My Hunt After the Captain

Holmes describes his frantic search through Civil War-torn landscapes for his wounded son, the future Supreme Court Justice

On coming near the brow of the hill, we met a party carrying picks and spades. "How many?" "Only one." The dead were nearly all buried, then, in this region of the field of strife. We stopped the wagon, and, getting out, began to look around us. Hard by was a large pile of muskets, scores, if not hundreds, which had been picked up, and were guarded for the Government. A long ridge of fresh gravel rose before us. A board stuck up in front of it bore this inscription, the first part of which was, I believe, not correct: "The Rebel General Anderson and 80 Rebels are buried in this hole." Other smaller ridges were marked with the number of dead lying under them. The whole ground was strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat. I saw two soldiers' caps that looked as though their owners had been shot through the head. In several places I noticed dark red patches where a pool of blood had curdled and caked, as some poor fellow poured his life out on the sod. I then wandered about in the cornfield. It surprised me to notice, that, though there was every mark of hard fighting having taken place here, the Indian corn was not generally trodden down. One of our cornfields is a kind of forest, and even when fighting, men avoid the tall stalks as if they were trees. At the edge of this cornfield lay a gray horse, said to have belonged to a Rebel colonel, who was killed near the same place. Not far off were two dead artillery horses in their harness. Another had been attended to by a burying-party, who had thrown some earth over him but his last bed- clothes were too short, and his legs stuck out stark and stiff from beneath the gravel coverlet. It was a great pity that we had no intelligent guide to explain to us the position of that portion of the two armies which fought over this ground. There was a shallow trench before we came to the cornfield, too narrow for a road, as I should think, too elevated for a water-course, and which seemed to have been used as a rifle-pit. At any rate, there had been hard fighting in and about it. This and the cornfield may serve to identify the part of the ground we visited, if any who fought there should ever look over this paper. The opposing tides of battle must have blended their waves at this point, for portions of gray uniform were mingled with the "garments rolled in blood" torn from our own dead and wounded soldiers. I picked up a Rebel canteen, and one of our own,--but there was something repulsive about the trodden and stained relics of the stale battle-field. It was like the table of some hideous orgy left uncleared, and one turned away disgusted from its broken fragments and muddy heeltaps. A bullet or two, a button, a brass plate from a soldier's belt, served well enough for mementos of my visit, with a letter which I picked up, directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken. "N. C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright." On the other side, "A few lines from W. L. Vaughn." who has just been writing for the wife to her husband, and continues on his own account. The postscript, "tell John that nancy's folks are all well and has a verry good Little Crop of corn a growing." I wonder, if, by one of those strange chances of which I have seen so many, this number or leaf of the "Atlantic" will not sooner or later find its way to Cleveland County, North Carolina, and E. Wright, widow of James Wright, and Nancy's folks, get from these sentences the last glimpse of husband and friend as he threw up his arms and fell in the bloody cornfield of Antietam? I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it.

On the battle-field I parted with my two companions, the Chaplain and the Philanthropist. They were going to the front, the one to find his regiment, the other to look for those who needed his assistance. We exchanged cards and farewells, I mounted the wagon, the horses' heads were turned homewards, my two companions went their way, and I saw them no more. On my way back, I fell into talk with James Grayden. Born in England, Lancashire; in this country since be was four years old. Had nothing to care for but an old mother; didn't know what he should do if he lost her. Though so long in this country, he had all the simplicity and childlike lightheartedness which belong to the Old World's people. He laughed at the smallest pleasantry, and showed his great white English teeth; he took a joke without retorting by an impertinence; he had a very limited curiosity about all that was going on; he had small store of information; he lived chiefly in his horses, it seemed to me. His quiet animal nature acted as a pleasing anodyne to my recurring fits of anxiety, and I liked his frequent "'Deed I don't know, sir." better than I have sometimes relished the large discourse of professors and other very wise men.

