Ronald and Mary Zboray Publish Article on the Rhetoric of Disability and the Civil War

Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray have recently published “Recovering Disabled Veterans in Civil War Newspapers: Creating Heroic Disability,” Journalism History 45.1 (April 2019), 3-25.  This essay recovers the development of a new newspaper discourse—that of “heroic disability”—established during the American Civil War and first applied to the “Armless Hero,” Sergeant Thomas Plunkett (21st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment), who lost both arms in December 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia.  Before Sergeant Plunkett was branded by the press in 1863 as “The Armless Hero,” no other severely wounded American serviceman had respectfully been given a moniker directly linking his disability to the word “hero.”  The Zborays argue that the Northern press, eager to create a symbol of the Union cause after the devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, but bereft of textual precedents for valorizing a limbless American, borrowed from the language of freakery that advertised the feats of  “armless wonders,” and also from earlier descriptions in print of other people such as the French artist Louis Joseph Cesar Ducornet, who were born without fully developed arms.   In vaulting Plunkett to fame, the press departed from longstanding newspaper reportage conventions by which veteran amputees were rarely valorized and the war dead or wounded were rendered as anonymous “armless and legless” masses.  Soon after Plunkett’s branding by the press, the term “armless hero,” and variants such as “legless hero,” was applied to other veterans who had double amputations, and even eventually to civilians.    


The essay is part of a larger book-length project “Armless in Civil War-era American: Disability, Visibility, Viability,” funded in part by a 2019 Third-Term Type II Research Funding award from the Dietrich School.