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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 funeral took place in Harvard’s Appleton Chapel. An eyewitness described the scene. “I remember one rainy fOctober] day when the sudden gusts blew the yellow leaves in showers from the College elms, hearing the beautiful notes of Pleyel’s Hymn, which was the tune to which soldiers were borne to burial, played by the band as the procession came, bearing Charles Lowell’s body from his mother’s house to the College Chapel; and seeing the coffin, wrapped in the flag, carried to the altar by soldiers; and how strangely in contrast with the new blue overcoats and fresh white and red bunting were the campaign-soiled cap and gauntlets, the worn hilt and battered scabbard of the sword that lay on the coffin.”
Given his relationship to Lowell, it is inconceivable that Holmes was not present to hear the Reverend George Putnam say: “So we must not grudge what our dear country has required of us, but must give more, and take back her infinite compensations—give all she asks and needs—give ourselves and our dearest—and give on, and to the uttermost, till she is redeemed, rehabilitated, re-enthroned.”
And the war ground on: Lincoln’s re-election; the march through Georgia; the triumph at Nashville; the siege of Petersburg; the breakthrough at Five Forks; Appomattox.
Peace. By July, Holmes had finished his first year of law school; yet his direct war experience did not end until July 21,1865, Commemoration Day, when the Harvard community joined the sons who had returned to honor those who did not. In the morning, with the 20th’s old colonel Henry Lee as marshal, the alumni veterans marched in uniform through the Yard and heard a “matchless prayer of resignation and of triumph” by Phillips Brooks. After a luncheon spread, the crowd gathered next to Harvard Hall to hear speeches and poems from dignitaries in and out of uniform. Perhaps the most striking utterance came from William Francis Bartlett, maimed by his wounds and gaunt from his captivity in Libby Prison—he had been captured at Petersburg. When, unable to find the right words, the general hesitated, Colonel Lee quickly rose and turned an embarrassment into a poignant triumph: “As the Speaker of the House of Burgesses of Virginia said to Washington,” he intoned, “Sit down, sir, your modesty is equal to your valor, and that surpasses the power oi any language I possess.”
Of everything said or done that proud and tragic day, James Russell Lowell’s “Ode” has remained longest in memory. Its rolling periods capture the Civil War experience in a thunder and a sob that none have ever matched. Beyond that, perhaps, Lowell’s words carried special significance to some of his listeners:
Holmes’s attention to the Harvard-war relationship continued intensely during the immediate postwar years. As soon as the fighting ended, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Class of 1841), former colonel of a black regiment, undertook to edit a set of brief lives of Harvard men who had died in the war. To the two volumes of Harvard Memorial Biographies , Holmes contributed a piece on his classmate Arthur Dehon, killed at Fredericksburg.
It is almost certain that Holmes read what Francis W. Palfrey wrote in the memoir of Abbott that he contributed to the Memorial Biographies : “No temptation could induce him to leave his regiment to perform the easier and safer and more agreeable duties of the staff.”
Following completion of the law school’s two-year program in 1866, Holmes turned to practice and, increasingly, scholarship—in the form of articles, book reviews, and a revision of Kent’s Commentaries . In 1874 Harvard dedicated the massive Memorial Hall, laid out like a church. Its transepts bore on their walls the names of the Harvard dead, arranged by classes, each listing the date and place of death. Even today, to stand in that dimly lit chamber before those tablets is to feel in an almost physical way the enormity of the loss, not only to Harvard but to the entire nation.
At the commencement dinner in Memorial Hall, the day after its dedication, Bartlett spoke of reconciliation and peace and of the “beloved names on those marble tablets. … Whatever change of fortune may come to us as the years roll on, their fame is secure—immutable—immortal. We shall grow old and wear out, but they will always keep for us their glorious, spotless youth.” Two years later, Bartlett himself was dead, in part from the privations to which the war had subjected him. Palfrey, the 20th’s old lieutenant colonel, wrote a memoir, which Holmes read. “I had admired him as a hero. When I read, I learned to revere him as a saint.”