I have not much to say of the road which we were travelling for the second time. Reaching Middletown, my first call was on the wounded Colonel and his lady. She gave me a most touching account of all the suffering he had gone through with his shattered limb before he succeeded in finding a shelter; showing the terrible want of proper means of transportation of the wounded after the battle. It occurred to me, while at this house, that I was more or less famished, and for the first time in my life I begged for a meal, which the kind family with whom the Colonel was staying most graciously furnished me.

After tea, there came in a stout army surgeon, a Highlander by birth, educated in Edinburgh, with whom I had pleasant, not unstimulating talk. He had been brought very close to that immane and nefandous Burke-and-Hare business which made the blood of civilization run cold in the year 1828, and told me, in a very calm way, with an occasional pinch from the mull, to refresh his memory, some of the details of those frightful murders, never rivalled in horror until the wretch Dumollard, who kept a private cemetery for his victims, was dragged into the light of day. He had a good deal to say, too, about the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, and the famous preparations, mercurial and the rest, which I remember well having seen there,--the "sudabit multum." and others,--also of our New York Professor Carnochan's handiwork, a specimen of which I once admired at the New York College. But the doctor was not in a happy frame of mind, and seemed willing to forget the present in the past: things went wrong, somehow, and the time was out of joint with him.

Dr. Thompson, kind, cheerful, companionable, offered me half his own wide bed, in the house of Dr. Baer, for my second night in Middletown. Here I lay awake again another night. Close to the house stood an ambulance in which was a wounded Rebel officer, attended by one of their own surgeons. He was calling out in a loud voice, all night long, as it seemed to me, "Doctor! Doctor! Driver! Water!" in loud, complaining tones, I have no doubt of real suffering, but in strange contrast with the silent patience which was the almost universal rule.

The courteous Dr. Thompson will let me tell here an odd coincidence, trivial, but having its interest as one of a series. The Doctor and myself lay in the bed, and a lieutenant, a friend of his, slept on the sofa, At night, I placed my match-box, a Scotch one, of the Macpherson-plaid pattern, which I bought years ago, on the bureau, just where I could put my hand upon it. I was the last of the three to rise in the morning, and on looking for my pretty match-box, I found it was gone. This was rather awkward,--not on account of the loss, but of the unavoidable fact that one of my fellow-lodgers must have taken it. I must try to find out what it meant.

"By the way, Doctor, have you seen anything of a little plaid-pattern match-box?"

The Doctor put his hand to his pocket, and, to his own huge surprise and my great gratification, pulled out two match-boxes exactly alike, both printed with the Macpherson plaid. One was his, the other mine, which he had seen lying round, and naturally took for his own, thrusting it into his pocket, where it found its twin-brother from the same workshop. In memory of which event, we exchanged boxes, like two Homeric heroes.

This curious coincidence illustrates well enough some supposed cases of plagiarism of which I will mention one where my name figured. When a little poem called "The Two Streams" was first printed, a writer in the New York "Evening Post" virtually accused the author of it of borrowing the thought from a baccalaureate sermon of President Hopkins of Williamstown, and printed a quotation from that discourse, which, as I thought, a thief or catch-poll might well consider as establishing a fair presumption that it was so borrowed. I was at the same time wholly unconscious of ever having met with the discourse or the sentence which the verses were most like, nor do I believe I ever had seen or heard either. Some time after this, happening to meet my eloquent cousin, Wendell Phillips, I mentioned the fact to him, and he told me that he had once used the special image said to be borrowed, in a discourse delivered at Williamstown. On relating this to my friend Mr. Buchanan Read, he informed me that he too, had used the image,--perhaps referring to his poem called "The Twins." He thought Tennyson had used it also. The parting of the streams on the Alps is poetically elaborated in a passage attributed to "M. Loisne," printed in the "Boston Evening Transcript" for October 23, 1859. Captain, afterwards Sir Francis Head, speaks of the showers parting on the Cordilleras, one portion going to the Atlantic, one to the Pacific. I found the image running loose in my mind, without a halter. It suggested itself as an illustration of the will, and I worked the poem out by the aid of Mitchell's School Atlas.--The spores of a great many ideas are floating about in the atmosphere. We no more know where all the growths of our mind came from, than where the lichens which eat the names off from the gravestones borrowed the germs that gave them birth. The two match- boxes were just alike, but neither was a plagiarism.

