James Edward Hanger: Civil War amputee creates jointed artificial leg

Confederate Civil War veteran James Hanger's lasting contribution.

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2011 — James Edward Hanger was a strong and healthy young man of 18 and a sophomore at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia when he decided to fight in the War Between the States.  He was considered too young to join the Confederate army, but when he found an ambulance corps vehicle carrying food and other supplies for the Confederacy, he simply made himself part of the group. Leaving Churchville, VA, when the group reached Philippi (West) Virginia he enlisted with the Churchville Cavalry on June 2, 1861. 

That unit was one of four that would become the 14th Virginia Cavalry, a group that fought in many major campaigns of the war including Gettysburg, all the way to Appomattox. It was also the unit where two of his brothers and four cousins were already enlisted. While his father and mother were not happy with his decision to enlist, at least he would be with his brothers, and he carried additional clothing to them.

James Hanger

James Hanger

James Hanger was injured on the first day of his service and while Hanger’s war career would be extremely brief, his reaction to it and his dedication to a different cause would make his name familiar even today. His injury would have an effect still felt 146 years and numerous wars later and Hanger has made a difference to millions of people - civilians and soldiers alike.

General George McClellan had sent Col. B. F. Kelly to western Virginia with 1,500 men to attack the troops under Confederate Colonel George Porterfield. Porterfield had encountered difficulties in recruiting sufficient troops and had only 700 men when the Union troops arrived at what many considered the first land battle of the war, the small town of Philippi.

In his book on the “14th Virginia Cavalry,” part of the Virginia Regimental History Series, author Robert J. Driver, Jr. cites Pvt. Hanger’s own words of his army experience at Philippi:

“We were ordered to pack up and be ready to move on a moments notice. About dark we were notified that we would not move until midnight. Early in the night it commenced to rain and rained hard until nearly daylight.  At midnight we did not move, perhaps on account of the rain and the belief that the enemy would not march in such rain and darkness…the Federals were moving in on us and would be there soon, and were entirely too strong for our forces equipped as we were, not a single cartridge in the command, only loose powder, ball and shot. Arms – old flintlock muskets, horse pistols, a few shotguns and colt revolvers… 

“As the Co. [column] on the Clarksburg road passed old Mrs. Humphrey’s home about 2 miles from Philippi about daybreak, she started one of her boys to notify our command. Her boy was captured by some stragglers and she fired a gun at then.  The commander of the battery took this for the [prearranged] signal and commenced firing about 4:20 a.m. He told me that this firing was the first notice we had that the enemy were near us.  The Col. that was to cut off our retreat was delayed some 30 or 40 minutes on account of heavy roads, which gave our forces time to get away.”

“The first two shots were canister and directed at the Cavalry Camps, the third shot was a 6 pound solid shot aimed at a stable in which the Churchville Cavalry Company had slept.  This shot struck the ground, richochetted [sic], entering the stable and struck me. I remained in the stable til they came looking for plunder, about four hours after I was wounded. My limb was amputated by Dr. Robinson, 16th Ohio Vol.”

Hanger’s injury had come on June 3, a day after his enlistment, in the skirmish at Philippi. When he leaped from the hayloft of the barn to get his horse moved to safety, the ricocheting ball struck and shattered his leg, requiring amputation above the knee.

Interestingly enough, Hanger’s was not the only amputation of the skirmish. His came several hours after his capture, when he was found wounded in the Garrett Johnson barn.  Realizing the extreme blood loss and the severity of his injury, it was decided that only immediate amputation would save his life, and the Union doctor, Dr. James Robinson called for the barn door to be taken off and utilized into a makeshift operating table. 

There was no anesthesia available, and it took about 45 minutes to complete the surgery and construct a proper flap of the remaining skin over the stump, removing the leg about 7” below the hip and above the knee.

At about the same time that Hanger was injured, another Rebel soldier, a Capt. Daingerfield, also sustained a leg injury when a minie ball shattered his knee.  A Confederate surgeon, Dr. John T. Huff, was forced to amputate Daingerfield’s leg with a butcher knife and carpenter’s saw the next day, on June 4.

Thus James Hanger and Capt. Dangerfield became the first two amputees of the war.

Hanger was then moved to the Philippi Methodist Episcopal Church which had been converted into a hospital, and from there to the home of a couple who lived nearby, Mr. and Mrs. William McClaskey.  

As Southern sympathizers, they were happy to have the young man and cared for him in whatever way was needed.

Soon the Union army took over their home, and James was again moved, this time to a farm in the country known as Cherry Hill, already converted to a hospital for the injured.  Here young James probably was given his first artificial leg.  It amounted to a straight, heavy wooden device strapped to the stump, the original “’peg leg’”, characterized by its total lack of mobility and the thumping noise it made, which could be heard quite a distance away.

Amputation in that era frequently carried a death sentence; recovery was long and arduous, care was difficult to manage in or around a battlefield, and post surgical infection ran rampant, upping the mortality rate to about 52% if the amputation was delayed after 48 hours.

While there were approximately 16,000 amputations in World War II, in the civil war the number was over 50,000.  And the ultimate success rate in an injury such as Hanger’s depended on whether it was above or below the knee.  The lower ones seemed to heal better and a prosthesis was easier to become accustomed to; above the knee the problem of mobility as well as stability both had to be addressed, and Hanger’s Limb as it became called, would answer that problem.

