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picture of Major Higginson, 1863  

The Biography of

Major Henry Lee Higginson
"Practical Idealism and the Gift for Friendship"

Henry Lee Higginson, best known as being the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the cousin of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, lived a life of great achievements and conversely profound disappointments, as some of his fondest hopes and aspirations failed to materialize. But through it all—from his boyhood days, to his adult years as an amateur musician, Civil War soldier, Boston banker, Harvard benefactor, and philanthropist—Higginson felt "a deep and passionate wish that we should live according to our highest ideals." His philosophy of "practical idealism" was evident in undertakings he pursued, always with an "active and unceasing thought of and work for others." Higginson was regarded by friends and associates as being "a man of the world...nevertheless wholly without sophistication.... He had known pain and sorrow, but he kept unspoiled...a zest for life, the heart of youth and the gift for friendship."

Days of Boyhood and Youth

Henry Lee Higginson was born in New York City on November 18, 1834, the second child of George and Mary (Cabot Lee) Higginson. When he was four years old, his father—who operated a small commission merchant business with his cousin—lost a great deal of money in the great panic of 1837 and moved the family to a smaller home in Boston. Here Henry was raised in a pleasant home with his three brothers and one sister, and enjoyed jokes and pranks with his friends Charles Russell Lowell, Jr. and James Savage, Jr. They skated and played at the Boston Commons or in the little court at Bedford Place where they lived.

In 1846, Henry entered the Boston Latin School and did fairly well, though constant colds and headaches interfered with his work. After one year at a private school, he was sent back to the Latin School where he fared much better. At 15 years of age, Henry lost his mother to tuberculosis in August 1849. Though her loss was devastating, his father raised the children himself, and the family got along as best as they could.

Following his graduation from the Latin School in 1851, Henry began attending Harvard College, but six months later his eyes grew weak. He was sent to Europe—a common prescription for this type of condition during the time—and placed under the guardianship of Reverend Eliot of Northampton, Massachusetts who also was staying overseas. During this first trip abroad, Henry developed a taste for music that had been "nourished by a few concerts in Boston and by the opera" prior to his departure. Henry's fondness of music flourished after attending several operas in London, England and in Germany.

By 1853 Henry's eyes improved, but much to his father's dismay he expressed his desire to pursue a career as a musician. Upon returning to Boston in March 1855, Henry's father secured a position for him at the India Wharf where he worked as the company's sole clerk and bookkeeper. To relieve his boredom during this period of his life, Henry attended parties and made new friends and acquaintances. He also spent a lot of time with his friends and classmates Charles, James, and Stephen Perkins, discussing current events and topics such as slavery.

When the class of 1855 graduated from Harvard, Henry—who did not complete all of his coursework—did not graduate with them, though he attended the festivities. Following a year-and-a-half's work in the office on the wharf, Henry received an unexpected inheritance from an uncle and in November 1856 returned to Europe with Stephen and another friend. Charles eventually joined the trio abroad, after recovering from an illness to his lungs.

In the following year, the October 1857 panic threatened financial ruin for businessmen in the states and Henry reconsidered his plans for remaining overseas with his friends. He offered to surrender his musical ambitions and return home to assist his father in the stock brokerage house of Lee, Higginson and Co., but his father reassured him otherwise.
  Henry's class photo, 1855
Henry's class photo of 1855 from Bliss Perry's book, image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

A few months later, Henry's dreams of becoming a musician ended following a visit to the doctor for a severe headache of three days' duration. A bloodletting session caused his left arm to become lame, and though he continued practicing and playing the piano for another year in Vienna, Austria, the arm never fully healed.

With his hopes for a musical occupation no longer foreseeable, Henry contemplated a career as a wine merchant, then considered a clerkship in a wholesale drug business. As he searched for a practical occupation suited to his liking, unrest erupted on the home front in America. A day before his 26th birthday in November 1860, Henry set sail once more for Boston.

From an Infantryman to a Cavalryman

Returning home to Boston, Henry spent the winter confined to his father's house on Chauncy Street with a sprained foot, patiently seeking opportunities for employment as the outlook grew increasingly dim. All the while tension steadily mounted between various groups of citizens, culminating in the firing upon Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

One by one, Henry's friends enlisted in the army, and it was not long before he also joined them. On May 11, 1861, Higginson was mustered in Colonel George H. Gordon's 2nd Massachusetts Regiment as second lieutenant of Company D. Jim Savage already had been appointed captain, and other friends of Henry's who had enlisted in this regiment were: Greely Curtis (Captain of Company B), Charles F. Morse (First Lieutenant), Henry S. Russell (First Lieutenant), William D. Sedgwick (First Lieutenant), Robert Gould Shaw (Second Lieutenant in Company F), Richard Cary (Captain of Company G), and Stephen Perkins (Second Lieutenant).

