• Exploring American History

Exchanging tragedy for triumph

On October 8, 1862, a battle raged in Boyle County, Kentucky. Referred to the Battle of Perryville, it brought together Confederates under the command of General Braxton Bragg and Union soldiers led by General Don Carlos Buell.

As with any battle during war, casualties and serious injuries are part of the outcome. In this instance, one young man, Pvt Samuel Decker, would experience a tragic injury that later inspired him to create a state-of-the-art invention.

During the battle, Decker was in the process of reloading his gun. The gun unexpectedly misfired, removing from him both hands and a portion of his arms. Thankfully, Decker was not one to let something like losing half of each arm and both hands destroy his life.

Disability for soldiers was a common event during the Civil War. For many, their disability discharge from the military many times created a feeling of emasculation as the individual attempted to return to life in society following his sacrifice on the battlefield.

In the case of Decker, as he recovered, he sought a way to resolve the situation he now faced. By 1865, he had created a state-of-the-art set of prosthetic arms, “hitherto unrivaled for ingenuity and utility.” They provided him the ability to clothe and feed himself, in addition to being able to pick up items as small as a pin. He also regained the ability to write.

Decker later served for a time as the doorkeeper for the House of Representatives. The prosthetics he invented proved useful on a couple of occasions when he was called upon to quell disorder in the Congressional gallery as an impressive police officer.

On November 29, 1867, Samuel Decker posed for photos at the Army Medical Museum to document his invention.

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