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The Life Story of

Major Henry Lee Higginson

Part II: The Civil War Years

Page 2


Among the First of the Fallen

James Lowell   In July 1862, Higginson and his friends received tragic news about James Jackson Lowell. While leading his company across an open field during the Union army's retreat in the Battle of Glendale on June 30, 1862, James was shot in the abdomen. Having survived his wound at Ball's Bluff, he would not be fortunate a second time. Lowell died on July 4, calmly accepting death and hoping this was acceptable to his friends. The loss of James Lowell was felt keenly by his family and his circle of friends, for in addition to being among the first of the Harvard soldiers to have fallen, his was a rare, spiritual nature, "pure and generous," "luminous with love."

James Lowell

As Higginson contemplated the loss of his friend, the war continued, and Henry could see that this conflict would not be of a "short duration" as he had initially believed. On August 10, he wrote to his brother Jim who still remained in Europe awaiting a commission. Henry could understand his sibling's dilemma, having himself lived abroad. But he had changed during the course of the year as a result of his training as a soldier, his responsibilities with each promotion, and living each day with death at hand. The youth who had discovered himself through his pursuit of music had become a leader of men and their lives were placed in his charge. Henry now appealed to Jim to return home and do his duty to help him fight against slavery:

...I remember full well that I never wanted anyone's opinion as to my return and that I bided my time with perfect composure. For just that reason I 've not urged your return, but now I will say that you may not comprehend fully the facts of our position as a nation.... You cannot gather from the papers nor from letters the full import of the thing, and of course cannot feel the matter as we living in the midst of it do.... We are fighting against slavery, present or future, and we are struggling for the right of mankind to be educated and to think.... Of your father's children I am the only one bearing arms; I know that I was placed exactly right for the emergency and that no one of the rest of you was so: that I went because I could n't stay at home, and have enjoyed myself highly since; that for a hundred reasons it was no sacrifice, but an enormous gratification and pleasure, and to me, as education, as experience, as occupation, as good pay for my otherwise idle time. I do not take an atom of credit to myself, but I do think that the family quota should be stronger.... I want you and [our brother] Frank to learn all that you can in the army, and to have the satisfaction of feeling that you were doing your part.... Charley Lowell is on McClellan's staff [as an aid to the general], and will do something there....

That same day, Higginson also wrote a letter to his father, frustrated by the inactivity of Company A:

We are useless here, and might be useful at the North.... Can no one get us moved North?... I do think that the horizon looks very stormy. I hope the opinion that we shall not get back our lost states is gaining ground, in order to save future disappointment. If we can clean out Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and keep the Mississippi, including all west of it, for ourselves, we shall do well enough. The Gulf states, once shut in thus, will decay, and will in time come again into our hands. But this war has been most shamefully managed in some respects. [General-in-Chief Henry W.] Halleck will, it is to be hoped, concentrate all the troops, including the 12,000 to 15,000 useless men in this Department, and will thus sweep Virginia clean. If he does not, God help the land.

By mid-August 1862 Company A finally was ordered North. Higginson expressed optimism and enthusiasm for the whole of the Union army. Unbeknownst to him however, only days before on August 9 his friends and comrades of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry had been dealt a blow by General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's troops at Cedar Mountain. This engagement found the 2nd Massachusetts experiencing their baptism of fire, and Major James Savage and Lieutenant Stephen Perkins were among the casualties.   James Savage

James Savage

Savage's right arm and leg had been severely shattered by two miniť balls. After the battle he was captured and taken prisoner then died a week later, following the amputation of his leg. Reverend Francis Tiffany, an agent of the Sanitary Commission, said of Savage: "Of all the officers I ever saw, Major Savage was the noblest Christian gentleman." Perkins, who had been wounded in the hand during combat, remained in action to continue the fight and was found dead after the battle, his body pierced by three bullets. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry wrote about Perkins in his diary, and later in his memoirs: "Stephen Perkins is reported dead...the ablest man I ever knew, the finest mind I ever met, is lost forever.... I realized that a place was made vacant in my circle not again to be filled."

Robert Gould Shaw   Robert Gould Shaw addressed the bravery of these men at Cedar Mountain in a letter he wrote—words that would ironically mirror his own fate: "All our officers behaved nobly. Those who ought to have stayed away did n't. It was splendid to see those sick fellows walk straight up into the shower of bullets as if it were so much rain; men who, until this year, had lived lives of perfect ease and luxury. O, it is hard to believe that we shall never see them again, after having been constantly together for more than a year."

