A man who is probably the most relevant Civil War soldier in 2013 was born February 25, 1843 near Churchville, Virginia.
He attended Washington College and was an engineering student in his sophomore year, not an attendee of the more popular breeding ground of Civil War icons, West Point. He was not a famous general like Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, or Ulysses S. Grant. In fact, he was a private in the Confederate army, serving alongside his two brothers in the Churchville Cavalry, part of the 14th Virginia Cavalry.
He was not a great warrior. He did not lead his men courageously. He did not give a rousing speech or single handedly defeat the enemy. He did not give years and years of meritorious service or win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
His military career might have been the shortest of any Civil War soldier. He served less than a half of day when he was severely wounded in the leg and taken as a prisoner of war at Philippi Bridge,Virginia (now West Virginia) on the morning of June 3, 1861.
How in the world then could this man be so significant today?
He was the first amputee of the Civil War, losing his leg seven inches below his hip, making him one of approximately 50,000 amputees during the war. He was sent to a Union prison, Camp Chase, in Ohio and then exchanged and sent home.
There he built himself a prosthetic leg to replace the peg leg that had been issued to him. His leg had a hinge at both the ankle and knee. In March 1863, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Confederate government commissioned him to open a factory to make artificial legs. After the war, he received a patent on his artificial leg. The story doesn’t end there.
During World War II, his company received a contract from the American Red Cross and the British government to supply artificial limbs to wounded soldiers in Europe.
By his death in 1919, he was called the “father of the modern prosthesis” and had company locations in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Paris and London.
And the saga continues.
His family took over the business and it continues today, as a member of the New York Stock Exchange, but more importantly operating over 600 hospitals in the United States. The company helps over 700,000 persons throughout the world with artificial limbs and employees over 4,000 people, many who wear the company’s products due to their own loss of limbs.
The company today is known as Hanger Orthopedic Group. It is the world’s leading provider of prosthetics, orthopedics and services for persons needing artificial limbs. All because one Civil War soldier exemplifies better than almost anyone else the expression “when given lemons, make lemonade.” Yet even today, many of the most avid Civil War buffs will have never heard of him.
Happy Birthday today to James E. Hanger, a great American hero.
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