Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Empty Sleeve



Estimates for the number of amputations during the Civil War vary somewhat, but most hover around 50-60,000. Losing hands, arms, feet, or legs often left men wondering how to manipulate a prosthesis and worrying about how they would navigate in civilian society for the rest of their lives. And, while sacrificing an appendage for one’s cause and country was certainly an admirable and honorable act, the practical fact was that it left the victim—and often the victim’s family—with fewer options for financial support.

In the summer of 1862, poet and lawyer David Barker, who hailed from Exeter, Maine, heard Gen. Oliver Otis Howard speak at a recruitment rally in Bangor, Maine. Howard had lost his right arm in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia on May 31, 1862, and was back in his home state recuperating from his amputation. Inspired by Howard’s steadfastness despite losing a limb, Barker wrote the poem, “The Empty Sleeve.”

The Empty Sleeve

By the moon’s pale light to a grazing throng,
Let me tell one tale, let me sing one song;
‘Tis a tale devoid of an aim or plan,
‘Tis a simple song of a one arm man.
Till this very hour I could ne’er believe
What a tell-tale thing is an empty sleeve-
What a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.

It tells in a silent tone to all,
Of a country’s need and a country’s call,
Of a kiss and a tear for a child and wife,
And a harried march for a nation’s life;
Till this very hour who could e’er believe
What a tell-tale thing is an empty sleeve-
What a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.

It tells of a battle-field of gore-
Of the sabre’s clash—of the cannon’s roar-
Of the deadly charge—of the bugle’s note-
Of a gurgling sound in a foeman’s throat-
Of a whizzing grape—of the fiery shell-
Of a scene which mimics the scenes of hell-
Till this very hour would you e’er believe
What a tell-tale thing is an empty sleeve-
What a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.

Though it points to a myriad wounds and scars,
Yet it tells that a flag with the stripes and stars,
In God’s own chosen time will take
Each place of the rag with the rattle-snake,
And it points to a time when that flag shall wave
O’er land where there breathes no cowering slave.
To the top of the skies let us all then heave
One proud huzza for the empty sleeve-
For the one armed man with the empty sleeve.

Howard, not one to let the loss of an arm stop him, returned to the Army of the Potomac, leading the XI Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He then transferred to the Western Theater where he fought at Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, and the “March to the Sea.” Howard served as the head of the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War and helped found Howard University in Washington D.C. He died in 1909 in Burlington, Vermont, where he was buried.


Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, and "The Empty Sleeve," both provide us in the present with examples of how to deal with adversity when it surfaces. Let us hope that we can make as good as Howard did when faced with our challenges. Seek out someone or something that inspires you to do good and do it.

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