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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
It may have been this feeling of having failed his contemporaries that moved Holmes to his strong affinity with young swordsmen of the intellect. Holmes had left the army before the job was done, while Bartlett, “after he had more than paid his debt of suffering to his country with us, pressed again and again into the field, to suffer and shine still more”; Charley Lowell (married and wanting “so much” not to be hit) ignored a broken arm and a collapsed lung to ride to his death in the Valley; and Stephen Perkins, too ill to march, left an ambulance to fight and die at Cedar Mountain. Perhaps Holmes felt his implied debt to them forgiven because, in his old age, “the brilliant young soldiers still (gave) him a place in their councils of war.” Perhaps, through the voices of powerful young thinkers like Harold Laski and John Wigmore, he heard a message from Abbott and the others, praising, respecting and, above all, absolving. And perhaps, when the newly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for advice, and the ninety-two-year-old man replied, “Form your ranks and fight,” Holmes was merely telling the dead, the living, and—above all—himself that, on the brink of death, he was still keeping the soldier’s faith.