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Major Higginson in 1863  

Henry Lee Higginson's
Soldiers Field Address

A Tribute to Friends Who Served in the Civil War

On June 5, 1890, Higginson presented Harvard College a gift of 31 acres of land that he purchased. Along with the deeds to the land, he sent the following note:

The estate henceforth belongs to the College without any condition or restriction whatsoever, and for use in any way which the Corporation may see fit.

My hope is that the ground will be used for the present as a playground for the students, and that, in case you should need the ground by and by for other purposes, another playground will be given to 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.

On the evening of June 10, Higginson addressed the students in Sever Hall at Harvard, explaining the purpose of his gift:

...I have come to tell you of my reasons for helping you to a playground, and of my wish to link with it my thoughts of the past and my hopes for your future....

It has been evident for some time that the College playgrounds were too small, and therefore the Corporation of the University and your Athletic Committee have sought to enlarge them. Just across the river, toward Brighton, lie some beautiful marshes in a lovely surrounding of hills, woods, and water, in which [the poet and professor] Mr. [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow used to delight as he gazed at them from his windows; and which he and other friends gave [70 acres] to the College [in 1870], with the provision that they should be kept open and used for play, if wanted for that purpose. Last summer these marshes were surveyed in order to learn the practicability of draining and using them. But, the other day, when an approach to them was needed, the owner of the adjoining estate refused to sell the right of way. So the Corporation looked at the land of this recalcitrant owner, and considered its value for your games and for its own future needs.... The Corporation approved of the land and has acquired it. Do you approve also? I hope so, and, if it suits you, one point will have been gained....

This field means more than a playground to me, for I ask to make it a memorial to some dear friends who gave their lives, and all that they had or hoped for, to their country and to their fellow men in the hour of great need—the War of the Rebellion. They gave their lives in the cause of virtue and good government, and to save our nation from the great sins of disunion and of slavery. This is what we claim for our northern men.

These friends were men of mark, either as to mental or moral powers, or both, and were dead in earnest about life in all its phases. They lived in happy homes and were surrounded with friends, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sweethearts—had high hopes for the future and with good cause, too; but, at the first call of our great captain, Abraham Lincoln, they went at once, gladly, eagerly, to the front, and stayed there. Not a doubt, not a thought of themselves, except to serve; and they did serve to the end, and were happy in their service....

James LowellOne of them was first scholar in his class—thoughtful, kind, affectionate, gentle, full of solicitude about his companions, and about his duties. He was wounded in a very early fight of the war, and, after his recovery and a hard campaign on the peninsula, was killed at Glendale on the 4th of July, '62. Hear his own words: "When the class meets in years to come and honors its statesmen and judges, its divines and doctors, let also the score who went to fight for their country be remembered, and let not those who never returned be forgotten." If you had known JAMES LOWELL, you would never have forgotten him.

Robert Gould Shaw
Another I first saw one evening in our first camp at Brook Farm—a sunny-haired, blue-eyed boy, gay and droll, and winning in his ways.... He was of a very simple and manly nature,—steadfast and affectionate, human to the last degree,—without much ambition except to do his plain duty. You should have seen ROBERT SHAW as he, with his chosen officers, led away from Boston his black men of the 54th Massachusetts amid the cheers of his townsmen. Presently he took them up to the assault of Fort Wagner, and was buried with them there in the trench.

Stephen Perkins
Still another fine, handsome fellow, great oarsman, charming companion, wit, philosopher, who delighted in intellectual pursuits, and in his fellow creatures, whom he watched with his keen eyes and well understood, was killed in a foolish, bloody battle while stemming the tide of defeat. He was at this time too ill to march; but, with other sick officers, left the ambulances because he was needed in this fight. I well remember almost our last day together—sitting on a log in a sluggish stream in Maryland, washing ourselves and our clothes, and then drying ourselves in the sun—and his wonderful talk of the delights of an intellectual life. That was his realm, and no one in our young days did more to mould his mates than STEPHEN PERKINS did.

Charles Lowell
Yet another—a first scholar, because he could n't help it—full of thought, life, and intense vigor—brimful of ideas—brilliant and strong beyond compare—had soon after leaving College exhausted himself by overwork. After distinguished service with his regiment and on the staff of General McClellan, who singled him out for honor, he led his troopers of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry in the Shenandoah campaign of '64, was always in the front, lost thirteen horses in his daring efforts to win success, and at last, when so wounded that he could not speak, rode forward in his last charge, when Sheridan had come back to win the battle of Cedar Creek. Read the story of that splendid campaign and see how even there the figure of CHARLES LOWELL stands out.