In the morning I took to the same wagon once more, but, instead of James Grayden, I was to have for my driver a young man who spelt his name "Phillip Ottenheimer" and whose features at once showed him to be an Israelite. I found him agreeable enough, and disposed to talk. So I asked him many questions about his religion, and got some answers that sound strangely in Christian ears. He was from Wittenberg, and had been educated in strict Jewish fashion. From his childhood he had read Hebrew, but was not much of a scholar otherwise. A young person of his race lost caste utterly by marrying a Christian. The Founder of our religion was considered by the Israelites to have been "a right smart man and a great doctor." But the horror with which the reading of the New Testament by any young person of their faith would be regarded was as great, I judged by his language, as that of one of our straitest sectaries would be, if he found his son or daughter perusing the "Age of Reason."

In approaching Frederick, the singular beauty of its clustered spires struck me very much, so that I was not surprised to find "Fair-View" laid down about this point on a railroad map. I wish some wandering photographer would take a picture of the place, a stereoscopic one, if possible, to show how gracefully, how charmingly, its group of steeples nestles among the Maryland hills. The town had a poetical look from a distance, as if seers and dreamers might dwell there. The first sign I read, on entering its long street, might perhaps be considered as confirming my remote impression. It bore these words: "Miss Ogle, Past, Present, and Future." On arriving, I visited Lieutenant Abbott, and the attenuated unhappy gentleman, his neighbor, sharing between them as my parting gift what I had left of the balsam known to the Pharmacopoeia as Spiritus Vini Gallici. I took advantage of General Shriver's always open door to write a letter home, but had not time to partake of his offered hospitality. The railroad bridge over the Monocacy had been rebuilt since I passed through Frederick, and we trundled along over the track toward Baltimore.

It was a disappointment, on reaching the Eutaw House, where I had ordered all communications to be addressed, to find no telegraphic message from Philadelphia or Boston, stating that Captain H. had arrived at the former place, "wound doing well in good spirits expects to leave soon for Boston." After all, it was no great matter; the Captain was, no doubt, snugly lodged before this in the house called Beautiful, at * * * * Walnut Street, where that "grave and beautiful damsel named Discretion" had already welcomed him, smiling, though "the water stood in her eyes," and had "called out Prudence, Piety, and Charity, who, after a little more discourse with him, had him into the family."

The friends I had met at the Eutaw House had all gone but one, the lady of an officer from Boston, who was most amiable and agreeable, and whose benevolence, as I afterwards learned, soon reached the invalids I had left suffering at Frederick. General Wool still walked the corridors, inexpansive, with Fort McHenry on his shoulders, and Baltimore in his breeches-pocket, and his courteous aid again pressed upon me his kind offices. About the doors of the hotel the news-boys cried the papers in plaintive, wailing tones, as different from the sharp accents of their Boston counterparts as a sigh from the southwest is from a northeastern breeze. To understand what they said was, of course, impossible to any but an educated ear, and if I made out "Starr" and "Clipp'rr," it was because I knew beforehand what must be the burden of their advertising coranach.

I set out for Philadelphia on the morrow, Tuesday the twenty-third, there beyond question to meet my Captain, once more united to his brave wounded companions under that roof which covers a household of as noble hearts as ever throbbed with human sympathies. Back River, Bush River, Gunpowder Creek,--lives there the man with soul so dead that his memory has cerements to wrap up these senseless names in the same envelopes with their meaningless localities? But the Susquehanna,--the broad, the beautiful, the historical, the poetical Susquehanna,--the river of Wyoming and of Gertrude, dividing the shores where

"Aye those sunny mountains half-way down Would echo flageolet from some romantic town,"--

did not my heart renew its allegiance to the poet who has made it lovely to the imagination as well as to the eye, and so identified his fame with the noble stream that it "rolls mingling with his fame forever?" The prosaic traveller perhaps remembers it better from the fact that a great sea-monster, in the shape of a steamboat, takes him, sitting in the car, on its back, and swims across with him like Arion's dolphin,--also that mercenary men on board offer him canvas- backs in the season, and ducks of lower degree at other periods.

