‘Cut away, but give me a cigar first!’ Smoking and Battlefield Amputations in the Nineteenth Century

June 2018

James Kennaway (Senior Research Fellow) explores the trope of the smoking solider undergoing amputation in nineteenth-century writing.

I am working on a book on the cult of heroic fortitude in nineteenth-century military surgery and have become fascinated by a subgenre of the theme that became a real cliché in the period – the wounded soldier calmly smoking a cigar (or sometimes a pipe or cigarette) while having a limb amputated. My trawl of primary sources has brought up dozens and dozens of anecdotes that describe valiant soldiers apparently cheerfully puffing away under the knife in scarcely imaginable circumstances, often without anaesthetic. This kind of hyperbolic sang froid can seem moving or inadvertently comic to modern eyes, but is so often attested that one must assume that such stories reflect a genuine phenomenon.

The nineteenth century looked back to the Napoleonic Wars for supposedly uplifting anecdotes of Stoical suffering in battlefield surgery to provide morality tales of manly virtue. For instance, the fate of the French exile General Jean Moreau, fighting against France in the Russian service in 1813, was endlessly recounted in the following decades. In his popular History of Europe, the Scotsman Archibald Alison went into detail about the amputation scene:

The interest which it awakened was enhanced by the extraordinary heroism which the wounded general evinced under an excess of pain which might well have shaken any man's fortitude. He never uttered a groan while carried to the rear, with his mangled limbs hanging by the skin; and when laid on the table of the cottage into which he was carried to suffer amputation, he called for a cigar, which he smoked with the utmost tranquillity. He bore the painful operation with the same firmness which had distinguished his whole demeanour since his wound and when the surgeon who had cut off the right leg examined the other, and pronounced, with a faltering voice, that it was impossible to save it — "Cut it off then, also," said he calmly, which was immediately done.[i]

Figure 1 Jean Moreau, an exiled French soldier in the Russian service, was hit by a cannon ball at the Battle of Dresden in 1813. (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 1 Jean Moreau, an exiled French soldier in the Russian service, was hit by a cannon ball at the Battle of Dresden in 1813. (Wikimedia Commons)

All of the major wars of the following century provide similar stories. William MacCormac volunteered during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1, as his Notes and Recollections of an Ambulance Surgeon records. He described amputating the leg of a French chasseur called Lyon, whose face remained 'tranquil,' showing his 'prodigious' courage:

The first thing Lyon demanded was a cigar, and this he continued to smoke until with reluctance he laid it aside in order to inhale chloroform. The operation was most beautifully performed […] No blood was lost. And although the amputation was through the upper third of the thigh, the shock was comparatively trifling. The first thing the brave fellow did, on rousing out of his chloroform-sleep, was to demand his cigar, saying that he might as well finish it whilst we were getting ready to amputate his limb. He went quite gaily to bed when assured that all was over, and, puffing his cigar the while, declared that he did not now care how many of his legs we cut off.[ii]

In an aside that says much about contemporary assumptions about moral strength and physical resilience, MacCormac was shocked when the man died of tetanus.

The American Civil War likewise offers countless depictions of heroic smoking amputees. A striking example can be seen in What a Boy Saw in the Army by the Union cavalryman and future Methodist preacher Jesse Bowman Young. It describes what happened when the Union General Daniel Sickles (who had been acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity after killing his wife’s lover in 1859) was seriously wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. In folky idiomatic language, Young sets out what had already become a rather formulaic scene:

When they was about to carry him to the rear he asked for a cigar, and he lit it and began to puff the smoke out of his mouth as handsome as you plaze. But, liftenant, I could see the great drops of sweat, from the hurt of his wound, stand out on his brow; and yit for all that he spoke cheerfully to his staff, and niver let on that anything serious was wrong wid him. An' a cousin of mine, in the ambulance corps, Tim Maloney, saw him when the doctors tould him they would have to give him aither or chloroform and then cut off his leg. The gineral said he would not take it. The doctors did not know what to do wid him, until at last they said, "It's yer one chance of life, gineral, to have your leg amputated." And then the hero spoke up and said, "Cut away, but give me a cigar first!"

And, as sure as you are still alive and out of the fight of to-day, Gineral Sickles lay there without a whimper and smoked his cigar while the surgeons cut off his leg, he was that anxious that the boys of his corps should not find out how bad he was hurted when he was taken from the field.[iii]

Figure 2 General Sickle’s leg, along with a cannonball similar to the one that shattered it, on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland. (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 2 General Sickle’s leg, along with a cannonball similar to the one that shattered it, on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland. (Wikimedia Commons)

There was widespread speculation that smoking was fundamentally healthy and beneficial for soldiers, especially the wounded. Reports of wartime humanitarian missions in the period often referred to handing out cigars in hospitals. Henri Dunant, who was inspired to create the International Committee of the Red Cross after witnessing the Battle of Solferino in 1859, described the way he distributed 'tobacco, pipes and cigars' to the wounded, partly to reduce 'the nauseous stench produced by the crowding of so many patients in suffocating places,' but also as 'a distraction, a means of dispelling the fears of the wounded before the amputation of a member.' He noted that 'not a few are operated on with a pipe in the mouth, and some die smoking.' [iv] J.W. Cundall’s 1901 pro-smoking polemic Pipes and Tobacco: Being a Discourse on Smoking and Smokers cited The Lancet in arguing that it calmed the nerves, helped with fatigue and hunger and probably had a 'slight anodyne and narcotic properties that enable the sufferer to sustain pain better during the day, and to obtain sleep during the night.' It went on to quote The Daily News on the way smoking allowed injured troops 'to endure the painful searches and amputations of the surgeon.'[v]

I suggest that a consideration of this extraordinary composure in smoking while losing a limb might shed light on broader issues. Like many other extreme experiences, the fact that people can endure what would normally be almost unbearable agony with apparent coolness certainly says a lot about the complex phenomenon of pain and its physiological and psychological dimensions. It also perhaps says something about the role of material culture in such experiences, and the way that 'props' can help put patients in particular frames of mind. Finally, the popularity of such scenes reflects a view of war as almost a game, where real suffering and misery were only to be mentioned in passing as sad side effects.

The ideology of masculine martial vigour required that some images of military surgery (men dying futile deaths in noisy squalor) be generally left out altogether or briefly alluded to with a tone of pathos, but scenes of heroic fortitude were positively welcomed. The mass carnage of the First World War made such an attitude much harder to maintain. Thereafter images of the smoking man undergoing amputation were left looking quaint if not ridiculous. However, since we live in a time when the idea of war as something that sophisticated states can engage in without risk of serious suffering has resurfaced, and representations of military amputees tend to be relentlessly upbeat, an examination of the nineteenth-century context may offer useful political lessons.

[i] Archibald Alison, History of Europe (12 vols) (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1855), 11.16.

[ii] William MacCormac, Notes and Recollections of an Ambulance Surgeon (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1871), 67-8.

[iii] Jesse Bowman Young, What a Boy Saw in the Army (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1894), 314.

[iv] Henri Dunant, The Origin of the Red Cross: Un Souvenir de Solferino (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1911), 58-59.

[v] J.W. Cundall, Pipes and Tobacco: Being a Discourse on Smoking and Smokers (London: Greening, 1901), 65, 67.