Henry Livermore Abbott was a proud native of Lowell, Massachusetts. He came from a family deeply rooted in patriotism, with both sides of his family claiming descendants in the Continental Army. His father was a lawyer and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a staunch Democrat. Henry was influenced by his father’s beliefs and success and found himself admitted to Harvard University at age 14. Through an admittedly rough tenure, he graduated in 1860. Describing himself as “Constitutionally timid” when it came to the issue of Lincoln invading the southern states, he was not initially swept up in the patriotic fever of the times after the firing on Fort Sumter. He was not a supporter of the Lincoln administration and Abbott was not as enthusiastic about joining the army as his neighbors and brothers. But he did not want to be left behind while his comrades were off to war, so he decided to volunteer. After turning down a commission his father secured for him and serving briefly in a militia unit, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in Company I of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry on July 10, 1861. This regiment became known as the “Harvard Regiment” because of a good portion of the commissioned officers had attended Harvard.
Abbott proved himself well as an officer early on. At the battle of Ball’s Bluff he assisted in leading the regiment to safety during a route of the Union forces. For his actions, he was promoted to first lieutenant. Abbott again proved his bravery by being wounded at Glendale, remaining with the army until after the campaign ended. He recuperated at home while his brother Ned was killed at Cedar Mountain in August 1862. Abbott regularly served in regimental leadership roles and was one of the few officers that was not killed or wounded in the street fighting during the battle of Fredericksburg. Referring to Abbott’s coolness under fire in the streets in Fredericksburg, his friend and future jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote “…if you had you seen him with his indifferent carriage, and sword swinging from his finger like a cane, you never would have suspected that he was doing more than conducting a company at drill.” As the war dragged on, Abbott’s letters home blamed the Republicans for the conduct of the war.
Throughout the war, Abbott proved over and over his ability to lead men into battle. This untrained officer was respected by all that knew him. He led the 20th Massachusetts in defense of the stonewall on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg and received a promotion to major in early October 1863. Still commanding the regiment, Abbott proved his abilities again during the Bristoe Station Campaign. After the overwhelming Union victory at Bristoe, he wrote home about the army being in its “highest spirits since McClellan left,” still showing his proclivity for the former commander.
On May 6, 1864 on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness, Abbott was with the 20th Massachusetts along the Plank Road. Having fought a hard day against Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps, the men from Massachusetts found themselves in a dire situation. They were confronted with a heavy attack by the newly arrived men of Gen. James Longstreet’s corps. Abbott, now in command of the regiment, took to his feet and attempted to rally his men, walking along the line behind his men as they lay on the ground. He had done this numerous times during the war, but this time the regiment was in the middle of a virtual hornets nest, nearly surrounded. As he tried to calm his men, he was struck in the abdomen and went down. Soon, the regiment broke and they were able to carry him to the Second Corps field hospital. He was told the wound was mortal, he asked to be left alone to gather his thoughts. Soon after, Henry Abbott passed away. After his death, John Perry, Assistant Surgeon of the regiment, noted he “…was an ideal man; an ideal officer, reverenced by his friends and deeply respected by all who knew him.”
Once referred to as the most famous and respected officer of his rank in the Army of the Potomac, Abbott left a legacy through his war time letters. Well educated, Abbott’s letters are a portal into the past; a glimpse into a regiment that fought in most of the battles in the eastern theater. It has hard to believe after studying his life throughout the war, that he was never a supporter of using force to bring the southern states back into the Union. Though reluctant at first, a sense of duty led Abbott throughout his experiences. As we approach the 150th Anniversary of the battle of Wilderness, Abbott is one of thousands who met their end in the tangled woods of central Virginia. Reading his written words gives us a great insight into the mindset of soldiers and reminds us that war and the reasons the soldiers fight is not black and white.
For More Information:
Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, edited by Robert Garth Scott, Kent State University Press.