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Military History in 100 Objects – A Farewell to Arms (and Legs)

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The aftermath of the Battle of Cameroine. France's Captain Jean Danjou led the last of his 62 troops against an army of 2,000 Mexicans at the 1863 clash. An amputee from an earlier war in North Africa, Danjou died in action. His artificial hand is a sacred artifact of the French military. It's on display at the French Foreign Legion headquarters museum.

The aftermath of the Battle of Cameroine. France’s Captain Jean Danjou led the last of his 62 troops against an army of 2,000 Mexicans at the 1863 clash. An amputee from an earlier war in North Africa, Danjou died in action. His artificial hand is a sacred artifact of the French military. It’s on display at the French Foreign Legion headquarters museum. Image courtesy WikiCommons.

For our second installment of Military History in 100 Objects, we’re going out on a limb… literally. Here are a few of the most famous prosthetic appendages from the annals of wartime. If you think we missed any, feel free to provide details in the comments section below. And keep watching MilitaryHistoryNow.com for more amazing objects from the past. Thanks for reading. 

Jean Danjou's artificial hand.

Jean Danjou’s artificial hand. Image courtesy WikiCommons.

#5 The Winning Hand
All that remains of one of the French Foreign Legion’s most venerated sons, Captain Jean Danjou, is his prosthetic hand. The native of Chalabre, France and alumnus of the French military academy at Saint-Cyr lost the original flesh and bone appendage in 1853 while fighting Algerian tribesmen in North Africa. During the skirmish, Danjou’s own rifle exploded mangling his left wrist and forearm. Despite undergoing an emergency amputation, the 25-year-old second lieutenant recovered from his injury and continued his military career eventually seeing action in the Crimean War’s Siege of Sevastopol, France’s 1859 war with Austria and Napoleon III’s intervention in Mexico. While serving as a supply officer in that campaign, Danjou took command of a small detachment of 62 legionaries as they occupied a strategically vital stone villa during the Battle of Camarón. Danjou was shot and killed mid-way through the daylong fight against 2,000 Mexican troops; by the end of the action, nearly the whole company had been slaughtered. With no ammunition remaining, the final five legionaries refused all calls to surrender and instead fixed bayonets and charged. The Mexican officers were so moved by the bravery of their doomed foes they ordered the whole army to hold fire so that the small party of Frenchmen could withdraw with the body of their fallen commander. Danjou’s hand, which was recovered after the battle, is on display in the official French Foreign Legion museum at in Aubagne. It’s brought out each year on April 30 for the annual parade to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Camarón.

Santa Anna's cork leg on exhibit at the Illinois State Military Museum.

Santa Anna’s cork leg on exhibit at the Illinois State Military Museum.

#6 No Leg to Stand On
Speaking of Mexico, three different museums are home to wooden legs that supposedly belonged to that country’s most notorious 19th century military strongman: Antonio López de Santa Anna. Perhaps the most famous of these artificial appendages is on display at a military exhibition hall in Springfield, Illinois. The legendary conqueror of the Alamo lost his actual leg during the farcical Pastry War of 1838. While personally leading a charge against French troops at Vera Cruz, the so-called “Napoleon of the West” was hit in the ankle by grape shot and ended up losing the limb below the knee to the surgeon’s saw. From that point on, the general and 11-time president of Mexico walked with the help of a cork prosthesis. A decade later, he’d lose the replacement leg while evading capture during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in the Mexican American War. After being surprised while eating lunch by soldiers of the U.S. 4th Illinois Infantry Regiment, the wily generalissimo leapt upon his horse and sped off so fast he forgot to reattach the limb. The attacking troops carried the leg back to their home state as a war trophy. After spending decades touring the mid-west as a sideshow attraction, the object found its way into the Illinois State Military Museum where it’s been on display ever since. Santa Anna later had a replacement leg crafted, which is itself on exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Historia in Mexico City. Despite this, Mexican authorities continue to demand the return of the original, as do many Texans (strangely enough). In fact, the Lone Star State’s San Jacinto Museum has posted a light hearted petition to have the famous wooden leg permanently transferred to its collection, seeing as the city was the site of Santa Anna’s most famous defeat in 1836. The fight for the leg was even the focus of a 1998 episode of the animated sitcom King of the Hill. Oddly, another of Santa Anna’s prosthetics (a simple wooden peg leg) is on display in Decatur, Illinois at the historic home of Richard James Oglesby. The onetime state governor was a junior officer in the Mexican War and reportedly snatched the crude back-up prosthetic at the same time the original cork model was taken by American troops – the consummate footnote to history.

