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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
But, of course, Holmes very much remembered skulls. And he associated death most especially with the campaigns of 1864. It was during that time of excruciating pressure—physical, emotional, and moral—that Holmes suffered his most serious personal loss of the war. On May 6, at the head of the old regiment, Acting Colonel Abbott sustained a mortal wound. Twenty years later Holmes would say of him: “His death seemed to end a portion of our life also.” In a poem published a few months after Abbott’s death, he expressed the thought another way: “Yet, noble heart, full soon we follow thee/Lit by the deed that flamed along thy track.”
Less poignant but still jolting bereavement struck Holmes three days after Abbott died: “Whittier rode up to General Wright with news that Sedgwick was killed. We had been with him a moment before. He was in an exposed angle between Warren’s front and ours and had just been chaffing a man for ducking at the bullets of a sharpshooter; saying ‘Why man they couldn’t hit an elephant here at this distance.’ He was struck on one side of the nose and sunk senseless and soon died.”
Holmes wrote to his parents: “These nearly two weeks have contained all of fatigue and horror that war can furnish.” After the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania, where Holmes saw “the dead of both sides … piled in the trenches five or six deep—wounded often writhing under superincumbent dead,” he was nearing the end of his endurance. The VI Corps alone lost between nine and ten thousand men from May 4 to May 13.
“I have made up my mind to stay on the staff if possible till the end of the campaign and then if I am alive, I shall resign. I have felt for some time that I didn’t any longer believe in this being a duty and so I mean to leave at the end of the campaign as I said if I’m not killed before.”
He had reached his decision, and he stuck to it, despite parental suggestions that he might be abandoning his duty. “I started in this thing a boy [he responded]. I am now a man and I have been coming to the conclusion for the last six months that my duty has changed. I can do a disagreeable thing or face a great danger coolly enough when I know it is a duty. But a doubt demoralizes me as it does any nervous [i.e., high-strung] man. And now I honestly think the duty of fighting has ceased for me—ceased because I have laboriously and with much suffering of mind and body earned the right … to decide for myself how I can best do my duty to myself, to the country and, if you choose, to God.”
One more military adventure remained. At the beginning of July, a strong Confederate force under Jubal Early plunged north into Maryland, then east toward Baltimore, intending to strike at Washington from the northwest. While Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace and a ragged, pickup detachment delayed Eariy at Monocacy Creek, Grant hurried the VI Corps (now under Wright) to reinforce the endangered capital’s thin garrison.
Arriving just as Early did, Wright’s veterans manned the ring of protective works, especially Fort Stevens, directly athwart Early’s path. On July 11 and 12 the President himself came to the fort to observe the skirmishing. During one of his visits Lincoln stretched his tall form above the breastworks. Holmes, not recognizing his Commander in Chief, instinctively shouted, “Get down you damn fool, before you get shot!” The President complied.
Faced with fully defended fortifications, Early retreated. Grant then ordered Wright and the VI Corps to report to Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. On July 17, however, the 20th Regiment’s three years of Federal service expired. Although some reenlisted, Holmes, declining further staff or line duty, had ended his active Civil War service.
During those few days just before leaving the army, Holmes ran across his older cousin and boyhood idol, cavalry colonel Charles Lowell, and they speculated about who the country would remember after the war. Lowell mentioned Lincoln, “but,” Holmes later recalled, “I think we both smiled.” We do not know whether the conversation also covered Lowell’s brother James, who had died after saluting Holmes at Glendale, urging his troops, “Don’t mind me, men; go forward.” Nor can we tell whether they talked of Lowell’s brother-in-law, Robert Gould Shaw, cut down at the head of his all-black regiment in 1863.
From Petersburg, where he had received his discharge, Holmes headed north. In Washington he met his old regimental friend, William Francis Bartlett. Now a brigadier general (despite losing his left leg at Williamsburg in May 1862), Bartlett was hurrying south to resume command of his brigade in the Petersburg trenches. Then Holmes went back to Boston, to the Class of 1861’s dinner and, at the vigorous suggestion of the Autocrat, to the Harvard Law School. The war that Holmes had left continued to return to him. At the height of the battle of Cedar Creek, an already wounded “Charley” Lowell, charging a battery with his brigade, took a second shot, which cut his spinal cord and ended his life.