A few weeks ago, I made a trip that I’ve been meaning to make for years – ever since I was a kid reading my old, beat-up Time-Life Gettysburg book.
Of course, the book talked about Maj. Gen. Daniel Edgar Sickles (who I’ve mentioned before) and his role as commander of the III Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg. As you may have learned from my previous posts about Sickles, he suffered a serious wound on his right leg during the battle (as happens when a 12-lb cannon ball hits one’s shin) and had to have the lower part of that leg amputated.
My childhood Time-Life book describes his wounding and tells the story of how Sickles (knowing of the Army medical service’s new training and education initiative) used his political influence to have the bones from his amputated leg sent to the newly-created Army Medical Museum to be made part of their collection. Creepy as it may seem, he became a regular visitor at the museum, and would use the opportunity to spend some quality time with his lost appendage.
The Army Medical Museum no longer exists as an institution, but it has morphed into the National Museum of Health and Medicine and moved around a few times. The current building is in Silver Spring, MD just north of Washington, D.C. About a month ago, I found out that they were going to have a living history encampment at the museum, and I thought that would be a fun day for me and little John. I ended up inviting my friend John Dolan, and my mother-in-law along, too. My wife, sadly, had to work that day.
It’s a good, if somewhat small, museum. There are a number of examples of gruesome injuries on display – mostly from the Civil War era. They also have some artifacts from Presidential deaths. Slices of U.S. Grant’s tumor are displayed on slides in one of the cases, alongside the bullet-holed spine of James Garfield. There is also a collection of artifacts from Lincoln’s autopsy including small pieces of his skull, and the bullet that killed him. All of this in a free museum! If you’re visiting the Washington, D.C. area, and have any interest at all in medical history, it’s well worth the trip.
Toward the back of the museum is what I came to see: General Sickles’ leg along with an example of the type of artillery round that caused the wound.
As far as I know, the leg has been displayed like this – semi-reassembled with the metal rods and the wooden base – for years. At least in the new museum, it doesn’t really have a flashy, special place. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it.
Since I had heard the story of the leg since I was a kid, I couldn’t resist the chance to get a picture with it. I’m left wondering whether Sickles himself – eccentric old character that he was – ever did something similar.