The Antietam Arm on Display

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have seen my previous posts about the mummified arm in the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s collection.  It is a mummified right hand and forearm which was found on the Antietam Battlefield after the battle.  It is also clearly not amputated, but was traumatically separated, probably by a projectile.  We’ve learned quite a bit about the arm in the past two years, so we can finally share the Antietam Arm’s story with our visitors.

It’s actually pretty interesting to follow how we discovered more about the arm.  We started with the history which accompanied with arm when it was donated.  You can read that story here:

We had some questions about this story and about the arm, so we had some tests run on it at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  It was a fascinating visit that you can read about here:

One of the most common questions I get about the arm is whether it belonged to a Union or Confederate soldier.  It seems that when the arm was displayed at another museum several years ago, some people speculated that it was Confederate because of its “nice manicure!”  I wanted a more scientific basis for a determination of his origin though!


Though some may have though this was a neat manicure, there are not actually any fingernails left on the arm. The nail beds are still so clear that they give the impression of fingernails.


While the arm was being examined and tested, I did a little more research into the story about the doctor.  It’s a pretty interesting story in itself:

However, I also noted that there was an issue with the dates in the story.  Dr. Gaines was supposedly given this arm about 6-7 months after the Battle of Antietam.  That would be sometime in the spring of 1863.  Dr. Gaines was not practicing in the area until 1866.  It may be that the arm was first given to his father-in-law, Dr. Smith, and then passed to him after they went into practice together, but we have no proof of that.  This is one of several problems with the arm’s original story.

It was the test results which gave us the most information about the arm.  It was examined using stereozoom microscopy, CT scan imagery, digital radiography, and chemical and isotopic testing.  We’d originally been told that the arm likely came from a young male of about 19 years, so we knew he was probably a teenager.  However, it was determined that he was actually only about 16 years old.  Though this would have been rather young for a Civil War soldier, we do know that there were underage boys who lied about their ages and enlisted.

Bone measurements yielded the information that he was slight of build, and was only about 5’ 2” tall.  The discovery of two small arm hairs provided the information that he was Caucasian and probably had brown hair.  Dirt on the ventral (lower) portion of the arm showed that the arm had been in contact with the ground at some point, but the relative absence of dirt on the dorsal side suggested that the arm had not been completely buried.  This part does seem consistent with the story provided to us.


A digital radiograph of the arm shows that none of the bones are missing or broken. There is no evidence of trauma other than the arm being separated at the elbow.


Next, a small fragment of tissue was analyzed for the presence of any salts, chemicals, or toxic metals.  We were all eager to discover what chemicals had been used to preserve the arm.  I was especially interested, as this information would affect how I handled and stored the arm.  It was quite surprising to learn that there was no chemical evidence of any salts in the arm.   That ruled out the part of the story about the arm being put into a brine solution.  There were also no traces of arsenic, mercury, or lead in the arm.  This is another contradiction to the story; the arm was never put into any sort of solution to preserve it.  It dried out and mummified naturally.

So, you might ask now if it’s even possible for a severed arm to mummify naturally in the conditions after the Battle of Antietam.  According to the report we received from the NMNH, natural mummification occurs when the body tissues are desiccated through dehydration.  Basically, dry environmental conditions help to promote mummification.  The time required for natural mummification varies depending on a number of factors, but can be well advanced by the end of just a few weeks.  Given this information, we wanted to check the weather conditions in the area after the battle.  Fortunately, this information was reported in the book, “Sounding the Shallows: A Confederate Companion for the Maryland Campaign of 1862″ by Joseph Harsh. The weather conditions in this area were fairly warm and dry immediately following the battle.  The temperature ranged from 44 – 79 degrees F and there were only two incidents of precipitation recorded for the month of September, both of which were less than a quarter of an inch.  So the conditions in the area could have been right for natural mummification.


The arm’s position gives us some information as well. For one thing, the positions of the hand and arm are not consistent with standard burial practices. The skin folds and contours indicate the arm was positioned with its ventral surface (forearm and palm) down for at least several weeks.


The next big question was the origin of the arm’s owner.  Was he local or did he come from somewhere else?  If he was a soldier, was he Union or Confederate?  Isotope analysis was performed on another small sample of tissue.  Basically, this test indicates the diet and source of water of the individual, which can point to a general area of origin, but not a single state.  The results showed that he most likely came from the Pennsylvania / New York / Ohio region, with a smaller possibility of the mountainous Appalachians of Maryland and Virginia.  He had a mostly wheat-based diet, which was more common in the northern U.S.  A bone phosphate oxygen reading also helped to place his “meteoric water” reading in this area.

So, we had the mummified arm of a northern 16-year-old boy, which had been traumatically separated from him, but which had dried out naturally.  We also had a story which was mostly debunked.  Where do you go from there?


Other local stories exist about this arm, though of course none can be proven. The stories do seem to have some intriguing similarities though. According to several sources, the arm was found either on a stone wall or on a stony outcropping on the Antietam Battlefield. So the battlefield is a common theme to the stories, along with the arm being found above-ground. The Burnside Bridge (Library of Congress image) is cited as the place of discovery in several of the versions. In addition, some versions of the story have the name of the town doctor who owned the arm as a Dr. Fahrney. There was a Dr. Daniel Fahrney in Hagerstown, Maryland in the late 19th century, so that is a possibility. That is a subject which will require more research


So, what is the conclusion here?  Though we’ve gained a lot more information about the arm, we’re also left with more questions about it.  We can’t prove that it belonged to a Civil War soldier, but the possibility isn’t disproven either.  We do know that it represents an injury which was typical on a Civil War battlefield, and we can display it as such.  We can bring a more human element of the story of Civil War medicine to our visitors.  It is one thing to read or hear a story about the wounds suffered and the lives lost on the battlefields.  It is quite another to see actual evidence of it.  We also know that this arm belonged to an unidentified teenaged boy, and we can honor his memory, and his possible sacrifice at the Battle of Antietam, by sharing as much of his story as we know.



The Antietam Arm is now on display in the Field Hospital gallery of the NMCWM.


You can view a video clip of the arm on display here:


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

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