- Historic Sites
Enlisted For Life
Oliver Wendell Holmes was wounded three times in some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. But for him, the most terrible battles were the ones he had missed.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
He was born in 1841, in a Boston that took its water from backyard wells and its light from whale-oil lamps. He died ninety-four years later in a nation that the army pilot James Doolittle had just crossed in twelve hours. Between the birth and the death came a career and a renown few achieve, and thirty years of serving as one of the most brilliant, influential, and revered Justices of the Supreme Court. Here, Holmes reached what he himself regarded as the apogee of a lawyer’s power and service: “To set in motion principles and influences which shape the thought and action of generations which know not by whose command they move.”
In a life of ninety-four years, many influences shape a man’s convictions, thought, and outlook. But for Holmes, as all his biographers agree, one experience cut more deeply than any other: the Civil War. This appears plain to even a casual reader of Holmes’s off-bench writings: aside from his only book-length work, The Common Law , he published a collection of law-oriented essays, Collected Legal Papers , and a volume of speeches. Since his death, portions of his voluminous correspondence have also seen print.
Apart from his judicial opinions, his writings are not extensive, particularly the public utterances. Yet one does not exaggerate to say their chief metaphors are war, masculine physical strength, military spirit, wartime violence, and heroic death. Of course, in some settings, this machismo is appropriate, given the occasion and the oratorical style of the day. When Holmes told a veterans’ reunion “what the war did for our souls. It is the romantic spirit. It is the fire of life,” the sentiment is apt, even though one might suggest that the fire of war relates more fitly to death than to life. But what does strike us is Holmes’s constant insertion of the war-and-death themes in nonmartial, almost pastoral, settings. Whatever the vehicle, Holmes uses it to send a violent message: War is not merely tolerable, it is inevitable and good; life is a battle; the only worthwhile man—indeed, the only virile man—is the fighter. Consider some of the words he spoke:
•“At the grave of a hero … we end not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.”
•“Another generation is upon the Bench. Another generation is in the first line at the Bar. We who yesterday were not engaged, and watched, as we held our places in reserve, the dark electric outline of those in front against the white smoke of the firing, have seen their line thin and one by one the leaders drop from their horses. We have had our orders and we have stepped forward to take our turn in the encounter which has but one end. In the short burial truce we carry to the grave our dead with honor and with the contained sorrow of men who know that their own turn is not far off.”
•“But after all the place for a man who is complete in all his powers is in the fight.”
•“Honor is better than a whole skin. It is worse to be a coward than to lose an arm.” “It is better to be killed than to have a flabby soul.”
•“We are here—a few men in a room, unhelped, simply stopping for a moment to look the greatest of all facts in the face, to honor the dead, and then like soldiers to go back to the front and fight until we follow our brothers. Both of those whom we commemorate were fighting men and so helped to teach us how to do our fighting—helped us to remember that when war has begun any cause is good, that life is war, and that the part of man in it is to be strong.”
•“The troops are deployed. They will follow their leader. We will not falter, we will not fail. We will reach the earthworks if we live, and if we fall we will leave our spirit in those who follow, and they will not turn back. All is ready, Bugler, blow the charge.”