Deafness did not deter men from serving as combatants and noncombatants on both sides of the Civil War.
Patriotism prompted many to attempt to enlist, despite the medical restrictions that exempted them. Those who were rejected or discharged against their will sometimes joined militia or fought as civilians to protect their towns. Some died on the battlefields; others remained in service throughout the war. Thousands of other soldiers were deafened by life in the camps or the horrific thunder on the battlefields.
Until recently however, no one has summarized the experiences of deaf soldiers or the contributions of deaf artists, poets, doctors, nurses, activists, journalists and other civilians during this national crisis.
Despite society’s marginalization and paternalism, these deaf and hard-of-hearing people found ways to support the causes in which they ardently believed.
Along with American citizens, tens of thousands of international volunteers joined the armies. The Union military was more successful in attracting immigrants and mercenaries than its Confederate counterpart. One man who joined the federals was François-Ferdinand-Louis-Marie d’Orléans, Prince de Joinville. A noted military advisor from France, he contributed his knowledge of warfare to support the Union army. He also applied his artistic talent to document the Peninsula Campaign. The third son of Louis Philippe, the prince was educated for naval service and received a commission as a lieutenant in the French Navy, serving with distinction during the 1838-1839 Pastry War, or the First Franco-Mexican War. In November 1838, Mexican General Mariano Arista surrendered his sword to the prince.
Prince de Joinville’s partial deafness began to manifest itself when he was in his early 20s. In an effort to maintain the sense of hearing so essential to becoming an admiral, he endured a most painful, yet failed, surgery involving the boring of several holes in his skull and ears. Fourteen years before the American Civil War, French writer Victor Hugo reminisced about his friend’s deafness. “Sometimes it saddens him, sometimes he makes light of it … Since he cannot talk as he wants to, he keeps his thoughts to himself, and this sours him.”
Prince de Joinville nevertheless overcame the communication struggles associated with deafness, and gained the respect of Abraham Lincoln and various Union officers and soldiers with whom he interacted.
Back in his native France, political turmoil continued to erode the prince’s relationship with his countrymen. In 1840, he had been selected to bring back the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte from St. Helena. When Napoleon III assumed the throne, the French people turned against the ruling House of Orléans. As a result, the prince was exiled, and eventually made England his home.
In September 1861, the prince offered his services to President Lincoln, whom he praised for repressing the rebellion. He wrote in his 1862 book, The Army of the Potomac: Its Organization, Its Commander, and Its Campaign, Lincoln was protecting the rights that, until then, “had made the American people the happiest and freest people of the earth.”
Lincoln’s Assistant Private Secretary John Hay described the prince as having the finest mind he ever met in the army. In October, Lincoln appointed him and his two nephews, also exiled princes, to the staff of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the “Young Napoleon,” who had replaced the venerable Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott as commander-in-chief of the Union armies. From the outset, McClellan considered Prince de Joinville a noble character. In a letter to his wife, McClellan observed, “[H]e bears adversity so well & so uncomplainingly. I admire him more than almost any one I have ever met with—he is true as steel—like all deaf men very reflective—says but little & that always to the point.”
According to a profile in The Century magazine, the prince accommodated his “excessive deafness” with great strategy while serving on McClellan’s staff. Many officers and soldiers took note of this. He was an experienced equestrian and had learned to depend on visual cues. When exposed to danger, from gunfire, for instance, he would sense his horse comprehending the situation and he would “quietly jog along out of the fire with a quiet, pleasant smile, which showed that he moved more out of regard for the horse than himself.” But when danger persisted, his horse, in turn, would be obliged to sacrifice his own preferences for those of the prince.
Throughout the fall of 1861, Prince de Joinville and his nephews served McClellan, as the general prepared to attack Richmond. Although McClellan had drilled his men and collected vast amounts of supplies for this purpose, he showed little intention of moving toward an assault. On Jan. 31, 1862, Lincoln issued General War Order No. 1, which authorized the Union to launch a unified aggressive action against the Confederacy.
The order failed to ignite McClellan. Frustrated by the general’s continued procrastination and over-cautiousness, Lincoln relieved McClellan of supreme command on March 11, 1862. He placed McClellan in charge of the Army of the Potomac, with a direct order to attack Richmond. This marked the formal beginning of the Peninsula Campaign.
Meanwhile, a historic naval event occurred at Hampton Roads, Va., when the warships Monitor and Virginia ushered in the age of ironclad vessels on March 8, 1862. This Battle of the Ironclads was of special interest to Prince de Joinville. With naval background, the new ships, as well as the plans to blockade Southern ports and landing operations on Confederate territory particularly fascinated him.