Robert Shaw



Upon learning about the death of his friends, Higginson wrote on September 2:


I was horrified to hear the truth about the 2nd Mass. Poor Stephen!.... But we live so fast that one can't think of one battle more than a day.
  Stephen Perkins

Stephen Perkins

In his boyhood days, Stephen had written to Henry words that would now bear
greater significance to him in retrospect: "I wonder whether we shall go on constantly expecting life to unfold itself, and the great possibilities to appear in us and outside of us, until we are surprised that death has come for us, when we hardly seem to ourselves to have lived."

On September 18, Higginson wrote to his father a day after the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam), the single bloodiest day of the war:


We had a great fight yesterday and rather beat them, tho' nothing is yet decided. Old [Edwin V.] Sumner got his hat shot off and put things right thro' on the right wing. He is a buster. Gen'l [John] Sedgwick hit in two places, not dangerously. Wilder Dwight [major of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and fellow Harvard alumnus] mortally wounded; Bill [Sedgwick]—probably killed...and others high in rank more or less wounded. (Oliver) Wendell Holmes(, Jr.) slightly hurt.... Charlie [Lowell] all right, but a horse shot under him. I see Charlie every day now....

Throughout autumn and winter, a mood of gloom as grey as the weather hung about the camp. With dissention prevailing in the ranks, Higginson admonished his brother Jim against entering the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. But the younger, naÔve sibling took little heed and enlisted with the regiment as a second lieutenant. In December, the troops bivouacked near Fredericksburg though were not ordered to fight in the battle on the 13th that month.

A Break in the Storm

By spring 1863, the dark mood that enshrouded the camp had lifted. Though Higginson privately mourned the loss of companions and comrades, he displayed more of the lighter and spirited side of himself to the world after returning from furlough. He wrote to his friend of the U.S. Consul, A.W. Thayer—whom he had met in Vienna—about his hopes and personal philosophies on life, his reminiscences, and his regards for those dearest to him:

On Picket — March 15, 1863.

Dear Thayer: —

When you were in Washington...I tried twice in my short stay of a few hours [on furlough there] to see you—in vain [before returning to camp in Virginia]. If you could have come here, you should have seen something of our army, and should have delighted our eyes with your presence and our ears with tales of your own doings, of friends in Europe and of music in all its forms. But you must hurry back to Vienna, my second and well-beloved home. Well, old fellow, go your own way and work out your own salvation. I am trying to work out mine, so is [my brother] Jim, and so is many a good, brave man. The many little salvations will go to make that of our country and of the human race. Tell me there is no American people, is no nationality, is no distinct and strong love of country! It is a lie, and those who have said it to me in Europe simply were ignorant! We 've been asked to school for two years all the time, and have been learning a lesson—wait and see if we don't know it and use it pretty soon. We'll beat these men, fighting for slavery and wickedness, out of house and home, beat them to death, this summer too. I do not say this to boast, but as my belief and my intention, so far as I am concerned. We are right, and are trying hard; we have at last real soldiers, not recruits, in the field, and we shall reap our harvest.... I, for one, have felt merely delight from the beginning of the war, that the day had come, for the right and good, for God. My whole religion (that is my whole belief and hope in everything, in life in man, in woman, in music, in good, in the beautiful, in the real truth) rests on the questions now really before us....

And I'm still young enough to go much farther and fare much worse than I have, for one warm look and one kind word from a maiden. Does one ever lose the real love and enthusiasm for women who are good and pure and high-minded? I do not think it: at least the decay has not yet begun with me. The little week at home brightened and cheered me very much: and it was a real delight to find that one's place was kept and a warm welcome ready for the wanderer, for the soldier....

...Would it not be jolly to wake up some morning in Vienna, and then go to see one's old friends and wind up with a big concert? It will come all in good time, if my bullet does not come along; and if it does, "Nunc dimittis" will not be so unwelcome a song. My love again to you, old fellow, and to all in Vienna or in other places, and tell them that I often and often think of them and former times with very great pleasure. My friends are still and always will be my greatest delight in life....

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Henry's Civil War story continues:

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