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The Life Story of

Major Henry Lee Higginson

Part II: The Civil War Years

Page 3

Sketches from Henry's War Diary

Henry kept a war diary during a month's period from April to May 1863, recording the regiment's activities prior to and during the days on which the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought. The following excerpts from three passages document the movements of their troops:

April 29. ...We went on a mile or two thro' the woods, passed the scene of the Kellysville fight, a beautiful field. Just as we got there firing began, first carbines, then a few shells. We formed, and got thro' another belt of woods, then formed line on a huge field, where also the former fight took place. It was just dark, and in ten minutes we returned to the edge of the woods, dismounted, and kept the squadrons formed all night. We made very small fires indeed, fed horses, and slept thro' a hard rain all night....

May 2. Aroused early and ordered to march in 3/4 of an hour. Marched and waited and marched thro' a beautiful country to Stevensburg, and then to Ely's Ford. Heard bad and good reports of a big battle; had a long discussion with G. [Lieutenant Colonel Greely Curtis] and concluded it to be a drawn battle. Encamped about 8 o'clk. From 4 to 8 we heard very heavy firing indeed toward Chancellorsville, where the forces are. Aroused about 12 o'clk by a volley fired into the 2d brigade by someone unknown. Turned out all hands. I went with the carbineers into a wood on foot to hold it. Great confusion in the arrangement of our brigade. Col. S. [Horace Binney Sargent] knew nothing of his regiment or of the ground. Genl. A. [William W. Averell] decided that it was a mistake of our own infantry. Left a small picket on foot, and got to sleep about 1-1/2 o'clk in a wood.

May 3. Wakened with orders for moving. Sent out with our whole regiment to picket the road from Culpeper, etc., and returned about 3 o'clk. Nothing to be seen. Heard various reports of the battle, but nothing authentic. ...several of our men rode to our lines as escort and took some prisoners. Learned that the volley of the night before was fired by the rebels.... Crossed with our brigade alone at Ely's Ford, and rode to our fortification, about two miles. Went inside some two or three miles and encamped in a field near the United States Ford. Saw the wounded—which is horrid. Everything in excellent order—1st, 3rd, 5th, 11th and 12th corps are here.... We are well entrenched. We had very heavy fighting this morning, but little this afternoon here. The heights of Fredericksburg were taken by [General John] Sedgwick to-day. Genl. [Hiram] Berry was killed on our right. Slept here—without a picket or a guard.

On May 7, Higginson relayed pleasant news in a letter to his father:

I received a letter from Bob Shaw, speaking of his wedding [(marriage to Annie Haggerty)], this afternoon.... Charley (Lowell) should be married too [to Shaw's sister, Josephine ("Effie")]; it is much better, for his wife might go to him while in winter quarters.... [Cousin] William Channing [of London] was here this afternoon, he having been on duty with the Sanitary [Commission] people here. [Brother] Jim is very well and happy; he has been in charge of a company for some three or four weeks.... Bob Shaw wrote to me about [our brother] Frank [who is now first lieutenant in Shaw's 54th Massachusetts regiment], speaking very well of him; he will get promoted faster there than in the 2d Cavalry....

The Battle of Aldie

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:

It had been a hot, tiresome ride. The men came along in pretty good order, although one of the regiments belonging to another brigade galloped about to get water, and acted in a foolish way. Just as we came to the town of Aldie, we heard a little firing, and were ordered to the front. As we rode through the town, we saw a little fighting going on in front of us—a little charge by some men of another regiment. We turned to the right, went up by a little wood, and our regiment was put into a field close by a farmhouse and close by the road. There, Colonel Curtis, in command, left me with two squadrons, and went to attend to something else. I rode up to this farmhouse, and saw one or two soldiers' jackets hanging at the door, and was looking about, when I saw a regiment coming down at full tilt on the road towards us. I immediately ordered one squadron into the road and we charged these men. They turned straight around and ran away. We came very near their rear, but could not reach them. They went down a hill and at the top I ordered a halt. Captain [Lucius M.] Sargent, with two or three men, rode straight on down into a valley after a few of the troopers we had been pursuing, and began fighting them. I yelled to him to come back, but he would not do so, and fearing that he would get into trouble, I rode down to give him the order, when right behind us came a whole regiment of Confederate cavalry at full speed. I shouted to Sargent and the two or three men with him to ride for their lives, and we galloped up a hill in front of us, where we lost one man through the balking of his horse. We reached the top of the hill, and the Confederates had stopped, as we were not worth pursuing. Sargent turned around in his saddle and made faces at them with his fingers, whereat they pursued us, and we rode down another very steep hill, and at the bottom they caught us, and we had a little shindy. Sargent was knocked from his horse and shot, as he thought, just above the heart. One of our men was killed, and one lieutenant was shot through the side. In striking a man opposite to me, who was using improper language, I was knocked from my horse, and found myself in the road. Over me was standing a man whom I had unhorsed, and who struck at my head. He then proposed to take me prisoner, but I told him I should die in a few minutes, for I put my hand and found a hole in my backbone. He took what he could get of my goods, and rode off, leaving my horse, which had been shot with four bullets. (See Higginson Reminisces on the Aftermath of the Battle for the rest of the major's account.)

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 be among them. Higginson learned about the Union's victory from Greely Curtis who was soon out of action himself, stricken with malaria. Curtis wrote again on July 18, telling of the regiment's confidence in General George Gordon Meade after the success of Gettysburg. Meanwhile, on that same day, 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.
  Major Higginson after Aldie

Photo of Major Higginson after the Battle of Aldie. Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka, from the Bliss Perry book.

The Major and Mrs. Higginson

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. Upon learning of their engagement in September, Charles Lowell—who would marry "Effie" Shaw on October 31—wrote to Higginson in jest: "You've been a great deal of trouble to me for the last 25 years, Henry, a great deal of trouble. Still I should have been very willing to continue to take care of you. Life has been made such a very light burden to me lately, that I feel as if I could carry you along without much trouble. Still, old fellow, I am very, very glad, to turn you over to so much better hands. It has been a pleasant thing always to have two such good friends, and it will be a pleasanter thing to know of you now helping one another along in these uncomfortable times."

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.


Henry's Civil War story continues:

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