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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
At this point it is worth recalling that Holmes went to war not only in his own person but also as the son of a doctor whose writings were familiar to virtually every literate American. Most people meeting Holmes would instantly connect him with his father, the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table—the persona Holmes Sr. used to express his opinions on the foibles of mankind. This connection would sometimes work to Holmes’s advantage, but it played a contradictory role after Antietam. A quartermaster officer, learning Holmes’s identity, immediately telegraphed Dr. Holmes: “Captain Holmes wounded shot through the neck not thought mortal at Keedysville.” Within hours after receiving this, Holmes senior was heading south. He found his son and promptly converted the whole adventure into one of the Civil War’s most famous literary artifacts, “My Hunt After The Captain,’ ” published in the December 1862 Atlantic Monthly . In today’s terms, this was exposure equivalent to an appearance on three network talk shows and a write-up in People magazine. Henceforth, Holmes was not only the Autocrat’s son, he was The Captain.
Nearly fatal though the shot was, Holmes required a shorter convalescence than he did for either of his other two wounds. Within two months of Antietam he had rejoined the regiment; the second part of his Civil War experience was about to begin.
By now Lincoln had removed McClellan, giving the Army of the Potomac to that genial incompetent. Ambrose Burnside. The new commander proposed to move south on Richmond, after a mass crossing of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Instead of locating a suitable ford below the town, Burnside chose to wait for special pontoons, designed to let his engineers throw a bridge across. Predictably, during the delay, Confederate sharpshooters ensconced themselves in the waterfront buildings, picking off Burnside’s bridge builders and frustrating the Union advance.
Burnside then determined to clear the town by sending a few regiments across the river, using the pontoons as primitive landing craft. The 19th Massachusetts, 7th Michigan, and 89th New York were detailed for this work, with the 20th Massachusetts assigned to lead the army over the bridge as soon as the engineers could complete it. Through misunderstanding, however, the 20th also went over in the pontoons. Once ashore, the regiment formed to clear Farquhar and Caroline streets, where heavy firing had pinned down the 19th Massachusetts. Holmes describes what happened next: “[Acting Col. George N.] Macy says quietly ‘Mr. [Henry L.] Abbott [acting Major] you will take your first platoon forward’ to which Abbott [says] ‘1st Platoon forward—March.’ In less than sixty seconds he would become the focus of a hidden and annihilating fire from a semicircle of houses. His first platoon had vanished under it in an instant, ten men falling dead by his side. He had quietly turned back to where the other half of his company was waiting, had given the order, ‘Second platoon, forward!’ and was again moving on, in obedience to superior command, to certain and useless death, when the order he was obeying was countermanded. The end was distant only a few seconds; but if you had seen him with his indifferent carriage, and sword swinging from his finger like a cane, you never would have suspected that he was doing more than conducting a company drill on the camp parade ground.”
The vivid description of Abbott’s heroics reads like an eyewitness account; the truth, however, is that Holmes—whose seniority entitled him to the place that Abbott occupied—was nowhere near the death-filled street.
All the while that Macy and, particularly, Abbott were leading the regiment to what has been rightly called its most memorable distinction, Holmes was across the river, invalided with dysentery. From a hill he saw the battle, “a terrible sight when your Regiment is in it but you are safe. Oh what self reproaches have I gone through for what I could not help and the doctor, no easy hand, declared necessary.”
The Civil War that Holmes missed had begun; unlike the actual war that he fought, this one would not end until 1935. The “self reproaches” that began on a Virginia hilltop swirled through Holmes’s character for the rest of his life. Objectively, they certainly were unjustified. Dysentery was a common ailment in a military that understood little about sanitation and nothing about germs, and it had been troubling Holmes since the Peninsular Campaign. Still, he never quite accepted the reality. Perhaps he thought that he had not done his duty. Whatever the cause, plainly he wished to believe forever after that he had walked with Abbott in that deadly stroll down Farquhar Street.