Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2009

Legal Heritage

Touched With Fire:
Holmes and the Battle of Ball's Bluff
By Thomas Robert Healy

“Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” May 30, 1884.

“The life of the law has not been logic,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared famously, “it has been experience.” And for the venerable Supreme Court justice the experience that most significantly contributed to his understanding of the law was his three years of service in the Civil War. In particular, it was his participation on Oct. 21, 1861 in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Leesburg, Va., which nearly cost him his life and left an indelible impression that he later described as being “touched with fire.”

An ardent opponent of slavery, Holmes regarded the war against the secessionists in the South as “a crusade in the cause of the whole civilized world” and was eager to enlist in the struggle. Soon after he graduated from Harvard College, he received a commission in the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Three months later, at Ball’s Bluff, Lieutenant Holmes was involved in combat for the first time.

On Oct. 19, 1861, Major Gen. George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, deployed a division of his troops to Dranesville, a village about 10 miles southeast of Leesburg, which was an important center of transportation in northern Virginia. His objective was to alarm the soldiers garrisoned there enough that they would evacuate the city. The maneuver succeeded, and the Confederate troops pulled out and took up a defensive position on the turnpike, but he continued to be concerned. So he ordered Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone, who was in charge of the forces along the Potomac River in Maryland, to keep him informed of the effectiveness of the reconnaissance dispatched from Dranesville in driving the Confederates out of Leesburg. “Perhaps,” he added, “a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”

The order was vague so it was not clear if the demonstration was to occur on his side of the river or on the Virginia side. Stone, eager to take the initiative, decided to cross the Potomac at two sites, which took several hours to complete because only three ferry boats were available. He hoped this modest show of force and commitment would keep the Confederates from returning to Leesburg.

The detachment that crossed upriver from the main contingent of Union troops reported seeing rows of enemy tents in the fields behind Ball’s Bluff, a steep, wooded cliff that rose a hundred feet above the river and could only be reached by walking up a twisting cowpath. Determined to stay on the offensive, Stone deployed some 300 soldiers of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Infantry to attack the camp early the next morning, and when they did they discovered that the reported tents were, in fact, trees that had appeared otherwise in the moonlight. The troops remained on the bluff in an open glade surrounded by trees, awaiting further orders as the resistance to their presence increased. Eventually reinforcements from the Twentieth Massachusetts arrived under the command of Col. Edward D. Baker, also a U.S. senator from Oregon, who was determined to prevail in the conflict. The resistance stiffened, however, with more and more soldiers of the Mississippi regiments firing down at the vulnerable Union troops from higher positions in the surrounding woods.

The two sides exchanged volleys throughout the long afternoon. Then about 5 o’clock Baker was shot in the head by a sharpshooter. His death rattled the others in his command, who decided to pull back and return to the Maryland shore. Shortly the retreat turned into a rout, with the Confederates firing at will at the Union troops scrambling down the steep hill in the twilight. Soon the craggy terrain was worn smooth by the escaping soldiers. The few vessels waiting to ferry them across the river quickly became overcrowded and capsized and several soldiers drowned. In desperation, some troopers removed their uniforms and swam, after throwing their Enfield rifles into the water so the Confederates could not acquire them. The musket fire continued with such ferocity that the river turned white in places as in a hail storm.

More than 500 Union soldiers were stranded on the Virginia shore, taken prisoner, and marched off to Leesburg. Some 300 more were killed in the engagement and about twice that number were wounded. The humiliating defeat, which was precipitated by the “slight demonstration” conducted by Gen. Stone, generated such fierce criticism in Congress that Stone was removed from his post and imprisoned for six months.

