Massachusetts

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. He returned from the war – thanks to some amazing luck – a somber, pragmatic man whose father made him a household name.

Holmes served as a lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, known as the Harvard Regiment 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., – opposed slavery, but far less adamantly than his hot-headed son. Holmes, Sr.. was a physician and best-selling author, poet and essayist. He felt both pride and fear for his son.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at War

The 20th Massachusetts missed out on the first battle of Bull Run. After that it engaged in every major Civil War battle until the fighting ended. 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.  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 took 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, then looked away. When he looked back his cousin had gone. Dead.

Three months later the 20th Massachusetts 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. 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 won, but the immense cost made it a national tragedy. The victory gave Abraham Lincoln the lift he needed to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. That 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.

The Journey South

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

Finally Holmes found his son in the first seat on a northbound train. Their greeting to each other seemed 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.

A Third Time

Holmes, Jr., would recover and return to his unit, but he hadn’t finished 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 U.S. Supreme Court justice for nearly 30 years, his experience in the Civil War was the greatest event in his life. 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.”

This story was updated in 2021.

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