Although the naval battle was technically a draw, the action stirred further caution in McClellan. The prince was impressed that a single sea battle in Confederate waters had the potential to paralyze the federal army. He wrote, “How true it is that experience has not yet taught even the most experienced maritime nations all that is to be gained by the cooperation of a well-organized navy in wars by land!”
Along with his expertise as a military advisor, the prince demonstrated a surprising talent as an artist. Throughout the Peninsula Campaign, he maintained a sketchbook that helped him to fill the many hours of camp time. Author Margaret Leach noted in her 1941 book, Reveille in Washington, that, rather than deal with the burden of face-to-face communication, the “sadfaced, bearded, uncomplaining man” was often observed recording a narrative and visual history of the military events as he experienced them. He also included many personal observations, such as his comments on the skillfulness of the American soldier and on the excellence of the navy. Although numerous still photographs and artifacts related to the ironclad Monitor survive, for example, views like Prince de Joinville’s sketch of the famous vessel engaged in maneuvers are rare.
He vividly captured the experiences of American soldiers in more than 50 watercolors and sketches, recording the beauty of the changing landscapes and the ugliness of war. As the prince once remarked, “Everybody writes his memoirs. I have drawn mine.”
Prince de Joinville’s watercolor and other sketches were highly realistic, and many of his military sketches were later published in A Civil War Album of Paintings.
The prince was not the only deaf artist who documented the war. Robert E. Lee, John Singleton Mosby and Stonewall Jackson posed for portraits by the deaf artist Edward Caledon Bruce, who had enlisted in the Confederate army and was stationed at Richmond.
As the Peninsula Campaign came to a close in late May 1862, difficulties arose between France and the U.S. with regard to the affairs of Mexico; and the Orléans princes withdrew from the American army and returned to Europe. On June 22, 1862, McClellan wrote to his wife, “I am very sorry to say that I shall lose the dear old Prince de Joinville in a few days …” In spite of the setbacks he had witnessed during the first year of the Civil War, Prince de Joinville did not think the Union cause lost. He recognized that the resources of the North were greater than those of the South, and, as he stated, “who knows what a free people is capable of, at a time of peril, when it is fighting for right and humanity?”
McClellan appreciated the prince’s “courage, energy, and military spirit.” He described him as a man of great ability and excellent judgment. As the general wrote, “His deafness was, of course, a disadvantage to him, but his admirable qualities were so marked that I became warmly attached to him…and I have good reason to know that the feeling was mutual.”
Other generals also wrote regretfully of his departure. Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin described how the prince’s final words had impressed him. “[A]dvise General McClellan to concentrate his army at this point, and fight a battle to-day,” the prince had told him. “[I]f he does, he will be in Richmond to-morrow.” But, the prince was unaware that McClellan and his troops had already departed for the James River. The probable correctness of the deaf nobleman’s military forecast would not be known until later.
After his return to Europe, Prince de Joinville published an article titled “The Campaign of the Army of the Potomac,” in the French literary magazine Revue Des Deux Mondes. Following the overthrow of the Second French Empire in 1870, the prince entered France incognito and joined the army of general Louis d’Aurelle de Paladines, under the assumed name of “Colonel Lutherod.” He fought valiantly at Orléans, but was arrested and sent back to England. Prince de Joinville retired from public life in 1876, remaining upon the roster of the French Army with the rank of Vice Admiral. He died in 1900.
Harry G. Lang, Fighting in the Shadows: The Untold Story of Deaf People in the Civil War; The Examiner, Nov. 12, 1842, Victor Hugo, The Memoirs of Victor Hugo (translated by John W. Harding); Jay Monaghan, Abraham Lincoln Deals With Foreign Affairs: A Diplomat in Carpet Slippers; The Prince de Joinville, The Army of the Potomac: Its Organization, Its Commander, and Its Campaign; George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, Nov. 17, 1861. In Stephen W. Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865; “The Prince of the House of Orléans,” The Century, 27 (1884); “Art: Versatile Prince,” Time Magazine 63 (Jan. 4, 1954); André Maurois and General James M. Gavin (eds). A Civil War Album of Paintings by the Prince de Joinville; George B. McClellan and William C. Prime, McClellan’s Own Story; William B. Franklin, “Rear-Guard Fighting During the Change of Base.” In R.U. Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II.
Harry G. Lang is Professor Emeritus, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology. His forthcoming book, Fighting in the Shadows: The Untold Story of Deaf People in the Civil War, provides hundreds of stories accompanied by many historical images that reveal a unique perspective on the Civil War.