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Collection Wm. Oland Bourne Papers

William Oland Bourne, "The Soldier’s Friend", and the Left-Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867

Information about William Oland Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship contests, 1865-1867.

Left-handed penmanship specimen submitted by Alfred D. Whitehouse

"There are many men now in hospital, as well as at their homes, who have lost their right arms, or whose right arm is so disabled that they cannot write with it. Penmanship is a necessary requisite to any man who wants a situation under the government, or in almost any business establishment. As an inducement to the class of wounded and disabled soldiers here named to make every effort to fit themselves for lucrative and honorable positions, we offer the following premiums..."

Thus began the announcement that first appeared in the June 1865 issue of The Soldier's Friend, a newspaper edited by poet and reformer William Oland Bourne that focused on the needs and interests of Civil War veterans. Bourne served as a chaplain at Central Park Hospital during the war, where he was exposed to the often debilitating injuries sustained by soldiers and sailors.

Left-handed reminiscence of Thomas Walters of Bridgeport, Connecticut, March 29, 1865, contained in autograph album of William Oland Bourne.

While at Central Park Bourne collected in autograph books the names and stories of many of the servicemen he encountered. In some instances he noted on the page when a soldier wrote a reminiscence with his left hand, due to amputation or other disability of the right hand as a result of war wounds.

Bourne's awareness of so many right-handed men having to adapt to left-handed penmanship inspired the contest he sponsored for the "Left-Armed Soldiers of the Union."1

The contest announcement advertised $500 in total prize money, to be distributed as follows:
$200 "for the best specimen of left-hand penmanship," $150 for the second best, $100 for the third best, and $50 for the fourth best specimen. Although the original contest offered only four penmanship prizes totaling $500, the United States Sanitary Commission later supplemented this amount with an additional $250 in prize money. This increase was matched with another $250 donated by members of the award committee, bringing the total prize money to $1000. This allowed additional premiums to be awarded for a "second class" of penmanship, ornamental penmanship, literary merit, and exceptional circumstances.

The official rules mandated that the penmanship entries be written on "fine letter-paper of the ordinary size" and number between two and seven pages. The content of the text could be either an original composition or a selection from another work, although "brief essays on patriotic themes, and especially narratives of the writer's experience in the service of the country, incidents, or sketches of the war, are preferred." Regardless of the choice of text, each contest entrant was instructed to include his full name and military rank, the company and regiment in which he served, the most complete list possible of the battles in which he participated, the date on which he lost his right arm and the place it occurred, and his post office address. Anticipating possible publication of the entries received, participants were advised to leave one-inch margins on all sides of the pages, and to wrap the manuscripts around a "wooden roller" to avoid being crushed in the mail. All entries were to be sent to Bourne at The Soldier's Friend office at 12 Centre Street in New York City. The initial deadline for the contest was October 1, 1865 to allow men wounded in the final battles around Richmond, Virginia in spring 1865 to be able to compete in the contest. Bourne subsequently extended the deadline to January 1, 1866.2

The advertisement in The Soldier's Friend encouraged newspaper editors throughout the United States to republish the announcement for the benefit of their readers. Editors responded to this invitation, and advertisements and editorials appeared during the summer and fall of 1865. Some notices appeared in major publications like Harper's Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.). Editors of regional newspapers showed equal enthusiasm for the contest, and pieces about the competition appeared in local periodicals like The Jeffersonian (Stroudsburg, Penn.), Belmont Chronicle (St. Clairsville, Ohio), Salem Register (Salem, Mass.), Holt County Sentinel (Oregon, Mo.), and South Carolina Leader (Charleston, SC).

Not every editor included the full contest instructions, however. The Norwich Aurora (Norwich, Conn.), for example, omitted the entire paragraph detailing the literary requirement and the requested biographical information. This deletion may have been due to the contest itself being used as an advertisement for the Bridgeport Business College in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which suggested that "young men desiring to qualify themselves as penmen, to compete for the above prize, or for a paying position under the Government, or in some Mercantile House, cannot do better than to enter the Bridgeport Business College." The college offered a tuition reduction for veterans who enrolled before September 15, 1865.3 Fortunately for those contest entrants who were not privy to the full printed instructions, departures from the set page length and other proscribed requirements did not ultimately lead to disqualification or other penalties. 

Many veterans of what became known as the "Left-Armed Corps" saw the published notices, both in The Soldier's Friend and in other periodicals. Seth Sutherland, who submitted the first entry, began his letter to Bourne with "I find in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette of the 20th inst. a circular from The Executive Committee Bureau of Employment, New York, addressed to the Left-Armed soldiers of the Union…"  Edmund C. Arnold explained that while reading "your valuable paper…my eye chanced to fall upon an article in your columns entitled ‘left hand writing.' The article at once interested me as I was one of the many that had lost an arm in the rebellion so I thought I would array myself among the competitors and make an effort to secure the much coveted prize."

