Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Future justice Holmes faces death on his own terms

Two days after he was shot early in the Union army debacle at Ball’s Bluff, First Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers wrote his mother.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future U.S.
Supreme Court justice was an officer in the
20th Massachusetts, also known as the
Harvard regiment.
“I felt and acted very cool and did my duty I am sure,” he told her. “I was out front of our men encouraging ’em on when a spent ball knocked the wind out of me & I fell. Then I crawled to the rear a few paces & rose by help of the 1st Ser’gt, & the Colonel who was passing said ‘That’s right Mr. Holmes – Go to the Rear’ but I felt that I couldn’t without more excuse so up I got and rushed to the front where hearing the Col. cheering the men on I waved my sword and asked if none would follow me when down I went again by the Colonel’s side.

“The first shot (the spent ball) struck me on the belly below where the ribs separate & bruised and knocked the wind out of me. The second time I hope only one ball struck me entering the left & coming out behind the right breast in wh[ich[ case I shall probably recover and this view is seconded by finding the ball in my clothes by the right hand wound. I may be hit twice in which case the chance is not so good.”

The Civil War produced many such wounds and many such letters. But after telling his mother he now felt well and hopeful, he added an uncommon element to his account.

The night after his wounding, he wrote, “I made up my mind to die & was going to take that little bottle of laudanum as soon as I was sure of dying with any pain.” He related this plan to the doctor, and the doctor advised him not to do it.

Sometime after Ball’s Bluff, Holmes returned to this subject in his diary. He reflected that he had been “struck with the intensity of the mind’s action” during battle and with its “increased suggestiveness” after his wound.

“I felt as if a horse had kicked me and went over,” he wrote of being shot. The first sergeant dragged him to the rear, opened his shirt and saw the two holes in his breasts. He squeezed a ball out of the right breast and gave it to Holmes.

Holmes worried that he had been shot in each lung and that a second ball might still be lodged in his chest. “I spit – Yes – the blood was already in my mouth.” His thoughts turned to a children’s book in which a man shot through the lungs by a robber had “died with terrible haemorrhages & great agony.”

Holmes felt in his waistcoat pocket for the laudanum bottle. He was glad it was there but, feeling no pain, wanted to see the doctor before deciding whether to take it.

The doctor equivocated. Although Holmes had a chance, the blood pouring up into his mouth did not bode well. But Holmes “didn’t feel sure there was no chance.” His thoughts soon became confused, possibly from a combination of loss of blood and a dose of “opiate,” which he believed was laudanum.

On one point his recollection was clear. He was a Unitarian with no belief in a particular creed. Thus, if he died, “the majority vote of the civilized world declared that with my opinions I was en route for Hell.” This thought bothered him at first, but then he wrote: “I die like a soldier anyhow. I was shot in the breast doing my duty up to the hub. Afraid? No. I am proud.” He decided he “could not be guilty of a deathbed recantation.”

Holmes had the advantage of having discussed this very possibility before the war with his father, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a doctor and frequent writer for the Atlantic. They equated a deathbed conversions with “but a cowardly giving way to fear.” The young Holmes asked himself: “Has the approach of death changed my beliefs much?”

The answer was no. If he were to die, “I am to take a leap into the dark – but now as ever I believe that whatever shall happen is best . . . and so with a ‘God to forgive me if I am wrong’ I slept.”

Holmes in 1902, the year he joined the Supreme Court.
Holmes was just 20 years old when he was shot. He survived this wound and others at Antietam and Chancellorsville. After his three-year term of service, he left the 20th Massachusetts and went to Harvard Law School. He was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902 and served as a justice for 30 years. He died in 1935 at the age of 93.

In his obituary the New York Times included this quotation from Holmes in an opinion favoring freedom of expression for protesters in time of war. Although his argument did not carry the day, his words seem a distant echo of his brief for freedom of thought as he lay wounded in 1861:

“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe . . . that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

[The source for the quotations from Holmes's wartime letters and diary is Touched with Fire, a 1946 compilation edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe. Howe wrote in his preface that the letters and diary were discovered in the bottom of a box of Holmes's papers a few years after his death. Sometime after the Civil War, both Holmes and his mother had written notes on the envelopes containing the letters. Howe believed it was "reasonably clear that [Holmes] destroyed an appreciable number of his letters to his family." Much of his diary was also missing. The book is nonetheless interesting not only because of Holmes's postwar prominence but also in its own right.]

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