Civil War buffs and fans of historical trivia know the story well. On July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg, Union General Daniel Sickles was hit in the leg by a cannonball. The severity of the injury necessitated amputation, a common life-saving tactic employed by 19th-century surgeons. The general survived the operation and insisted on returning to Washington D.C. shortly after the battle. In a curious turn of events, Sickles decided to donate his severed leg to the newly-created Army Medical Museum, now the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. According to lore, Sickles visited his leg yearly on the anniversary of the amputation, and reputedly favored bringing attractive young ladies to accompany him on his annual pilgrimage.
This curious anecdote from the annals of the history highlights an oft-ignored question: what happened (or happens) to amputated limbs? We often think of amputations, as in Sickles’ case, occurring in times of war, but any number of incidents and medical situations can lead to amputation. As Congressional Cemetery records show, it was fairly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries to bury severed limbs in cemetery plots. Faithful readers of the newsletter have likely noticed that interesting discoveries in the archives tend to occur in the search for something else entirely. In this case, a perusal of the cemetery’s digital records brought up the following entry: “Bergman, Frederick (Leg of),” an entry that was then confirmed in the daily interment log. And so the researcher goes down the rabbit hole.
The accident and resulting amputation that Mr. Bergman suffered ultimately cost him his life. However, while he lingered in the months after his accident, his leg was interred at Congressional Cemetery in the family plot, resulting in the “leg of” entry. Further inspection of the records revealed that Mr. Bergman died of his injuries, but as far as the records show, his body was not interred with his amputated leg. While his leg lies in Range 4, Site 248, the rest of his mortal remains are buried in Range 153, Site 228. Perhaps we’ll never know why poor Mr. Bergman was not reunited with his lost limb, but one can surmise that at the time of his death, there simply wasn’t any more room for a full interment in the family plot, which forced his family members to purchase an additional space.
In some instances, the owner of the buried body part was never interred alongside their amputated limb. The entry for Miss Anna Bell Lee reads “amputated leg only.” The records state that Anna was only nine years old when she lost her leg. Luckily, she survived the trauma and one can only hope that she went on to live a long and happy life. Wherever and however she lived, the rest of her remains are not at Congressional Cemetery.
As far as the records show, it was far more common for the individual to eventually be reunited with their lost limb. J.A. Craig is one such individual who we can track through two newspaper articles. In the first, the 1904 Evening Star account describes the incident which cost Craig his legs: “He was employed on the P., W. and B. railroad as a brakeman and while cars were being shifted last night he fell and the wheels of one of the heavy vehicles passed over his legs. Both legs were so frightfully crushed that they had to be amputated after he reached Providence Hospital.” The article notes that his amputated legs were subsequently buried in 1904. Flash forward to over forty years later to a 1945 obituary, which details Craig’s final accident at the age of 63: “Police said Mr. Craig, who had artificial legs, got out of his wheel chair and lost his balance.” Craig unfortunately perished from these injuries and was interred at the cemetery alongside his legs.
So why do these records matter? Some might say it is cemetery trivia, albeit interesting trivia, but the interment of amputated limbs speaks to a larger historic tradition. For many of us, it can seem strange to bury a body part without the body, as in present-day it is typical for hospitals to dispose of amputated body parts accordingly. But the prevalence of this practice in the past reveals that these body parts were still viewed as an integral piece of the still-living human being, at least by some. Certain modern religious sects, including Orthodox Jews, still firmly believe that all body parts must be interred with the body, continuing this tradition.
The Sickles anecdote, then, makes a certain sort of sense. It is often recounted as an example of his eccentricities, but as we have seen in the Congressional Cemetery records and in some modern instances, it was and is not unusual to think of amputated limbs as an important extension of the person, even when these limbs are no longer a literal part of the whole.