One of the great human interest stories is that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr… wounded at Antietam in the West Woods, ultimately to recover and live into his 90s as the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

Holmes was a Captain in the 20th Massachusetts regiment. They were a part of Sedgwick’s advance into and through the West Woods – even to a cornfield beyond. At the height of the Confederate counter-attack (an “enfilading lines” attack!), Holmes was shot through the neck and presumed to be a goner. In fact, a surgeon examined him and declared, “I’ve no time to waste on dead men.” A friend insisted he be helped and carried from the field. He received care at a local home, then at a house in Keedysville, and eventually by a staunch Unionist family in Hagerstown named the Kennedys.

Eventually he was well enough to travel home to Boston. His famous literary father had come looking for him – without success – though ultimately finding him on a train departing Hagerstown. They travelled together home to Boston, where the younger Holmes would convalesce from his wound.

I have a very old copy of a book on the life of Holmes, entitled “Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family,” by Catherine Drinker Bowen, 1944. The description of Holmes back in Boston during this time essentially presents a man suffering from a condition we moderns know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was aloof, depressed, confused … not at all the young man that family and friends remembered.

Here is an excerpt:

To Wendell it seemed incredible that people would ask for stories of the battlefield as for tales of a circus, or of a boat race on the river Charles. He had forgotten his own eager garrulousness after Ball’s Bluff – a battle in which he had not seen ten minutes of fighting before being carried unconscious from the field. What he knew now of battlefields was better forgotten, but Wendell could not forget. Dead men sprawled among the corn, naked, stripped of trousers and boots, eyes staring, limbs flung out in awful abandon. For those boots and trousers the Rebels had fought like tigers. If the North fought for “victory,” for “Union,” “freedom,” the South fought for shoes to put on its bleeding feet, pants for its legs, and fought no less bravely. Here on the streets they called the Rebels cowards. They were not cowards.

Cowardice, gallantry, chivalry – how wearily a soldier, returned from the field, met such words? At home they thought of battle as if it were fought on Boston Common. As if a man came down the steps of his house pulling on his gloves, smoking a cigar – then got on his horse and charged a battery up Beacon Street while the ladies waved handkerchiefs from a balcony. What really happened was that you spent the night on the wet ground with your bowels open and fought on a breakfast of salt meat and dirty water.

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

One response »

  1. Gary Rohrer says:

    Well said, Randy. I know it’s a quote but it’s perceptive of you to share it for exemplifying just how horrific CW combat really was.

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