Monday, May 27, 2013

`But the Dead Are Neither More Nor Less'

Eric Foner writes in his introduction to The Civil War in 50 Objects (by Hans Holzer and the New-York Historical Society, 2013): 

“The war produced a loss of life unprecedented in the national experience. Recent estimates suggest that over 700,000 combatants perished in the conflict, nearly outnumbering those who died in all other American wars combined. For those who lived through it, the Civil War would always remain the defining moment in their lives.” 

Chapter 49 in the book, titled “A Helping Hand for the Wounded Veteran,” reproduces a letter written by a Union solider from New York named Joe W. Mersereau. He lost an arm in combat and was fitted with an artificial limb, which he uses to write the letter by hand. The note is dated April 24, 1865, the day a hearse bearing Abraham Lincoln’s rolled down Broadway to New York City Hall. The letter is addressed “To Whom it may Concern”: 

“This is a specimen of my penmanship with an artificial arm manufactured by the National Leg and Arm Co of 44 Broadway N.Y. for an upper amputation. 

“The stump being only three inches long from the shoulder joint. 


“Joe W Mersereau” 

Holzer writes: 

“No one kept precise statistics of the numbers of amputations performed during the Civil War (surely in the many thousands on both sides) or of the number of wounded veterans who survived and spent the rest of their days hobbling on prosthetic legs or struggling to perform the simple chores of life with only one arm.” 

Of another American war a century later, Marine Corps veteran R.L. Barth writes in “Office of the Dead” (Deeply Dug In, 2003): 

“Death’s mostly distant here of late,
And random with the seediness
Of plain bad luck—nothing like Fate.
But the dead are neither more nor less: 

“Just dead. I check their metal tags
For eight hours, till my duty ceases,
Body-counting the body bags.
I do not have to count the pieces.”

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