Month: June 2015

Society for Disability Studies and the Invalid Corps as “Hidden #Disability History”

Atlanta Skyline with We are in Atlanta textWe were very proud to present at this year’s Society for Disability Studies national conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) is a scholarly organization dedicated to promoting disability studiesand their conference examines “multiple and significant possibilities at the intersections of disability and (getting it) right/s” with “hundreds of participants [who] gather every year to share expertise, perspectives, and community.” The story of the Invalid Corps is a part of disability history and it was great speak on a panel about soldiers with disabilities and this “hidden history.”

Although most of the presentation was an introduction to the Invalid Corps and their role in the Civil War, I thought I’d blog a little bit about how I opened the talk.  An aspect of “Black History Month” has always struck me: how little of history has been captured that includes the contributions, heroism, sacrifice, and inventions of African Americans.  The same for women.  History has primarily been written by a certain class of individuals, who were likely men, and white. What that means is that history doesn’t often include mention of minorities. That includes disability.

So, when speaking with the audience I wanted to highlight “bright and shining” examples of disability that, because of the way we view the world, have had their disability erased and that part of the story goes untold.  I wanted to include examples of men who meet that description, and although they were never part of the Invalid Corps, they were individuals with disabilities who many people do not know had disabilities – hidden disability history.

Oliver Otis Howard

Oliver Otis HowardO. O. Howard is known as a man who was a general in the civil war.  He is known as the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau who was dedicated to supporting the new independence of freedmen.  He is known as the founder of Howard University.  But what I discovered is that many graduates of the institution don’t realize (I’ve spoken to almost a dozen at this point) that he was also a man with a disability. General Howard lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862 when he was still a brigade commander.  Disability was so ubiquitous that it was seldom mentioned; everyone had a brother, son, father, husband, or neighbor who had been injured in battle. And over time, this piece of history becomes lost. While it may not seem important in the “broad picture,” when it comes to recognition of disability and its place within our society, knowing this history suddenly becomes quite important.

Mathew Brady

MatthewBradyMathew Brady, the photographer of the Civil War.  The man whose thousands of scenes of war give us the vision of the time. We all know the images.  We all have seen at least one picture attributed to him (or more likely, his company.)  Mathew Brady had a disability. Although Brady had his own studio and permission from President Lincoln himself to photograph the battlefield sites, many of the photos were in fact, taken by his assistants. Brady had an eye condition and his vision began to deteriorate in the 1850s. He was almost totally blind the last few years of his life.


John S. Pemberton

John S PembertonAnd of course, because we were in Atlanta, I had to mention John Pemberton, inventor of Coca-Cola. Yes, he too had a disability. A Confederate Lieutenant Colonel, he was wounded at the Battle of Columbus, in what was, arguably, the last battle of the war. Shot and then slashed across the chest with a saber, the wound gave him chronic pain. This led to a morphine addiction, ailment that was so common among veterans it was called the “soldier’s disease.” Pemberton invented Coca-Cola as an alternative to the highly addictive morphine. In his own words: “free from opium…a remedy to meet the urgent demand for a safe and reliable medicine.” Whether to address his addiction and/or to manage the pain from his war wounds, Pemberton, inventor of Coca-Cola, was also a man with a disability.

The Invalid Corps story is a part of this “hidden history” and for the SDS attendees, one that they were excited to learn more about.  I hope to be able to show their story at the 2016 conference!

Background Reading and Useful Books (#InvalidCorpsFilm)

A little light reading?

I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading to make sure we are solidly grounded in the history of these events. It has been a fun challenge in some ways. The information is split up in multiple places: Stories about men injured during the war is in one place, information on the Battle of Fort Stevens is in another, and information on the Invalid Corps itself is somewhere else again. Pulling it all together is the part that is most exciting.

I’ve looked at several websites, explored library collections, spoken to people in online forums, and perused journal articles as well as general articles for the public. But I thought it might be useful to just list some of the actual books that I’ve been reading. Granted, not all fit the topic fully, but they’ve all been very informative and have helped immensely.

So, in no particular order, to date I have read:

Although I don’t have the book yet, I’ve gone through Ronald S. Coddington’s website “Faces of the Civil War” several times. Fantastic images and he’s obviously gone through a lot of trouble to get the stories of the men behind the photos.

AND after having a GREAT phone conversation with Susan Claffey who is a past president of the Civil War Roundtable of the District of Columbia, I have a new book for my list: As I Remember: A Civil War Veteran Reflects on the War and Its Aftermath by Lewis Cass White and edited by Joseph Scopin.

I also have to give a shout-out to the National Park Service who has a wonderful brochure on the Battle of Fort Stevens.