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Making first artificial leg

- 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.

At about the same time that Hanger was injured, another Rebel soldier, Capt. Fauntleroy Daingerfield, also sustained a leg injury when a Minie ball shattered his knee. A Confederate surgeon, Dr. John T. Huff, was forced to amputate Daingerfield's leg with a butcher knife and carpenter's saw the next day, on June 4. Thus they became the first two amputations of the war.

Hanger, a prisoner, was then moved to the Philippi Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been converted to a hospital, and from there to the home of a couple who lived nearby, Mr. and Mrs. William McClaskey. As Southern sympathizers, they were happy to care for the young man.

Soon the Union Army took over their home, and Hanger was again moved, this time to a farm known as Cherry Hill, already converted to a hospital. Here, the young Hanger probably was given his first artificial leg. It amounted to a straight, heavy wooden device strapped to the stump, the original "peg leg," characterized by its total lack of mobility and the thumping noise it made, which could be heard quite a distance away.

Arduous recovery

Amputation in that era frequently carried a death sentence. Recovery was long and arduous, care was difficult to manage in or around a battlefield, and post-surgical infection ran rampant, upping the mortality rate to about 52 percent if the amputation was delayed more than 48 hours. While there were about 16,000 amputations in World War II, in the Civil War the number was over 50,000.

The ultimate success rate in an injury such as Hanger's depended on whether the leg was removed above or below the knee. The lower ones seemed to heal better and a prosthesis was easier to become accustomed to; above the knee the problems of mobility and stability had to be addressed.

Apparently Hanger dealt with the artificial device the best he could, even though it was ill-fitting and each step brought unremitting discomfort. Still a prisoner, he was sent to Camp Chase in Ohio, and from there to Norfolk, Va., where he finally was exchanged two months later and could go home to Mount Hope Farm, Va., near Churchville.

Alone in his room

It is said that after arriving home, he locked himself in his room for three months, seeing no one, and the family feared he was slipping into a deep depression. He asked only that his meals be left outside his door. An hour or so later, his mother would find the empty plates left outside.

Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for the national firm that bears Hanger's name, says the family history indicates that "from time to time he'd call to his mother to bring him some wood, or some pieces of metal, leather, fabric, etc."

The family provided as much assistance as he would allow — they would leave buckets of fresh wood outside his door, and the next day remove the same buckets, full of wood shavings.

"The family would hear him stumping around up there," Mr. Carroll said, "but after about three months, the door opened and he came walking down the stairs, amazing his family." And thus was born the "Hanger Limb," the first articulated, double-joint prosthetic leg, bending at both the ankle and the knee.

Hanger had studied engineering at Washington College, and using oak whiskey barrel staves roughly 1½ inches thick, by trial and error, with only a pen knife as a cutting instrument, he finally achieved the design of a leg that would give the wearer stability, yet allow the joints to bend as they should. And it would look like a real leg as well.

Instant fame

Realizing that his invention would be a godsend to many wounded veterans, he began making artificial limbs for other soldiers, and their successful use brought him instant fame. He served out the rest of his time with the Staunton Home Guard, working on his new invention at the same time.

The early records of the Confederate Patent Office indicate that on March 23, 1863, with the war still waging throughout the South, he obtained his first patent, No. 155, "for an artificial limb." Improvements to the first model came quickly, and in August of that year he filed patent papers for an improved version. His first store was opened in Richmond a few years later, and in 1871 he returned to Churchville to continue the business. One of the wounded amputees for whom he made a leg was Capt. Daingerfield.

Shortly thereafter, recognizing the need for a more workable prosthetic device for the returning wounded, the Virginia legislature contracted with Hanger to produce artificial or prosthetic limbs. He quickly obtained additional patents recognizing the improvements on his process, and the business began in earnest.

Individual care

James Hanger married in 1873, and he and Nora McCarthy Hanger had six sons and two daughters. All of the Hanger boys ultimately followed their father in the business. While he retired in 1905, he continued as an adviser and even went to Europe after World War I to study new techniques in amputation surgery. His work with prosthetics continued, and the number of stores grew, as well. The once crippled young man became well known for his work, and his business was very profitable.

He also invented several other prosthetic devices, as well as developing a Venetian blind, an attachable shampoo bowl for barber chairs, a water turbine and a type of horseless carriage (used as a toy for his children). He also held a patent for a planograph lathe, used in the production of his famous limbs.

When the main office moved to Washington in 1883, Hanger and his family moved into a beautiful home near Logan Circle, which still stands. A history put together by the company, called "Enabling the Human Spirit: The J.E. Hanger Story," juxtaposes the invention of his artificial leg in the Civil War era with today's version used by athletes, among others.

One day Hanger noticed an elderly beggar near the U.S. Capitol. Both of the man's legs had been amputated above the knee; he held out a hat to collect change from sympathetic passersby.

Hanger was touched by the man's plight, and as Chris Ingraham recounts in the history, "Despite the stigma he knew might come from showing fondness to a minority at that time in the South's history, it made little difference to James that the beggar was a man of color. What James saw was a man in need of two legs. He took the man in to his shop and fit him, free of charge, with two of the company's newest and most functional prosthetic limbs."

Ultimately the two became friends, and the man was hired by Hanger to work for the firm, a symbol of the individual care he sought to provide for amputees all over the world.

Today's company

When Hanger died on June 15, 1919 and was buried in the District's Glenwood Cemetery, Hanger Co. had branches in London and Paris, where prosthetics were manufactured after World War I, as well as in Philadelphia, Atlanta and St. Louis. But that was only the beginning.

Although there are none of the direct line of Hangers still in the business, today Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has more than 1,000 employees in 44 states. There have been several acquisitions by the company, and it continues to show a promising future.

The Washington Post lists Bethesda-based Hanger Orthopedic as among the 125 largest companies in the area. Fortune Magazine ranked it as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. The small firm begun by a Confederate veteran is now one of the largest of its type in the world.

The beautiful grave marker of Quincy granite lists only the names of Hanger and his wife and their dates of birth and death; there is no mention of the tremendous gift James Hanger gave to the world of the injured.

As Kevin Carroll said, "Here we are, back in war, and a lot of our young soldiers are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq injured and missing limbs, They're bringing back their ideas on what needs to be done with prosthetics. War, unfortunately, brings a lot of new medical techniques and developments, and it has continued from 1861 right up to the present day."

Martha M. Boltz is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table and a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.