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Brahmins at War

In the 1970s, United States Army General John A. Wickham, commander of the famed 101st Airborne Division, visited the Civil War battlefield of Antietam. There he gazed at Bloody Lane, where Union soldiers had attacked repeatedly before finally breaking through after suffering casualties greater than 50 percent in some regiments. “You couldn’t get American soldiers today to make an attack like that,” he said.1

Why not? Because neither the soldiers nor the American public would tolerate such losses. But that is probably the wrong question. The right question is: Why did Civil War soldiers do what they did? The number of casualties was far from unusual in Civil War battles. The First Texas Infantry lost 80 percent of its men killed, wounded, or missing at Antietam. Both the First Minnesota and Twenty-Sixth North Carolina similarly experienced 80 percent casualties at Gettysburg. Other units approached these figures in several battles. What motivated these men? How could they endure such losses and keep fighting?

I tried to answer these questions in my book For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.2 Drawing on soldiers’ letters and diaries, I found their motives involved fervent patriotism, ideological convictions about the righteousness of their cause, the cohesion of community-based regimental companies, Victorian cultural values of duty, honor, courage, and manhood, in which cowardice and letting down one’s comrades doomed one to eternal shame and dishonor, and religious beliefs that enabled many soldiers to face death with a composure that seems extraordinary today. I also discussed the importance of leadership by officers who could remain cool under fire, impose discipline without provoking corrosive resentment, command the confidence of their men, and not ask them to do anything or face any danger they were unwilling to face themselves. The best officers led from the front rather than give orders from the rear. Among the most important factors that distinguished the best Civil War regiments from the mediocre ones were the quality and exemplary courage of their officers.

After reading the two books under review, one about the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the other a biography of Charles Russell Lowell, commander of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, however, I think I may have underestimated the significance of leadership in the molding of an effective fighting unit. Most of the original officers of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry and several of those in the Second Cavalry, including Lowell, were Harvard alumni and an extraordinary number of them were killed in battle leading their men from the front. For them the ideals of duty, honor, and sacrifice were not mere words; they were deep-rooted values for which they quite literally gave their lives. Of the 578 Harvard men who fought in the Civil War, ninety-three were killed—eight of them officers in the Twentieth Massachusetts.

Scores of additional non-Harvard sons of the Brahmin elite also served in the Union army. Massachusetts regiments—especially the Second and

Twentieth Infantry and Second Cavalry—included such distinguished names as Abbott (two brothers, both killed), Adams, Barlow, Cabot, Crowninshield, Forbes, Higginson, Holmes (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Harvard ‘61, wounded three times), James, Lee, Lowell (two brothers, both killed), Palfrey, Putnam, Quincy, Revere (two brothers, grandsons of Paul Revere, both killed), Russell, Sedgwick, Webster (Fletcher Webster, a son of Daniel Webster, killed at Second Bull Run as colonel of the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry), and Whittier. Three nephews of the poet James Russell Lowell lost their lives in the war. Charles Russell Lowell, his brother, a brother-in-law, and six of his thirteen cousins who fought in the war were killed.

Most of these men served as officers. But a few Harvard alumni voluntarily fought in the ranks. The most accomplished was Francis Balch, who enlisted in the Twentieth Massachusetts in 1862. Class of 1859 at Harvard, Balch had won the Detur Prize as a freshman, the Bowdoin Prize and Thayer Scholarship as a junior, graduated as valedictorian, and earned a law degree from Har-vard in 1861. He survived the war and in 1867 fathered Emily Balch, who in 1946 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the League of Nations and other international organizations.

What motivated these men, officers and privates alike, nearly all of whom enlisted before the Union draft went into effect in mid-1863—and who could have bought exemption in any case? First, many of them were descendants of the Revolutionary generation that had won independence from Britain and founded the nation now threatened with destruction. “The institutions of the country, indeed free institutions, hang on this moment,” wrote Paul Revere—grandson of the Revolutionary War hero—two years before Abraham Lincoln made the same point at Gettysburg. “I should be ashamed of myself if I were to sit down in happy indulgence, and leave such a great matter as this to take its course.” Charles Russell Lowell’s great-grandfather had roomed with James Madison when they were delegates to the Continental Congress. As Carol Bundy notes in The Nature of Sacrifice, “Virtually all Lowell’s friends could claim at least one ancestor who had been a Founding Father” or had “fought in the Revolutionary War.” The same was true of most of the Brahmin elite in the Union army:

So the desire of these young men to preserve the Union, to defend the Constitution and its principles, was not an abstract or philosophical attitude but one imbued with almost hereditary, even proprietary feelings.

