Friday, October 29, 2010

"For this our son and brother was dead and is alive again:" Oliver Wendell Holmes' Hunt for the Captain, Part 4

Sometime between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on the morning of September 17, Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. advanced to the West Woods with his regiment, the 20th Massachusetts. As they neared the western edge of the Woods, they closed up to a bayonet's length between the 15th Massachusetts and the 82nd New York, Gorman's Brigade, who were busily engaged with what was left of the Confederate left then situated in and around the Alfred Poffenberger farmstead. Sixty-eight years later, Holmes remembered the moment: "Sumner who was an old cavalry officer I believe shoved our second line (I am talking of lines not ranks), a quasi reserve, up so close to the front line that we could have touched them with our bayonets, and we got hit about as much as they did, but of course could do nothing." [1]

Holmes and his men were in this position for only a few minutes when Confederate brigades, "broke through on our left we were surrounded with the front. Whereas had we been a little further back they would have got a volley." What, to then, had been an orderly advance, turned for many in the 20th Massachusetts, a disorderly retreat.[2]

Illustration 1.
Holmes drew the trajectory of the bullet
through his neck in a letter to his
father on September 22, 1862.
As Holmes made his way to safety, a bullet sliced through his neck. "When I was hit, we were getting it all around and I remember chuckling to myself as I was leaving the field, to remember that Harper's Weekly was flamboyant on my first wound at Ball's Bluff--about Massachusetts hit in the breast, etc. I though to myself this time I am hit in the back, and bolting as fast as I can--and it's all right--but not so good for the newspapers."[3] "Usual luck," he wrote his parents the day after the battle, "[The] ball entered at the rear passing straight through the central seam of coat & waistcoat collar coming out towa[rd] the front on the left hand side--yet it don't seem to have smashed my spine or I suppose I should be dead or paralysed or something--It's more than 24 h'rs & I have remained pretty cocky, only of course feverish at times--& some sharp burning pain in left shoulder Pen [3a] & I singular to say are the hardest hit officers [--] he I think will lose his left arm--bone smashed above elbow--We lay together for a while in a little house[4] on the field and were one time within the enemies lines, heard their orders &c (there were all round us) but they fell back & we escaped. Only one doct Haven the Surgeon of the 15. Mass[5] has yet looked--he glanced hastily yesterday & said it wasn't fatal--I shall try to get home as soon as poss. but have no plans yet." [6]

Somehow Holmes made his way to the Nicodemus farmhouse about 300 yards north of where he was wounded. Norwood Penrose Hallowell, Holmes' close friend and a fellow officer of the 20th Massachusetts, picks up the narrative. "Before long I gained the little farmhouse marked on the maps as the Nicodemus House. The yard was full of wounded men, and the floor of the parlor, where I lay down, was well covered with them. Among others, Captain O. W. Holmes, Jr., walked in, the back of his neck clipped by a bullet. "[7]

The Nicodemus farmhouse was soon overrun by Confederates (probably from Paul Semmes' brigade) in pursuit of remnants of Sedgwick's men. Hallowell recalled that "The first Confederate to make his appearance put his head through the window and said: 'Yankees?'" "Yes," came the reply from the farmhouse occupants. "'Wounded?' 'Yes.' 'Would you like some water?' A wounded man always wants some water. He off with his canteen, threw it into the room, and then resumed his place in the skirmish line and his work of shooting retreating Yankees. In about fifteen minutes that good-hearted fellow came back to the window all out of breath, saying, 'Hurry up there! Hand me my canteen! I am on the double-quick myself now!' Some one twirled the canteen to him, and away he went." Hallowell and his comrades were for "some fifteen or twenty minutes only we were within the rebel lines."  Sometime during his stay at the Nicodemus house, Holmes fearful that he would lose consciousness, scribbled on a scrap of paper "I am Capt O W Holmes son of Oliver Wendell Holmes MD Boston. 20th Mass Capt" [8] Late that afternoon ambulances carried Holmes, Hallowell and others to Keedysville.[9]