The advertisement for the Left-Handed Penmanship contest identified the men who would judge the handwriting specimens. William Oland Bourne was among the judges, as were other prominent New Yorkers. The Unitarian pastor of the First Congregational Church (later All Souls Church) in New York City, Rev. Henry W. Bellows (1814-1882) served as president of the United States Sanitary Commission, a leading soldiers' aid society during and after the war. Poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) edited The New York Evening Post. Author George William Curtis (1824-1892) edited Harper's Weekly, an influential national publication. Businessman and philanthropist William Earl Dodge, Jr. (1832-1903) was a founder of the Union League Club in New York City, and had experience with soldiers' issues after serving on a commission that monitored the conditions of New York State troops during the war. Reuben E. Fenton (1819-1885) represented districts in western New York in the United States House of Representatives during the Civil War, and was the governor of New York at the time of the contest. New York lawyer Howard Potter (1826-1897) served as the treasurer of the United States Sanitary Commission. New York businessman and philanthropist Theodore Roosevelt (1831-1878) worked on behalf of soldiers' families by promoting pay deduction and war claim programs. Today the elder Theodore Roosevelt's fame is primarily as the father of future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).

In late February 1866, the first exhibition of penmanship contest entries was held in the hall of the Union Central Committee in New York. The hall, decorated by the ladies of the Union Relief Committee, displayed flags and banners with inscriptions of the names of prominent Union generals and appropriate mottoes, such as:

Our Disabled Soldiers
Have kept
The Union from being Disabled

The Arm and Body you may Sever,
But our glorious Union Never.


Disabled, but not Disheartened.

We lost our right hand for our Rights,
And ‘tis the left hand now that writes.

List of exhibition contributors

The red, white, and blue theme of the flags continued on the exhibition tables, which displayed the entries received. The March 1866 issue of The Soldier's Friend described the arrangement in detail: "On a ground of blue cloth the white manuscripts were laid, and were held in their places by a neat little red tape running the length of the table. At the top of the sheet the number of each manuscript, corresponding with the printed catalogue, was presented in red on a white card, with a red border, while a small red card secured the manuscript at the lower margin. The grouping of colors was characteristic and admired by all who saw the skilful [sic] and beautiful display. An additional feature of the exposition was the collection of photographs of the authors, each portrait being placed at the head of the manuscript contributed by the writer. These photographs were not only admired by all, but it brought the visitor into the presence of the honorable members of the Left-Armed Corps who had furnished the tables for the novel and most attractive entertainment."

Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant attended the exhibition on Saturday, February 24, 1866. When asked his opinion of the display he wrote a note to the judging committee: "I have examined the large and exceedingly interesting collection of Left Hand manuscripts written by our disabled soldiers who have lost their right arms. They are eminently honorable to the authors, and from the excellence of the penmanship, it would impose a task I would be sorry to accept to decide on the merits of the competitors."

A page from Franklin H. Durrah’s first prize left-handed penmanship specimen.

The exhibition closed at noon on March 1, and the award committee issued its signed report on March 2, 1866. The committee congratulated the entrants on the quality of the manuscripts submitted, while also reiterating the underlying theme of the contest: encouragement of disabled veterans to retrain themselves for useful and self-supporting lives. "The leading purpose, that of placing before the disabled men of the country incentives to a worthy ambition to become self-reliant, and to fit themselves for positions of honor and usefulness, has been accomplished in a manner altogether novel and original, and, as the Committee think, with memorable and praiseworthy success. Too high commendation cannot be awarded to the heroic men who have lost their right arms, and who have presented to the Committee the beautiful collection of manuscripts which has been examined with so much interest and admiration. The average degree of merit is high, while many of the manuscripts are very fine specimens of chirographic excellence and artistic taste." In closing, the committee extended its "thanks to the contributors for the evidence of their interest in a work which has far exceeded in character and excellence the expectations originally entertained."4

The report identified the contest winners, and the names of those who received the premium awards were reprinted in a number of newspapers. The first prize of $200 went to Franklin H. Durrah of Philadelphia. E. M. Jennings of Portageville, New York received $150 for second place. Captain George Q. White of Richmond, Virginia received $100 for third place, and the $50 fourth prize went to William Mulhall of Washington, D.C. Four prizes of $25 and twenty of $20 each were awarded for "penmanship and literary merit." J. S. Pendergrast of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry received $20 for "exceptional circumstances, having lost his right arm, and two fingers and part of the thumb of the left hand."5