James Savage
These friends were men of unusual powers, but they all bowed down to the goodness and the purity of one other—JAMES SAVAGE. He also was an enthusiast, and had little health and no words,—but ate himself up with his thoughts and his fiery wishes—sometimes as gay as a lark and then depressed from ill health and disappointment with himself—very fond of his books and of nature—much given to games and a great rusher at football from pure will≠power and enthusiasm—courageous to the last degree.... He, the quietest and most modest of men, was immensely impressive, for he was a real knight just and gentle to all friends, defiant to the enemies of his country and to all wrongdoers. He also fell wounded in that most foolish battle, where his regiment lost fourteen out of twenty-two officers, and was sacrificed to the good of the army. He died in the hands of the enemy, who tended him kindly and were deeply moved by his patience and his fortitude.

Edward Dalton
The last was a physician, by choice and by nature, if intelligence, energy, devotion, and sweetness can help the sick. After various services from the outstart till '64, he was put by General Grant in charge of the great hospital camp at City Point in Virginia, where 10,000 sick and wounded men lay. Here he worked out his life-blood to save that of others....

After the end of the war, New York City needed a vigorous medical officer to cleanse it and guard it against a threatened epidemic, and leading men turned to our friend for this work. General Grant was then in command of the army, and was asked to recommend this physician.... Grant at once wrote: "Dr.
EDWARD DALTON is the best man in the United States for this place." And Dr. Dalton did one more public service and then settled into private life. Presently he died of disease brought on by exhaustion during the war.

All these men were dear friends to me; and with three of them I had lived from childhood on the most intimate terms, doing and discussing everything on earth, and in heaven, as boys will, living, indeed, a very full life with them, and through them, so full were they of thoughts, and hopes, and feelings, about all possible things. These men are a loss to the world, and heaven must have sorely needed them to have taken them from us so early in their lives. And now I ask to mark their names and memories on our new playground. Shall we call it "The Soldier's Field"? Of course, thousands and thousands of other soldiers deserved equally well of their country, and should be equally remembered and honored by the world. I only say that these were my friends, and therefore I ask this memorial for them.

[My friend] Mr. James Russell Lowell has, at my request, given me a few words of his own for the stone to be put up on this field, and also some lines of Mr. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. I will read them to you:—


"Though love repine, and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply,—
''T is man's perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die."'

And let me say here that the war was not boy's play. No men of any country ever displayed more intelligence, devotion, energy, brilliancy, fortitude, in any cause than did our Southern brothers. Hunger, cold, sickness, wounds, captivity, hard work, hard blow—all these were their portion and ours. Look at the records of other wars and you 'll nowhere find examples of more courage in marching and fighting, or greater losses in camp or battle, than each side showed. We won because we had more substitutes and more supplies; and also from the force of a larger patriotism on our side. We wore them out....

It was not boy's play; and to-day these Southern brothers are as cordial and as kindly to us as men can be, as I have found by experience.

Now, what do the lives of our friends teach us? Surely the beauty and the holiness of work and of utter, unselfish, thoughtful devotion to the right cause, to our country, and to mankind. It is well for us all, for you and for the boys of future days, to remember such deeds and such lives and to ponder on them. These men loved study and work, and loved play too. They delighted in athletic games, and would have used this field, which is now given to the College and to you for your health and recreation. But my chief hope in regard to it is, that it will help to make you full-grown, well-developed men, able and ready to do good work of all kinds steadfastly, devotedly, thoughtfully; and that it will remind you of the reason for living, and of your own duties as men and citizens of the Republic.

