Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"It was a pitiable sight...this great caravan of pilgrims:" Oliver Wendell Holmes' Hunt for the Captain, Part 1

As the guns grew quiet on Antietam Ridge the evening of September 17th, the telegraph carried the news of the great struggle that day. Correspondents, when they could find an open line and cooperative telegrapher, filed stories with their papers late that evening and into the next morning. Comrades of the fallen also dispatched telegrams to small towns and big cities alerting distant families of the fate of their loved ones.

Early on the morning of September 18, a messenger from the American Telegraph Company knocked on the door of Oliver Wendell Holmes in Boston. The telegram, sent by William G. Leduc{1} from Hagerstown at 11:45 PM on September 17 , brought news of his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment that had fought in the West Woods that day.{2}

The father took the envelope from the messenger's hand, opened it, and read: "Capt. Holmes wounded, shot through the neck. Thought not mortal at Keedysville." The father, a distinguished surgeon, knew all too well that a bullet wound through the neck "ought to kill at once" and in any event was serious in nature. "Thought not mortal, or not thought mortal--which was it?" the elder Holmes anxiously wondered.{3}

Later that day, the doctor climbed aboard a southbound train where he joined William Dwight who had also received a telegram that night informing him that his son, Wilder, also of the 20th, was lying "grievously wounded" at Boonsboro.{4} Also joining was Dr. George H. Gay "an accomplished an energetic surgeon" who would attend to Wilder Dwight when found.{5} In Philadelphia, they were joined by Dr. William Hunt "on an errand of mercy to the wounded" and by an unnamed "lovely, lonely lady, the wife of one of our most spirited Massachusetts officers" then lying wounded in Middletown.{6}

Transferring to a carriage in Baltimore, Holmes headed west to Frederick where he ran into Lt. Henry Wilkins of the 20th who was accompanying the body of Regimental Assistant Surgeon Edward H.R. Revere home to Boston. Wilkins "mentioned incidentally having heard a story that recently that [Wendell] was killed."{7}

Upset but undaunted, the senior Holmes pressed on by wagon to Middletown. This step in the long journey from Boston would be one of the hardest: "As we emerged from Frederick, we struck at once upon the trail from the great battle-field. The road was filled with straggling and wounded soldiers. All who could travel on foot--multitudes with slight wounds of the upper limbs, the head or face--were told to take up their beds--a light burden or none at all--and walk. ... Through the streets of Frederick, through Crampton's Gap, over South Mountain, sweeping at last the hills and the woods that skirt the windings of the Antietam, the long battle had travelled, like one of those tornadoes which tear their path through our fields and villages. ...[and] those who could walk were meeting us at every step in the road. ...It was a pitiable vast...this great caravan of maimed pilgrims."{8}

To be continued...

{1} Captain William Gates Leduc, later XI Corps Quartermaster, ended the war as a brigadier general. He went on to become the fifth Commissioner of Agriculture and in that post established the Division of Veterinary Science and organized the Division of Forestry. He died in Hastings, Minnesota in 1917. Biographical sketch from the National Agricultural Library, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
{2} Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 20th Massachusetts. The regiment, sometimes referred to as the Harvard Regiment, was part of Napoleon J.T. Dana's Brigade, and stood approximately 60 feet behind the 15th Massachusetts and the 82nd New York in the West Woods. Cope-Carmen Map, 1908.
{3} Telegram from William Leduc to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harvard Law School Library; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Soundings from the Atlantic (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), p 24 (hereafter, Soundings).
{4} Lt. Colonel Wilder Dwight (1833-1862) did not survive his wounds and died in Boonsboro on September 19. His father, upon arriving in Baltimore, received a telegram telling him that his son's remains were on their way to him there. (Soundings, 37; biographical information at Brian Downey's definitive Antietam web site, Antietam on the Web, at; Soundings, p. 25.
{5} Dr. George H. Gay was a prominent Boston surgeon. William Richard Cutter, William Frederick Adams, Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of the State of Massachusetts (Boston: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1910), p. 2676.
{6} Soundings, pp. 34-35.
{7} Dr. Edward Hutchinson Robbins Revere, was the older brother of Major Paul Revere. A graduate of Harvard Medical School (1849), maintained a practice in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the outbreak of the war. He was "performing field surgery when he suddenly found himself in front. He remained and calmly finished the operation before he was shot and killed." Richard F. Miller, Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts (Lebanon, N.H., University Press of New England, 2005), pp. 25-26, 177; Soundings, p. 41.
{8} Soundings, 45-46.

(Image 1) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in 1862 and (Image 2) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., ca. 1861 (Harvard Law School Library Digital Collection).