In Keedysville, William LeDuc, Dana's brigade quartermaster, took charge of the wounded streaming from the field. One of those was Holmes. Le Duc recounted years later that "a surgeon, who had looked at his wound and found that the ball had entered his neck, shook his head when I urged him to give attention to Holmes, and said his duty was to try to save those who had a chance of recovery--that Holmes had none. Then I said: 'Tell me what to do for him.' [The surgeon replied] 'Wash off the blood, plug up the wound with lint, and give him this pill of opium'--handing me a little brown pill--'and have him keep quiet."[10]

Illustration 2.
William LeDuc
"I put my arm around him, and got him into the first vacant house (that is, not occupied by soldiers) I came to, and told the woman of the house to bring down the softest bed she had, as there was no bed on the lower floor, and I thought it better for him be be on the ground floor; and when she objected to bringing down any of her feather beds, I told her I would take the place for a hospital, and turn the family out; this threat was sufficient, and the good feather bed was made ready on the floor, and I washed and bandaged the wound, and gave the pill, and left him in care of the family." [11]

"While fixing him up, and washing the wound, I noticed that the ball had struck the middle seam of his coat squarely, and was amazed at his escape from instant death, but as he seemed cheerful, and amused himself with jokes, saying: 'Shot in the neck (Army slang for being drunk)--disgraceful for a temperance man!' and: 'I'm glad it's not a case for amputation, for I don't think you'd be equal to it, Le Duc,' and: 'Say, Le Duc, do you think it will be good for a ninety-day leave?' I thought possibly the surgeon was wrong, and that the boy's vitality might carry him through. So, in making up my telegram to send to his father, Doctor Holmes--lecturer on anatomy in Harvard Medical School--I ran it over mentally in several ways, and finally decided on: 'Captain wounded, shot though the neck, thought to be not mortal' and sent it to Doctor Holmes, Boston."[12]

On Saturday, September 20th, Holmes traveled to Hagerstown on a milk cart (See previous post, Part III). That afternoon, Mrs. Howard Kennedy took her children to the front gate of her house to hear a military band pass by. Years later, one of those children recounted what happened next. 

Illustration 3.
"[We] were at the gate and waved to the soldiers. My mother noticed a young officer across the way, evidently wounded, as he had a bandage around his throat and was walking very languidly. He and his companion sat down to rest. My mother sent my brother, who was about fourteen years old, to ask him if she could do anything for him. He came over to thank her; said he had been wounded by a bullet which had gone through his neck, and that he was suffering greatly at times; that he had gone to the railway station to inquire about trains, as he wanted to go to his home in Boston as soon as he was strong enough to travel. [13]

At this time there was no Union hospital in the town and he was in wretched quarters, with little care and attention. My mother asked him to come to our home until he was able to travel. He accepted the invitation and introduced himself as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Of course we recognized him as the son of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes."[14]

"He was a delightful guest, and the whole family enjoyed his stay with us. My young cousin from Philadelphia—a very brilliant young woman[15]—sang and played and entertained him, and helped to divert his mind when he suffered from his wound. He said it hurt him to write, so she offered to write for him. He dictated in Latin, a letter to his father; but she understood Latin as well as he did, as she confessed when she cautioned him that he was becoming a little too personal concerning herself in moods and tenses." [16]

My mother was a good nurse and dressed his wound every day, and it began to heal very quickly. He begged to be allowed to read after he retired, and one night swung a gas jet against a door and set the door on fire. He was so absorbed in his book that the smell of the burning paint penetrated through the house before he was aware of what he had done. The scar on the door was allowed to remain untouched for many years. [17]

The Captain was gaining in strength every day. He was enjoying himself and was evidently loath to leave; but Doctor Holmes had heard from Philadelphia that the Captain was at our house and it was my mother who insisted, in reply to a telegram from Harrisburg, on sending the following, which
ended Dr. Holmes' "Hunt": Captain Holmes still here. Leaves seven tomorrow for Harrisburg. Is doing well. (signed) Mrs. Howard Kennedy." [18]

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. watched the train slide into the Harrisburg station. Climbing aboard, there "in the first car, on the fourth seat to the right, I saw my Captain... even my first-born, whom I had sought through many cities." The simple exchange "How are you, Boy?" was met with "How are you, Dad?"[19] 

On Monday evening, September 29, eleven days after the start of his journey, Dr. Holmes was able to shelter his son once more. I "lay him in his own bed, and let him sleep off his aches and weariness. So comes down another night over this household, unbroken by any messenger of evil tidings,--a night of peaceful rest and grateful thoughts; for this our son and brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found."[20]


1. Oliver Wendell Holmes to Frederick Pollock, June 28, 1930, Holmes-Pollock Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock. Volume II. Edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, (Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1941), pp. 269-270 (hereafter, Holmes-Pollock Letters).