At Philadelphia again at last! Drive fast, O colored man and brother, to the house called Beautiful, where my Captain lies sore wounded, waiting for the sound of the chariot wheels which bring to his bedside the face and the voice nearer than any save one to his heart in this his hour of pain and weakness! Up a long street with white shutters and white steps to all the houses. Off at right angles into another long street with white shutters and white steps to all the houses. Off again at another right angle into still another long street with white shutters and white steps to all the houses. The natives of this city pretend to know one street from another by some individual differences of aspect; but the best way for a stranger to distinguish the streets he has been in from others is to make a cross or other mark on the white shutters.

This corner-house is the one. Ring softly,--for the Lieutenant- Colonel lies there with a dreadfully wounded arm, and two sons of the family, one wounded like the Colonel, one fighting with death in the fog of a typhoid fever, will start with fresh pangs at the least sound you can make. I entered the house, but no cheerful smile met me. The sufferers were each of them thought to be in a critical condition. The fourth bed, waiting its tenant day after day, was still empty. Not a word from my Captain.

Then, foolish, fond body that I was, my heart sank within me. Had he been taken ill on the road, perhaps been attacked with those formidable symptoms which sometimes come on suddenly after wounds that seemed to be doing well enough, and was his life ebbing away in some lonely cottage, nay, in some cold barn or shed, or at the wayside, unknown, uncared for? Somewhere between Philadelphia and Hagerstown, if not at the latter town, he must be, at any rate. I must sweep the hundred and eighty miles between these places as one would sweep a chamber where a precious pearl had been dropped. I must have a companion in my search, partly to help me look about, and partly because I was getting nervous and felt lonely. Charley said he would go with me,--Charley, my Captain's beloved friend, gentle, but full of spirit and liveliness, cultivated, social, affectionate, a good talker, a most agreeable letter-writer, observing, with large relish of life, and keen sense of humor. He was not well enough to go, some of the timid ones said; but he answered by packing his carpet-bag, and in an hour or two we were on the Pennsylvania Central Railroad in full blast for Harrisburg.

I should have been a forlorn creature but for the presence of my companion. In his delightful company I half forgot my anxieties, which, exaggerated as they may seem now, were not unnatural after what I had seen of the confusion and distress that had followed the great battle, nay, which seem almost justified by the recent statement that "high officers" were buried after that battle whose names were never ascertained. I noticed little matters, as usual. The road was filled in between the rails with cracked stones, such as are used for macadamizing streets. They keep the dust down, I suppose, for I could not think of any other use for them. By and by the glorious valley which stretches along through Chester and Lancaster Counties opened upon us. Much as I had heard of the fertile regions of Pennsylvania, the vast scale and the uniform luxuriance of this region astonished me. The grazing pastures were so green, the fields were under such perfect culture, the cattle looked so sleek, the houses were so comfortable, the barns so ample, the fences so well kept, that I did not wonder, when I was told that this region was called the England of Pennsylvania. The people whom we saw were, like the cattle, well nourished; the young women looked round and wholesome.

"Grass makes girls." I said to my companion, and left him to work out my Orphic saying, thinking to myself, that as guano makes grass, it was a legitimate conclusion that Ichaboe must be a nursery of female loveliness.

