Author to speak about James Hanger

Nationally renowned author Bob O’Connor, who has been named a finalist four times in national book award competition, will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Philippi Public Library. His new book is a historic-fiction account titled “The Amazing Legacy of James E. Hanger, Civil War Soldier.”

In O’Connor’s mind, Private James E. Hanger is the most significant soldier of the American Civil War. That said, O’Connor admits the average Civil War enthusiast probably has never heard of Hanger.

The author came upon this interesting story while participating in the annual Blue and Gray Reunion in Philippi. In the event brochure, they offer a special attraction several times on the weekend called “the reenactment of the Hanger amputation.” There “doctor” Noel Clemmer explains and shows those who aren’t too squeamish, how Hanger’s amputation might have taken place.

“After watching that, I became intrigued,” O’Connor said. “I wanted to know more.”

In his talk, O’Connor will describe how Hanger joined his brothers and a cousin, who were members of the Churchville Cavalry, Company I, 14th Virginia Cavalry at Philippi, Va., on June 2, 1861. In the early morning hours of June 3, in the first land battle of the war, an errant Union 6-pound cannon ball mangled Hanger’s left leg.

His leg was amputated 7 inches above his knee by a Union doctor and was in fact, the first amputation of the war. The doctor, a surgeon from the 16th Ohio Infantry, had never done an amputation before. Fortunately for Hanger, the doctor had read up on procedures and obviously did a satisfactory job.

Hanger convalesced for a while at the United Methodist Episcopal Church, which has been torn down The Philippi Baptist Church was built on that site, and at the homes of the William McClaskey – Barbour County Sheriff – and Thomas Hite. He also was incarcerated in Camp Chase, a prisoner of war camp in Ohio.

“Hanger was fitted with a peg leg, which he hated,” O’Connor said. “He found it frustrating and pretty much useless. A man with a good sense of humor, Hanger thought it could actually serve better on a table that might be missing a leg. It also annoyed Hanger that it was a ‘Yankee’ peg leg. When he was sent home to Churchville, Va., Hanger used his engineering background from Washington College and ingenuity to build himself an artificial limb that had both a hinge at the knee and a rotating angle joint. His invention, called the “Hanger Limb,” and his many subsequent patents, helped revolutionize the prosthetic leg industry.”

If the story ended there it would be a good one. However, Hanger lived until 1919. He had contracts with the Confederate government and the Commonwealth of Virginia during the Civil War to provide artificial limbs for CSA veterans, which he supplied from his factories in Staunton, Churchville and Richmond, Va.

After the war, he opened numerous other artificial limb factories in Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and provide Hanger limbs for veterans from both sides of the conflict.

Later, his company provided artificial limbs for industry, having nearly 40 large clients such as the Carnegie Steel Co. and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In World War I, his contracts included providing prosthetic limbs for France, England and the American Red Cross.

With the help of his sons, he opened factories in both France and England.

Hanger was frustrated by the lack of respect disable veterans were receiving. Although the government paid for prosthetics even as early as the Civil War, Hanger felt someone should do more to address other problems related to the loss of a limb. He felt the veterans needed help such as counseling, rehabilitation and help in finding a job. His participation in organizations to help dismembered veterans eventually led to what today is the Veterans Administration.

By the time of his death in 1919, James E. Hanger’s company advertised that more than 60,000 people were wearing Hanger limbs.

Hanger himself, a virtual walking billboard for his product’s success, had worn the company’s product for 58 years.

In his talk, O’Connor will show what a 6 pounder cannon ball looks like. He also will quote from a talk given in 1961 by McCarty Hanger, his grandson, at Philippi for the 100th anniversary of the original battle.

The book is historic-fiction and written as if told by Hanger himself. It is based on the historic records O’Connor said have been misrepresented over the years. For instance, most reports say Hanger’s “parents” opposed his entry into the war. That is not possible, according to O’Connor, because Hanger’s father had died when James was 5 years old. Historians also have reported the Union surgeon who performed the amputation was Dr. James Robinson. His name was actually Robison.

O’Connor’s books include many graphics and photographs such as copies of Hanger’s artificial limb patents, photographs of the early Hanger factories and a vintage Hanger limb. The book also shows photographs of the home where Hanger was born and the home where he developed his first artificial leg, neither of which still stand today in Churchville, Va., near Staunton. Another photo is of the Thomas Hite home in Philippi, where he recuperated for a time. That home, too, no longer stands.

In his research, the West Virginia author has reached out and corresponded with four of Hanger’s direct descendants, including McCarthy Hanger IV, one of Hanger’s great grandsons, who still works in the industry today.

O’Connor says even today James E. Hanger is incredibly relevant. Hanger Inc., the company named after him, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

They have 740 clinics in the United States and more than a million patients today. The company is the world’s leading provider of prosthetics and orthopedics.

The 2011 Hollywood movie “Dolphin Tale,” starring Morgan Freeman, a bottlenose dolphin that had been injured was fitted with a prosthetic tail developed by Hanger Inc.

“All this is because one man, James E. Hanger, when given lemons, made lemonade,” O’Connor said.

All of O’Connor’s books are available at this week’s Blue and Gray Reunion, as the author will be set up Friday, Saturday and Sunday across from Sheetz in Philippi and next to the Hanger amputation reenactment tent. Books also are available at www.boboconnorbooks.com, www.amazon.com and www.bbotw.com.

O’Connor now has six novels and four non-fiction books in print. Several are available in e-book format. One also is available as an audio book.

The Philippi Public Library is located at 102 S. Main St.

For more information, call 304-457-3495.