Life Stories of  Civil War Heroes banner

The Biography of

Major Henry Lee Higginson

Page 2, continued

Early Business Ventures: An Education of a Different Kind

During the final year of the Civil War, Henry had at last found an opportunity for employment. From January through July of 1865, he worked as an agent for the Buckeye Oil Company in Ohio, purchasing equipment and contracting laborers to work in the oil fields. Living out of a "shanty" boardinghouse was a "comfortless, dirty and lonely" existence for Henry, though less dreary after his wife Ida joined him during the latter part of his stay there. However, the wells did not produce the quantity of oil that the owners and investors had anticipated. As a result, the company foundered and the Higginsons returned home to Boston.

By autumn, Henry grew enthusiastic about his next business venture: raising cotton on a plantation in Georgia with friends Channing Clapp—a Harvard classmate who served with him in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, and Charles Morse—a Harvard graduate and comrade of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.

At first, business at the plantation ran smoothly, allowing Henry the pleasure of returning home to Boston for Christmas. After the holidays he brought Ida with him to Cottonham, and together they put their heart and soul into work with the laborers, educating them and preparing them for life outside the plantation. But their hard efforts and good intentions were not enough to overcome the differences between the two cultures and lifestyles. Concepts such as receiving wages for labor and dealing with cash to purchase goods were difficult for these former slaves to understand, as they never had ownership of anything in this country. How could Henry and Ida convince these workers—who had only known oppression in the hands of white men—that they had their best interests at heart?

Henry's woes with Cottonham increased in the following year. The house servants and some laborers were caught stealing from them. What's more, they discovered that they really owned only 2500 of the 5000 acres they purchased. Though frustrated by the project in general, Higginson remained patient and compassionate towards his workers. By late spring, however, Cottonham's failure seemed inevitable. Clapp headed home after a wave of heat arrived along with an infestation of rats, mice, fleas, and malaria. When Ida developed a touch of malaria, Henry decided it was time to give up the project entirely, despite the fact that Ida believed they could make a difference if they stayed another year. The Higginsons left on May 21, 1867, with Morse now the sole overseer of the plantation. Morse held out hope for the crops that began to revive during summer, but by September when they were consumed by caterpillars, he too realized that all hopes for Cottonham were in vain.

After Henry and Ida returned from Georgia they moved into a small apartment in Boston. Henry's unsuccessful business ventures had left them more than $10,000 in debt, and at age 33—with responsibilities and obligations to significant persons in his life—he could no longer afford to invest much time and money in romantic but impractical dreams. Reluctantly, Henry settled down and faced the reality of a future in the family business of Lee, Higginson and Company.

Henry became a partner in the firm on January 1, 1868, and a year later Frank joined them. The two brothers added energy to the respected brokerage that had a reputation for honesty and integrity regarding their assessment of properties and relationships with clients. At this point in time—with the rebuilding of the nation after the war—the firm enjoyed a renewed prosperity in the volume of stocks and bonds they sold—despite a few setbacks in the stock market.

On January 5, 1870 the Higginsons celebrated the birth of their first child, daughter Cécile. In the spring of 1873, for the first time since he began his employment at the firm, Higginson traveled to Europe on a non-business trip to the Vienna Exposition. As one of the honorary commissioners appointed by the Massachusetts Legislature, he was reunited with friends and former Civil War comrades Charles Adams (chairman of the commission) and Greely Curtis (also an honorary commissioner). During the several months he remained overseas, Henry revisited Paris and London, and ventured on to Venice. As in his former days abroad, he enjoyed the theatre, read books, and wrote letters home. He also now pursued business opportunities with British investors and bankers.

When Higginson returned to Boston in September, panic hit the financial world as cash became scarce due to over-trading, over-construction in America, and excessive borrowing overseas. Businesses shut down over night and many laborers lost their jobs. Though it would take years for the economy to recover, Lee, Higginson and Co. survived in its industry. However, in April 1874, at the urging of his partners, George Higginson retired from the firm at the age of 70. The collapse of the economy had caused a great deal of stress, and his family and friends did not want George burdened with the day-to-day activities of the business.

