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This Civil War Amputee Led the First Expedition Through the Grand Canyon

Learn about the eventful life of John Wesley Powell—professor, Civil War veteran, and explorer of the American West. 

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  • Portrait of Powell, left; first camp of the Powell expedition in Wyoming, right.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Civil War soldier John Wesley Powell, of the Twentieth Illinois Volunteers, came to war with an interesting background. The 27-year-old had already moved with his family from New York to southern Ohio to Wisconsin to Illinois. And he had led self-financed expeditions down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

He predicted the Civil War and studied military science and engineering in 1860. When war broke out, he was a school teacher but quickly enlisted in the 20th Illinois. Popular with the unit, he began to rise up the ranks. He quickly won election to sergeant major and then earned a commission to second lieutenant.

He quickly proved himself an able engineer, netting him the chance to design fortifications for Camp Girardeau and the nearby city of St. Louis. Ulysses S. Grant then put him in charge of the battery manning the siege guns.

People who knew Powell pointed to his ability to improvise, and engineer needed items out of nearly any useful material: "Especially was he apt in utilizing materials at hand to accomplish his ends—a trait that was also prominent in his civil life. Bridges he built from cotton gin houses, mantelets for his guns from gunny sacks and old rope, and shields for his sharpshooters from the moldboards of old plows found on the abandoned plantations" (Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, as quoted in John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist).

As a battery commander, John Wesley Powell led his men in the Battle of Shiloh, where tragedy struck. As he gave a signal to fire on April 6, a Minie ball plowed into his wrist and through his forearm, necessitating amputation from just below the elbow.

In an odd twist of fate, a lawyer-turned-Union-general gave Powell his horse to go and get medical aid. But the general, W. H. L. Wallace, was later hit and died that day.

He continued to serve as an artilleryman and engineer, despite his amputation. In the Vicksburg campaign, he contracted dysentery and lost 100 pounds. Then he needed a second surgery to relieve his pain a bit, which allowed him to fight at Atlanta and then Nashville. He earned a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel before leaving service near the close of the war in 1865.

 John Wesley Powell, After the War

If you completely forgot about the headline, you might expect the next few paragraphs to be about Powell's quiet return to teaching.

And John Wesley Powell did become a teacher and professor again. He also returned to exploring the American West. In 1867, just two years after he left military duty, he led an expedition into the Rocky Mountains.

In 1869, he started the trip that would make him famous. He and his team of nine other explorers descended the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. No American or European had completed a survey of the area, and few had even explored it. But Powell's friend John Strong Newberry took part in an 1857-1861 expedition that started the work, and he thought Powell could finish it.

The earlier expedition started at the Colorado River delta in a steamboat and made its way north. The Army officer-in-charge eventually decided that the river could not be navigated after about 550 miles.

Newberry disagreed, so he and Powell started at the Green River in Wyoming and made their way south. They went with eight others and brought along food for 10 months. They traveled 1,000 miles and found that the river could be navigated, though upstream travel was quite difficult. (The river is no longer navigable as dams and other infrastructure have drastically reduced the flow, sometimes to zero.)

Three men abandoned the expedition and later died, but the other seven made it through and became heroes, especially Powell. Powell returned again to create photographs and a more accurate map of the river and surrounding area.