Apparently young James dealt with the artificial device the best he could, even though it was ill fitting and each step brought unremitting discomfort.  Still a prisoner, he was sent to Camp Chase in Ohio, and from

there to Norfolk, Virginia, where he was exchanged two months later, going home to Mt. Hope Farm, VA, near Churchville

It is said that after arriving home, he locked himself in his room for some three months, seeing no one, and the family feared he was slipping into a deep depression.

Instead he had decided to turn his misfortune into a positive result, using his own injury to fashion the first articulated artificial leg, bending both at the ankle and the knee. He only asked that his meals be left outside his door. An hour or so later, his mother would find the empty plates left outside.  It was not depression occupying the time of James Hanger, it was a plan formulated in his mind for a better artificial leg.

He had been studying Engineering at Washington College, and using oak whiskey barrel staves roughly 1-1/2” thick, by trial and error, with only a penknife as a cutting instrument, he finally achieved the design of a leg that would give the wearer stability, yet allow the joints to bend, as it should. And it would look like a real leg as well.

Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Prosthetics for the national firm which bears Hanger’s name, says the family history indicates that, “from time to time he’d call to his mother to bring him some wood, or some pieces of metal, leather, fabric, etc.” as he worked on his new leg.

The softer willow wood was used for the socket area, the barrel staves whittled into the actual leg shape and fastened together.

The family provided as much assistance as he would allow – they would leave buckets of fresh wood outside his door, and the next day remove the same buckets, full of wood shavings. “The family would hear him stumping around up there, “ Carroll said, “but after about three months the door opened and he came walking down the stairs, amazing his family. The innovation started with having an open mind to trying new things.”

And thus was born the “Hanger Limb”, the first articulated, double-jointed prosthetic leg.

Realizing that his invention could be an outstanding device for many wounded veterans, he began making artificial limbs for other soldiers, and their successful use brought him instant fame. He served out the rest of his time with the Staunton Home Guard, working on his new invention at the same time.

The early records of the Confederate Patent Office indicate that on March 23, 1863, with the war still waging throughout the South, he obtained his first patent, No. 155, “for an artificial limb.”  Improvements to the first model came quickly and in August of that year he filed patent papers for an improved version. 

His first store was opened in Richmond a few years later, and in 1871 he returned to Churchville to continue the business. One of the wounded amputees for whom he made a leg was Capt. Daingerfield.

Shortly thereafter, recognizing the need for a more workable prosthetic device for the returning wounded, the Commonwealth of Virginia State Legislature contracted with Hanger to produce artificial or prosthetic limbs.  He quickly obtained additional patents recognizing the improvements on his process, and the business began in earnest.

James Hanger married in 1873, and he and Nora McCarthy Hanger had six sons and two daughters. All of the Hanger boys ultimately followed their father in the business.  While he retired from his business in 1905, he continued as an advisor and even went to Europe after WWI to study new techniques in amputation surgery, gleaned from the battle areas of that conflict. 

His work with the prosthetics continued and the number of stores grew as well.  The once crippled young man became well known for his work and his business was very profitable.

He also invented several other prosthetic devices, as well as developing the Venetian blind, an attachable shampoo bowl for barber chairs, a water turbine, a type of horseless carriage (used as a toy for his children), and also held a patent for the planograph lathe, used in the production of his famous limbs.

When the main office moved into Washington, DC in 1883, Hanger and his family moved into a beautiful big home near Logan Circle, which still stands.  An informational history put together by the company, called “Enabling the Human Spirit: The J.E. Hanger Story” juxtaposes the invention of his artificial leg in the civil war era, with the many uses of today’s version on athletes and others of the 21st century.  

James Hanger's grave.

James Hanger’s grave.

It also contains a story about Mr. Hanger who noticed an elderly man, obviously disabled and poor, begging near the U.S. Capitol, as he came to and from his business.   Both of the man’s legs had been amputated above the knee; he held out a hat to collect change from sympathetic passers-by. 

Hanger was touched by the man’s plight, and as Chris Ingraham recounts in the history, “Despite the stigma he knew might come from showing fondness to a minority at that time in the South’s history, it made little difference to James that the beggar was a man of color. What James saw was a man in need of two legs. He took the man in to his shop and fit him, free of charge, with two of the company’s newest and most functional prosthetic limbs.” 

Ultimately the two became friends, and the man was hired by Hanger to work for the firm.  It was the epitome of James Hanger’s dream and symbolized the individual care he had sought to provide for amputees all over the world.

When Hanger died on June 15, 1919 and was buried in Washington’s Glenwood Cemetery, the Hanger Company had branches in London and Paris, where prosthetics were manufactured after World War I, as well as in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and St. Louis. But that was only the beginning.

Though there are no direct descendants of Hanger still in the business, today Hanger Orthopedic is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has over one thousand employees in forty-three states. There have been several acquisitions by the company and it continues to show a promising future.

The 2007 Washington Post “200 Section”, listing the top area businesses for the year, included Hanger Orthopedic in its listings, with Fortune Magazine ranking it as one of the fastest growing companies in the country.  The small firm begun by a Confederate veteran now is now one of the largest of its type in the world.  The beautiful grave marker of Quincy granite lists only the names of Hanger and his wife, and their dates; there is no mention of the tremendous gift James Hanger gave to the world of the injured.

As Kevin Carroll said, “”Here we are, back in war, and a lot of our young soldiers are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq injured and missing limbs, They’re bringing back their ideas on what needs to be done with prosthetics. War, unfortunately, brings a lot of new medical techniques and developments, and it has continued from 1861 right up to the present day. 

Follow the blog on Face Book at Martha Boltz, and on Linked In; my email is MBoltz2846@aol.com

 

 


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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