When Duty Calls


During the mid-nineteenth century, when our country began to tear at the seams, the state of Massachusetts produced some of our most dedicated leaders. While her congressmen and senators defended the principles of liberty and equality in the halls of power, newspapermen and ordinary citizens launched a moral crusade to reform the nation and to bring freedom to all her people. Among those to join in the struggle was one of Boston’s favorite sons. He would eventually become one of our pre-eminent jurists, but in this fight he would, literally, take his position on the front lines. As an officer, he led his men into some of the fiercest battles of the American Civil War. His boldness may have even served in the deliverance of the one man indispensable to Union victory. This young officer’s name was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. This is the story of how his devotion to duty was proved time and again, both on the battlefield and off.

As he grew up, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. came to believe that slavery had to be ended by any means necessary. He was born in Boston in March 1841 at a time when the abolitionist movement was beginning to gain national attention. His father believed eradicating slavery was impossible under the current Constitution, but one of his closest friends, Ralph Waldo Emerson, did not. Since young Oliver spent a lot of time with “Uncle Waldo,” it was not long before he similarly embraced opposition to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Throughout the 1850s, he watched Emerson and his cousin, Wendell Phillips, rally their supporters to prevent fugitive slaves from being sent back south. After entering Harvard in 1857, his abolitionist sentiments increased so much he was unable to watch an African-American minstrel show. He supported Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, and in January 1861 he offered to serve as a bodyguard to Emerson and Phillips when they attended an Anti-Slavery Society meeting. As Southern states began to secede from the Union, he realized the time had come for him to defend his principles. When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12th he determined to join “in the cause of the whole civilized world.”

Little did Holmes know how significant his service to the nation would be. Signing up for an enlistment of three years, he briefly served in the New England Guard’s Fourth Battalion before seeking a transfer to the battlefield. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts, widely known as the “Harvard Regiment,” and assigned to Company A. After only a few weeks of training the young lieutenant received orders to march to Washington, D.C. The regiment then moved across the Potomac in mid-October to patrol the area around Leesburg, Virginia. On October 21st, the command faced a Confederate brigade numbering four thousand men along a ridge known as Ball’s Bluff. Oliver and Company A were in the forefront and began to take heavy casualties. As the battle raged around him, Holmes was knocked to the ground when a spent rifle ball hit his stomach. He stumbled to his feet to urge his men on when suddenly two more enemy rounds slammed into his right chest, missing his heart and lungs by a fraction of an inch. He fell to the ground and for a moment thought he would die. Comrades rushed to his side and carried him down the embankment to a boat that transported him to a field hospital across the river. Doctors found both bullets had passed cleanly through his chest. He would survive to continue to his service to the Union.

He spent the winter at home convalescing before returning to the regiment as a newly promoted captain in command of Company G. After participating in George McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsula Campaign, he and the regiment received word of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland. On the morning of September 17, 1862 he faced the Confederate army along the quiet waters of Antietam Creek. In the early morning he watched as Union General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps attacked Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates in the infamous “Cornfield” and on the high ground around the Dunker Church. At 7:20 John Sedgwick’s 2nd Division, II Corps, which included the 20th Massachusetts, was ordered to provide relief by attacking enemy forces in the East Woods. The regiment charged into a blaze of artillery and musket fire on three sides, front, flank and rear. The soldiers found themselves trapped and helpless to escape slaughter. Standing at the head of his company, Holmes was shot through the neck by an enemy marksman. Fortunately, the bullet entered “at the rear passing straight through.” The young Bostonian collapsed to the ground where he began to bleed out. His comrades paid little attention as they desperately tried to escape the enemy’s trap. One officer finally noticed him and ordered him taken to a field hospital a short distance away. The Confederates almost captured him before he was transported behind the lines to Keedysville, Maryland. There his wound was cleaned and bandaged. Upon hearing of his son’s dire condition, his father journeyed south to the battle area, and after desperately searching for six days, collected Oliver and took him home to Boston. He had survived the bloodiest single day in American history, but no matter how serious his wound, he could not stay away from action for long.