The men of Company D were drilled at Brook Farm (renamed Camp Andrew for Governor John A. Andrew), and officers recited their lessons daily to the lieutenant colonel. On July 8, Higginson was commissioned first lieutenant, the same day the regiment headed to Boston. From Boston they moved on to New York, and finally reached their destination of Hagerstown, Maryland. Three days later, the troops crossed the Potomac and started for Winchester, Virginia to face General Joseph E. Johnston's men. However, on the event of the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) on the 21st, the 2nd Massachusetts was ordered to hold the nearby town of Harpers Ferry. Though the Union army suffered a great defeat at Manassas, Lieutenant Higginson philosophically believed the eventual outcome would be good for the men.

The following month, the 2nd Massachusetts was spared the defeat the Union army faced at the Battle of Ball's Bluff on October 21. They witnessed the aftermath of this disaster for their friends of 20th Massachusetts, better known as the "Harvard Regiment." Among those killed in this battle was William Putnam, cousin of Charles and James Jackson Lowell—the latter who also was wounded in combat, but survived. With Putnam's death, Higginson experienced his first great loss in the war. William had been a friend—he and Henry had traveled abroad in Europe in happier times. As the reality of war set in, and the trials of daily life weighed heavily upon him, Higginson came to terms with his dissatisfaction of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and requested a transfer.

On October 31, 1861, Higginson and Greely Curtis received commissions in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry as a captain and major, respectively. They resigned from the infantry and departed for Boston to enlist with the new regiment that was to be mustered in. But Higginson would not become an active member of the unit any time soon, much to his disappointment. Having contracted typhoid fever, Higginson was not able to join his new comrades in camp at Readville until December.

When he arrived in camp as senior captain of Company A, Higginson faced the challenging task of disciplining these men, as some of them were prize-fighters. However, with his superb social and leadership skills he earned the respect of his men. On Christmas Day, the First Battalion (comprised of Companies A, B, C, and D) under Major Curtis, departed for Annapolis, Maryland, expecting to join General Ambrose Burnside's expedition to North Carolina. But after drilling for a few weeks, they were instead ordered to join the troops under the command of General David Hunter on Beaufort Island off the coast of South Carolina.

Higginson was commissioned major on March 26, 1862, a deserved promotion he did not expect. In addition to working well with the men, as a cavalry officer he discovered that he had an affinity for working with horses and came up with clever names for them such as "Rats-in-a-barrel." Higginson particularly enjoyed participating in horse races the men had in camp, riding his best mount "Rats" in competitions.

Among the First of the Fallen

In July 1862, Higginson and his friends received tragic news about James 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.

By mid-August 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.

Savage's right arm and leg had been severely shattered by two minié 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."

Upon learning about the death of his friends, Higginson was devastated. 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."

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, naïve 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.

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. From April to May, Henry recorded the regiment's activities prior to and during the days on which the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought. The troops passed the scene of Kellysville fight, and a few days later marched to Stevensburg, then on to Ely's Ford. On May 2nd the men heard firing towards Chancellorsville, but they did not participate in the fighting.

Less than a week later, Higginson announced pleasant news to his father on the event of the weddings of Robert Gould Shaw to Annie Haggerty, and Charles Lowell to Shaw's sister Josephine ("Effie"). He also was pleased to report that brother Jim fared well, and that brother Frank—now a first lieutenant in Shaw's 54th Massachusetts regiment—was held in high regards in his regiment. It would be the last happy news to share for some time.

The Battle of Aldie and Aftermath

The following month, on June 17, 1863, the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry engaged in a fierce combat with the soldiers of General John Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart and General FitzHugh Lee's cavalry at Aldie Gap. Higginson told his account of the Battle of Aldie in his reminiscences, how the men rode into the town of Aldie and engaged in a "little shindy" with Lieutenant Alexander Payne's squadron from Colonel Thomas Munford's 4th Virginia Cavalry. During this encounter, Major Higginson crossed sabers with a foe and was knocked out of his saddle—a bullet lodged at the base of his spine; a saber gash across his right cheek. While unhorsed and wounded in the road, Higginson was struck on the head and told by his assailant that he would be taken prisoner. When the major informed his attacker that he believed he would not live, the man robbed him, leaving only his horse that had been shot several times.

On June 30, Major Higginson was granted a 60-day leave of absence for his injuries (three saber cuts and two pistol wounds), and returned to the house on Chauncy Street where he was tended by his father. Days later, his old regiments fought at Gettysburg and Henry regretted that he could not participate in this monumental battle. Not long after hearing the news of this Union victory, on July 18 Robert Gould Shaw was killed in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry's assault on Fort Wagner. Higginson learned of this great personal loss long after the event.

Fortunately, Higginson's brother Frank did not participate in the assault, having been assigned fatigue detail. As for his brother Jim—who had been captured by the enemy at the Battle of Aldie—Henry received good natured letters from him at Libby Prison, indicating that he was surviving successfully despite "a few scurvy sores." Jim expressed surprise regarding Henry's wounds; he had no knowledge of what happened to him in the chaos of that battle.

