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 …

There was a great confusion of carriages and wagons at the stopping-place of the train … At last I was lucky enough to light on a sturdy wagon, drawn by a pair of serviceable bays …

So we set forth, the sturdy wagon, the serviceable bays, with James Grayden their driver …

And now, as we emerged from Frederick, we struck at once upon the trail from the great battle-field. The road was filled with straggling and wounded soldiers. All who could travel on foot—multitudes with slight wounds of the upper limbs, the head or face—were told to take up their beds—a light burden, or none at all—and walk … For more than a week there had been sharp fighting all along this road. Through the streets of Frederick, through Crampton’s Gap, over South Mountain, sweeping at last the hills and the woods that skirt the windings of the Antietam, the long battle had travelled, like one of those tornadoes which tear their path through our fields and villages. The slain of higher condition, “embalmed” and iron-cased, were sliding off on the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank-and-file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth; the gravely wounded were cared for hard by the scene of conflict, or pushed a little way along to the neighboring villages; while those who could walk were meeting us, as I have said, at every step in the road. It was a pitiable sight, truly pitiable, yet so vast, so far beyond the possibility of relief, that many single sorrows of small dimensions have wrought upon my feelings more than the sight of this great caravan of maimed pilgrims … Among them were figures which arrested our attention and sympathy. Delicate boys, with more spirit than strength, flushed with fever or pale with exhaustion or haggard with suffering, dragged their weary limbs along … At the road-side sat or lay others, quite spent with their journey …

At intervals, a dead horse lay by the road-side, or in the fields, unburied, not grateful to gods or men …

Full in the middle of the road, caring little for whom or what they met, came long strings of army-wagons, returning empty from the front after supplies … Drawn by mules mostly, six, I think, to a wagon, powdered well with dust, wagon, beast, and driver, they came jogging along the road, turning neither to right nor left … Sometimes a mule would give out on the road; then he was left where he lay, until by-and-by he would think better of it, and get up, when the first public wagon that came along would hitch him on, and restore him to the sphere of duty …

The principal collections of the wounded were in the churches. Boards were laid over the tops of the pews, on these some straw was spread, and on this the wounded lay, with little or no covering other than such scanty clothes as they had on. There were wounds of all degrees of severity, but I heard no groans or murmurs. Most of the sufferers were hurt in the limbs, some had undergone amputation, and all had, I presume, received such attention as was required. Still, it was but a rough and dreary kind of comfort that the extemporized hospitals suggested. I could not help thinking the patients must be cold; but they were used to camp-life, and did not complain. The men who watched were not of the soft-handed variety of the race. One of them was smoking his pipe as he went from bed to bed. I saw one poor fellow who had been shot through the breast; his breathing was labored, and he was tossing, anxious and restless. The men were debating about the opiate he was to take, and I was thankful that I happened there at the right moment to see that he was well narcotized for the night. Was it possible that my Captain could be lying on the straw in one of these places? Certainly possible, but not probable; but as the lantern was held over each bed, it was with a kind of thrill that I looked upon the features it illuminated. Many times, as I went from hospital to hospital in my wanderings, I started as some faint resemblance—the shade of a young man’s hair, the outline of his half-turned face—recalled the presence I was in search of …

A ride of some three hours brought us to Boonsborough, where I roused the unfortunate army-surgeon who had charge of the hospitals, and who was trying to get a little sleep after his fatigues and watchings. He bore this cross very creditably, and helped me to explore all places where my soldier might be lying among the crowds of wounded …

Just then, a medical officer came up.

“Do you know anything of Captain H., of the Massachusetts Twentieth?”

“Oh, yes; he is staying in that house. I saw him there, doing very well.”

A chorus of hallelujahs arose in my soul …

A cottage of squared logs, filled in with plaster, and white-washed. A little yard before it, with a gate swinging. The door of the cottage ajar,—no one visible as yet. I push open the door and enter. An old woman, Margaret Kitzmuller her name proves to be, is the first person I see.

“Captain H. here?”

“Oh, no, Sir,—left yesterday morning for Hagerstown—in a milk-cart.”

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