Among the casualties was Lt. Holmes who was shot twice in the battle. The first time a spent round struck him in the belly and, as he wrote his mother, “knocked the wind out of me & I fell.” He was not seriously injured, though, and got up and continued to press ahead, waving his sword and encouraging his men to follow. Then around 4:30 he was shot in the chest. This was a much more serious wound and the young infantry officer knew it, admitting later to a friend, “I thought I was a gone coon.” A sergeant dragged him to the rear and opened his shirt, squeezed out the bullet lodged in his chest and gave it to him. With blood in his mouth, he was afraid he had been shot through the lungs and knew that could be an excruciating death. Not wanting to go through such an ordeal, he told his mother if he thought that was likely to happen, he “was going to take that little bottle of laudanum” he carried in his waistcoat.

Gradually becoming disoriented, he was taken down the bluff and transported in a small craft to a makeshift hospital in the middle of the river where the surgeon of his regiment examined him. All around him men lay on the floor, groaning in pain, and he tried not to look at them after he saw “a red blanket with an arm lying on it in a pool of blood.” Though quite lightheaded, he was alert enough to ask, “How does it look, Doctor, shall I recover? Tell me the truth for I really want to know.”

“We-ell, you may recover,” the surgeon answered cautiously.

“That means the chances are against me, don’t it?”

“Ye-es, the chances are against you.”

He was convinced more than ever now that he was “dying but I’ll be G. d’d if I know where I’m going.”

Later on that day, Holmes told another physician “if I died to write home and tell’em I’d done my duty.” He also disclosed his plan to take his own life, but the physician discouraged the idea and gave him something to alleviate his pain and apparently took the bottle of laudanum away from him while he slept. A fatalist, he did not complain, believing “that whatever shall happen is best.” The next day he was transferred to a general hospital in Maryland where he received the best news he had heard since being shot. A shrewd hospital steward, after sealing his wounds with lint, told him he would survive because the bullet had not struck any vital organs. Holmes was so elated, he admitted, “I could have hugged him for that” information.

He did indeed recover, as he did from the other two wounds he received later in the war, and was able to serve all three years of his enlistment. But his enthusiasm for the conflict waned considerably as the hardships mounted so that by the end of his service he hoped he was wounded again so he did not have to return to the front lines. What did not change, though, was what he thought was the foundation of society. He did not believe that moral issues could be decided in an objective way by God or man. The “good only means certain general truths seen through the heart and will instead of being merely contemplated intellectually,” he observed in the notes he made after escaping death, and “I doubt if the intellect accepts or recognizes that classification of good and bad.”

What the young officer experienced at Ball’s Bluff confirmed his nascent belief in sheer force as the ultimate authority in resolving disputes. This was the crucial lesson he derived from his three years in the infantry. And it was one he adhered to throughout his long career on the bench, reiterating it time and again in his opinions and correspondence. As he wrote to a friend, many years after Ball’s Bluff, “it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men.” Convinced that man was a predator, he admitted in the letter that in any genuine conflict “I see no remedy except force.” The sword he carried that October afternoon on the bluff was what decided the outcome of the battle; it was what always established authority in society. Whoever had the most power at his disposal, according to Holmes, prevailed on the battlefield and everywhere else.



Ballard, Ted, The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Washington, D.C., Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 2001.

Catton, Bruce, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1951.

Davis, Kenneth C., Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1996.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell Jr., The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes, ed. Max Lerner, New York, The Modern Library, 1943.

_____, Touched With Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864, ed. Mark DeWolfe Howe, New York, Fordham University Press, 2000.

_____, and Frederick Pollock, Holmes-Pollock Letters, 1874-1932, ed. Mark DeWolfe Howe, Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1961.

Howe, Mark DeWolfe, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, 2 vols., Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1957.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1893.

White, G. Edward, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Wilson, Edmund, Patriotic Gore, New York, Oxford University Press, 1962.

Thomas Robert Healy was born and raised in Portland and is a member of the Oregon State Bar. His writings have appeared in such publications as Appalachia, Combat, Commonweal, For the Record, Oregon Outside and Smokelong Quarterly.

© 2009 Thomas Robert Healy

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