A photograph and a page of the left-handed penmanship of J. S. Pendergrast, who lost his right arm, and two fingers and part of the thumb on his left hand.
A circular for the May 1866 Washington, D.C. display of left-handed penmanship manuscripts included the statement “Disabled, but not disheartened!” Exhibition tickets cost twenty-five cents, and the hall was open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The success of the exhibition in New York inspired the Soldiers' and Sailors' Union of Washington, D.C. to arrange with Bourne a display in the nation's capital of the left-handed penmanship manuscripts. The exhibit opened the evening of Tuesday, May 1, 1866 at Seaton Hall, located on the corner of Ninth and D Streets in Washington. Many of the same banners and decorations used in the New York exhibition festooned the hall, and like the previous exhibit the manuscripts were displayed on long tables covered with blue fabric, secured with red tape, and accompanied by photographs of the authors.

Newspaper reports indicated that opening night was well attended. Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks and Representative Schuyler Colfax gave speeches, as did Major-General O. O. Howard, who was himself a member of the "Left-Armed Corps" having lost his right arm after being wounded at the battle of Seven Pines in 1862. General Grant viewed the manuscripts for a second time when he attended the display in Washington on May 4. Bourne and the Committee of Arrangements extended a personal invitation to Andrew Johnson on April 28, 1866, but it does not appear that the president was among the dignitaries who attended the display.

The displays in New York and Washington inspired public comment on the capability of the contributors, and in some periodicals this praise extended to the virtue of cause for which these Union men fought. The April 7, 1866 edition of Harper's Weekly (edited by contest judge George William Curtis) stated that "it is plain from the number of specimens that no Yankee loses his heart with his arm, for there were some two hundred and seventy manuscripts collected from nearly every State in the Union."6 "W." of the Green-Mountain Freeman (Montpelier, Vt.) noted, "The display thus given is very suggestive to the world of the ingenuity, the determination and the fruitfulness of the American mind, teaching them that whatever misfortunes may fall upon us, we are always ready to spring up afresh and make for ourselves a successful way through the world. I would that all could see the specimens which are so full of suggestion as to the character, ability and attainments of our soldiers. One specimen worthy of special notice was contributed by a private who had last [sic] one arm and two fingers and part of the thumb of the other hand. With such soldiers who can despair of the Republic and with a nation of such opponents what betrayer can succeed?"

The positive response to the first contest convinced Bourne to sponsor a second competition, which he announced in The Soldier's Friend in March 1867 and advertised with printed circulars. As was the case with the 1865-1866 contest, advertisements and newspaper items about the second contest appeared in newspapers throughout the nation.7 The deadline for submitting an entry was July 1, 1867.

This round differed from the first in offering $500 in prize money to be made in ten awards of $50 each, with each premium bearing the name of a prominent Union military officer. Not only would the recipient receive the monetary award, but the officers also agreed to provide autographed letters to the winners of the premium issued in their names. The awards carried the names of David G. Farragut, John W. Geary, Ulysses S. Grant, Winfield Scott Hancock, Joseph Hooker, O. O. Howard, John A. Logan, George G. Meade, Philip H. Sheridan, and William T. Sherman.

Many of the official rules carried over into the second competition, but others reflected that the contest was a second series or addressed unanticipated issues that arose in the first series. Only entries written in black ink on one side of the paper would be accepted, and should not be "gummed or fastened together." Award winners in the first contest were ineligible to compete for prizes, but could submit new handwriting samples if they chose to participate. Affidavits were now required to prove that a participant had learned to write with his left hand AFTER the date of his wounding "to prevent imposition and injustice" by using a skill that predated his war injury.

Photograph of Richard J. Cullen, who submitted handwriting samples in both of the left-handed penmanship contests.

Several of the veterans who participated in the first contest submitted new specimens in the second series. One of the more striking examples of how different the essays could be from one series to the next is that of Richard J. Cullen of the 9th New Hampshire Infantry. To make the contest deadline he completed his first submission quickly, and one incident dominated his memory. He was wounded in the left knee, right shoulder and right arm at Spotsylvania, Virginia on May 12, 1864. He was captured by Confederate forces, and described in his entry the deterioration of his wounded right arm, which was not amputated until July 1864. A significant portion of his three-page essay focused on a particularly cruel Confederate guard who refused Cullen a drink of water with the rebuff that he "did not Enlist For to take care of Yankies but to Kill and Cripple them." At just that moment, Cullen recalled, Union forces overtook the Confederate position. Shot in the thigh, the guard fell beside Cullen. Left behind by his comrades, the guard begged his Union captors for medical aid. "[H]e also called for water that which he refused me five minutes before," Cullen remembered with bitterness. More prominent in Cullen's memory than his own wounding was the behavior of his Confederate captor. Cullen's fourteen-page essay for the second contest shows markedly improved handwriting, and his cultivation of flowery language and a literary sensibility. The second specimen provides a longer and more detailed narrative of his military experiences, but gone is any mention of the cruel Confederate guard who so occupied his mind previously.

