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The Life Story of

Major Henry Lee Higginson

Part II: The Civil War Years

Page 4

The Last Phase of the Major's Civil War Career

Dr. Edward Dalton   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. On July 22, Higginson reported the following news in a letter home:

Edward Dalton

I should tell you of Ned Dalton's opinion about my undertaking to serve at all. He considers that the abscess was a very serious matter and that it may on a slight provocation return, its track having been already plainly marked out. An abscess of this kind is very difficult to stop, and is very wasting to the patient, leaving often the tissues destroyed or injured. He thinks me very unwise even to try the experiment, as it is impossible to ascertain the limit of my capacity to do and to bear, until the mischief is done. There is the opinion of a truly conscientious and able surgeon, the man whom I should trust above them all. I told him that I would go to Barlow and try very gently for a short time.... Jimmy is not looking well at all nor feeling well; not a bit better than when at home.

Charles Adams, who was also concerned about Higginson's return to service, wrote to his brother Henry Adams on July 22: "Henry Higginson has come down to try his hand on Barlow's staff. I have no idea that he can stand it as he isn't at all recovered from his wounds, but it is best that he should try it as he might resign if he can't do duty. It is now thirteen months since he was wounded at Aldie."

Not long after Higginson joined the staff of General Barlow, he wrote the following details in a letter:

July 28. North Side of the James.

I had just begun this date when the General [Barlow] sent for me, and told me that his wife was dead. She has been quite ill, but he had been informed not dangerously so—very likely with truth. Not improbably it was a sudden turn in the disease. He applied immediately for leave to go to Washington (where she died), but was refused it, altho' General Hancock endorsed it. So he was forced to return to his command and has been it work all day. He was very sad indeed about it, broke down utterly this morning. Poor fellow! it is a dreadful blow to him,—for he and his wife were evidently wrapped up in each other,—and totally unexpected. He intended to take me with him. We are in the midst of a movement and the commanding officer decided that the leave could not be granted to-day. Possibly it may be granted to-morrow, in which case I may or may not go with him.

We left our camp at 4 o'clk P.M. Tuesday and marched until 3 o'clk A.M. over the James River. There we rested until 4 o'clk, when we got into position and soon after attacked the enemy with a skirmish line, which took a line of pits and four guns and caissons to match. It was very suddenly and well done. Then we advanced and accomplished nothing all day long. There was firing along the skirmish line all day long and to-day it is the same thing, but except a little cavalry fight in which our cavalry whipped the rebel infantry, taking 200 to 300 prisoners, there is nothing done. I saw [Lieutenant] Arthur Sedgwick tramping along with his regiment as they went to the front, and shook hands with him. He looked well tho' weary. Subsequently the 20th went out to the skirmish line, and is out a few hundred yards from us popping away at the rebels.... It is now five o'clk, and we are about to fall back, I believe. Whatever was intended, nothing of moment has been accomplished. You never saw anything like the delays and the slowness of movements. It is disheartening. Perhaps we have accomplished our work in making a way for the cavalry to get out on some errand. We do get so tired and so aching.

The following day, Higginson was asked by the general to accompany him home to Washington. That journey 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.

Higginson had now returned to civilian life, learning about the war from his friends in the field. Through correspondence, he shared in the jubilant spirit of 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 miniť 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. He spent his final hours calm and peaceful, showing no signs of suffering.   Charles Russell Lowell

Charles Lowell

After learning of the tragedy that befell their friend, Greely Curtis wrote to Higginson: "I know well enough when thinking quietly about it that no good fellow lives or dies fruitlessly; but the cowardly selfishness of these peace men comes out in such strong contrast to the gallantry and truth of Jim Savage, Bob Shaw, Charley Lowell and the others that I feel heartsick...."

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. Among the tragedies of Lowell's loss was that the brilliant and honorable soldier would never know of his commission as Brigadier General of Volunteers, signed the day he fell. He would never know of the victory for the Union he so cherished, that arrived less than seven months later. The gentle and caring husband would never know of the birth of his daughter—his only child—a month after his death.

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; however, there is work enough for a public-spirited cove everywhere. Labor for recruits and for Linkum [President Lincoln], and you will do more than by sabring six Confederates. How do you earn your bread nowadays; or, if you are not earning it, how do you manage to pay for it? ...I hope, Mr. Higginson, that you are going to live like a plain Republican, mindful of the beauty and the duty of simplicity. Nothing fancy now, Sir, if you please. It's disreputable to spend money, when the Government is so hard up, and when there are so many poor officers. 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.... I don't think I would turn my hand to be a distinguished chemist or a famous mathematician. 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...."


Henry's story continues with:

Part III: Life in the Business World and among Friends

Sources Used in Writing this Section of the 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.

A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861-1865, Volume II, edited by Worthington C. Ford, Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Boston and New York, 1920.

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:

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

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).

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


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


Index to Higginson's Pages
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