Sunday, August 29, 2010

"I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back:" Oliver Wendell Holmes' Hunt for the Captain, Part 3

Elizabeth Wright to James Wright, August 13, 1862.
Letter found on battlefield by O.W. Holmes, Sr.
Harvard Law School Library Digital Suite: 
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. John G. Palfrey (1875-1945)
 collection of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. 
Papers, 1715-1938: Civil War telegrams, 1862, seq. 42; direct URL

On Sunday, September 21st, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and two companions[1] set out for the battlefield with his driver, James Grayden, at the reins. "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 no 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 battle-field. 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. 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.[3]

On coming near the brow of the hill, we met a party carrying picks and spades. "How many?" "Only one." The dead were nearly all buried, then, in this region of the field of strife. We stopped the wagon, and, getting out, began to look around us. Hard by was a large pile of muskets, scores, if not hundreds, which had been picked up, and were guarded for the Government. A long ridge of fresh gravel rose before us. A board stuck up in front of it bore this inscription, the first part of which was, I believe, not correct: "The Rebel General Anderson and 80 Rebels are buried in this hole."[4] Other similar ridges were marked with the number of dead lying under them. The whole ground was strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat."

As he walked the field, Holmes picked up "a bullet or two, a button, a brass plate from a soldier's belt." He also picked up a letter "directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken. 'N.C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright.' On the other side, 'A few lines from W.L. Vaughn,' who has just been writing for the wife to her husband, and continues on his own account. The postscript [written by Vaughn], 'tell John that nancy's folks are all well and has a very good Little Crop of corn a growing.' [Holmes wrote] I wonder, if, by one of those strange chances of which I have seen so many, this number or leaf of the 'Atlantic' [Atlantic Monthly] will not sooner or later find its way to Cleveland County, North Carolina, and E. Wright, widow of James Wright, and Nancy's folks, get from these sentences the last glimpse of husband and friend as he threw up his arms and fell in the bloody cornfield of Antietam?[5] I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps, look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it."[6]

That afternoon, September 21, Holmes turned away from the Antietam. After spending the night at Middletown, he continued his search for the Captain--a search with more false leads and dead ends. Four days earlier, on the morning of September 17, his son, whom he called Wendell, began a journey under very different circumstances--one that took him from a near-death experience in the West Woods through the Maryland countryside to a reunion with his father.

To be continued...


[1] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Soundings from the Atlantic (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), p. 67 [hereafter Soundings]. In Soundings, Holmes writes: "On the battle-field I parted with my two companions, [the 'Chaplain and the Philanthropist'] they were going to the front, the one to find his regiment, the other to look for those who needed his assistance." Holmes mentioned in Soundings that they exchanged cards on parting. In the Harvard University Library, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War Letters and Telegrams, Folder 18-12, Sequence 217-18 is the calling card of William Henry Rice, Chaplain of the 129th Pennsylvania Vols. The 129th was part of Humphrey's Division, V Corps. The "Philanthropist" was probably Frank B. Fay who in his Reminiscences describes a journey to the battlefield (see previous post, August 13, footnote 9).

[2] Holmes identified his driver, James Grayden, as "born in England, Lancashire; in this country since he was four years old." Soundings, 67-68.

[3] Soundings, 58, 62-64. The identify of "Gardiner" is a mystery. The board that Holmes describes was probably near the Sunken Road since he later describes area in some detail. If so, then the only New Hampshire regiment engaged in that part of the field was the Fifth New Hampshire (there were a total of four NH outfits at Antietam: the Sixth and the Ninth, part of the IX Corps, were engaged at the Burnside Bridge, and the 2nd Company NH Light Artillery, part of the I Corps, Doubleday's Division, were operating near the North Woods and reported three wounded only). There was an Isaac L. Gardiner, serving in the Fifth New Hampshire, Richardson's Division, but he survived the battle and was mustered out later as a Second Lieutenant. There is a possibility that this was Corporal O. Winslow Garland of Company D, 5th N.H., who was killed in action. Thanks to James Feindel and James Blake, Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers for their research and correspondence related to this individual's identity. For more on the 5th New Hampshire, click here. Any further information on this individual will be added if it comes in.

[4] Holmes is correct: Brigadier General George Burgwyn Anderson was seriously wounded but not killed in the Sunken Road action. He later died of his wounds on October 16, 1862 in Raleigh, N.C. Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web under Anderson's biography at

[5] This may have been James Wright of the 14th North Carolina. A James D. Wright from Cleveland County NC enlisted as a private on Feb. 6, 1862 in Company D, North Carolina 14th Infantry Regiment (Cleveland Blues) on June 2, 1862. The 14th NC fought in the Sunken Road. The 1860 Census of Cleveland County North Carolina, records that James Wright (46, born Virginia about 1814) resided with his wife Elizabeth Wright (43, born Virginia about 1817). He gave his occupation as a wagon maker. They listed in their household a Nancy Wright (19 years, born Va.) and seven other children. James Wright survived the war and is listed in the 1870 Census of Township 9, Cleveland, North Carolina along with his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Nancy and seven children. James' brother, John, also served in the same regiment and was killed at Antietam.

As for W.L. Vaughn, the 1860 Census for Cleveland, Co. shows a William Vaughn, 35 years old, living in Cleveland County.  Later a William L. Vaughn of Cleveland County enlists in the 34th North Carolina in April 1864, survives the war, and is mustered out on June 17, 1865. 1860, 1870 U.S. Census, N.C., Cleveland County; Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA; Harvard Law School Library Digital Suite at

[6] Soundings, 66-67. Holmes noted in his memoir an encounter in Middletown with a lieutenant from North Carolina: "He was of good family, son of a judge in one of the higher courts of his State, educated, pleasant, gentle, intelligent." Soundings, 57.

Images: Elizabeth Wright to James Wright and (verso) W.L. Vaughn to James Wright: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War Letters and telegrams, Folder 18-12, Sequence 235-238. Retrieved at:


Richard said...

great post. looking forward to more. This would make a great book topic

Jim Buchanan said...

Thanks! King for the post. I agree or certainly an article--tracing OWH's journey and annotating the folks he meets along the way. The posts here reflect only a part of it. Thanks again.

Minnesota Joe said...

Really enjoying following the quest of Dr. Holmes. And you're right, this would make a terrific article.