On you, and such as you, rests the burden of carrying on this country in the best way. From the day of [College benefactor] John Harvard down to this hour, no pains or expense have been spared by teachers and by laymen to build up our University (and pray remember that it is our University—that it belongs to us—to you and to me), and thus educate you; and for what end? For Service in your country and your fellow men in all sorts of ways—in all possible callings. Everywhere we see the signs of ferment—questions social, moral, mental, physical, economical. The pot is boiling hard and you must tend it, or it will run over and scald the world. For us came the great questions of slavery and of national integrity, and they were not hard to answer. Your task is more difficult, and yet you must fulfil it. Do not hope that things will take care of themselves, or that the old state of affairs will come back. The world on all sides is moving fast, and you have only to accept this fact, making the best of everything—helping, sympathizing, and so guiding and restraining others, who have less education, perhaps, than you. Do not hold off from them; but go straight on with them, side by side, learning from them and teaching them. It is our national theory and the theory of the day, and we have accepted it, and must live by it, until the whole world is better and wiser than now. You must in honor live by work, whether you need bread or not, and presently you will enjoy the labor. Remember that the idle and indifferent are the dangerous classes of the Community. Not one of you would be here and would receive all that is given to you, unless many other men and women had worked hard for you. Do not too readily think that you have done enough, simply because you have accomplished something. There is no enough, so long as you can better the lives of your fellow beings. Your success in life depends not on talents, but on will. Surely, genius is the power of working hard, and long, and well.

One of these friends, Charles Lowell, dead, and yet alive to me as you are, wrote me just before his last battle:—

"Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you'll find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. Don't seek office; but don't 'disremember' that the useful citizen holds his time, his trouble, his money, and his life always ready at the hint of his country. 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 so well as being a useful citizen."

This was his last charge to me, and in a month he was in his grave. I have tried to live up to it, and I ask you to take his words to heart and to be moved and guided by them.

And just here let me, a layman, say a word to you experts in athletic sports. You come to College to learn things of great value besides your games, which, after all, are secondary to your studies. But, in your games, there is just one thing which you cannot do, even to win success. You cannot do one tricky or shabby thing. Translate tricky and shabby—dishonest, ungentlemanlike.

Princeton is not wicked; Yale is not base.

Lately I traveled with an ex-Southern artillery officer, and was rather glad that I did not try a year or two ago to take his guns. I asked him of his family, and he said: "I 've just sent a boy to Yale, after teaching him all in my power. I told him to go away, and not to return with any provincial notions. Remember," I said, "there is no Kentucky, no Virginia, no Massachusetts, but one great country."

Mates, the Princeton and the Yale fellows are our brothers. Let us beat them fairly if we can, and believe that they will play the game just as we do.

Gentlemen, will you remember that this new playground will only be good if it is used constantly and freely by you all, and that it is a legacy from my friends to the dear old College, and so to you?

The "directness, simplicity, and sincerity" with which Higginson spoke "touched the hearts" of those in attendance. Following his speech, he himself was touched by the comments he received. After a subsequent visit to the campus, Henry wrote to his wife Ida on June 22:

I went out late to Class Day and walked into the tree-grounds with the graduates, and sat on the grass with them all, that the folks on benches might see over our heads. Then in came the Seniors, sang, and then cheered quickly.... They cheered [Reverend] Dr. [Francis Weld] Peabody [of Harvard Medical School], [Harvard College's president] Mr. [Charles W.] Eliot, George Weld, who gave them the boathouse, and then they cheered me, all coming to their feet and giving me my title, when the Juniors took up the cheers. I got up too, and stood still and sat down, wishing that you and Alex were there, a little homesick, as I felt at Sever Hall. It is wonderful to me how sympathetic and kind, men and women, old and young, have been to me, and I am very grateful indeed to them, very glad for you, for you've not had very much to be proud of in your husband, very glad for all those old chaps who used to laugh at me and care for me, very glad indeed that people appreciate these fellows and their quality. Man after man, woman after woman, said the kindest words to me, until I almost cried.

Today the original Soldiers Field Monumentóbearing names carved in marble of Henry Lee Higginson's friends who served in the Civil Waróis in the Murr Center, located on North Harvard Street. In 2005, a replica of the monument was completed and now stands through Gate One at the entrance to Soldiers Field. To visit both monuments, go across the Larz Anderson Bridge, and turn right at the first gate leading into the Harvard University Athletic Center.


Excerpt and photos of Henry Lee Higginson, James Lowell, Robert Shaw, Stephen Perkins, Charles Lowell, James Savage, and Edward Dalton from Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson by Bliss Perry, The Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, MA, 1921. Images courtesy of Brian Pohanka. Updated information about the replica of the Soldiers Field Monument from "Soldiers Field: The story of a monument, the man who built it, and the men it honors" by Helen Hannon, special to the Harvard University Gazette, June 9, 2005 (


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