Pollock replied to Holmes's June 28th letter on July 17, 1930 and wrote: "And so you were nearly killed at Antietam because your superior had never learnt the use of supports: even the old Roman disciplines of the wars as preached by Capt. Fluellen might have taught him better. Certainly a considerable interval was prescribed and observed in our infantry drill of the 1870's. A supporting battalion was normally, I think , in open column of companies ready to deploy as might be needful and if all went well finally to deploy to the front and reinforce the attacking line." On July 27, Holmes sent Pollock a "post-script" to a letter written the day before. "Let me protect the reputation of my Superior at Antietam, our corps commander General Sumner, an experienced old soldier who I don't doubt knew as well as anyone the use of supports. That he was wrong in shoving us up onto the first line I can't doubt. Whether being an old cavalry man he thought he could slam right through the other line or what I don't know. It may have been hot-headedness, but it can't have been ignorance--except ignorance that I find it hard to believe that some of the higher powers weren't responsible for, viz. that Longstreet's corps was on the other side of a little hill, ready to walk into our rear as it did." Pollock to Holmes, July 17, 1930 and Holmes to Pollock, July 27 and July 30, 1930, Holmes-Pollock Letters, pp. 271, 273.

2. Holmes to Pollock, June 28, 1930, Holmes-Pollock Letters, p. 269-70. With Sedgwick's Division stretched on an arc running from the Dunkard Church to the south to 200 yards northwest of the Locher cabin, regimental experience of the action in the West Woods varied. The 72nd Pennsylvania on the division's extreme left was quickly overrun and broken while the First Minnesota on the division's far right undertook an more orderly withdrawal. For the 20th Massachusetts experience, see further, Richard F. Miller, Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Hanover, NH, University Press of New England, 2005), pp. 154-180.

3. Holmes to Pollock, June 28, 1930, Holmes-Pollock Letters, p. 269-70

3a. Norwood Penrose Hallowell.

4. The "little house" was the Nicodemus farmhouse, approximately 800 yards north of where the 20th Massachusetts was positioned in the West Woods.

5. This was Dr. Samuel Haven, 15th Massachusetts.

6. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to Parents, September 18, in Mark De Wolfe Howe (ed.), Touched With Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), pp. 64-65.

7. Norwood P. Hallowell, Selected Letters and Papers of N.P. Hallowell, (Peterborough, N.H., The Richard R. Smith Co., Inc., [1897]), p. 17 (Hereafter, Hallowell).

8. Illustration. OWH Jr. at Nicodemus.  Holmes Collection, Harvard Law School Library. Years later, Holmes would add a note to the scrap "I wrote the above when I was lying in a little house on the field of Antietam which was for a while within the Enemy's lines, as I thought I might faint & so be unable to tell who I was."

9. Hallowell, pp. 17-18.

10. Alice Sumner Le Duc, "The Man Who Rescued 'The Captain,'" The Atlantic Monthly, August 1947, p.  80.  In 1910, Le Duc in a memoir to Holmes in which Holmes is referred to as "him," recalled this episode as: "When I was doing my level best to dress the wound and fix him up safe for the night or until a surgeon could take him in hand. 'I'm devilish glad it ain't a case for amputation LeDuc for I haven't much confidence in your skill as surgeon.' Mark De Wolfe Howe (ed.), Touched With Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 66, note 1). In Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s account, he noted that "The bullet had gone smoothly through, dodging everything but a few nervous branches, which would come right in time and leave him as well as ever. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Soundings from the Atlantic (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), p. 111 [Hereafter, Soundings].

