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Artificial limbs in the Civil War

B. Frank Palmer's artificial limb

With over 35,000 Civil War amputations, a plethora of patents for artificial limbs were filed.

The first American patent for an artificial leg was actually pre-war, by B. Frank Palmer in 1846. His invention won acclaim at the National Fair in Washington, DC that same year. He founded an artificial limb company, in Meredith, New Hampshire in 1847.

By 1873, over 130 patents had been filed at the U.S. Patent Office for artificial limbs of all types. Several others, filed at the Confederate Patent Office in Richmond by Civil War veteran James E. Hanger, himself an amputee, were lost at the end of the war due to the fire set by Confederate officials in an attempt to destroy their records at the end of the war.

By 1866, the federal government had named their preferred vendors to provide limbs for Union veterans in need. Those vendors included companies operated by George B. Jewett, Douglas Bly, William Selpho, J. Grenell, Richard Clement, John Condell, D. W. Kolbe and others.

At the same time, there were only two companies approved by the Association for the Relief of Maimed Solders (ARMS) to provide same for Confederate veterans. The association ran the program as it was not funded by the Confederate government. Those two approved vendors were companies operated by G. W. Wells and James Hanger.

Eventually the federal government recognized the southern vendors too and all were allowed to provide artificial limbs for veterans from both sides, with everything paid for from the federal coffers.

By 1880, many of the dismembered veterans had begun receiving pensions which included extra benefits for their handicap. But even 15 years after the surrender, the benefits were not equal. Pensions for Union soldiers who had lost an arm, for instance, were about $434 per year. A Confederate veteran with the same missing limb was receiving closer to $50 per year.

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