Strong convictions of duty and honor grew from this heritage—the duty to serve, and the dishonor of failing to serve. Explaining his decision to enlist (against his father’s wishes), Charles Francis Adams Jr. (the great-grandson of John Adams) declared that “it would have been an actual disgrace had [our] family, of all possible families American, been wholly unrepresented in the field.” When Paul Revere, killed at Gettysburg, was buried next to his brother, killed at Antietam, in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, their mother wrote in her journal: “They knew the risk they ran. But the conflict must be met. It was their duty to aid it. The claim on them was as strong as on any and gallantly they answered it.”

Closely related to these values of duty and honor was an ethic of elite sacrifice, the noblesse oblige conviction that the privileged classes had a greater obligation to defend the country precisely because of the privileged status they enjoyed. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. praised the first colonel of the Twentieth Massachusetts, William Raymond Lee, for having “taught us more perfectly than we could learn elsewhere to strive not only to acquire the discipline of soldiers but [also] the high feelings and self-sacrifice of chivalrous gentlemen.”

Charles Russell Lowell shared this conviction with his brother-in-law and best friend, Robert Gould Shaw, a Harvard alumnus whose father was a prominent and well-to-do abolitionist. After serving as a captain in the Second Massachusetts Infantry, Shaw in January 1863 accepted a commission as colonel of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first black regiment raised in the North. He died at the head of his regiment in its attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863 (the subject of the excellent movie Glory). When the news of Shaw’s death reached Lowell, he wrote to his grieving fiancée, Shaw’s sister, Josephine: “I see now that the best Colonel of the best black regiment had to die, it was a sacrifice we owed,—and how could it have been paid more gloriously?” Fifteen months later Lowell made a similar sacrifice, leaving Josephine a widow six weeks before their child was born. She dedicated the remaining forty-one years of her life to working for the underprivileged in American society: freed slaves, exploited workers, women in poverty, the down and out of every ethnic group.

Like Robert Gould Shaw, many of these Massachusetts officers had been active in the antislavery movement. That was true of the whole Lowell clan. James Russell Lowell was one of the most prominent abolitionist writers, and his nephews Charles Russell Lowell and William Lowell Putnam echoed his sentiments. This was a war for freedom and human rights, wrote Charles Lowell in 1861, “in which decent men ought to engage for the sake of humanity.” In William Putnam’s last letter before he was killed at Ball’s Bluff, he wrote:

He who said that “A century of civil war is better than a day of slavery” was right. God grant that every river in this land of ours may run with blood, and the utter destruction of every vestige of this curse so monstrous. Human beings never drew sword in a better cause than ours.

Not all Massachusetts officers shared these sentiments. A conservative strain infused part of the Brahmin class and turned them against abolitionism and the antislavery Republicans. This issue split the officers of the Twentieth Massachusetts into two camps. It became informally known as the “Democratic,” or more conservative, Harvard regiment—in contrast with the “Republican” Harvard Second Massachusetts Infantry. The Twentieth became even more Democratic after many of its original antislavery officers were killed, badly wounded, or transferred to other regiments (two of them to become officers in the new Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts black regiments in 1863).

Disagreements about slavery and emancipation did not affect the efficiency and fighting qualities of the Twentieth Massachusetts, however. General Andrew A. Humphreys, chief of staff for the Army of the Potomac in 1863–1864, described the Twentieth as “one of the very best regiments in the service.”3 During the winter of 1862– 1863, inspecting officers rated the Twentieth among the top eleven of 330 Union infantry regiments in the Virginia theater. One consequence of such a reputation was the assignment of the Twentieth to the toughest, most dangerous combat missions. During the entire war the Twentieth had 795 men killed or wounded in action—40

percent of the total enrollment. The figure of 260 men killed or mortally wounded was greater than that of any other Massachusetts regiment and fifth highest among the two thousand Union regiments.

What explained the Twentieth’s proficiency at fighting? Miller makes a persuasive case that it was the quality of its officers—especially their selfless willingness to share every danger with their men. In contrast to the practice in most volunteer regiments from other states, enlisted men in Massachusetts regiments did not elect their company officers. Governor John Andrew could therefore appoint officers for what he considered their ability (which he often equated with social standing) rather than for political popularity or expediency. Only a few of these officers had had military training or experience before 1861, but they did have the prestige and status that provided Massachusetts regiments with a greater degree of discipline and order than those of most other states. Of no regiment was this more true than of the Twentieth, owing in considerable part to Colonel William Raymond Lee, who had attended West Point as well as Harvard, and who shaped the character and ethos of the regiment during the year and a half he commanded it.