In August 1875, the death of five-year-old Cécile brought heartbreak to Henry and Ida. Despite the joy over the birth of their son Alexander on April 2, 1876, Henry secretly bore his grief over the loss of his daughter for the rest of his life. But though he was dealt his share of suffering, Henry continued with his noble ideals for the betterment of the lives of his friends—even those whom he would never meet—and his gifts to humanity would be enduring.

Gifts that Enriched the Lives of Many

In March 1881, Henry unveiled to Boston his plan for an orchestra that would perform "concerts of a lighter kind of music." The product of Higginson's vision was the Boston Symphony Orchestra—the first of his great gifts—world renowned as one of the finest orchestras to this day. In a letter to Miss Frances R. Morse on September 18, 1881, he credited his friends as the source of his inspiration for undertaking this monumental achievement: "I had a noble set of men-friends.... They led me in part to thoughts and hopes which have resulted in this scheme. It seems to me to be worth while, and to be a little gravestone to them if anything, for they are all dead but one—a great loss to me and the world...."

A year later, Higginson began extending his philanthropic efforts towards education. In May 1882, he supported higher education for women by signing the Articles of the Association that incorporated "Harvard Annex" into "The Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women." Harvard Annex—co-founded in 1879 by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, Ida's stepmother—was an offshoot of Harvard College and provided instruction exclusively for women. That year of his 48th birthday, Henry also received an honorary degree from Harvard College—his first and only degree from this institution.

The end of the 1880s signified another painful event in Henry's life with the death of his father on April 27, 1889. Replying to a letter of condolence from Dr. Vincent Y. Bowditch, Henry wrote: "...The loss and the pain is evident.... As I sat with him in the last days and nights, the thought came to me again and again, that a return to health would be very short-lived, and of doubtful vigor.... He was a man without great talents, but of a great gift for goodness, which he cultivated vigorously."

Throughout the next decade, Higginson's gave generously and frequently to educational institutions. On June 5, 1890, he presented Harvard College 31 acres of land he had purchased. Five days later, he addressed the students to explain the significance of his donation: "My hope is that the ground will be used for the present as a playground for the students.... The only other wish on my part is that the ground shall be called "
The Soldier's Field," and marked with a stone bearing the names of some dear friends,—alumni of the University, and noble gentlemen,—who gave freely and eagerly all that they had or hoped for, to their country and to their fellow men in the hour of great need—the war of 1861 to 1865 in defence of the Republic: James Savage, Jr., Charles Russell Lowell, Edward Barry Dalton, Stephen George Perkins, James Jackson Lowell, Robert Gould Shaw.... This is only a wish, and not a condition; and, moreover, it is a happiness to me to serve in any way the College, which has done so much for us all."

Higginson established the Morristown School in New Jersey for young men in 1891, modestly declining to be named as the school's founder. This school merged with Miss Beard's School for young women—also founded in 1891—to become Morristown-Beard School in 1971. Today the private college preparatory school for grades 6 through 12 promotes "a lifelong love of learning, a respect for honesty, integrity, self, and humanity."

In December 1893, Higginson was elected a Fellow of the Corporation at Harvard University. The year 1894 marked Henry's 60th birthday and new milestones in his life's work. He now spent more time at Harvard due to his position as a Fellow on the governing board and his son's attendance of the university. Also that year, the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women was chartered Radcliffe College, and Henry became an Associate of the governing board and served as the first treasurer. Radcliffe College would later merge with Harvard University in 1999. As in previous years, Higginson's arduous work with the orchestra and at the firm continued, carrying on throughout the decade.

In 1899, Higginson contributed $150,000 for the construction of the Harvard Union, a "house of fellowship" for all students of Harvard and Radcliffe, where they could dine, study, meet, and listen to lectures. In an address delivered at the Sanders Theatre on campus, November 13, 1899, Henry stated the purpose for the proposed building: "A Harvard student needs and has the right to every advantage which the government of the University can give. Neither books, nor lectures, nor games can replace the benefits arising from free intercourse with all his companions—the education of friendship.... Therefore, we will build a great house on college grounds.... We will call it the Harvard Union.... In this House should centre all the college news, of work, athletics, sport, of public affairs; and there, we hope, may be found a corner and a chair and a bit of supper for the old and homeless alumni from other cities...."

