After my conference in Washington DC this past week, I had an open afternoon for sightseeing. A last-minute plan evolved to see a Civil War battlefield–which sounded better than just about any other option available in the area. And we decided to not just see any old battlefield, but the mother-of-all-battlefields: Gettysburg.
But on the way–just 20 miles shy of G’burg–I spied a sign off the side of the roadway for the National Civil War Medical Museum and I pretty much knew we had to detour. Anyone who’s brought up Civil War medical practices at a party (and endured my blathering about said topic) knows that simply had to be done. So we pulled off the road re-charted some GPS coordinates and soon found ourselves in the lobby of the museum, greeted by a man in a hodegpodge of CW regalia who began explaining the basics of medical practice in the era. I didn’t say a word–just stood there with a silly grin on my face. And then proceeded to oooo and ahhh over exhibits that featured some of the very same practitioners who frame chapters in my dissertation. It was this geek-girl’s-dream-come-true (and was even better than the moment when I got to sit on Abe’s lap later that afternoon).
I’ve written before some of the reasons for my attraction to Civil War medicine, the largest being that I feel a kinship with so many of the soldiers because of missing a limb. Reading their narratives in the museum was not at all unlike reading my own medical histories. It’s a morbid curiosity, perhaps,…but the sight of the surgeon’s amputation saw and the manuals describing the procedure in detail are so familiar, and I’m terrifically attracted to all of the small details. As an example: one of the images in the museum showed a kind of traction device that was used to hold down the stump-limbs to keep the tendons from pulling them upwards to the body (a tendency that is all-too-common among leg amputees). My daily yoga practice accomplishes some of this same thing–including time spent on my stomach to stretch out my hip flexors. Yesterday I was actually aching quite a bit from having deviated from my typical exercise routine–small muscle spasms radiating from my residual limb a strong sign that my legs and hips were unused to the hours spent sitting on planes and in a conference and needed some attention. It’s such a small part of my experience as an amputee–these hip issues–that I rarely ever even mention it to anyone–but yet seeing that small mention of it in the exhibit reminded me one more time of why I’m so fascinated by the stories of these soldiers.
But after that I got plenty of exercise as we did the driving tour of the Gettysburg battlefields, eyeing nearly every single one of those 1300(!) markers in the fields telling that important story, and ending with my reading of the Gettysburg Address on the cemetery-spot where Lincoln first shared those words.
All-in-all, a rich afternoon–full of history and memory and story. And so perfect for this pilgrim-historian-amputee girl.