An Officer and a Gentleman

Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Sunday, August 7, 2005


A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 1835-64

By Carol Bundy

Farrar Straus Giroux. 548 pp. $35

Our Civil War literature is rich and addictive but too often satisfied with the depiction of schematic maneuvers and stick-figure warriors. No such conventionality mars Carol Bundy's biography of her great-great-great-uncle, Charles Russell Lowell, a Union cavalryman who was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Va., in October 1864. It ranks in quality with the better pages of such masters as Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton.

Here, for instance, she evokes the mayhem of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in the history of American warfare, as it must have looked through the eyes of her ancestor, fighting there as a young Union officer: "Death and injury were everywhere. At the field hospitals Lowell passed mounds of amputated limbs piled like cordwood. . . . Bodies shook in death throes or simply from shock. The ill, the dead, and the injured were so filthy they were hardly recognizable as men. Then there were men bragging manically, adrenaline and shock animating their actions: they too had a ghoulish inhumanity, the whites of their eyes shockingly large in their dirt-streaked faces."

Bundy grew interested in this ancestral story when Lowell's saber and uniform turned up after her grandmother's death. Lowell, born in 1835, had not reached his 30th birthday when he died. A Bostonian of fortunate auspices, he counted among his contemporaries his cousin Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court justice and spokesman for the hard-boiled view of war, and his brother-in-law Robert Gould Shaw, heroic commander of the black 54th Massachusetts regiment slaughtered in the assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston Harbor. Also in his circle were various Crowninshields, Putnams, Barlows and Forbeses, many passionately persuaded that slavery was an intolerable blot on the national escutcheon and impatient of gradual (and constitutional) measures of resistance. They came by their zeal honestly. Some of their elders had funded anti-slavery settlement during the miniature civil war of 1857 in "bleeding Kansas"; others secretly financed John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, heedless of that quixotic event's political effects -- what our euphemistic age would call "collateral damage."

By Bundy's account, however, Charles Lowell was a cooler customer than his friends and elders -- a frail, fatalistic, scholarly young man, sobered by tuberculosis in the 1850s. Not only did Lowell entertain a warier view of Brown, a fanatic with innocent blood on his hands and very possibly a madman; Lowell also declined to join in the Brahmin scorn of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lowell wasn't obviously cut out for the military life, but he was a fine horseman and became an accomplished commander.

After serving for a time on Gen. George B. McClellan's staff, Lowell rejected cushy offers and raised his own cavalry regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts. Once recruited, Lowell and his troopers were posted in northern Virginia, west and south of Washington, where John Singleton Mosby's Confederate "rangers" prowled. The assignment involved Lowell in the sordid ambiguities of irregular warfare. He had shot and killed a mutineer point-blank in a recruiting fracas in Boston. In the contest with Mosby, he ordered the execution of William Ormsby, a teenage deserter from his force pathetically confused by homesickness, love and drink, whose behavior on the gallows is said to have inspired the ennobling scene of Billy Budd's hanging in Melville's story. (In fact, Lowell's saga inspired not only a Melville poem, but also at least one Winslow Homer painting.)

Mosby, the romanticized "gray ghost of the Confederacy," remains a legend. He was not, however, admired by those who had to cope with his guerrilla raids -- neither his Union foes nor the Confederate high command, who deplored his addiction to pillage and harassment at the expense of serious strategic disruption of rail and telegraph lines. Gen. Jubal Early, for instance, pronounced Mosby's rangers "a band of thieves."

It was not until Lowell and his regiment joined Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign in mid-1864 that he came into his own. Sheridan's assignment from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was to turn the Valley into "a barren waste . . . so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them." Lowell, soon a brigade commander, led spectacular encounters with Early's cavalry. But his satisfaction with the main-force warfare for which he had yearned was brief. After more than a dozen horses had been shot down under him, Lowell was killed leading a charge at Cedar Creek on Oct. 19.

The author takes the Tolstoyan view that there is often a striking discrepancy between orthodox chronicles of mass battle and the reality of individual behavior and reaction. Charles Lowell was an articulate young man, toughened by prewar bouts of life-threatening illness, classically educated and given to unusually mature reflections on life and fate; and he and his friends and family left letters that the author uses well. Carol Bundy is a skillful writer who weaves this personal material seamlessly into the narrative of warfare; and her ancestor, valedictorian of the Harvard class of 1854, makes an apt subject for reflection. He was certainly a fatalist, as warriors tend to be. Traveling in Italy before the war, Lowell had been fascinated by a painting -- then thought to be by Michelangelo -- of the three Greek Fates, depicted as crones, who spin and measure the skein of human life. Lowell also identified with Shakespeare's Sonnet 111, whose narrator invokes the image of the dyer's hand, "subdued to what it works in" -- in his case, it was to be a hand stained by the harsh duties of military command. Lowell accepted this poetic truth, for which another name is responsibility. He recognized that action in a naughty world almost always has mixed consequences, and that this is especially true of war. In his admirable self-knowledge he was free of moral smugness, as New Englanders sometimes were not.

One might have wished for a map or two in Bundy's book (although her grasp of the grand strategy of the war is lucid and accurate), and, to mention one minor irritant, so stylish a writer ought to know that "reverend" is not a noun. Such trivialities aside, this distinguished work will and should find a significant place on anyone's Civil War bookshelf. ยท

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is an Alexandria writer and the author of "Joe Alsop's Cold War" and a recent memoir, "Telling Others What to Think."

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