Sesquicentennial: Oliver Wendell Holmes Searches for his Wounded Son
Though he is most famous for his role as a Justice of the Supreme Court, an appointment which was made December 15, 1882, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was also the son of poet and author Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.. Years prior to his appointment, Holmes, Jr. had been a Captain for the Twentieth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army during the Civil War. He participated in a number of major battles and was wounded first at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff where many of his Harvard classmates fell and then again at Antietam in the fall of 1862.
When his father received a telegram informing him that his son was wounded through the neck at Antietam, he set out on a journey to find him and wrote his account of the story in a piece entitled My Hunt After ‘The Captain’. It was first published in The Atlantic in December 1862. The search lasted many days after false leads, backtracking, and a combination of train and carriage rides. Although anxious, Dr. Holmes commented on the many incidental sights and conversations during his travels.
…though I had a worrying ache and inward tremor underlying all the outward play of the senses and the mind, yet it is the simple truth that I did look out of the car- windows with an eye for all that passed, that I did take cognizance of strange sights and singular people, that I did act much as persons act from the ordinary promptings of curiosity, and from time to time even laugh very much as others do who are attacked with a convulsive sense of the ridiculous, the epilepsy of the diaphragm.
His descriptions of the battlefields and hospitals brought home to the Northern readers a bit of the reality of the war:
We followed the road through the village for a space, then turned off to the right, and wandered somewhat vaguely, for want of precise directions, over the hills. Inquiring as we went, we forded a wide creek in which soldiers were washing their clothes, the name of which we did not then know, but which must have been the Antietam. At one point we met a party, women among them, bringing off various trophies they had picked up on the battlefield. Still wandering along, we were at last pointed to a hill in the distance, a part of the summit of which was covered with Indian corn. There, we were told, some of the fiercest fighting of the day had been done. The fences were taken down so as to make a passage across the fields, and the tracks worn within the last few days looked like old roads. We passed a fresh grave under a tree near the road. A board was nailed to the tree, bearing the name, as well as I could make it out, of Gardiner, of a New Hampshire regiment.
At one point he visited a Union camp and spoke with some Confederate prisoners of war:
I put the question, in a quiet, friendly way, to several of the prisoners, what they were fighting for. One answered, “For our homes.” Two or three others said they did not know, and manifested great indifference to the whole matter, at which another of their number, a sturdy fellow, took offence, and muttered opinions strongly derogatory to those who would not stand up for the cause they had been fighting for.
After numerous attempts to find the Captain, traveling hundreds of miles and at times being so close but missing each other, the two finally shared a reserved reunion and head home to Boston:
I saw my Captain; there saw I him, even my first-born, whom I had sought through many cities.
“How are you, Boy?”
“How are you, Dad?”
Such are the proprieties of life, as they are observed among us Anglo-Saxons of the nineteenth century, decently disguising those natural impulses that made Joseph, the Prime Minister of Egypt, weep aloud so that the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard, nay, which had once overcome his shaggy old uncle Esau so entirely that he fell on his brother’s neck and cried like a baby in the presence of all the women. But the hidden cisterns of the soul may be filling fast with sweet tears, while the windows through which it looks are undimmed by a drop or a film of moisture.
Above: Daguerreotype portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Image courtesy of the Harvard University Library.