As the train stopped at the different stations, I inquired at each if they had any wounded officers. None as yet; the red rays of the battle-field had not streamed off so far as this. Evening found us in the cars; they lighted candles in spring-candle-sticks; odd enough I thought it in the land of oil-wells and unmeasured floods of kerosene. Some fellows turned up the back of a seat so as to make it horizontal, and began gambling, or pretending to gamble; it looked as if they were trying to pluck a young countryman; but appearances are deceptive, and no deeper stake than "drinks for the crowd" seemed at last to be involved. But remembering that murder has tried of late years to establish itself as an institution in the cars, I was less tolerant of the doings of these "sportsmen" who tried to turn our public conveyance into a travelling Frascati. They acted as if they were used to it, and nobody seemed to pay much attention to their manoeuvres.

We arrived at Harrisburg in the course of the evening, and attempted to find our way to the Jones House, to which we had been commended. By some mistake, intentional on the part of somebody, as it may have been, or purely accidental, we went to the Herr House instead. I entered my name in the book, with that of my companion. A plain, middle-aged man stepped up, read it to himself in low tones, and coupled to it a literary title by which I have been sometimes known. He proved to be a graduate of Brown University, and had heard a certain Phi Beta Kappa poem delivered there a good many years ago. I remembered it, too; Professor Goddard, whose sudden and singular death left such lasting regret, was the Orator. I recollect that while I was speaking a drum went by the church, and how I was disgusted to see all the heads near the windows thrust out of them, as if the building were on fire. Cedat armis toga. The clerk in the office, a mild, pensive, unassuming young man, was very polite in his manners, and did all he could to make us comfortable. He was of a literary turn, and knew one of his guests in his character of author. At tea, a mild old gentleman, with white hair and beard, sat next us. He, too, had come hunting after his son, a lieutenant in a Pennsylvania regiment. Of these, father and son, more presently.

After tea we went to look up Dr. Wilson, chief medical officer of the hospitals in the place, who was staying at the Brady House. A magnificent old toddy-mixer, Bardolphian in hue, and stern of aspect, as all grog-dispensers must be, accustomed as they are to dive through the features of men to the bottom of their souls and pockets to see whether they are solvent to the amount of sixpence, answered my question by a wave of one hand, the other being engaged in carrying a dram to his lips. His superb indifference gratified my artistic feeling more than it wounded my personal sensibilities. Anything really superior in its line claims my homage, and this man was the ideal bartender, above all vulgar passions, untouched by commonplace sympathies, himself a lover of the liquid happiness he dispenses, and filled with a fine scorn of all those lesser felicities conferred by love or fame or wealth or any of the roundabout agencies for which his fiery elixir is the cheap, all- powerful substitute.

Dr. Wilson was in bed, though it was early in the evening, not having slept for I don't know how many nights.

"Take my card up to him, if you please." "This way, sir."

A man who has not slept for a fortnight or so is not expected to be as affable, when attacked in his bed, as a French Princess of old time at her morning receptions. Dr. Wilson turned toward me, as I entered, without effusion, but without rudeness. His thick, dark moustache was chopped off square at the lower edge of the upper lip, which implied a decisive, if not a peremptory, style of character.

I am Dr. So-and-So of Hubtown, looking after my wounded son. (I gave my name and said Boston, of course, in reality.)

Dr. Wilson leaned on his elbow and looked up in my face, his features growing cordial. Then he put out his hand, and good-humoredly excused his reception of me. The day before, as he told me, he had dismissed from the service a medical man hailing from ******, Pennsylvania, bearing my last name, preceded by the same two initials; and he supposed, when my card came up, it was this individual who was disturbing his slumbers. The coincidence was so unlikely a priori, unless some forlorn parent without antecedents had named, a child after me, that I could not help cross-questioning the Doctor, who assured me deliberately that the fact was just as he had said, even to the somewhat unusual initials. Dr. Wilson very kindly furnished me all the information in his power, gave me directions for telegraphing to Chambersburg, and showed every disposition to serve me.

