December 1862 The Civil War

My Hunt After the Captain

An account of the author’s frantic search for his wounded son, who lived to become a Supreme Court justice

With the war under way, the 1,000-bed Armory Square Hospital was erected on the National Mall to treat Washington’s influx of wounded soldiers. (Library of Congress)

After a second victory at Bull Run in 1862, General Lee invaded Maryland, where his troops clashed with Union forces at Antietam on September 17. The Battle of Antietam would prove the single bloodiest day of the war, leaving more than 17,000 injured and almost 4,000 dead.

In Massachusetts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. received a telegram informing him that one of his sons, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., had been shot through the neck. The next day, he headed south to try to find his son.

In “My Hunt After the Captain,” Holmes chronicled his desperate search, which took him by train and horse-drawn wagon through towns strewn with the dead and wounded, and propelled him from makeshift hospital to makeshift hospital. He helped however he could (he was a physician as well as a writer), asking everywhere for his son. Eventually he would find Oliver Jr. alive and well, but not before he had traipsed from Pennsylvania to Maryland and back.

—Sage Stossel

In the dead of the night which closed upon the bloody field of Antietam, my household was startled from its slumbers by the loud summons of a telegraphic messenger. The air had been heavy all day with rumors of battle, and thousands and tens of thousands had walked the streets with throbbing hearts, in dread anticipation of the tidings any hour might bring.

We rose hastily, and presently the messenger was admitted. I took the envelope from his hand, opened it, and read:—

Hagerstown 17th

To H

Capt H wounded shot through the neck thought not mortal at Keedysville


Through the neck,—no bullet left in wound. Windpipe, food-pipe, carotid, jugular, half a dozen smaller, but still formidable, vessels, a great braid of nerves, each as big as a lamp-wick, spinal cord,—ought to kill at once, if at all. Thought not mortal, or not thought mortal,—which was it? The first; that is better than the second would be.—“Keedysville, a post-office, Washington Co., Maryland.” Leduc? Leduc? Don’t remember that name.—The boy is waiting for his money. A dollar and thirteen cents. Has nobody got thirteen cents? Don’t keep that boy waiting,—how do we know what messages he has got to carry?

The boy had another message to carry. It was to the father of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder Dwight, informing him that his son was grievously wounded in the same battle, and was lying at Boonsborough, a town a few miles this side of Keedysville. This I learned the next morning from the civil and attentive officials at the Central Telegraph-Office.

Calling upon this gentleman, I found that he meant to leave in the quarter past two o’clock train, taking with him Dr. George H. Gay, an accomplished and energetic surgeon, equal to any difficult question or pressing emergency. I agreed to accompany them, and we met in the cars. I felt myself peculiarly fortunate in having companions whose society would be a pleasure, whose feelings would harmonize with my own, and whose assistance I might, in case of need, be glad to claim.

It is of the journey which we began together, and which I finished apart, that I mean to give my “Atlantic” readers an account …

By a mutual compact, we talked little in the cars. A communicative friend is the greatest nuisance to have at one’s side during a railroad-journey …

[In Philadelphia] I went straight to the house in Walnut Street where the Captain would be heard of, if anywhere in this region. His lieutenant-colonel was there, gravely wounded; his college-friend and comrade in arms, a son of the house, was there, injured in a similar way; another soldier, brother of the last, was there, prostrate with fever. A fourth bed was waiting ready for the Captain, but not one word had been heard of him, though inquiries had been made in the towns from and through which the father had brought his two sons and the lieutenant-colonel. And so my search is, like a “Ledger” story, to be continued …

Not long after leaving Philadelphia, we passed a solitary sentry keeping guard over a short railroad-bridge. It was the first evidence that we were approaching the perilous borders, the marches where the North and South mingle their angry hosts, where the extremes of our so-called civilization meet in conflict, and the fierce slave-driver of the Lower Mississippi stares into the stern eyes of the forest-feller from the banks of the Aroostook. All the way along, the bridges were guarded more or less strongly …

[In Baltimore] as we stood waiting on the platform [for a train to Frederick], a telegraphic message was handed in silence to my companion. Sad news: the lifeless body of the son he was hastening to see was even now on its way to him in Baltimore. It was no time for empty words of consolation: I knew what he had lost, and that now was not the time to intrude upon a grief borne as men bear it, felt as women feel it …

Here, then, I parted, sorrowfully, from the companions with whom I set out on my journey …

There was nothing worthy of special note in the trip to Frederick, except our passing a squad of Rebel prisoners, whom I missed seeing, as they flashed by, but who were said to be a most forlorn-looking crowd of scarecrows. Arrived at the Monocacy River, about three miles this side of Frederick, we came to a halt, for the railroad-bridge had been blown up by the Rebels, and its iron pillars and arches were lying in the bed of the river …

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