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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
A man who equates joining the Supreme Court with storming an entrenched enemy is living out some sort of fantasy.
Once the 20th Regiment and its sisters had cleared the bridgehead, construction of the pontoon path followed quickly, and the Army of the Potomac crossed, Burnside foolishly eager to resume the fight. Now, however, instead of a brigade of Mississippi sharpshooters, he faced all of Lee’s infantry and artillery, sighting down their rifles and cannon from prepared positions at the top of a long ridge behind the town.
While Holmes watched from the hill across the river, Burnside sent wave after wave of bluecoated infantry up the slopes of Marye’s Heights. There the Confederate riflemen, safe behind a stone wall, killed them as fast as they came: not a single Union soldier reached the Southern lines. The 20th, sent in with Hall’s brigade to try flanking the wall, “got it with cannister,” and half of Holmes’s company took wounds; Nathan Hayward, the regimental surgeon, “looked like a butcher, red up to chin and elbows.”
Next May, under a new commander, the avuncular John Sedgwick, whom Holmes admired (and who apparently liked Holmes), the 20th was back at Fredericksburg.
Sedgwick’s first objective was Marye’s Heights, defended this time by a gray line much shorter and thinner than what Burnside’s doomed brigades faced during December’s agony. From in and behind the Confederate lines, artillery supported the riflemen. As Holmes and the 20th moved to their assault positions, along a road at the foot of the Heights, a Confederate gun crew wheeled its piece into place no farther from the regiment, Holmes later recalled, than Boston’s Beacon Street is from Tremont Street (about three city blocks).
Spherical case—a shell containing musket balls, time-fused to explode in the air—began detonating overhead. The first burst hit Holmes’s knapsack supporter. The second wounded the man lying ahead of him. The next put a slug into Holmes’s heel bone. For the third time, Holmes was out of the war. Oddly, of his three wounds, this was at once the least life-threatening and the most disabling; he would not return to duty for almost nine months, and except for a few days in January 1864, he would never serve with the 20th again.
Once again another man had occupied his place at the forefront of the army. Holmes had lost the glory.
Throughout the rest of the year, Holmes remained at home, recovering. While Lee moved into Pennsylvania, followed closely by the Army of the Potomac, Holmes was in Boston, undertaking (but not always completing) some serious reading.
At a crossroads town called Gettysburg, the armies met and decided the war. After two days of bloody, indecisive fighting, Federal troops faced Lee across a little valley. The 20th was posted near a clump of trees, just forward of an artillery line that was firing casually at occasional Confederate attempts to position a battery. 1st Lt. Henry Ropes, brother of Holmes’s friend John C. Ropes, the Boston lawyer, was whiling away the wait by reading Dickens. Suddenly a round from one of the Federal Parrott guns detonated on discharge, sprayed its shrapnel over the nearby troops, and killed Ropes.
Later in the day a more general artillery duel developed, shaking the earth and the armies. It was the prelude to that epic of gallantry and futility we know today as Pickett’s Charge. Of course, Pickett failed. But before his assault receded, taking the Confederacy with it, a few hundred Virginians actually broke part of the Union line. For perhaps fifteen minutes, the area around the cluster of trees where Ropes had died became, as Bruce Catton once wrote, “the bloody cockpit of the whole war, the place where men on foot with guns in their hands would arrive at a verdict.”
At the point of impact Alexander Webb’s diminished Pennsylvania brigade, meeting Pickett’s concentrated thrust, began to fall apart. Colonel Hall’s brigade, including the 20th and the other three regiments that had cleared Fredericksburg, rushed into the gap. Macy, the 20th’s acting colonel, had just lost a hand, so in Holmes’s absence, command devolved upon Abbott, who “gallantly led over his fine regiment.”