Teresa MichalsSep 9, 2023
Lame Captains and Left-Handed Admirals
Amputee Officers in Nelson's Navy
University of Virginia Press 2021
The well-known Admiral Horatio Nelson fought all of his most historically significant battles after he lost his right arm and the sight in one eye. With this notable exception, however, disabled members of the military on active duty remain largely invisible.
Teresa Michals' book Lame Captains and Left-Handed Admirals: Amputee Officers in Nelson's Navy (U Virginia Press, 2021) reveals that at least twenty-four other Royal Navy officers reached the rank of Commander or higher through continued service after the loss of a limb. It focuses on the lives and careers of three particularly distinguished amputee officers: Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, Admiral Sir Watkin Owen Pell, and Admiral Sir James Alexander Gordon.
Given that the number of talented and ambitious naval officers far exceeded the number of ships the Royal Navy had to give them throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, we might expect that contracting any physical impairment would disqualify an officer from further command positions and promotion. Instead, it seems that losing a limb in battle could become a mark of honor, one that a successful officer and his friends could use to increase his chances of winning so-called "hero promotion" and additional employment at sea. Bringing together military disability and the social history of the Royal Navy, Teresa Michals examines how active-duty amputee officers attended to the difference between ideals of masculinity and military heroism, on the one hand, and the complex and changeable realities of military service, on the other.
Shu Wan is currently matriculated as a doctoral student in history at the University at Buffalo. As a digital and disability historian, he serves in the editorial team of Digital Humanities Quarterly and Nursing Clio. On Twitter: @slissw.