Higginson suggested that the building could also represent a memorial to the 11 Harvard men who died in the Spanish-American War of 1898, but requested that the building "in no place bear any name except that of benefactor John Harvard," since he believed the Union was "the result of Harvard teamwork, of mutual reliance." Today, the redesigned building comprises the main part of the Barker Center, dedicated in 1997.

The new century found Higginson gathering with Civil War veterans for Officers' Club meetings—as he had done so for the past 20 years—and meeting with the Loyal Legion. He also presided over the Tavern Club as its president. During the early 1900s, Henry benefacted a number of schools and colleges: Middlesex School—an independent college preparatory boarding school for boys and girls in grades 9-12; the University of Virginia; and Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics (the third major division of Washington and Lee University). He also raised funds for a model college at Santiago, Cuba, after the Spanish-American War had ended. Henry's acts of generosity inspired other men of his generation and social standing, and for his exemplary deeds he received an honorary degree of LL.D from Yale in 1901. In that year he also accepted an invitation to become a trustee of the Carnegie Institution.

On October 15, 1901, Higginson attended the formal dedication of the Harvard Union. As the final speaker, Higginson uttered these memorable words: "...Our new house is built in the belief that here also will dwell this same spirit of democracy side by side with the spirit of true comradeship, friendship; but to-day this house is a mere shell, a body into which you, Harvard students, and you alone can breathe life, and then, by a constant and generous use of it, educate yourselves and each other.... Looking back in life I can see no earthly good which has come to me, so great, so sweet, so uplifting, so consoling, as the friendship of the men and the women whom I have known well and loved—friends who have been equally ready to give and to receive kind offices and timely counsel.... In these halls may, you, young men, see visions and dream dreams, and may you keep steadily burning the fire of high ideals, enthusiasm, and hope, otherwise you cannot share in the great work and glory of our new century. Already this century is bringing to you younger men questions and decisions to the full as interesting and as vital as the last century to us. Every honor is open to you, and every victory, if only you will dare, will strive strongly, and will persist...."

Practical Idealism and a Dedication to His Ideals

Notham's photo of  Higginson from 1905   In the years that followed, Higginson continued work on the many projects and areas of his interest. As always, he enjoyed his work with the new junior partners at the firm and their dedication to the spirit of the company's ideals. At Radcliffe, he served his last year as treasurer in 1905, and his final year as an associate in 1906. During the Panic of 1907 the stock market plummeted, and Lee, Higginson and Co. once again was hit hard by the economic woes of the nation. In addition to resolving crises at the firm, Henry worked with his associates at Harvard in planning the establishment of a business school, and the establishment of the Medical School thereafter.

Around this time, Higginson's words revealed much of his philosophies and wisdom on the material and non-material aspects of life. In 1911, he wrote to his friend, broker Charles A. Coffin:

Photo of Higginson in 1905 by Notham, care of Bliss Perry's book. Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

"...I have certain views about corporate managements, which do not entirely agree with those of other people. I do think that the corporations have been rather too eager, just as certain rich men have. It is perfectly natural in the struggle to succeed, and still more in the effort not to fail.... I do not believe that, because a man owns property, it belongs to him to do with as he pleases. The property belongs to the community, and he has charge of it, and can dispose of or use it, if it is well done and not with sole regard to himself or to his stockholders. If you will think a little while, perhaps you will agree that my views are not radical, or rather revolutionary at all; it is merely injecting morals and religion into daily life—and they belong there, and form a part of our conduct, and must guide us...."

In a letter to Bishop Brent, written on February 12, 1912, Higginson commented on his interpretation of "practical idealism": "Is it not the follower of 'inspirational idealism,' the other hand, the other half? Consider slavery.... [Abraham] Lincoln and the quiet men of the countryside and of the factories and of the counting-room showed their 'practical idealism' by wrestling against it at thy cost, and paid the bill. Is not the same true in many ways? ...Our nation needs education and civilization, thought of others,—as to their condition, hopes, aims, refreshment, amusement, religion,—active and unceasing thought of and work for others. Plenty of people think so and seek all these things. Is not this 'practical idealism'? ...In it lies the only solution of life, the only means of allaying the fever of the times; and my mates of sixty years ago who are lying in Virginia thought so sixty years ago, and their 'relic' thinks so to-day. We cannot smash; God does not wish it, for it upsets his plan for the world, so it seems to me, and, therefore, we must go on in better fashion.... All we men of the world can do is to indulge in practical idealism, and try to make it answer, and remember that it is according to the truth, which must prevail; otherwise, life is a failure—almost a farce."

