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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
The 20th and the 19th Massachusetts plunged straight through Webb’s almost broken ranks. As one eyewitness described the scene: “No threats or expostulation now, only example and encouragement. All depths of passion are stirred, and all combatives fire, down to their deep foundations. Individuality is drowned in a sea of clamor, and timid men, breathing the breath of the multitude, are brave. The frequent dead and wounded lie where they stagger and fall—there is no humanity for them now, and none can be spared to care for them. The men do not cheer or shout; they growl, and over that uneasy sea, heard with the roar of musketry, sweeps the muttered thunder of a storm of growls. Webb, Hall, Devereux [of the 19th Massachusetts], Mallon [of the 42d New York], Abbott among the men where all are heroes, are doing deeds of note. Now the loyal wave rolls up … [then] the wave swings back. Again it surges, and again it sinks. … The line springs … heaves forward its maddened lead, men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass … [a] moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, and undistinguishable conflict, followed by a shout universal that makes the welkin ring again, and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.”
Holmes, in Boston with his slow-closing wound, missed the triumph. Once again Abbott had occupied Holmes’s place, at the head of the 20th, at the forefront of the army. Holmes had lost the glory; but—perhaps more significant—he had been spared the danger upon which the glory rested. This last thought must have struck him sharply when, shortly after the battle, Henry Ropes’s body came home to Boston. Although John Ropes asked Holmes to serve as a pallbearer, the body was, as Ropes said, “not in condition to be seen,” with “a fearful wound in the region of the heart, a sad and shocking sight.” Holmes’s young cousin, Sumner Paine, fresh out of Harvard, had also died in the climactic melee.
He rejoined the regiment in early January 1864, but before the month was out, Sedgwick ordered him to the staff of Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, commanding general, First Division, VI Corps. From then until he finally left the army six months later, Holmes served as a staff officer, first at the division level and later, when Wright replaced Sedgwick, at VI Corps headquarters. That period of service coincided with Grant’s assumption of command and his grim campaign of attrition. From May on, through a series of death-haunted battles, the new commander stuck to his bloody business: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.
Holmes was out of the line, and in a sense better off than if he had been with the regiment. “I am so much safer than any infantry officer that I don’t grumble,” he wrote home. Staff officers lived at headquarters—frequently under canvas—and often ate and drank (and even sang) in what Holmes called “a singular contrast to troops marching by, working parties, etc., etc.” This very advantage, however, troubled Holmes, for though safer, he felt he was “earning less honor though learning much more.”
In fact, a staff officer during the kind of campaign that Grant was waging in the Virginia thickets led an existence both dangerous and demanding. Bullets and shells killed generals and staff officers as readily as they did privates. Moreover, the need to cover debated territory sometimes led Holmes to direct contact with the enemy: “About an hour before sunset the General [i.e., Wright] gave me a dispatch to [Maj. Gen. David A.] Russell [commanding First Division, VI Corps] and told me not to spare my horse. When I turned from plantation road into lane [Brig. Gen. Emory] Upton’s boyscout came riding along back full tilt and sung out to me not to go on, he had been fired at by 2 reb cavalry. Dilemma—concluded must go on. Picked up a straggler (infantry), and unarmed man on a mule, a sick officer and the boy and was starting when I saw 3 or 4 cavalry foragers. Got them and sent back rest except Upton’s boy whose head is level. Trot to place where boy was shot at—then gallop to where the road bends to right—bang—whiz—‘Halt’ ‘Surrender’ from about 20 Rebs in line. I thought it was a mistake and they were friends and begun to pull up but saw the gray jackets and clapped the spurs to my horse. Much shooting. Presently a fellow comes down the road: ‘Surrender.’ He hadn’t got his carbine quite unslung and I put my pistol to his breast and pulled trigger. Missed fire. Then he and others on right of road do shooting I lying along the side of horse Comanche fashion. Two of my men got through with me. I soon struck pickets and Duffy [one of Russell’s staff]. Saw Russell and returned on other road with answer.”
The episode merits our attention for two reasons. First, it shows that Holmes, on the staff, was—and knew he was—as much exposed to death in action as any line officer. Second, the memory became a particular piece of Holmes’s war nostalgia. In 1931, just after he left the Supreme Court, he wrote his friend Frederick Pollock: “I sometimes think of the chap I met when I was carrying an Order in 1864. I was face to face with him and meant to kill him, but I don’t believe that I should recognize him if I met him. Even if I were told who he was. However, the chances are that he is only a skull by this time—and one doesn’t remember skulls.”