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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
Holmes’s greatest address is at once a statement of the war experience and a plea for personal absolution.
On Memorial Day 1884, at Keene, New Hampshire, Holmes gave an address that has stood for a century as the most expressive summary by a participant of the war’s meaning to those who fought it. We do not know what brought Holmes to Keene, a town with which he seems not to have had any particular ties. The event was sponsored by the John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic; it may be that one of the members had served with Holmes in the VI Corps. At any rate, the speech was a classic of its genre. For our purposes, however, the most notable feature is not its drama or its famous phrases: “I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived” and “Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”
Rather, the most striking aspect of the speech is its intensely personal nature. In its description of events and its cameo descriptions of his dead comrades, it serves as a précis of Holmes’s own war experience. He describes his desperate encounter with the Confederate horseman; he refers to his Ball’s Bluff wound; he reenacts the farewell to James Lowell at Glendale; and he depicts, as though he were an eyewitness, Abbott’s courage in the bullet-swept streets of Fredericksburg.
Beyond this, he introduces us, anonymously, to his old comrades, those spirits who return on Memorial Day and at the “regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living”: Col. Paul J. Revere; his brother, Dr. Edward H. Revere; Willie Putnam; Charles Cabot; Dr. Nathan Hayward; Abbott; Lowell; and Bartlett. Holmes tells us that “their lives are the type of what every soldier has known and seen in his own company.” Yet one could excise the portraits of the regimental comrades without marring Holmes’s structure, his thought, or his eloquence. Indeed, in the form that Holmes gave it, the vignettes of his dead friends are entirely unnecessary to the nature of the address, which is a formal celebration of Memorial Day before an audience of strangers. None of the men he described had any more connection with the place or the hearers than Holmes did. One is left, then, with the distinct feeling that Holmes was speaking of his fallen fellow-officers not because they typified the Union dead, but because of some need personal to himself.
Holmes seems to have been, for all his gregariousness, a man who guarded his own privacy closely. The Memorial Day address allowed him not only to display his feelings without appearing to, but also to put himself again in the company of those whose standards he felt that he had abandoned. This magnificent piece of prose, which one critic has ranked with the Gettysburg Address, is simultaneously a statement of the war experience and an anguished plea for individual absolution.
Over the years. Holmes gave at least four other Civil War addresses; two in Memorial Hall, two at veterans’ reunions. They are all eloquent; indeed, one, “The Soldier’s Faith,” given at Harvard on Mek morial Day 1895, is the most explicit statement of Holmes’s philosophy of l uncomplaining acceptance of duty and destiny. And it, too, equates war-death with life: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.” Here, again, Holmes recites some of his own history: the shelling during Chancellorsville; the horrors of Spotsylvania; the Wilderness Campaign. Those, he says, who have shared these experiences “know that there is such a thing as the faith I spoke of. You know your own weakness and are modest; but you know that man has in him that unspeakable somewhat which makes him capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul, unaided, able to face annihilation for a blind belief.”
Put into the context of his own personal history, this expression seems an effort by Holmes to persuade himself that because he did face the holocaust, his survival is no evidence that he broke his trust. “The Soldier’s Faith” refers not only to faith in the sense of belief, it means, for Holmes, that he has remained true to the ideals in whose service Abbott, Lowell, Bartlett, and the rest willingly died. Holmes has lived; but he has kept the faith, the soldier’s faith.
Apart from the speeches, we have very little evidence of Holmes’s direct Civil War associations in i later life. His comnlex relation to the struggle may have played a part in his appointment to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In 1882, after protracted negotiation, Holmes had accepted a professorship at the Harvard Law School. This was the natural consequence of the scholarship he had demonstrated early on, a display culminating in his Lowell Lectures and the classic of legal thought, The Common Law .