Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Touched with Fire
By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
The Civil War was a deeply traumatic experience for Americans as a whole. The four long years of carnage between 1861 and 1865 cost the lives of approximately 750,000 Americans, destroyed the institution of slavery that had long shaped the South, and created a new relationship between the citizen and the nation. For one man from a prominent Massachusetts family, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Civil War was particularly traumatic. The physical and psychological impacts of his wartime experiences changed him forever. If the Civil War made America a different country, the war made Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a different man. Ironically, even though he may have been disabled by the war, his future career as a Supreme Court Justice would prove to be profoundly negative for people with disabilities.
Holmes was the son of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the dean of Harvard Medical School, a poet, and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly magazine. In 1863, Dr. Holmes wrote that though American industrial technology was reaping “a melancholy harvest” of shattered bodies on the battlefield, American know-how would manufacture such wonderful artificial limbs that physical disability would be rendered meaningless. With such faith in progress, Dr. Holmes was an optimist. So was his son, or at least, he started that way.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., began the war as a hopeful abolitionist, committed to making the war a liberating crusade. In the spring of 1861, Holmes joined the Union Army alongside his Harvard classmates, many of them close friends. His early moral commitment was sorely tested by the suffering he both witnessed and personally experienced.
At Harvard, Holmes’s abolitionism made him something of a student radical, and when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Holmes was quick to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the so-called “Harvard Regiment.” Over the next few years, he endured three grievous wounds that easily could have killed him. In 1861, he was shot in the chest at Ball’s Bluff, an early Union fiasco. In 1862, he was shot in the neck at Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American military history. And in 1864, as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were slugging it out in Virginia, Holmes was shot in the foot at Chancellorsville. By then, Holmes was so disenchanted by the chaos and incompetence of the war that he hoped his foot would be amputated so that he could leave the army.
According to historian Louis Menand, “Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental ordeal were permanent.” For Menand, the war “made him lose his belief in beliefs,” and after the war, Holmes looked cynically upon a grimmer, less hopeful world. Whether Holmes experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is difficult to say. The diagnosis did not exist in the Civil War era, and medical authorities used very different language in describing the psychological disorders the war produced. What is clear is that the Civil War was the defining experience for Holmes. For the rest of life, Holmes identified himself mainly, despite his many other achievements, as a Civil War veteran.
In Keene, New Hampshire, on Memorial Day in 1884, Holmes gave a famous speech that tried to reconcile the generation of Americans that had so violently killed one another in the 1860s. According to Holmes, “the generation,” of both North and South, “that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” Lost in the speech is anything about slavery or racial justice; lost is anything about what Americans were killing each other over. Apparently, though Holmes hated the way the Civil War was conducted, he had come to love war itself. Such attitudes garnered Theodore Roosevelt’s positive attention, and TR would nominate him to the Supreme Court in 1902.
In his long career as a jurist, Holmes emphatically rejected the idealistic sentimentalism of his youth. For him, law rested on “experience,” not logic or morality. For Holmes, experience had taught him that life was a Darwinian struggle, most clearly seen through the eyes of those who had been “touched with fire” in wartime. Such attitudes were reinforced by a powerful eugenics movement in the early twentieth century. An important footnote to Holmes’s Civil War service came in 1927 when the Supreme Court issued the infamous Buck v. Bell decision. In that decision, which determined that mandatory surgical sterilization for eugenic purposes was constitutional, Holmes wrote, “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives.” The passage is a clear reference to the sacrifices made by soldiers, including his own and those of his dearest friends.
Dismissing sterilization as a “lesser sacrifice,” Holmes continued, “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” A clearer example of casual cruelty would be hard to find. “Touched with fire,” the idealistic optimism of the younger Holmes had long been burned away, just another casualty of the Civil War.
BUCK v. BELL, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded. Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/274/200.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Felloes.” The Atlantic Monthly 11, no. 67 (May 1863): 567–580. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.18109461&view=1up&seq=580.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr., “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire.” http://harvardregiment.org/memorial.htm.
Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Howe, Mark De Wolfe, ed. Touched with Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.