A little more than two years later, Henry disclosed more of his personal philosophies in a letter to American historian James Ford Rhodes: "...We need more true democracy, true fellowship between man and man and more wish to serve our fellows, for on it depends religion, morality, the usefulness and happiness of life—God's blessing, else why are we here? It was our youthful doctrine and it wears well. Why feel a faith and not try to live according to it? If my nearest and dearest playmates had lived, they would have tried to help their fellows, and as they had gone before us, the greater the need for me to try—and the many tasks are still before us—and still very incomplete...."

The Culmination of a Life's Work

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Higginson's concerns about Lee, Higginson and Co. and the Boston Symphony Orchestra escalated. Many friends and members of the orchestra were of various European nationalities, and their fate in the United States and in their homelands abroad was uncertain. As the war progressed, Higginson's thoughts grew sober. He was concerned about the "waste of the armies of all those nations" and the "burden that comes on the poor people."

Though Higginson tried to remain calm in the face of the storm, he became a focal point of controversy as the war reached its climax. Henry's nationalism was questioned by a number of the orchestra's faithful subscribers because the conductor, Dr. Muck, was a German-born citizen and supported his homeland. In March 1918, Dr. Muck was arrested for being an "alien enemy" and was later replaced by another conductor. Disappointed by the public outcry against Dr. Muck and other members of his orchestra, Higginson resigned. In his reminiscences, Henry wrote: "At the end of the season, at the last concert of Saturday evening, May 4, 1918, I went on to the stage, stated the original purposes of the Orchestra, and said that I was done with the work, added a few words to the men of the Orchestra, and came away; and that was the finish of my connection with that enterprise. Various friends had already been moving and had resolved to carry on the Orchestra, and I stated that fact at the last concert...."

As summer approached, Higginson was urged by his physicians to get some rest. He was now approaching his 84th birthday when his niece, Mrs. George R. Agassiz, suggested in July that he write his reminiscences. To this request, Henry replied: "...I have made so many mistakes, and done so many foolish things, and thrown away so many good chances that I cannot take any particular joy in my life. As to what has been done, that was all in the day's work. I have received more credit in my lifetime than I ever deserved. Did I ever tell you that, if I had not been married, I proposed staying in the army, and, by this time, would have been a retired old veteran, growling at everything. I enjoyed my army life, and, on the whole, did it better than anything else—that is, I was a good regimental officer, but could not have gone above the command of a thousand men. I've not been a good business man, but have come through somehow or other. Yes, I can remember many things within my European life which were interesting to me, and some of them are so still, but they would do nobody any good, and I think they would entertain nobody...."

Henry set to work writing his reminiscences and was feeling better now that his obligations in maintaining the details of the Orchestra had ceased. He was pleased by the hundreds of letters he received at his bedside, expressing appreciation of him and his work.

A week before Henry's 84th birthday, Armistice Day arrived, bringing peace to the world at last. Early in 1919 Henry was hospitalized, but felt better by the end of spring. That summer, he addressed the school of bond-salesmen organized by Lee, Higginson and Co. on the philosophy of the firm: "...The house has always tried to do its work well and to have and keep a high character, and I think it has succeeded in those points. Character is the foundation-stone of such a business, and once lost, is not easily regained.... Now, for yourselves: Do not lose a day; use your time well, remembering that that day never comes again; know your business, and tell the story just as it is; find out the truth about the bonds and shares; if a bond is pretty good, say so; if it is first-class, say that; if it is attractive from a speculator's point of view, say that. Put the 'cards on the table' every time, and do not bore buyers. If you are roughly treated, never mind. Good men are not infrequently out of temper or very busy, and do not care to see you. Remember this about truth: you must know your subject in order to speak truly; and although making a mistake is not the same thing as deceiving, still you are responsible for the facts, and, therefore, for the truth. Do not waste your time. Keep your temper. Play the game decently, and be faithful."

