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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
This last was Holmes’s peroration to a speech at a farewell banquet given by the Middlesex Bar Association, December 3,1902, five days before Holmes took his seat on the United States Supreme Court. A man who equates joining the Supreme Court with storming an entrenched enemy, or a deceased court clerk with a battle casualty, is—with due allowance for Victorian overexpression—plainly living out some sort of fantasy. When the mind indulging this persistent riot of imagination is one of the clearest and most perceptive intellects ever to grace an American bench, the root cause must lie deep indeed. Although the excerpts date from the 189Os to 1920, Holmes continued to bring the war into his casual literary efforts. On September 15, 1926, well past eighty-five years old, he wrote Harold Laski: “64 years ago on the 17th I was at Antietam and nearly killed.” And on February 24,1931, replying to a request from the President of Washington State College, who had asked for a note from Holmes to students wishing to celebrate his ninetieth birthday, Holmes wrote: “On the eighth of March, 1862, 69 years ago, the Sloop Cumberland was sunk by the Merrimac, off Newport News. The vessel went down with her flag flying—and when a little later my regiment arrived to begin the campaign on the Peninsula I saw the flag still flying above the waters beneath which the Cumberland lay. It was a lifelong text for a young man. Fight to the end and go down with your flag at the peak. I hope that I shall be able to do it—and that your students may live and die by the same text.”
Holmes’s wartime service began with his enlistment shortly before his Harvard class was scheduled to graduate. Having passed a month as a private, he received a first lieutenant’s commission in the 20th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, on July 23, 1861. Years later, he furnished this summary of his full war record: “Served 3 yrs. with 20th Mass. Volunteers, lieutenant to lieutenant colonel; wounded in breast at Ball’s Bluff, Oct. 21, 1861, in neck at Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, in foot at Marye’s Hill, Fredericksburg, May 3, 1863; a.-d.-c. [aide de camp] on staff Gen. H. G. Wright, Jan. 19, 1864, until mustered out July 17,1864, with rank of captain.” The “austere completeness” of this statement, to use Justice Felix Frankfurter’s phrase, provides the first clue toward an explanation of Holmes’s literary ferocity. But to appreciate its significance, Holmes’s meager recital must be fleshed out.
Holmes’s actual war largely encompassed much of the history of the 20th Massachusetts, which went South in September 1861 and, on October 21, fought in the bungled reconnaissance now known as the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Here the regiment took its first casualties, and Holmes his first wound. Shot through the fleshy part of the chest, Holmes went home to Boston and spent the winter there and at the family’s summer home in Pittsfield on recruiting duty while the regiment—with the rest of Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac—trained for the great push on Richmond.
A few days after Holmes rejoined his men, the campaign began. The army inched up the Virginia peninsula, pressing on to within sight of the Confederate capital, where it halted and then hastily lost all that its blood had earned. Throughout the last stretch—the collection of battles known as the Seven Days—Holmes used to “wonder if that damned sun ever would go down—a dispirited army fighting by day and marching for the James by night.”
Years later Holmes remembered that, during one of the last fights at Glendale, he “looked down the line” and saw a cousin, James Jackson Lowell, first scholar of Harvard’s Class of 1858. “The officers were at the head of their companies. The advance was beginning. We caught each other’s eye and saluted. When next I looked, he was gone.” But Holmes would remember him many times, and in many places.
For the rest of the summer, while the 20th saw no action, the Army of the Potomac fought and lost the Second Battle of Bull Run. In September, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved into Maryland. The Army of the Potomac followed, and on September 17, 1862, fought the bloodiest battle of the war alongside Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
During mid-morning, the 20th, along with most of its brigade and division, fell into a raking cross-fire and was forced from the field. In the melee, Holmes was hit again.