Still committed to the Union cause, Holmes returned to the front after only six weeks. In mid-November 1862 he rejoined the regiment outside Fredericksburg, Virginia where he found many soldiers inflicted with dysentery. He too found himself “stretched out miserably sick” and unable to participate in the regiment’s charges against the Twenty-first Mississippi through the streets of Fredericksburg or in the futile charges up Marye’s Heights where his unit suffered devastating losses. In May 1863 he advanced with the regiment toward Chancellorsville when Confederate artillery opened fire and shrapnel struck him in the foot. He initially feared the foot would have to be amputated, but such fears were put to rest when the iron fragments were successfully removed. He was ordered home to Boston where he remained for the next eight months, missing the climactic Battle of Gettysburg. Rejoining the army in January 1864, he was transferred to the staff of General Horatio Wright. In this capacity he took part in the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor, where nine thousand Union soldiers fell in only three hours. Believing he had proven his dedication to the Union, he intended to go home when his enlistment ended in a few weeks, but he had one final duty to perform before he left the army.

In early July he and the rest of General Wright’s Sixth Corps were outside Petersburg, Virginia when they learned Confederate General Robert E. Lee had sent General Jubal Early to attack, and possibly capture, Washington, D.C. To counter this threat, Wright was ordered north with all possible speed. With Holmes by his side, he arrived late on July 11th just as Early was about to attack. Holmes and his fellow soldiers wasted no time and raced through the streets to Fort Stevens on the outskirts of the city. The next morning Early ordered his men towards the fort. At the same time, Confederate sharpshooters began to pick off those soldiers on top of the ramparts. Union soldiers were responding when they noticed a tall man in a stovepipe hat arrive. President Abraham Lincoln had come to see the battle. He stepped onto the parapet and scanned the field in front of him. Several officers, including General Wright, saw that Lincoln presented a tempting target for the enemy and begged him to get down. The president refused. According to some sources, it was at this moment Holmes shouted at his commander-in-chief, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot.” Lincoln, finally seeing the folly of his action, smiled at the young officer and did as requested before replying, “Captain, I’m glad you know how to talk to a civilian.” Holmes immediately turned his attention back to the fight and watched as Union forces advanced against the Confederates. By nightfall it had become clear Washington could not be taken. With no other choice the Confederates chose to withdraw. Holmes joined the Union forces that pushed the Confederates back, securing the region around the capitol. With the war’s inevitable end in sight and feeling he had done his duty, Holmes decided to leave the army — now with the brevet, or temporary, rank of colonel.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s service to the nation was, however, far from over when he took off his uniform in 1864. He soon embarked on a phenomenal law career. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1866, he established a law practice but found the time to co-edit the American Law Review, give a series of lectures on constitutional law, edit Chancellor Kent’s Commentaries and publish a well-received book on common law. These efforts brought him fame as “a disciple of the new school” of legal scholars. His reputation increased as he argued cases before the Federal Court of Admiralty and the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 1882 he was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court as an associate justice and in 1899 to chief justice. He distinguished himself for his support of labor’s right to organize in Plant v. Woods. His dissent in Plant angered many, but it did not prevent him from being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt in August 1902. Throughout his long career as an associate justice, he tried to distance himself from politics and to consider the long-term ramifications of a ruling. His articulate position on controversial cases earned him the title of “The Great Dissenter.” He urged his fellow justices to be “vigilant against attempts to check the expressions of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.” For thirty years he heard and decided the most difficult legal issues confronting our country. His opinions were always well reasoned and coherent and are generally considered today as some of the best constitutional expositions in our high court’s archives. Although never securing the position of chief justice, Holmes maintained the respect of his colleagues and the nation until he retired in January 1932. A lifetime of service came to an end three years later in March 1935 when he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was the embodiment of devotion to his country. In both war and peace he never strayed from that commitment. He understood that being an American required him to make personal sacrifices in the name of a greater good. He could have left the Union army after he was wounded at Ball’s Bluff or after Antietam, but he did not. He stayed the course. If he had not, it is conceivable Abraham Lincoln would have been killed at Fort Stevens. In every endeavor, Oliver Wendell Holmes did his duty — faithfully defending freedom through it all.

1 Comment

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One response to “When Duty Calls

  1. Jake, thank you for telling “the rest of the story” about a man we’re all familiar with. What an interesting story about the young Holmes who didn’t know how to “duck” and was wounded numerous times, but ultimately probably saved his commander in chief by admonishing him for not doing so. Well done, Jake!

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