In September 1862, the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was one of 22,717 men who fell during the Battle of Antietam. His father, Oliver Sr., set out on an epic journey to find him and, a couple of months later, wrote about it for The Atlantic.
“My Hunt After the Captain” is an incredible firsthand account of what Maryland looked and felt like just after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Holmes describes what he saw on the streets of Frederick: “Delicate boys, with more spirit than strength, flushed with fever or pale with exhaustion or haggard with suffering, dragged their weary limbs along as if each step would exhaust their slender store of strength.” He notes what the ground looked like after the battle, with “dark red patches where a pool of blood had curdled and caked, as some poor fellow poured his life out on the sod.”
But there’s one especially memorable sentence that has nothing to do with the war. It comes near the beginning, as Holmes is recalling his train ride down from New England:
Many times, when I have got upon the cars, expecting to be magnetized into an hour or two of blissful reverie, my thoughts shaken up by the vibrations into all sorts of new and pleasing patterns, arranging themselves in curves and nodal points, like the grains of sand in Chladni's famous experiment,—fresh ideas coming up to the surface, as the kernels do when a measure of corn is jolted in a farmer's wagon,—all this without volition, the mechanical impulse alone keeping the thoughts in motion, as the mere act of carrying certain watches in the pocket keeps them wound up,—many times, I say, just as my brain was beginning to creep and hum with this delicious locomotive intoxication, some dear detestable friend, cordial, intelligent, social, radiant, has come up and sat down by me and opened a conversation which has broken my day-dream, unharnessed the flying horses that were whirling along my fancies and hitched on the old weary omnibus-team of every-day associations, fatigued my hearing and attention, exhausted my voice, and milked the breasts of my thought dry during the hour when they should have been filling themselves full of fresh juices.
This sentence (and it is one single sentence!) is amazing for all kinds of reasons. First, there’s the sheer length—it’s 198 words long. Then there are the metaphors. Holmes’s thoughts are “magnetized,” then “shaken up by vibrations.” He casually alludes to “Chladni’s famous experiment” (you can read about it on Wikipedia if you don’t own a copy of the 1787 classic Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klanges). Then he compares his thoughts to kernels of corn, cogs in a self-winding watch, and carriages being pulled by flying horses. By the end, his thoughts are breasts, which his chatty friend has milked dry.