On returning to the Herr House, we found the mild, white-haired old gentleman in a very happy state. He had just discovered his son, in a comfortable condition, at the United States Hotel. He thought that he could probably give us some information which would prove interesting. To the United States Hotel we repaired, then, in company with our kind-hearted old friend, who evidently wanted to see me as happy as himself. He went up-stairs to his son's chamber, and presently came down to conduct us there.

Lieutenant P________ , of the Pennsylvania __th, was a very fresh, bright-looking young man, lying in bed from the effects of a recent injury received in action. A grape-shot, after passing through a post and a board, had struck him in the hip, bruising, but not penetrating or breaking. He had good news for me.

That very afternoon, a party of wounded officers had passed through Harrisburg, going East. He had conversed in the bar-room of this hotel with one of them, who was wounded about the shoulder (it might be the lower part of the neck), and had his arm in a sling. He belonged to the Twentieth Massachusetts; the Lieutenant saw that be was a Captain, by the two bars on his shoulder-strap. His name was my family-name; he was tall and youthful, like my Captain. At four o'clock he left in the train for Philadelphia. Closely questioned, the Lieutenant's evidence was as round, complete, and lucid as a Japanese sphere of rock-crystal.

TE DEUM LAUDAMUS! The Lord's name be praised! The dead pain in the semilunar ganglion (which I must remind my reader is a kind of stupid, unreasoning brain, beneath the pit of the stomach, common to man and beast, which aches in the supreme moments of life, as when the dam loses her young ones, or the wild horse is lassoed) stopped short. There was a feeling as if I had slipped off a tight boot, or cut a strangling garter,--only it was all over my system. What more could I ask to assure me of the Captain's safety? As soon as the telegraph office opens tomorrow morning we will send a message to our friends in Philadelphia, and get a reply, doubtless, which will settle the whole matter.

The hopeful morrow dawned at last, and the message was sent accordingly. In due time, the following reply was received: "Phil Sept 24 I think the report you have heard that W [the Captain] has gone East must be an error we have not seen or heard of him here M L H"

DE PROFUNDIS CLAMAVI! He could not have passed through Philadelphia without visiting the house called Beautiful, where he had been so tenderly cared for after his wound at Ball's Bluff, and where those whom he loved were lying in grave peril of life or limb. Yet he did pass through Harrisburg, going East, going to Philadelphia, on his way home. Ah, this is it! He must have taken the late night-train from Philadelphia for New York, in his impatience to reach home. There is such a train, not down in the guide-book, but we were assured of the fact at the Harrisburg depot. By and by came the reply from Dr. Wilson's telegraphic message: nothing had been heard of the Captain at Chambersburg. Still later, another message came from our Philadelphia friend, saying that he was seen on Friday last at the house of Mrs. K________, a well-known Union lady in Hagerstown. Now this could not be true, for he did not leave Keedysville until Saturday; but the name of the lady furnished a clew by which we could probably track him. A telegram was at once sent to Mrs. K_______, asking information. It was transmitted immediately, but when the answer would be received was uncertain, as the Government almost monopolized the line. I was, on the whole, so well satisfied that the Captain had gone East, that, unless something were heard to the contrary, I proposed following him in the late train leaving a little after midnight for Philadelphia.

This same morning we visited several of the temporary hospitals, churches and school-houses, where the wounded were lying. In one of these, after looking round as usual, I asked aloud, "Any Massachusetts men here?" Two bright faces lifted themselves from their pillows and welcomed me by name. The one nearest me was private John B. Noyes of Company B, Massachusetts Thirteenth, son of my old college class-tutor, now the reverend and learned Professor of Hebrew, etc., in Harvard University. His neighbor was Corporal Armstrong of the same Company. Both were slightly wounded, doing well. I learned then and since from Mr. Noyes that they and their comrades were completely overwhelmed by the attentions of the good people of Harrisburg,--that the ladies brought them fruits and flowers, and smiles, better than either,--and that the little boys of the place were almost fighting for the privilege of doing their errands. I am afraid there will be a good many hearts pierced in this war that will have no bulletmark to show.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In