C’est la guerre: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

By the time the Civil War came, New York politician Daniel E. Sickles had racked up quite a life. When he was 33 he married a 15-year-old girl.  He later murdered his young wife’s lover, but was acquitted in the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense in U.S. history.  He once took a prostitute with him on a trip to London and introduced her to Queen Victoria and you gotta admit that took some chutzpah.  If he were alive today, he’d be in the tabloids a lot.

Say what you will about him, “Devil Dan” Sickles was one tough dude.  On July 2, 1863, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General Sickles was astride his horse when a 12-pound Confederate cannonball ripped into his right leg.  He kept his cool, calmed his horse, and dismounted.  As he was being carried off the battlefield on a stretcher, Sickles lit a cigar, casually puffed it, and smiled at the soldiers he passed. That afternoon an army surgeon amputated his leg just above the knee.  A few days later, the newly established Army Medical Museum in Washington DC received a mysterious box.  Inside was Sickles’ leg, along with his calling card and a handwritten note:

With compliments of General D.E.S.”

I have learned this story because I am looking at his leg right now.

Daniel Sickles' leg

Daniel Sickles’ leg is just one of the artifacts on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (formerly the Army Medical Museum). The museum recently celebrated its 150th birthday and I am visiting today because it’s one of the few museums in the Washington area that I’ve never seen.  The NMHM is tucked away in a corner of Silver Spring, Maryland, adjacent to the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick-Forest Glen Annex.  It also happens to be about 20 yards from the military commissary where I buy my groceries, so I thought I’d stop in on this cold winter morning and check it out before I head next door to shop.


The museum is a shrine to the advances in military medicine and stands as a reminder of just how far we have come.  It holds more than 25,000,000 specimens, slides, artifacts, photographs, and documents.  Some of the best ones are on display.  Like Dan Sickles’ leg.

I’ve read a lot about the Civil War, and visited battlefields and cemeteries.  I’ve watched movies about the war and seen countless artifacts in various places.  But nothing brings home the reality of that brutal conflict like staring close up at the remains of the men who died fighting it, in places like Gettysburg:

Gettysburg bones

…and Chancellorsville—where this soldier’s death appears to have been mercifully quick:

Chancellorsville skulls

Nearby, I notice a small object under a dome inside a glass case, protected and displayed in low light like some sacred relic.  I step closer and discover that’s exactly what it is.  It’s the bullet that sent President Abraham Lincoln to the ages, when all he had really wanted to do was go to the theatre:

Lincoln bullet

There are some pretty gruesome specimens on display here, too.  I’ve been told that it’s OK to take pictures of them as long as I don’t use a flash, but I’ve decided not to do that in order to spare the delicate sensibilities of my more squeamish readers.  So if you’d like to see full-term conjoined twins floating in a big jar of formaldehyde, you’ll just have to come here yourself.  You can also admire the fine collection of diseased lungs, dissected brains, and other odd human bits and pieces, including the trachea of a man who choked to death on a piece of steak—the meat presumably still stuck inside the grisly looking windpipe, and a giant hairball removed from a child’s stomach. You’ll also find a fine example of scrotum elephantiasis.  Trust me, they’re the biggest balls you will ever see in your life.

Most of the museum’s vast collection is stored out of sight. But tap on a fancy touch-screen computer, and you can see what they’ve got hidden back there.  Interested in Ulysses S. Grant’s tumor?  It’s here, as is President James Garfield’s bullet-pierced vertebrae.  And in the interest of equal time, they’ve also got the well-preserved brain of Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau.

But it’s the Civil War artifacts that fascinate me the most.  I find a display of rudimentary surgical instruments that were used to amputate so many arms and legs.  They look like my gardening tools, nothing more than hacksaws and shears.  I imagine the horror of 19th century battlefield surgery without today’s modern equipment, reliable anesthesia, or antibiotics and marvel indeed at how far we have come.

Surgical Instruments

Thousands of Civil War soldiers lost arms and legs in battle.  In the next display case I find examples of early prosthetics that many of these men wore, including rudimentary arms:

Prosthetic arm

…and weird looking legs:

Prosthetic legs

And finally, there are the photographs—pictures of men who were butchered but who survived, posing with dignity and resignation for the photographer.  There, and yet not all there–parts of them left scattered in fields both north and south.  The army regulars:

Civil War amputees

…and, yes, even old Dan Sickles himself:

Daniel E. Sickles

A noisy high school group comes in on a field trip and that’s my cue to head to the commissary.  Not sure how I will transition from looking at body parts to buying ground beef, but I’ve got a shopping list a mile long and people at home who expect to be fed.  I’m also on a tight schedule today. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment this afternoon.

A few hours later I arrive at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for my appointment.  This medical complex was created a couple of years ago when the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center was combined with the National Naval Medical Center on the grounds of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, creating one massively huge place to practice the world’s best military medicine.  Bethesda Naval’s landmark tower is still the centerpiece:

Bethesda Naval

The new medical center is as big as a college campus, covering 113 acres, and providing state-of-the-art medical care to active duty military personnel, retirees, and their families.  As I walk toward Building 19 for my appointment, I’m still thinking about the artifacts I saw earlier today at the museum.  I wonder what Daniel Sickles and all those other Civil War amputees would say if they saw this place.  Surely they’d be impressed with how far we have come.

As I cross a courtyard, I pass a young man who’s walking and listening to his iPod.  He looks like a college kid, but I know he’s a soldier because his leg is missing.  The right leg, just like Daniel Sickles.  But, unlike old Dan, this young soldier is wearing a high-tech prosthetic and moving along pretty well on it.   It’s such a vast improvement over the makeshift arms and legs I saw this morning.  I judge him to be about 22 years old.

I enter the big, fancy lobby and the first thing I see is a young, double amputee father walking hand in hand with his tiny daughter, as his wife follows a few paces behind:


I check in for my appointment at a computer kiosk by scanning my military ID card.  My name pops up on the screen and I touch it to confirm I’m here.  My medical information is computerized in this place.  Surely that’s yet another huge improvement over the past and just one more sign of how far we have come.

I take my seat in the waiting room.  There are patients of all ages, but my eye is drawn to a young man sitting across from me, chatting with his wife.  He’s in a wheelchair and he’s holding a cup of coffee in his right hand.  It’s his only option because his left hand is gone.  So is his left arm. So are both of his legs.  I wonder if he left them in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There’s no denying the huge advancements we’ve made in medical care and prosthetics and the way we, as a nation, care for our wounded warriors.  So many more lives are saved on the battlefield than ever before in history and that’s wonderful.  But are things really that different? The aftercare may be better today than it was 150 years ago when Daniel Sickles took that cannonball but, when you get right down to it, the cause and effect are exactly the same.  We keep sending young Americans to war and they keep getting their arms and legs blown off.

And I wonder how far we have come after all.


3 responses to “C’est la guerre: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  1. I had a couple of pithy things to say and then–you took my breath away. Some things simply never change, do they?

    Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Donna, I don’t know how you were able to grocery shop after that, I would have had to go home to have a nap, it is a beautifully written piece and I am touched by it.


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