By LINDA MCNATT, The Virginian-Pilot
© June 20, 2005

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — Slowly, carefully, Christine Brooks Young slipped her fingers into the white cotton gloves and pulled the protective covering over her hands.

Hesitantly, her hand moved to the dark, aged wood lying on the table at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.

Seemingly reaching across the generations, Young touched the artificial leg of Isaac Byrum Jr., her great-grandfather.

“It just makes me very proud, after hearing what he accomplished,” said Young, a Suffolk resident who started researching her family history recently and found out about the leg.

 

“I remember , early on in my life , hearing about a relative who had served in the Civil War.”

Byrum, a hard-working farmer from eastern North Carolina, lost his left leg in the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloody exchange that many consider the turning point of the War Between the States.

Fitted with a wooden leg at a Richmond hospital once he was released from a Union prison camp, the 24-year-old Byrum walked home and resumed his life. He would clear 55 acres of farmland, marry and have several children.

And, when the first wooden leg wore out, he carved two more – one for everyday use and one for church. In 1916, Byrum was buried in his “good” leg, said Don Pendergraft, museum exhibits chief.

“It really does have its own aura, doesn’t it?”

“Everyone is kin to this wooden leg,” he added, chuckling. “It probably gets more visitors than any of our other exhibits.”

When the museum moves to its new headquarters just across from the Elizabeth City waterfront this fall, the leg will have a prominent place, Pendergraft said. Exhibit space of about 6,000 square feet in the old building will expand to about 50,000 square feet in the new.

As a museum exhibit, a wooden leg is a fairly rare thing, Pendergraft said. He knows of only one other museum in North Carolina with a similar leg, and he’s uncertain whether the story behind the other leg is known.

As for the Albemarle leg, it has become, well, a legacy.

The leg, about 24 inches from the cushioned platform to the tip, and weighing more than 10 pounds, was donated to the museum in 1989, and, at that point, Pendergraft had an opportunity to talk with Byrum’s granddaughter, Evelyn Jordan . She was 90 at the time, he said, but she had a clear recollection of her grand father’s memories about the day he lost his leg.

Byrum was about a half-mile from Union lines on Cemetery Ridge when he was wounded by gunfire. “It was a hot day,” Jordan told Pendergraft. “He tried to drag himself to some shade but couldn’t for all the other wounded and dead lying around.”

Of 800 North Carolinians in one regiment, only about 70 survived. Byrum was a private in the 11th Regiment, North Carolina Infantry. His regiment lost more than half its men at Gettysburg.

As the sun sank lower into the sky on that fateful day in July 1863, flies began to get into Byrum’s wound. He told his granddaughter that he ripped off a piece of his uniform shirt and wrapped it around the wound.

“It was about sundown when they finally picked him up off the battlefield,” Jordan said. “He said he thought they could have saved his leg if they had picked him up earlier.”

Young, a Suffolk businesswoman and wife of a local lawyer, said she thought little about her ancestry when she was younger. But, as she got older, she said, it became more important.

Once she became a grandmother, she wanted to know more about her own family history so she could pass it on to her granddaughter.

She learned about the leg when a cousin, who still lives in North Carolina, stopped by her office one afternoon and announced: “Your great-grandfather’s leg is in the Albemarle Museum.”

Since then, Young has learned much more.

When the Civil War broke out, Great-Grandpa Byrum was one of the first North Carolinians to answer the call. He was elected a captain in the local volunteers, a position reserved for community leaders.

At Gettysburg, Byrum was picked up by Union soldiers and carted from hospital to hospital. His leg was amputated, and he ended up at Point Lookout, Md., a prison camp notorious for its hardships.

After the war, Byrum was sent to Richmond to be fitted with an artificial leg. He walked home to Chowan County from Virginia’s war-torn state capital. No one can even guess how long the trip must have taken.

Once home, a legendary tale about Byrum involves an encounter with Yankee sympathizers.

During the war, they sometimes stole from the families of the men fighting for the South, and one of them made the mistake of taking one of Byrum’s wife’s pigs.

Locals still recall how the farmer went to visit the Union-loyal families to inform them that he was home.

“I haven’t seen a man yet who could put my back on the ground,” Byrum is supposed to have said.

North Carolina was the only state in the South occupied by the Union army during the entire war, Pendergraft said. “We can only imagine how hard it must have been.”

The leg isn’t just a wooden leg, he said. It’s a testament to every hard-working farmer who left his state in the hands of the Yankees and fought for what he believed in.

In a way, through the sturdy wooden leg at the museum, he represents them all, Pendergraft said.

Young, nodding at this thought, smiled.

And she touched the leg once more.

Reach Linda McNatt at (757) 222-5561 or linda.mcnatt@pilotonline.com.