In 1910 Le Duc wrote holmes of the events of that day at Keedysville "[We were at the house] where I exercised my clumsy surgery and where the mistress of the mansion when I ordered her to bring down her bigest [sic] & best feather bed and place it on the floor for this wounded officer objected in Pennsylvania idiom 'Nah I dinks not I prings mine fetter bet on dem floor,' I puts im on der petshtet'--'No that won't do I want it here where is plenty of fresh air.' 'Nah!' -- 'Well then I'll have to turn you all out and take your place for a hospital.' So the feather bed came, and the boy was washed as to wound and face and given an opium pill prescribed by old Doherty I think--and left in care of the dutchwoman and her children, no man was seen." Mark De Wolfe Howe (ed.), Touched With Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 66, note 1). 

Alice Le Duc explained the source of the Le Duc memoir in the preface to The Atlantic Monthly article. She wrote: "Recent examination of our family papers brought to light some correspondence between my father, General William Gates Le Duc, and the Holmses, both father and son. ... From the unpublished volume of recollections that my father has left to his family I extract his brief account of what he was able to do for Captain Holmes, whom he found unattended just after the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862. Alice Sumner Le Duc, "The Man Who Rescued 'The Captain,'" The Atlantic Monthly, August 1947, p. 80.

Le Duc's original manuscript, however, is in the Huntington Library. A copy of the Huntington manuscript is at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Library, Greenbelt, Maryland.

11. Le Duc, Op. Cit., p. 80

12. Le Duc, Op. Cit., p. 80.

13. Anna Howell Kennedy Findlay, "Where 'The Captain' Was Found," Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol 33 (June, 1938), No. 2, pp. 117-18 (Hereafter, Findlay).

14. Findlay, p. 118.

15. This was Ellen Jones. Findlay writes: "The head of the house was my mother, Mrs. Howard Kennedy, my father having died in 1855. Others of the family at the house at the time were my two brothers, Howard, aged sixteen, and Frank, aged fourteen, and I, a small girl of ten. A sister of my mother's, Mrs. Campbell, who was also a widow, was with us, with her two sons, Ben aged fourteen, and Hamilton, aged nine. At the time of the invasion, a cousin, Ellen Jones, from Philadelphia, a very brilliant and attractive young girl, was visiting us, and my first cousin, Benjamin Howell Griswold, whose mother's house was nearby, was constantly at our home during the Captain's 'visit.'" Findlay, pp. 114-115.

In OWH, Sr.'s account, he described how his son came into the Howard household: "The Captain had gone to Hagerstown, intending to take the cars at once for Philadelphia, as his three friends actually did, and as I took it for granted he certainly would. But as he walked languidly along, some ladies saw him across the street, and seeing, were moved with pit, and pitying, spoke such soft words that he was tempted to accept their invitation and rest awhile beneath their hospitable roof. The mansion was old, as the dwellings of gentlefolks should be; the ladies were some of them young, and all were full of kindness; there were gentle cares, and unasked luxuries, and pleasant talk, and music-sprinklings from the piano, with a sweet voice to keep them company." Soundings, pp. 110-11.

16. The original letter is in the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Digital Collection, Harvard Law School Library, Oliver Wendell Holmes to Parents, Sept 22, 1862; Findlay, p. 118. 

17. Findlay, p. 118. Toward the end of Holmes' life, Anna Findlay saw Judge Holmes in Washington. On meeting him once again, she wrote: "I could not feel that his boyish spirit had changed very much. I recall that in one of his letters to my mother he referred to himself as the "erstwhile soldier boy," and I think he was still just that in spirit." Findlay, p. 124.

18. Findlay, p. 119.

19. Holmes, Soundings, pp. 106-107.

20. Holmes, Soundings, p. 123.


1. Detail from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. September 22, 1862. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Digital Collection, Harvard Law School Library. Civil War Letters and Telegrams. Folder 18-11. OWH to parents 1861-1864, seq. 184-188.

2. Detail of William LeDuc about 1862. The Dakota County Historical Society.

3. The house of Mrs. Howard Kennedy, Hagerstown, Maryland. The house has since been torn down and the lot is now a parking lot.

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