Little did Higginson or his doctors know, but his injuries were far more critical than they realized. In late August 1863 he appeared to be on the mend, but by the end of October the bullet wound in his back became abscessed. However, by mid-November, the doctors reported that Higginson began to make a rapid recovery. Perhaps his improved health was the result of the comfort and cheer he received from Ida Agassiz to whom he proposed marriage that autumn. If not for Ida's affection and companionship, Henry's condition might have worsened.

Henry felt blessed with good fortune to have Ida Agassiz as his fiancée. The daughter of Harvard zoology professor Louis Agassiz, Ida was his ideal woman—gracious, charming, cultured and refined, and an old friend from the neighborhood. Henry and Ida were married on December 5, 1863 in a "quiet, simple, and sacred" wedding. The couple spent Christmas at her father and stepmother's home, then went to the Agassiz cottage at Nahant for spring.

The major served with the recruiting service that winter and had hoped to soon rejoin his regiment. But he was not well enough to resume his duties, as he could not sit in the saddle without enduring severe pain. Meanwhile, his post had been filled by officer Samuel E. Chamberlain, and Henry received letters from commander Charles Adams, telling of the demoralization of the troops. It was not until June 1864 that Higginson was allowed to return to service with his unit, just as the Campaign of the Wilderness opened. However, he was unable to partake in any action for the remainder of his career with the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

The Last Phase of the Major's Civil War Career

On July 4, 1864, Higginson was assigned to the staff of Major General Francis C. Barlow of the Second Corps. He headed south by steamer on the 18th, passing Point Lookout where his brother Frank was stationed. Later, at City Point near Petersburg, Higginson was welcomed to the camp by former Harvard classmate Dr. Edward B. Dalton—Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac—who was placed in charge of the 10,000 sick and wounded men recently exchanged from Libby Prison. He spoke with the doctor about his wound, and also was briefly reunited with his brother Jim who was among the newly released prisoners.

Not long after Higginson joined the staff of General Barlow, at the end of July he was asked by Barlow to accompany him home to see his ailing wife. That journey to Washington would be the major's final adventure in the military. For though he had hoped and believed he could return to active service after his convalescence, Higginson was forced to face the inevitable truth that he would never again be physically well enough to serve his country in the war. When he arrived at the Capitol, Higginson tendered his resignation and was discharged from the army on August 9, 1864.

Returning to life as a civilian, through correspondence Higginson shared in the Union's victories in Atlanta. But by October, the celebrations had ended for him. On the 19th Henry lost his best friend, Charles Lowell, at the Battle of Cedar Creek. While leading his brigade in a charge, Colonel Lowell was struck by a minié ball that did not break the skin but damaged his right lung to the extent that he was barely able to speak above a whisper. Despite the severity of this injury, Lowell remained in command, giving orders through a member of his staff. As his regiment plunged into the hail of fire and lead, Lowell was struck in the neck by a ball that severed his spine, paralyzing his body from the wound down, and causing his death. General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Army of the Shenandoah, said of Lowell: "I do not think there was a quality which I could have added to Lowell. He was the perfection of a man and a soldier."

As for Henry Higginson who attended Lowell's services as one of his pallbearers, the memory of James Savage and of Charles Lowell forever remained in Higginson's thoughts, long after he received his brevet as Lieutenant Colonel on March 13, 1865 "for gallant and meritorious service during the war...especially in the campaign of 1864 of the Army of the Potomac." Their untimely deaths cut deeply into his soul, leaving a wound that—unlike any ones he received during the war—would never heal. In Lowell's last letter to him, on September 10, 1864, Charley had responded to Henry's resignation from the army, in his usual, friendly and philosophical manner. But these words never deserted Higginson and thereafter profoundly affected his view of life—forming the basis of his own "practical idealism."

"...I felt very sorry, old fellow, at your being finally obliged to give up, for I know you would have liked to see it out.... I hope, Mr. Higginson, that you are going to live like a plain Republican, mindful of the beauty and the duty of simplicity.... I hope you have outgrown all foolish ambitions and are now content to become a 'useful citizen.' ...Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you will find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. The useful citizen is a mighty unpretending hero. But we are not going to have any country very long unless such heroism is developed.

"There! what a stale sermon I'm preaching; but being a soldier, it does seem to me that I should like nothing else so well as being a useful citizen.... By Jove! what I have wasted through crude and stupid theories. I wish old Stephen [Perkins] were alive. I should like to poke fingers through his theories and have him poke through mine. How I do envy (or rather admire) the young fellows who have something to do now without theories, and do it. I believe I have lost all my ambitions, old fellow.... All I now care about is to be a useful citizen, with money enough to buy my bread and firewood and to teach my children how to ride on horseback and look strangers in the face, especially Southern strangers.... I wonder whether I shall ever see you again...."


Higginson's biography concludes on: Page 2


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