 1866, with music by the Rev. JW Dadmun and lyrics by Mrs. PA Hanford. Dadmun was a Methodist minister from New England and a well-known compiler of hymns and spirituals. The chorus goes like this:
That empty sleeve, it is a badge of bravery and honor
It whispers of the dear old flag and tells who saved our banner
Three hearty cheers for those who lost an arm in Freedom’s fray
And bear about an empty sleeve but a patriot’s heart today
Old Arm, Goodbye
This is one of the first tunes credited to George Cooper, a prolific lyricist who would later collaborate with (and may have been the lover of) the legendary composer Stephen Foster, aka “The Father of American Music.” In this early Cooper song, set to music by S.L. Coe, a wounded soldier thanks his amputated limb for its service to him and lauds the sacrifice it (and he) made for liberty:
I do not scorn to lose you now for home and native land
Oh proud am I to give my mite for freedom pure and grand.
Thank God no selfish thought is mine while I here bleeding lie
Now bear it tenderly away. Goodbye old arm, goodbye.
Dear Mother, I’m Wounded
Scores of Civil War songs took the form of dying soldiers offering comfort to their grieving mothers. In this variation, the soldier assures dear Mom (and a nation of listeners) that his loss of both legs was not in vain. On the contrary, it’s a profitable sacrifice for country and kin:
But there’s one thing gained, dear mother, I am a boy no more
I feel almost the steadiness and wisdom of threescore
And I love my country better since I’ve battled in her cause
And shed my blood freely to defend her sacred laws.
Yes I’ve shed my blood, I’m wounded now, do not grieve I pray
But to tell the truth, dear mother, both my legs are shot away. . . .
Yet I’ve arms to clasp you round mother, and a heart to love you still
So we’ll be content and thankful and resigned to heaven’s will.
The War Is Over, Darling Kate
The composer of this song, M.B. Ladd, also wrote at least two popular laments to the slain President Lincoln, “We Mourn Our Fallen Chieftain” and “Lincoln’s Dying Refrain.” He’s credit with both the music and lyrics to this song about a wounded veteran’s joyous reunion with his beloved:
I know that you’ll be proud of me, though I must wear an empty sleeve
They told me that you wept to see the list of wounded and did grieve.
The war is over, darling Kate, and I am coming back to thee
Our country now is free and great, and thou art constant love to me.
Goodbye, Old Arm
Finally—and not to be confused with “Old Arm, Goodbye” above—we have two songs with this title. The first is credited to William Henry Hayward, an officer of the 1st Ohio Volunteers and later the 150th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Hayward composed a few other patriotic songs, including “Hurrah for the Dear Old Flag.” In his version of “Goodbye Old Arm,” the amputee soldier sings:
Although I am an invalid and cannot load my gun
Still I can fight the Traitors and from them, never run.
With only one arm left for I ever scorn to brag
I will battle for our Union and our Nation’s Starry Flag.
The other “Goodbye Old Arm” in the catalog was composed by Phillip Phillips, a New York evangelist who became world famous as “The Singing Pilgrim.” The lyrics are credited to “Blind Poetess.” Here’s the chorus:
Goodbye old arm, that strong right arm twas once my pride to wield
Twill never bear the sword again my country’s flag to shield
O native land, O hallowed soil the birthplace of the free!
Had I a dozen arms like this I’d lose them all for thee.