The social distance between officers and enlisted men in the Twentieth was greater than in most regiments. Some of the original officers expressed a cliquish snobbery toward former non-coms from middle- and working-class backgrounds who were commissioned from the ranks as the inevitable attrition of war whittled away the “gentlemen” officers. One of the qualities that make Miller’s book among the best of the hundreds of Civil War regimental histories is his analysis of the dynamics of class in the Twentieth. The experience of combat gradually reduced the distance and tensions between Brahmin officers and the rank and file—an achievement all the more remarkable because of the ethnic and class heterogeneity of the regiment. Two of the ten companies were composed of German-Americans, one of Irish, one of waterfront toughs of various ethnic backgrounds, and one mainly of whaling men from Nantucket.

Some of these recruits initially looked upon their officers as effete fops. They soon learned otherwise. These Harvard men had in them the steel of their ancestors who fought at Concord and Bunker Hill and Saratoga. They demonstrated their toughness at Antietam and Gettysburg and a dozen other battles. Even the disastrous defeat at Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, the regiment’s first battle, helped to bind officers and men, who stuck together under the direst circumstances. One private later summed up an impression widely shared by the rank and file in the Twentieth: “We had a Grand Set of officers…. I hav often thought Since how brave the[y] ware[;] the[y] Seamed to like to fight and Set the Men A Good Example.”

Loyalty to the regiment and to their men brought officers back again and again after recovering from wounds that could have sent them home with honorable discharges. Holmes was wounded once a year and returned all three times. (He not only survived the war; after serving for thirty years as a distinguished associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, he died two days before his ninety-fourth birthday, in 1935.) Colonel Paul Revere, wounded at Antietam, came back after recovering in time to be killed at Gettysburg. His successor, George Macy, lost his left hand at Gettysburg, returned to take command just before the Battle of the Wilderness, where he took bullets in both legs, and later came back to command the entire brigade to the end at Appomattox.

The example of these “gentleman” officers worked its way down to men promoted from the ranks. Captain John Kelliher, a former bootmaker who was commissioned in September 1863, was so badly wounded at Spotsylvania in May 1864 that the surgeon who removed his lower jaw, one arm, a shoulder blade, a clavicle, and two of his ribs had no hope for his recovery. But Kelliher not only confounded that diagnosis; he returned in November 1864 with the rank of major to command the surviving remnant of the regiment.

Charles Russell Lowell did not serve in the Twentieth Massachusetts—though his brother and several friends and cousins did. Valedictorian of the Harvard Class of 1854, Lowell had a successful business career interrupted by two years in Europe to seek rest and treatment for tuberculosis. In 1861 he secured a commission in the Sixth United States Cavalry and later served as a staff officer in the Army of the Potomac. In the winter of 1862– 1863, the governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, commissioned him to recruit, organize, and command the Second Massachusetts Cavalry. Seven of the twelve companies in this unique regiment were composed of Massachusetts men; the other five were filled by Californians, most of them natives of New England who had gone west during the Gold Rush a decade or more earlier. These men represented California’s principal military contribution to the Union war effort. They were older than the average Massachusetts recruit, more experienced as horsemen, and more accustomed to outdoor life. The California companies were the best in the regiment, especially adept at the counterguerrilla warfare that became the main activity of the Second Massachusetts in 1863 and 1864.

Although an excellent rider, the twenty-eight-year-old Colonel Lowell was slight in build and youthful in appearance. Several of the California company officers were older than Lowell. Yet he quickly gained their confidence and loyalty. Lowell’s first challenge was to meld the disparate Massachusetts and California companies into a single fighting unit. One of the strengths of Carol Bundy’s biography, as with Miller’s history, is its analysis of the tensions within the regiment, which could be overcome only by strong qualities of leadership. Lowell possessed that elusive quality of personal magnetism known as cha-risma; as an early biographer put it, he had a natural “capacity of ruling men, which was the most remarkable of his gifts.” Cool under fire, Lowell found that men would follow him anywhere and obey his orders instantly. It helped their confidence that he seemed to lead a charmed life. In more than two years of combat he had thirteen horses shot from under him without suffering a scratch himself. Who would not follow this lucky colonel?

