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Commentary: Unraveling Oliver Wendell Holmes' 'The Soldier's Faith'

POSTED: May 27, 2012 12:30 a.m.

On Dec. 27, 1895, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then in his 15th year as an associate justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, encountered Edward Atkinson, a wealthy Boston entrepreneur who had become a pamphlet writer arguing for free trade and against “imperialism.” Atkinson was born 14 years before Holmes, and the difference in their ages affected their roles in the Civil War. Holmes and other seniors at Harvard College had enlisted in the Union army after the attack on Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861, whereas Atkinson, a more fervent opponent of slavery than Holmes, was too old for active duty, and spent the war years engaged in antislavery politics.

The choice of Holmes to deliver an address commemorating Memorial Day in 1895 was a logical one. He was not only a Civil War veteran, he liked giving extrajudicial addresses, having privately published a collection of them in 1891. By the mid-1890s he had also become slightly bored and restless in his judicial work, and welcomed other venues for public exposure. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., had died the year before at 89, himself a popular lecturer in addition to being a famous writer, and founder of the Atlantic Monthly. On his death Holmes Sr. was the equivalent of a household word, and his eldest son, intense and competitive, felt obscure in comparison.

Holmes’ 1895 Memorial Day address had attracted enough attention to be reprinted in the December 1895 issue of the Harvard Graduates Magazine. Its appearance provoked critical commentary by Wendell Garrison, editor of The Nation, and E.L. Godkin, editor of the New York Evening Post. Garrison ridiculed the speech as “sentimental jingoism,” and Godkin satirically described it as an argument for “force as a moral influence.” By the morning he encountered Atkinson, Holmes had seen both comments, and was irritated to learn that Atkinson endorsed them. “I don’t like (the address),” Holmes reported Atkinson as telling him. “It’s bad morals and bad politics.”

Holmes responded by telling Atkinson that he “didn’t care.” But he did. Invariably sensitive to criticism, and regularly concerned that “fools” failed to grasp the subtleties in published works, Holmes wrote a close friend: “Fancy my speech of last Memorial Day being treated as a jingo document! Greatly to my disgust it was put over in the Harvard Magazine ... now it seems to some of the godly as I were preaching a doctrine of blood!”

Had the critics of Holmes’ “The Soldier’s Faith” address misunderstood its message? Fourteen years later Holmes, now in his seventh year on the Supreme Court of the United States, was still miffed at the reaction, writing a close friend that “I tried in my speech ... to bring home by example that men are eternally idealists — (a speech that fools took as advice to young men to wade in gore).”

Holmes may well have wanted to “bring home by example” the proposition that “men are eternally idealists” in his 1895 Memorial Day address. He doubtless wanted to remind his audience — 30 years’ distanced from any major war — that soldiers fought for ideals, the most prominent of those being throwing one’s life away “in obedience to a blindly accepted duty.” That message was one he had deeply internalized as a result of his Civil War experiences. Over the years it had helped assuage his survivor’s guilt — a great many of his friends and members of his units had been killed — and at the same time had provided a justification for his decision not to re-enlist after his enlistment expired.

“I have felt for sometime,” he wrote his parents in May 1864, two months before mustering out, “that I didn’t any longer believe in this being a duty & so I mean to leave.” He continued: “I am convinced ... that if I can stand the wear & tear ... of regimental duty that it is a greater strain than I am called on to endure.”

Holmes had a horrific war experience. He was wounded three times, one bullet lodging in his chest and other passing through his neck and out his throat. He had contracted dysentery, the consequences of which would affect him the rest of his life. He noted in “The Soldier’s Faith” that he had stumbled over dead bodies, encountered corpses piled up on themselves, and experienced the dreadful tedium of waiting, concealed, while enemy shots came closer and closer. “When you are in it,” he remembered, “war is horrible and dull.”

But by 1895 Holmes’ recollections of his wartime experience had been replaced by a different memory, and the collective memory of the Civil War had changed as well. As Holmes walked down Washington Street in Boston, he saw a city dedicated to commerce, a nation in which war was “out of fashion,” a world in which young women aspired to marry men “of wealth” rather than soldiers.

Holmes took the atmosphere of the mid-1890s as a rejection of something he stood for. As he sought to articulate that something, it first appeared as a commitment to chivalric “gentlemanly” ideals, such as honor, self-sacrifice and civic duty. As a young soldier he had associated enlistment in the Union army with those ideals, calling the war “the Christian Crusade of the 19th century,” fought on behalf of antislavery.

By 1895, it seemed, those ideals were being discarded in the pursuit of commerce, wealth, and personal security, and thus he sought to critique the “snug, over-safe corner of the world” that late-19-century Boston had become. Had “The Soldier’s Faith” confined itself to that set of messages, it would have been a plea to its audiences to remember a noble set of aristocratic canons that were being forgotten in a vulgar, shallow, collective obsession with wealth and comfort.

But as Holmes proceeded through his address, another thought crowded in: Fighting, and war, was an elemental feature of being human, part of the destiny of the species. With this thought, the turn from war to commerce became a coward’s turn, and “our (current) comfortable routine” became “no eternal necessity,” but “merely a little space of calm in the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world.”

“High and dangerous action” was the very essence of life. “Therefore,” Holmes concluded, “I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued. ... If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it, not as a waste, but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for hardship and command.”

It is no easier to read those passages, even allowing for their contexts, than to read Holmes’ line upholding a Virginia law imposing compulsory sterilization for “mental defectives” in state facilities: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The reading is made harder by recognizing that when Holmes delivered his address he held a lifetime appointment as a judge, lived in his father’s house on Beacon Hill, was a beneficiary of his father’s considerable income from his popular writings, and confined his “dangerous sports” to bicycle riding.

But “The Soldier’s Faith” will remain in the canon of memorable Memorial Day addresses because of the emotions that remembering the Civil War spawned in Holmes in May of 1895. If one matches up passages in the address with biographical information, one can find anger, guilt, alienation, relief, and even an element of romantic self-delusion in “The Soldier’s Faith.” One can also recognize that this jumble of emotions produced some remarkable writing.

Holmes was one of the great American writers, judicial or otherwise. That is how he can best be understood.

G. Edward White is David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law and university professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, and the author, most recently, of “Law in American History: Volume One, From the Colonial Years Through the Civil War.”


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