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September 22, 2011
Touched with fireBy Greyhawk
Lieutenant Holmes believed himself a dying man.
He was a young man and an inexperienced soldier (still a few months shy of his 21st birthday) and he was wrong about being done for, but given the nature of his most obviously severe wound (one of the two bullets that struck him that day had entered his left breast near his heart and passed through him) that belief was anything but foolish. He had additional supporting evidence of his imminent departure from this mortal coil: the blood flowing through his mouth from within. "That means the chances are against me, don't it?" He asked the regimental surgeon. ("Tell me the truth, for I really want to know," he'd assured him previously.) "Ye-es, the chances are against you..." came the reply. It was near the end of a long day in which the young L-T, himself the son of a respected Boston physician, had seen dead men, in which he'd seen men die, and he suspected it was his last day, too.
He considered - not for the first time - consuming the bottle of laudanum he had in his pocket, consigning himself to oblivion. His first impulse to do so had come immediately after he was wounded. "I felt as if a horse had kicked me and I went over," he recalled. The first sergeant had dragged him to relative safety, opened his shirt, examined the wound, and squeezed the bullet the rest of the way out from where - not having passed quite all the way through his body - it was lodged. A painful moment, and that was when he had first noticed the blood flow into his mouth, too. His thoughts (he later acknowledged some surprise at "the intensity of the mind's activeness, and its increased suggestiveness, after one has received a wound") turned to a book he'd read as a boy. Something of a war story, in fact, in which a man with similar symptoms had died "with terrible haemorrhages and great agony," and he expected no less for himself. At that point, however, Lt Holmes determined to save his medicine of last resort until the pain became unbearable. He was evacuated from the battlefield under fire, somehow made it safely to the field hospital (where bullets were striking the outer walls even as he contemplated the great beyond) - and yet still that moment hadn't arrived. "I determined to wait," he said, "till pain or sinking strength warned me of the end being near."
While awaiting it he thought cosmic thoughts on the hereafter. "Would the complex forces which made a still more complex Me resolve themselves back into simpler forms or would my angel be still winging his way onward when eternities had passed?" he wondered. It occurred to him then that as a dying man "the majority vote of the civilized world declared that with my opinions I was en route for Hell." (Though a friend who visited his bedside claimed he'd greeted him with "Well Harry, I'm dying but I'll be G. d'd if I know where I'm going.") He contemplated a deathbed recantation of whatever sins he'd committed - but decided that would be giving in to fear. If he was to die, he concluded, then "by Jove, I die like a soldier anyhow - I was shot in the breast doing my duty up to the hub - afraid? No, I am proud." (Although "God forgive me if I'm wrong," was his last thought on the topic of divine redemption at that time.)
But as sure as he thought his death near, he certainly did not welcome it - and "one of the thoughts that made it seem particularly hard to die was the recollection of several fair damsels whom I wasn't quite ready to leave," he admitted. Perhaps that was why Lieutenant Holmes didn't die that day in 1861, or on any other day of battle in which he fought during the American Civil War. Whatever the reason for his survival, he made it home to recover - a period during which his proud father (who hadn't exactly been thrilled by junior's going for a soldier in the first place) would write a friend expressing envy for his son, who he described as convalescing among enthralled admirers - "a semicircle of young Desdemonas about him listening to the often-told story which they will have again."
Lt. Holmes recovered fully. And returned to battle. And was wounded again, and recovered again - and returned to battle and was wounded yet again... After the war, he studied law at Harvard, then became a successful lawyer and later a judge. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt (said to have admired "The Soldier's Faith" - one of Holmes' Memorial Day speeches) appointed him to the Supreme Court, where - not one to throw in the towel - he served until 1932, then 90 years old and the oldest justice in the court's history. At the time of his death from pneumonia three years later (after having added Franklin Roosevelt to a list of presidents he'd met - a list that started with John Quincy Adams) "his personal effects included his Civil War officer's uniform still stained with his blood and 'torn with shot' as well as the carefully wrapped Minié balls that had wounded him three times in separate battles." He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery; the top line of his tombstone identifies him as a Captain and Brevet Colonel of infantry.
Yet... on that day in 1861 young Lieutenant Oliver Wendall Holmes of the 20th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers had little hope for any future at all. However, even then, before he'd garnered even a day's worth of the rewards a long history had in store for him, he could be counted among the few lucky participants in that particular battle - at least among those on the Union side.
It would be eclipsed later by much larger and far bloodier confrontations between North and South, but that day in the autumn of '61 he was one of the few Yankees to return to Maryland from a point along the Virginia side of the Potomac River known as Ball's Bluff - if not walking, at least alive and free.
In the days that followed the blue-clad corpses of other less fortunate great-grandsons of the Minute Men floated down that river past Washington on their way to sea.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, (Chapter 5 - Under Arms: Ball's Bluff) by Silas Bent (1932)
The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat (Holmes diary: "Yes already the blood was in my mouth. At once my thoughts jumped to "Children of the New Forest." (by Marryatt) which I was fond of reading as a little boy, and in which the father of one of the heroines is shot through the lungs by a robber. I remembered he died with terrible haemorrhages & great agony.")
A Soldier's Faith, the Memorial Day address Holmes delivered on May 30, 1895, at Harvard University. Excerpt: "If it is our business to fight, the book for the army is a war-song, not a hospital-sketch. It is not well for soldiers to think much about wounds. Sooner or later we shall fall; but meantime it is for us to fix our eyes upon the point to be stormed, and to get there if we can."
Posted by Greyhawk / September 22, 2011 9:27 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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