Life Stories of Civil War Heroes banner

The Life Story of

Major Henry Lee Higginson

Part III: Life in the Business World and among Friends

Page 4

The Culmination of a Life's Work

Notham's photo of Higginson from 1905   At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Higginson's concerns about the firm and the 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. In a letter to J.P. Morgan, the younger, Henry wrote on August 5:

Horrible as the destruction of property will be, and destruction of life, and almost worse, the maiming of many men and women, is the terrible temper which has been aroused....

Though Higginson understood the devastation of war, he was realistic in his assessment of America's position and did not wish to add more fuel to the fire. The Boston Herald published Henry's comments in their August 7 edition:

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

We have good crops and quiet homes, and we have the great barrier of the Atlantic Ocean between us and this terrible war. As men, we cannot forget the passions and sufferings of the fighting nations, but we can go on quietly. Nothing helps more in life than cheerfulness, and we Americans have the right and the duty to be cheerful.

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 he 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 was a German-born citizen and supported his homeland. In a letter to a close friend, Judge Frederick P. Cabot, Henry confided on February 25, 1918:

...My present plan is to keep absolute silence until the end of the last concert, and then to state my case from the stage: that the conductor [Dr. Carl Muck] has been so harassed that he can only go; and that I quit also. This plan involves a considerable statement, which can be made then and there. Any earlier statement would injure the concerts and make much trouble all around. Tell me if you approve of this plan.

Now as to the future, if you have time to consider it and take action: We have reached a time, through circumstances, when I can drop this task without comment as to my motives, because the Orchestra and conductor have been attacked, and I also, as a man who employs Germans and, therefore, whose loyalty can well be doubted. As you know, various decent people here and in other cities have joined in this attack; so the moment seems opportune....

In March, Dr. Muck was arrested for being an "alien enemy" and was later replaced by another conductor. In his reminiscences, Henry stated:

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:

...As to your suggestion about reminiscences, those about you and various other pleasant people are delightful, but many of my reminiscences are anything but pleasant. 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. In a letter written on August 2 to Sir Hugh Levick, a partner at the London house firm, he reflected on earlier days, wondering if he should have regarded the firm with more consideration:

...I certainly have been treated with great kindness [at the firm]. But I do think that for most people the place of second fiddle is preferable to first fiddle. If only a man will consider the success of the work of the firm, of the government, of the country, rather than of himself, he will probably reach the same conclusion. If I were X, I should not care whether I was first or fifth in the firm, so I was kindly treated and got my share of what was going.... Certain qualities I have, and they may have helped to the success of the firm; but, after all, it was founded by George Lee's grandfather,—who was a very noble old man,—and my dad,—who was honest, tolerably keen, full of common sense, and irascible at times and pleasant at times,—and also by Mr. Henry Lee, whose character was as spotless as that of the others. To them must be added old George Lee, who was a sunbeam, faithful to the last degree, and a man whom nobody ever doubted for a quarter of a second. It was they who made the firm, and I have merely followed in their path. I am not thinking of my own value. I have thought too much of my duties and wishes outside and too little of the firm. If, instead of spending all the money that has been spent outside, I had kept it, I should have five or six millions to-day, and very likely more. But it is all in the day's 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.

Sources Used in Writing this Section of the Essay


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


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

Web Pages:, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).

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

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

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).

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

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

Nineteenth Century South End Hotel Turned Into Condos, by Marilyn Jackson, CNC Boston Homes, copyright 2000, (accessed August 2001).

The Oldest in Town: A Treasure Hunt of Boston's Firsts, by Michael Kenney, Boston Globe Online, copyright 1999, Globe Newspaper Company, (accessed August 2000).

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).

The Silver Panic, The Liberty Haven Foundation, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).

Soldiers Field, by Helen Hannon, Town Online, copyright 2000, 0-9285_0_soldiers_071400_1b3ff8199b.html (accessed August 2000).

Thoreau Institute, copyright 2001, (accessed August 2001).

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


Index to Higginson's Pages
Back | Home

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

Spider Map Index