Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a 19-year-old Harvard dropout, awakening from a wounded stupor after the battle of Ball’s Bluff to hear a doctor murmur, “He was a beautiful boy,” and realize his friend in the next bed was dead.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the facile essayist transformed into a frantic father as he hunted the gory fields of Antietam by wagon, looking for his son like “a precious pearl.”
Wilky James, younger brother of author Henry James, wailing on a stretcher not just from his wounds but from the loss of friends, after being brought home from Fort Wagner by a stricken Cabot Russell, a neighbor who had failed to find “his own irrecoverable boy” on the field, and so had “merged the parental ache in the next nearest devotion he could find.”
The mounting grief in Charleston, where society was so closely intertwined that a diarist named Emma Holmes wrote in her journal: “Every paper contains the intelligence of the death of someone we know or feel interested in. . . . The roll of death is fearful — the cruel monster is insatiable.”
A similarly agonized minister in Boston, presiding over the coffin of Charles Russell Lowell, husband of Robert Gould Shaw’s sister Josephine, and asking the congregation, “Is it too much?”
Longfellow, hunched by the bed of his son Charley, who had run off to war without permission and been wounded, nursing him at Christmastime, and conceiving a poem:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South
And with the sound
The carols drowned
The first casualties taught civilians the grievous difference between the idea of war and the actuality of it. But there remained one psychological impasse. Much as people at home felt the war, they couldn’t know the horror of fighting it. Only the participants could know what it was to wield bayonets like pitchforks, to feel a boot slip on a dead man’s body, and to fight so furiously past nightfall that the gun bursts seemed to bleach the dark.
Henry James didn’t serve in the war; he only observed intensely two valiant younger brothers who did and came home shattered veterans. It was James who best expressed the gap that no anniversary or commemorative can bridge. Those who fought the war demanded by others, he wrote, stand, “facing us out, quite blandly ignoring us, looking through us or straight over us at something they partake of together but that we mayn’t pretend to know.”
Sources: “This Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust, “The Metaphysical Club” by Louis Menand, “The Coming Fury” by Bruce Catton, “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson, “Notes of a Son and Brother” by Henry James, “Touched with Fire: (Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.),”
“The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes,”
“Mary Chesnut’s Civil War” and “The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase” by Jacob William Schuckers, as well as contemporary articles in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.