The Sinister Corps Of William O. Bourne

October 2017

There were 281,881 Union fighting men wounded in the Civil War, and, while figures from the Confederate side are sketchy, we can safely assume that the number was at least half that. Of such men, many thousands of right-handed individuals lost their right arms—a minor footnote, perhaps, but not for men forced to alter the functional patterns of a lifetime.

One man who cared about such things was William O. Bourne, editor of The Soldier’s Friend, a monthly newspaper filled with inspirational poems and stories, information concerning pension and land-bounty benefits, and advertisements from manufacturers of patent medicines and artificial limbs. In the June, 1865, issue, Bourne announced a penmanship contest that he hoped would inspire members of what he called “the Left-Armed Corps” in the frustrating chore of learning to write with their left hands. Prizes ranged from $250 down to $20 in three categories—First Class, Ornamental Penmanship, and Literary Merit—the winners to be selected by a distinguished panel whose members included William Cullen Bryant and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.

The most remarkable of the 270 entries that soon flowed into Bourne’s New York offices—and the first-prize winner in the Ornamental Penmanship category—was an eighteen-stanza poem by Thomas A. Perrine, who lost his arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville (“…the first battle for the regiment and the only one for me”). Perrine entitled his opus “Sinistra Manu Scripta” (“written by the left hand”), which he craftily chose to paraphrase as “A Sinister Manuscript,”since in its oldest usage the adjective could be taken to mean “a left-handed manuscript.” Similar punning abounds throughout the poem, which we reproduce in facsimile on these pages. Perrine’s mordant—sometimes bitter—humor suggests something of the grit demanded of men willing to start life over with one-half of what God gave them. The poet, we are happy to note, went on to become a fairly prosperous farmer in Michigan.

After the contest, Bourne put all the entries into an exhibit in New York, and in 1867 called the Left-Armed Corps into action again with another competition. He later toyed with the notion of putting the results of both contests into a book, but nothing came of it. Still, he had done his bit for therapy, as Charles F. Cooney, who brought this curious story to our attention, writes: “Compared to the facilities offered in veterans’ hospitals today, Bourne’s contests seem a pathetically meager endeavor; but to the soldiers who participated they offered a glimmer of hope that would never otherwise have existed.”