- Jun 2, 2017
He served for two years in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry joining the war effort just after the firing on Fort Sumter. In October 1861, during the futile engagement at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, a Confederate minié ball struck Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on his left side and passed through his chest nearly missing his heart. “I made up my mind to die,” he later told his mother. But he lived and was soon back in action. In September 1862, Holmes was shot through the neck at Antietam. In May 1863 at Fredericksburg, Holmes suffered a third serious wound as a small iron ball from a Confederate artillery round struck him in the heel. His friends joked that he’d been wounded like Achilles.
After recuperating for eight months at home in Boston, he took a position in the Sixth Corps to join General Ulysses S. Grant’s remorseless Overland Campaign toward Richmond.
Holmes witnessed the unspeakable carnage of the Wilderness campaign where the losses averaged, he calculated, about 3,000 a day. “How immense the butchers bill has been,” he wrote to his family.
At Spotsylvania he fought at the Bloody Angle, where he remembered dead and dying men piled in “a row six deep". Discharged in 1864, he was forever changed. “I started in this thing a boy,” he said. “I am now a man.”
After the war in a reunion speech to veterans he summed up his feelings on the meaning of the war as it related to the individual soldier: “I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creed, there is one thing I do not doubt and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan or campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”
Immediately after the war Holmes entered Harvard Law School, and started on the path that would take him, by 1902, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before he got to Washington, however, Holmes had already established a reputation in which his legal expertise and his Civil War service shared almost equal prominence. While serving on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, he had begun to develop his talent for public speaking beyond his profession.
In public demand to give veteran reunion and Memorial Day speeches, Holmes summarized his beliefs regarding the Union, slavery and the late war, and his unsuprisingly amicable feelings toward the South: “We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win, we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluable, we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred, conviction that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every men with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.”
After 29 years of service on the bench, Justice Holmes retired in 1932 at the age of 90, making him the oldest justice to have served on the Supreme Court of the United States. He died in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 1935, two days before his 94th birthday. The American Civil War and Oliver Wendell Holmes were entwined in both life and in death. Seventy years after the end of the conflict, the executor of Holmes’s estate found a parcel in the justice’s safety-deposit box. Inside were two small lead balls and a note simply stating: “These were taken from my body in the Civil War.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Photos: all from U.S. Library of Congress