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Touched With Fire – Oliver Wendell Holmes and America’s Deadliest Day

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. left Boston in 1861 an ideological foot soldier for the Union Army and returned from the war – thanks to some amazing luck – a somber, pragmatic man whose father made him a household name.

Holmes was a lieutenant in the Harvard brigade – the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – so named because it drew all its officers and many of its members from Harvard University. Holmes had just graduated when he departed Boston to fight for the great cause of his day – the abolition of slavery.

Oliver Wendell Holmes - junior and senior

Oliver Wendell Holmes - junior and senior

Holmes’ mother was an ardent abolitionist. His father – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. – was opposed to slavery, but far less adamant than his hot-headed son. Holmes Sr. was a physician and best-selling author, poet and essayist who was both proud of and fearful for his son.

The 20th Massachusetts missed out on the first battle of Bull Run. After that it was part of every major Civil War battle until the conclusion of the fighting. Holmes Jr. was wounded three times.

He first was shot in the chest at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. He nearly died. Holmes’ father had given him a supply of laudanum to take with him, and he almost took the medicine to end his life because he believed he was near to death. His field doctors persuaded him to hold off.

Holmes was placed on a train to head back to Boston to recuperate, and his father travelled to Pennsylvania to meet his son and bring him home.

After a six month convalescence, Holmes returned to his unit. In June of 1862 at the Battle of Glendale the true cost of the war became clear to the young officer. As the Union and Confederate Armies lined up to do battle, he scanned down the line of soldiers and saw his cousin. He gave a salute, looked away and when he looked back his cousin was gone. Dead.

Three months later the 20th Massachusetts was assembled as part of the massive union force that would square off against the rebels at Antietam in Maryland. It was the first attempt by the southern forces to attack in the north, and it was the deadliest day ever in America. Thousands died on both sides and casualties topped 20,000.

Dead confederate artillery men littering the battlefield at Antietam

Dead confederate artillery men littering the battlefield at Antietam

The northern forces were victorious, and the immense cost made it a national tragedy. But the victory was the political lift Abraham Lincoln needed to announce his Emancipation Proclamation – which effectively blocked the British from aiding the southern states. The anti-slavery British would never join with the confederacy in reestablishing slavery once abolished.

Back in Boston, Holmes Sr. received a telegram the day after the battle. His son had been shot again – this time through the neck. The father’s mind flooded with fear, and he joined others heading south to again rescue their sons.

Holmes Sr. would write about his journey for Atlantic magazine – telling of the bodies stacked atop one another, the wounded everywhere. He bounced from town to town and hospital to hospital on the trail of his son – always just one step behind. In Harrisburg he finally stationed himself, searching among the wounded on train after train coming north. His journey movingly captured the fears of all Americans for the soldiers at war and crystalized the risks the young were experiencing on the battlefields.

Finally Holmes found his son in the first seat on a northbound train. Their greeting to each other remarkably free of emotion: “How are you, boy,” senior said. “How are you, father,” replied junior. In publishing his story, Holmes made his son famous – an everyman and hero in the war for the union.

Holmes Jr. would recover and return to his unit, but he wasn’t through dodging death. One final time he was shot in the heel at Chancellorsville in 1863. The 20th Massachusetts would fight until the end of the war, but Holmes declined to reenlist when his time was up in 1864. Exhausted and sick of war he returned home and to Harvard, where he studied law. Though Holmes went on to serve as a US Supreme Court justice for nearly 30 years, his experience in the Civil War was the greatest event in his life and he would always remember it with pride and sadness.

Speaking to a group of veterans, he said: “…the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience.  Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.”

5 comments

  1. O.W.H. Sr., also know as “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” was also responsible for saving the USS CONSTITUTION, which was going to be scrapped. He did so by composing his famous poem “Old Ironsides:” “Aye, tear her tattered ensign down, long has it waved on high…”

    (Slight error in the above article – it was the Harvard Regiment, not brigade.)

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