In October, Henry was hospitalized again but returned to work in early November. A week later on November 14 he underwent surgery and never regained consciousness. On the day before what would have been Henry's 85th birthday, services were held for him at Appleton Chapel. From there he was borne to Mount Auburn and laid to rest.

Following his death, many friends and colleagues remembered Henry with the kindest thoughts and words. He would have been touched to have read and heard them. For his many contributions to the world, Henry Lee Higginson remains a great inspiration to all, and one of the greatest friends of humankind.

Among Higginson's final words were those written to a friend just before his 85th birthday: "I've had only too many kind words of praise for doing my duty, and only my duty, as my eyes and those of dear, dead friends saw it. The simple tale—that he tried to fill up gaps and sought to bring sunshine into the lives of his fellow men and women, that he usually kept his word, given and implied, and that he worshipped his country and had the very best and most far-seeing of friends—is the whole story."


This biography would not be posted here if it were not for Brian Pohanka who introduced me to Henry Lee Higginson. I am grateful for Brian's encouragement, assistance and inspiration throughout this project, and for his significant contributions to this body of work—including images, quotations, comments, and review. Brian's tireless efforts in keeping alive the memory of Civil War heroes such as Henry Lee Higginson have helped to increase public awareness of the countless sacrifices and selfless deeds of many honorable soldiers and citizens. These heroes are a part of our culture and our heritage; may they not be forgotten.


Sources Used in Writing This Essay


A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick H. Dyer, The Dyer Publishing Company, Des Moines, IA, 1908.

Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915: An Autobiography, Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Boston and New York, 1916.

Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY, 1958-1964.

Harvard Memorial Biographies, edited by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Sever and Francis, Cambridge, MA, 1866.

A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, by Benjamin W. Crowninshield, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1891.

Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson, by Bliss Perry, The Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, MA, 1921.

Who Was Who in the Civil War, edited by John S. Bowman, Crescent Books, New York/Avenel, NJ, 1994.

Web Pages:

Boston Symphony Orchestra, copyright 2000, (accessed February 2001).

Civil War Research and Genealogy Database
, copyright 2001, (accessed April 2001).

The College Pump: Sticking to the Union, Harvard Magazine, March - April 1997, (accessed February 2001).

Distinguished High School Graduates of the Boston Latin School
, Boston Public Schools, copyright 2001, (accessed February 2001).

First Massachusetts Cavalry, by First Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, Co. B., Inc., copyright 1999, (accessed July 2000).

"Gordon's Regulars": The 2nd Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War, by Lynne M. Kennedy, copyright 1998, (accessed July 2000).

Harvard University Athletics: History (Timeline)
, Harvard University, copyright 1999, (accessed February 2001).

Harvard's Womanless History: Completing the University's Self-Portrait, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard Magazine, November - December 1999, (accessed August 2000).

The Library of Congress: America's Story from America's Library
, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).

Making of America, University of Michigan, copyright 2001, (accessed March 2001).

Massachusetts Cavalry, 1st Regiment, by Grace-Marie Moore Hackwell, copyright 1999, (accessed July 2000).

Middlesex School
, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).

Morristown Beard School, copyright 2001, (accessed February 2000).

Public Latin School Hall of Fame
, Boston Latin School, copyright 2001, (accessed February 2001).

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, copyright 2001, (accessed February 2001).

Significant Dates in Radcliffe's History: Radcliffe and Harvard Announce Proposed Merger, Radcliffe Quarterly - Summer 1999, (accessed February 2001).

U.S. Army, Second Corps, copyright 2001,, copyright 2001 (accessed April 2001).

Williams School
, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).


A Great Private Citizen, by M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Atlantic Monthly, March 1920, pp. 329-339.


Service File on Henry Lee Higginson, National Archives, Washington, D.C.


Index to Higginson's Pages
Back | Home

Copyright © 2001 - 2009 1st Dragoon's Civil War Site. All rights reserved.

Spider Map Index