Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
February 29, 2012
It’s been years since we last glimpsed the Arm of the Unknown Soldier, a grisly Civil War relic displayed in a box at the long-gone Antietam Battlefield Museum in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that the arm had not been tossed in the trash when the museum closed, but instead had found its way into the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, only a few miles from its old home.
“It may not be alive, but it’s well,” said George Wunderlich, the museum’s executive director. The arm, a shriveled right-handed horror with claw-like fingers and a ragged upper end, was apparently blown off a soldier during the Battle of Antietam in 1862. The generally accepted story is that it was found on the battlefield several weeks later, wrapped in a towel, stuck in an attic, and preserved by liberal amounts of salt (and possibly arsenic).
George assured us that every effort was being made to put the arm back on public view by September 17, 2012, the 150th anniversary of its dismemberment. That auspicious date would appeal to ghost hunters as well as vengeful undead enthusiasts.
Like the display of General Sickles leg bone at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, George hopes to exhibit the arm next to an example of the projectile that removed it.
The arm, George said, was undergoing chemical analysis and forensic pathology to determine exactly how it was severed, how it survived, and who it belonged to. “New methods of analyzing bones can determine diet,” George said, which might pinpoint the arm as either Federal or Rebel.
Another oddity in the museum’s collection, “always on display,” George noted, is a genuine Civil War condom, complete with a wrapper that has four paragraphs of instructions. Much of the text heaps praise on the morality of the user, and adds that it should always be employed “by young gentlemen while having relations with women of a public nature.”
Despite the general absence of desiccated human body displayed in America, only a half-hour west of the Civil War Medicine is another museum with a human arm on display, possibly another grisly relic from the Civil War. Although this second arm is a left arm, George regards it as far too different in style and appearance to be a match for the right arm at his museum.
“There are not lots of these things around; they’re very, very rare,” said George. “Bones, yes. Whole arms? No, not really.”