Author details contributions of deaf during Civil War

HORNELL — Some of the most remarkable stories never told were given a voice on Saturday, when author Harry Lang gave a lecture on his book “Fighting from the Shadows.”

“Fighting from the Shadows” outlines the contributions of deaf Americans during the Civil War. The book’s title is a nod to an audible phenomena during the war known as acoustic shadows. Several battles during the war were affected by the geographic deflection of battle noise, allowing gunfire to be heard from miles away, but not in the next valley, where reinforcement troops were often posted. 

The phenomena became a metaphor for Lang’s research. 

The author became deaf at the age of 15, following a bout of meningitis in his native Pittsburgh, Pa. He went on to lead an inspiring career in academics, achieving a BS in physics, then his master’s in electrical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology and doctorate at the University of Rochester and an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University.

Lang taught physics at RIT for 42 years, before retiring and finishing “Fighting from the Shadows.”

The book was a 30-year project, inspired in part by a perspective-altering meeting the author had with fellow physicist Stephen Hawking in 1984.

“[Hawking] said, ‘Dr. Lang, it must be difficult being deaf.’ I was so shocked because being in a wheelchair, I thought, was a harder disability, because I love to play tennis, but it really got me started thinking about attitudes about disabilities and that’s when I started writing,” he recalled.

In between writing three other books, Lang kept up what he called his “needle in a haystack research”, to find stories of deaf people contributing to the war effort. Mainstream history had simply left deaf people behind.

“It wan’t hardly written about anywhere,” Lang said.

Prompted by an article appearing in a regional newspaper, Mary McDaniels of Friends of the Hornell Public Library requested that staff look into bringing the author to Hornell. On Saturday, he made his first visit to the Maple City, meeting with a crowd of about 30 for his lecture.

From nurses to doctors to artists to journalists, spies and even schoolchildren, the deaf made major contributions during the Civil War.

“I can’t fight, but I can take care of the fighters,” said the diary entry of a deaf nurse. 

Many deaf schools of the time were sacrificed to become hospitals and their students became nurses by necessity. 

Not only did the deaf have physical roles during the war, many of them served as intellectual drives of the war as well. One deaf school in Danville, Ky., held highly publicized debates, and when the Battle of Perrysburg raged, the students of that school buried more than 300 dead. 

A school in Raleigh, N.C., known as the “North Carolina School for the Deaf and Dumb” printed Confederate money. 

The schools had such a role that sometimes they became the epicenter of action wartime action. According to Lang, a school in Louisiana was once mistaken for the state capitol and faced bombardment until a teacher manned a rowboat to convince soldiers to stop. 

In another instance, a Mississippi school was burned to the ground, prompting one teacher to join the Confederate Army. 

Some deaf even managed major arsenals during the war, making 1.5 million bullets during the war with a signature style that can be identified today. 

“Imagine how many were killed by bullets made by deaf kids,” Lang said as he showed one of the signature bullets to the audience. 

Stories of deaf people braving the dangers of war exist in all states, and many deaf civilians were killed due to their inability to hear soldiers barking orders at them. 

“I’ve come across 20-25 stories of deaf people just going home from work or something like that,” Lang said. “It happened in the Detroit riots, it happened on the Trail of Tears ...” 

Of all the stories of wartime heroics, the one Lang said he most connected with was that of Laura Radden, a journalist with the St. Louis Republican newspaper assigned to be a Civil War correspondent. 

“She went to Washington and met with President Lincoln five or six times and met with Mary Todd Lincoln ... they became good friends,” Lang said. Oddly enough, Radden also taught John Wilkes Booth and his sister sign language while in Washington. 

“It’s another example of deaf people being left out of mainstream history,” Lang said. “I had to find it in her personal diary.”  

When the last shot was fired and the war was over, the battle was just beginning for deaf veterans. 

Thousands of servicemen would be deafened during the war by illness, artillery and exposure and refused to be forgotten by Uncle Sam. In New York, where one Hornell resident had an impact on the rights of veterans suffering deafness as a result of their service. 

“I’ve experienced the hearing world for 15 years, and the deaf world for 55, so it was interesting to me to see what became of the solders who were deafened during the war,” Lang said. 

Despite facing problems like learning to communicate, staying employed, staying on balance and isolation, deaf American veterans persisted.

William Porter Withrow was deafened by artillery at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862. After his discharge in 1863, he was a part of the “Silent Army” which petitioned the president for better pensions for deaf veterans. 

“It was one of the first examples of advocacy for people with disabilities in this country,” Lang said.

The advocacy built a strong identity that laid the groundwork for students to combat oralists — a group that pushed the teaching of only lip reading and alphabetic language, rather than the universally accepted signs for full words we know today. 

Dick Baker, who attended the Rochester School for the Deaf, recalled having to spell out everything to communicate with an opposing football team from the Buffalo area. 

“Fighting from the Shadows” is available on Amazon and other online outlets for $39.95 and a copy is available at the Hornell Public Library. 

Lang is planning further writings about deaf contributions to the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 to continue “shining a light on these dark corners of history.”