- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

James Edward Hanger was a healthy man of 18 and a sophomore at Washington College in Lexington, Va., when he decided to fight in the War Between the States. Local officials considered him too young to join the Confederate army, but when he found an ambulance corps vehicle carrying food and other supplies for the Confederacy, he simply made himself part of the group leaving his hometown of Churchville, Va.

When the group reached Philippi, Va. (now in West Virginia), he enlisted with the Churchville Cavalry on June 2, 1861. That unit was one of four that would become the 14th Virginia Cavalry, a group that fought in many major campaigns of the war, including Gettysburg, all the way to Appomattox, and was the unit where two of his brothers and four cousins were already enlisted.

While his father and mother were not happy with his decision to enlist, at least he would be with his brothers, and he carried with him some additional clothing for them.

While James Hanger’s war career would be extremely brief, his dedication to a different cause would make his name familiar even today. It happened when he was injured on the first day of service. The long-term effects of that injury have spanned more than 146 years, numerous wars and several countries.

Fight at Philippi

Union Gen. George McClellan had sent Col. B.F. Kelly to western Virginia with 1,500 men to attack the troops under Confederate Col. George Porterfield. Porterfield had encountered difficulties in recruiting and had only 700 men when the Union troops arrived at what many consider the first land battle of the war, at the small town of Philippi.

In his book “The 14th Virginia Cavalry,” part of the Virginia Regimental History Series, author Robert J. Driver Jr. cites Pvt. Hanger’s own words about what happened to him at Philippi:

“We were ordered to pack up and be ready to move on a moments notice. About dark we were notified that we would not move until midnight. Early in the night it commenced to rain and rained hard until nearly daylight. At midnight we did not move, perhaps on account of the rain and the belief that the enemy would not march in such rain and darkness. …

“The Federals were moving in on us and would be there soon, and were entirely too strong for our forces equipped as we were, not a single cartridge in the command, only loose powder, ball and shot. Arms — old flintlock muskets, horse pistols, a few shotguns and colt revolvers. …

“As the [column] on the Clarksburg road passed old Mrs. Humphrey’s home about 2 miles from Philippi about daybreak, she started one of her boys to notify our command. Her boy was captured by some stragglers and she fired a gun at them. The commander of the battery took this for the [prearranged] signal and commenced firing about 4:20 a.m. He told me that this firing was the first notice we had that the enemy were near us. The [column] that was to cut off our retreat was delayed some 30 or 40 minutes on account of heavy roads, which gave our forces time to get away.

“The first two shots were canister and directed at the Cavalry Camps, the third shot was a 6 pound solid shot aimed at a stable in which the Churchville Cavalry Company had slept. This shot struck the ground, richochetted [sic], entering the stable and struck me. I remained in the stable til they came looking for plunder, about four hours after I was wounded. My limb was amputated by Dr. Robinson, 16th Ohio Vol.”

Hanger’s injury had come on June 3, a day after his enlistment. When he leaped from the hayloft of the barn to get his horse moved to safety, the ricocheting ball struck and shattered his leg, requiring amputation above the knee.

Two amputations

Interestingly, Hanger’s was not the only amputation of the skirmish. His came several hours after his capture, when he was found wounded in the Garrett Johnson barn. Because of the extreme blood loss and the severity of his injury, it was decided that only immediate amputation would save his life, and the Union surgeon, Dr. James Robinson, called for the barn door to be taken off and used as a makeshift operating table.

There was no anesthesia available, and it took about 45 minutes to complete the surgery and construct a proper flap of the remaining skin over the stump, removing the leg about seven inches below the hip and above the knee.

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