Bourne received one hundred thirteen entries for the second series, many of which were new manuscripts submitted by veterans who had participated in the first contest. Bourne then consulted with the officers after whom the awards were named to choose the winning entries. The list of competitors and the names of the prize recipients were announced in the January 1868 issue of The Soldier's Friend (now titled The Soldier's Friend, and Grand Army of the Republic):

Farragut Premium: Selden C. Clobridge
Geary Premium: John M. Thompson
Grant Premium: B. D. Palmer
Hancock Premium: J. Q. Crosby
Hooker Premium: Charles R. Post
Howard Premium: George S. LaRue
Logan Premium: J. K. Byers
Meade Premium: Francis X. Burger
Sheridan Premium: Morgan Baumgardner
Sherman Premium: Caleb B. Fisher

Also published in this issue of The Soldier's Friend was the text of the letters written by the individual officers to the recipients of the named awards. General Winfield Scott Hancock congratulated Josiah Q. Crosby with the hope that "the honorable badge that you wear—an empty sleeve—be the passport to an honorable triumph in the future." Generals Sherman and Sheridan also referenced the bodily sacrifice of the men chosen to receive their premiums. "While we have been accustomed to regard the loss of the right arm as almost fatal to a useful, and consequently happy life," William T. Sherman wrote to Caleb B. Fisher, "these samples show how nature substitutes wisely and well one other arm." Sherman then wished Fisher "the contentment which the sacrifice of the best part of your body to your country's flag and safety is calculated to give." "I am happy thus to recognize the success of a soldier who has lost his right arm for his country," Philip H. Sheridan wrote encouragingly to Morgan Baumgardner. "In the battle of life before you, remember that the true hero may sometimes suffer disaster and disappointment, but he will never surrender his virtue or his honor."

Bourne singled out two competitors for special mention. Lewis A. Horton, the first entrant in the second series, claimed to have written his entry with his teeth because both of his arms had been blown off in a naval accident. George C. Bucknam lost not only his right arm, but also two fingers and part of the thumb of his left hand. Bourne credited both men with "writing [that] is highly creditable and remarkable."

George C. Bucknam posing in a photograph in which he demonstrates how he wrote with his wounded left hand, and a page of his handwriting specimen.

Unlike the previous contest, there does not seem to have been a public display of the manuscripts submitted in the second series. Nor did Bourne ever publish the memorial volume of left-handed penmanship manuscripts he had announced in 1865 that he hoped to compile.

"The late civil war in our country has afforded numerous examples of the ability, heroism, and resources of the American volunteer, in all that belongs to noble daring, self-sacrificing devotion, and patient endurance under suffering," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper concluded in July 1868.  "But the close of the war, and return to the duties of citizenship, call for the exercise of the same virtues in other relations and responsibilities.  . . .The one-armed or one-legged man, in many cases, must begin life in a new occupation in order to maintain himself. Anything, therefore, that aims to meet these conditions, and to stimulate, encourage and reward our disabled volunteers, is worthy of popular appreciation and regard. Among the expedients adopted, there are none more original or interesting, relating to the moral and intellectual, as well as material interests of our soldiers than…the penmanship of soldiers and sailors who lost their right arms during the war."8 William Oland Bourne no doubt agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment of his penmanship contests for Civil War veterans of the "Left-Armed Corps."


  1. Advertisement, The Soldier's Friend, June 1865. [Return to text]
  2. "Left-Hand Writing," Harper's Weekly (Nov. 4, 1865), 691. [Return to text]
  3. "Important to Soldiers who have lost their right arm in the service," Norwich Aurora (Norwich, Conn.), Aug. 19, 1865. [Return to text]
  4. "Our Disabled Soldiers," Evening Post (New York, NY), Mar. 7, 1866; The Soldier's Friend, March 1866. [Return to text]
  5. "Our Disabled Soldiers," Evening Post (New York, NY), Mar. 7, 1866; "Left-hand Penmanship by Disabled Soldiers—Report of the Committee," New York Times, Mar. 7, 1866. [Return to text]
  6. "Soldiers Left-Hand Writing," Harper's Weekly (Apr. 7, 1866), 211. [Return to text]
  7. The Evening Post (New York), Mar. 21, 1867; "To Left-handed Soldiers," Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, Vt.), Apr. 3, 1867; The Highland Weekly News (Hillsborough, Ohio), Apr. 4, 1867; "Soldiers' Left-Hand Writing," Bennington Banner (Bennington, Vt.), June 27, 1867. [Return to text]
  8. "Left Hand Penmanship," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (July 25, 1868), 295. [Return to text]