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The Arm Needs to Come Off… Again


If you emailed me a few weeks ago, you would have received the following reply: “I will be out of the office on Thursday, April 22, 2010, filming an amputation. I look forward to responding to your message when I return.” As you can imagine, this caused quite a stir among those who had the pleasure of emailing me that day.

I wasn’t in a hospital operating room but instead on the stage of the American Theater in Hampton, Virginia. With actors behind a scrim and a camera crew filming the shadows from out front, we captured the silhouette of a Civil War-period amputation.

We hired Cinebar Productions to produce the video and tapped Dr. T. Adrian Wheat, a retired medical doctor and expert on Civil War–era surgery, to simulate the procedure.

Dr. Wheat’s colleague John Pelletier served as assistant surgeon and Brian Musselwhite, a research assistant at the VHS, had his arm removed about twenty times over the course of five hours of filming. The trio needed an anesthetist, and because I was there anyway, I stood in for the part.

We received a copy of the footage at the VHS last week, and because it’ll be projected on a tent-like piece of canvas in the exhibition, we rigged-up a bed sheet to see how it would look. A few staff members who stopped by to watch had quite a reaction when the patient’s amputated arm was disposed of. Everyone agreed that it was very cool!

Funny thing is we got the same two questions from nearly everyone who saw it.

“Why does the patient calmly lay on the table while those guys are cutting his arm off?”

“Why isn’t there blood spurting all over the place?”

I anticipated the first question and mentioned the regular use of anesthetics throughout the war in the text that appears with the “tent.” The second one came as more of a surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have. After all, isn’t that what we’ve all seen in the movies?

Remember the scene about seven minutes into the movie Glory where Captain Shaw is having his neck bandaged (after perhaps the best Civil War–era combat sequence ever committed to film). He looks over to see a fellow screaming in agony and struggling against one surgeon while another one is sawing off his leg. Blood is spurting all over the “privacy screen” shielding the actual procedure from our view (you can see the scene by clicking here). It’s dramatic for sure, but it is not at all accurate.

What are some other Civil War–era movie faux pas that you love to hate?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Margaret permalink
    05/11/2010 2:30 pm

    Wow, this sounds really neat. I cannot wait to see it. As far as inaccurate Civil War movies, the worst by far that I have seen is “Horse Soldiers,” staring John Wayne. Now I love the Duke and it is always fun to watch his movies, this thing is riddled with inaccuracies and anachronisms. This movie is based on Grierson’s Raid in April of 1863. In the first moments of the movie, Grant and some other officers are discussing Andersonville prison, prior to Col. Marlowe (John Wayne) coming in to receive his orders. Andersonville had not even been built yet. There are a bunch of other inaccuracies, but that is the one I remember off the top of my head.


    • Colin permalink
      05/12/2010 12:26 pm

      Movies and TV shows are getting better and better in their historical accuracy. The Pacific, which is on now on HBO, is wonderful, and it has great attention to detail, even if it the battle scenes were filmed in Australia. Even a great film like Glory has some inaccuracies, as Andy pointed out. In Glory, there’s a very dramatic scene when Denzel Washington’s character is flogged in front of the entire regiment. Problem is, the U.S. army banned flogging in August 1861, long before that scene would have happened. Also, in the film’s terrific closing battle scene, the Union attacks with its left wing at the water’s edge, while in fact the opposite was true: the North’s right wing was at the water’s edge. I think the movie might’ve wanted to make it look like the Union was attacking from the north (fiction) rather than the south (reality).


    • Andrew H. Talkov permalink
      05/12/2010 4:38 pm


      I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen “The Horse Soldiers?” I guess I’ll have to correct that before the sesquicentennial gets too long in the tooth.

      My understanding is that the film was based on an actual wartime raid led by Union Col. Benjamin H. Grierson. The spring 1863 raid was part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg.

      Beginning at LaGrange, Tennessee and ending at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Grierson and his cavalry troopers tore through 475-miles of Confederate territory in fifteen days. Along the way they freed slaves, burned Confederate storehouses, destroyed locomotives and commissary stores, ripped up bridges and trestles, burned buildings, and diverted the attention of the Confederate defenders of Vicksburg.

      I learned today that Grierson was a music teacher before the war. Does the Duke give a lesson during the film?


  2. anneliese permalink
    05/12/2010 1:15 pm

    love the blog entry and really love the photos posted from the day of the arm amputation! not so sure brian ever got over the backache from lying on that table, but it sure is awesome and i cannot wait to see the finished product! good work, my friend!


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