American Civil War veteran with prosthetic legs, c. 1890

Civil War veteran John W January sitting on a chair in a suit with a medal attached to it. He has detached his prosthetic legs showing both his legs that have been amputated.
Civil War veteran of the 14th Illinois Cavalry Regiment, John W. January, photographed with his prosthetic legs while also showing his amputated legs. Taken in Ottawa, Illinois in c. 1890. Library of Congress // Public Domain

John W. January is known for his involvement in the American Civil War. Both metaphorically and quite literally a man of steel, January is known for his survival through awful conditions of a Confederate POW camp. Pictured here, John sits triumphantly, looking in good health, but accompanied with his faithful amputated legs and prosthetic replacements. The scars left on just one man reflect just how bloody and vicious this war was. John W January could be seen to be one of the lucky ones, with 750,000 of his fellow Americans dying as a result of this historically bloody war.

Born in Ohio, John and his family would eventually emigrate to Illinois where he would become a farmer. With the war raging on, January would be enlisted in the Company E of the 14th Illinois Cavalry in 1864. It was as part of a mission with this regiment John would face his fate. Intended as a rescue mission for other POWs who had been captured by Confederate soldiers, the 14th Cavalry would be overturned and themselves taken as POWs. He, along with 1800 other Union soldiers, was sent to Andersonville Prison in Georgia, before being moved to Florence, South Carolina.

It would be during his time in prison that January would become known for his role in the Civil War and he would document his time spent there through writings. Deplorable conditions of filth and rot would meet the POWs in these prisons. Long before the implementation of human rights within prisons, the warring states were allowed to subject their prisoners to whatever conditions they pleased. This meant pure neglect. John would recount malnutrition and horrendous conditions which led to gangrene and scurvy in his feet. His feet would be completely rotting and he would suffer from swamp fever and general poisoning. No surgeon within the prison would operate on John as they believed him to be a lost cause. With this knowledge, John equipped himself with a personal pen knife and would easily cut away his own feet. Due to the rotted nature of the flesh, it meant he could easily remove his own feet from his leg leaving bones protruding past the end of the flesh on his lower leg. Brutal!

Following his own operation, many would doubt John’s life had much time left. Lucky for January, the war would come to an end in 1865, and he would first be transported to North Carolina where he would weigh in at a meager 45lbs. That was a loss of 120lbs from the start of January’s time in the POW camp. Union Army doctors, upon John’s arrival, would all suggest his life was not going to last much longer. But remarkably this man would go on to live into his 60s, right up until 1906. Following his release and further transportation to a hospital in New York, John’s lower leg bones would chip off due to rot.

It would take this remarkable survivor a year in hospital to eventually sit up and a further 12 years for his legs to properly heal. John would later use prosthetic legs to move about. This mental story would be recounted by John January and would eventually cement his place in history. Just another crazily violent story to come out of the brutal and devastating American Civil War.


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