The Empty Sleeve
In postwar society, wounded and traumatized survivors struggled to adapt to changed circumstances. “Suffering Heroes” shows two ex-soldiers, both amputees, one lacking an arm and an eye, the other missing a leg. The latter has only one crutch. For support, he must lean on his armless comrade. Apart, each is half a man. Together, they make a whole.
In “Our Watering Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport,” Winslow Homer asked Harper’s readers to contemplate the war’s impact on gender roles and relations. A young and stylish woman drives a wicker phaeton, while beside her sits a one-armed veteran, sleeve pinned to the body of his jacket, remaining hand limp in his lap, his face in shadow. The veteran is now dependent on the woman, who assumes a commanding and conspicuously public role. Their body language highlights this role reversal: the veteran’s posture implies a passivity that viewers would have interpreted as feminine, while the woman’s pose, arms outstretched and whip in hand, connotes an active engagement with the world far more commonly associated with men.
The chorus of the 1863 song The Empty Sleeve celebrates the sacrifices of amputees:
That empty sleeve, it is a badge
Of bravery and of honor;
It whispers of the dear old flag,
And tells who sav’d our banner
Three hearty cheers for those who lost
An arm in Freedom’s fray,
And bear about an empty sleeve,
But a patriot’s heart today.
Click the Play button to hear this song.