A pro-Slavery southern Congressman beat abolitionist Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate.

A pro-Slavery southern Congressman beats abolitionist Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate in 1856. The cane used in the attack is on exhibit at the Old State House in Boston. Image courtesy WikiCommons.

The cane used to beat Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate is on display at the Old State House museum in Boston.

The cane used to beat Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate is on display at the Old State House museum in Boston. Image property of MilitaryHistoryNow.com

#7 Raising Cane
Although not an artificial limb, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the infamous walking stick that belonged to South Carolina’s firebrand pro-slavery representative Preston Brooks. The 37-year old politician used the cane in 1856 to savagely beat abolitionist senator Charles Sumner inside the American legislature — a symbolic milestone event in the lead-up to the Civil War. Brooks accosted and then repeatedly bludgeoned Sumner, who was seated at his desk on the floor of the U.S. Senate, two days after the Massachusetts lawmaker delivered an impassioned speech against slavery amid the pre-war Bleeding Kansas Crisis.Horrified congressmen looked on as Brooks continued to strike at his unconscious victim. Sumner’s colleagues attempted to intervene, but were kept at bay by a pistol-packing southern representative named Laurence M. Keitt. Brooks ended the assault by breaking his stick over Sumner’s bruised and bloody head. The attack outraged the North and electrified the South. Congress fined the assailant $300 and forced him to resign his seat. Acclaimed as a hero in the slave states, well wishers from across the South sent the deposed legislator new canes by the hundreds. Brooks ran again in a by-election later that year and was returned to office in a landslide victory. He died before resuming his post. It took three years for Sumner to recover from his injuries. Brook’s famous cane is now on view at the historic Old State House in downtown Boston.

Daniel Sickles severed leg, and an example of the cannonball that took it off.

Daniel Sickles severed leg, and an example of the cannonball that took it off. Image courtesy WikiCommons.

#8 Sickle’s Leg
An even more grisly artifact is on display at the U.S. Army’s National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland: the shattered leg bone of politician turned Civil War general Daniel Sickles. The New York State native volunteered to fight after serving a term in the ante bellum U.S. Congress. He ended up losing his leg to a Confederate cannonball on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Ironically, the wound likely saved Sickles’ career. Earlier that day, the 43-year-old Sickles had ignored orders from Union army commander George Meade to deploy his III Corps on Little Round Top, choosing a less risky position to place his army instead. An infuriated Meade rode out to personally discipline the defiant major general, but with a Reb attack in the offing, it was too late to redeploy Sickle’s unit as ordered. In the ensuing clash, a cannonball tore off the New Yorker’s leg. A consummate politician, the wounded Sickles ordered his staff to evacuate him to Washington D.C. where he conveyed news of the eventual Northern victory first-hand to the U.S. capital (along with an exaggerated and entirely self-serving account of his own conduct in the battle). He also shrewdly donated his lost limb to the Army Medical Corps museum, which eventually became the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Not only did the injury spare Sickles from the dishonour of a court marshal, in the eyes of the civilian press it qualified him as a national hero. He was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war the general became a diplomat and later returned to the U.S. Congress. Sickles’ leg remains on display along with fellow general Henry Barnum’s hipbone as well as a segment of John Wilkes Booth’s spine.

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