For more than a year the mission of Lowell’s regiment was to disperse, capture, or destroy the Confederate guerrilla band known as Mosby’s Rangers. John Singleton Mosby was the bold and apparently fearless leader of the partisans who operated behind Union lines in occupied Confederate territory, attacking supply trains, burning bridges, cutting telegraph lines, robbing paymasters, and capturing or killing small Union forces separated from their units. Several counties in northern Virginia stretching from Washington to the Shenandoah Valley became known as Mosby’s Confederacy. Mosby’s raiders once captured a Union general in his bed only ten miles from Washington. Lowell’s task was to eliminate this threat to the Union army. He conceived several new tactics in the deadly game of raids and counter-raids. Despite setbacks and attrition from exhaustion and casualties during their continual patrols and ambushes, the Second Massachusetts gained several victories over Mosby and by mid-1864 had constricted his territory.

Even though successful, Lowell and his men grew weary of such inglorious duty and yearned for some “real cavalry fighting” in the field. In July 1864 they got their wish. Now part of a cavalry brigade with Lowell as brigade commander, the Second Massachusetts took part in the defense of Washington against the Confederate General Jubal Early’s daring raid in July 1864. In the subsequent campaign to pursue Early’s corps into the Shenandoah Valley and destroy it, Lowell’s brigade was incorporated into the cavalry corps of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah commanded by General Philip Sheridan.

Lowell’s experience in irregular warfare became invaluable to Sheridan in his quest for intelligence. Lowell led the Second Massachusetts in lightning raids on enemy units to capture prisoners for interrogation. Watching one of these attacks in which Lowell led his men over Confederate breastworks and brought away seventy-four prisoners including a lieutenant colonel and three captains, Sheridan commented that “Lowell is a brave man.” That bravery earned Lowell command of a cavalry brigade of regulars (the First, Second, Fifth, and Sixth United States Cavalries), a unique distinction for a volunteer officer from a civilian background.

In command of this brigade, Lowell took part in a picture-book cavalry charge at the climax of the Battle of Winchester in Virginia on September 19, 1864, one of the most decisive Union victories of the war. A month later, after more Northern victories, General Early struck back at dawn on October 19 with a surprise attack at Cedar Creek fifteen miles south of Winchester, routing two Union infantry corps. In the absence of Sheridan, who was returning from consultations in Washington, Lowell took the initiative in forming a new defensive position.

When Sheridan arrived at midday, knowing that “there was no cooler head or better brain in all the army,” he ordered Lowell to head two brigades to hold the Union’s left flank while Sheridan reorganized the army for a counterattack. Lowell had had his thirteenth horse shot from under him, and this turned out to be an unlucky omen. Soon afterward he was hit in the chest by a ricocheted bullet that collapsed his right lung. Refusing to go to the rear, Lowell was lifted onto his borrowed horse, so weak that he had to be strapped into the saddle, and rode at the head of the Second Massachusetts while Sheridan launched what became a devastating counterattack. As the cavalry thundered forward, Lowell was again hit by a bullet that severed his spine and left him paralyzed. “My poor wife,” he whispered. “I am afraid it will kill her.” It did not. But it did kill Charles Lowell. A week after his death, his commission as brigadier general arrived from Washington.

Several dozen classmates attended Lowell’s funeral in Appleton Chapel at Harvard on October 28. Some of them were on crutches or missing an arm or a leg, victims of the same war that claimed Lowell’s life. They listened as the Reverend George Putnam, whose son had married Lowell’s sister, delivered the eulogy. Putnam read aloud the names of Lowell’s twelve close friends and relatives who had preceded him in death on the battlefield before turning to the coffin and asking: “Are we paying too heavy a price for our country’s freedom?” After a long pause in the silent chapel, he continued: “Our full hearts answer—no—not too much—not too much.”

Today it is a moving experience to walk through Harvard’s Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1878, where plaques and busts honor the ninety-three alumni who died in the war. Of them all the most affecting is the bust of Charles Russell Lowell by Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the memorial in Washington to Lincoln, who, like Lowell, gave the nation the last full measure of devotion.

  1. 1

    Wickham is quoted from a conversation I had with Edwin Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service, who guided General Wickham’s tour of Antietam.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1997.

  3. 3

    Quoted in William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the Amrican Civil War 1861–1865 (Brandow, 1898), p. 164.

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