Felt As If a Horse Had Kicked Me

The waters of the Potomac River shimmer with autumn’s reflective color palette below Ball’s Bluff Battlefield near Leesburg, VA. Photo by Chris Heisey

Judged in the light of the war’s later titanic clashes, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on Oct. 21, 1861, ranks as a mere minor infantry clash. Yet, for many, it was their initial encounter with fierce, close infantry musket fire that left hundreds with ghastly battle injuries these war neophytes would long remember.

The 20th Massachusetts, dubbed the Harvard regiment, given that many of its members of rank were Crimson graduates, suffered nearly 70 percent casualties in a matter of minutes after point blank Confederate volley halted their advance. Fighting with the Potomac River immediately in their rear on a high bluff overlooking the mile-wide waterway near Leesburg, Virginia, the 20th soon realized that a hasty retreat was the only way to avoid a humiliating capture. The orderly retreat soon became a rout and a disastrous defeat for the Union forces in northern Virginia.

One of the wounded in the 20th Massachusetts was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who penned a vivid diary throughout his harrowing service in the army. In the battle’s opening minutes, Holmes was hit in the abdomen with a spent musket ball that felled him and knocked the wind out of him. Told by an officer to retire to the rear, Holmes collected himself and disobeyed the order falling back in line with his Bay State comrades.

Minutes later he was shot through the breast from left to right piercing both lungs above his heart. In his diary, Holmes wrote, “I felt as if a horse had kicked me.” Spitting and choking on his blood, he reached for his “poison” which was his lethal dose of laudanum he carried in his waist-pocket just in case he suffered such a mortal wound as he thought this assuredly was.

Before Holmes could ingest his merciful killing dose, he lost consciousness and woke up on the banks of the river where he had been evacuated prior to the total dissolving of the Union retreat. Rowed across the crimson blood tinged waters of the Potomac, Holmes ended up on Harrison’s Island halfway over to the Maryland side where a Union field hospital was crudely tending to the wounded and dying. Miraculously two days later, Holmes was in Philadelphia recuperating in a friend’s home and by the end of November, he was up and walking around his parent’s home in Boston nearly fully recovered.

In 1902, he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt and served for nearly 30 years. He still remains the oldest serving justice having retired in 1932 when he was 90. His poignant diary along with his many letters, Touched with Fire, was published in 1946 some 10 years after his death and remains one of the war’s best Union veteran account.

4 Responses to Felt As If a Horse Had Kicked Me

  1. Interesting that Oliver Wendell Holmes carried laudanum to give himself “merciful” death in the case of too painful a wound or suffering. What an insight into the mindset of the common Soldier! Not only what they knew about their chances of surviving battle unscathed, but what they really feared (the same as young warriors of most any era: horrible disfigurement or suffering in particular, but not necessarily death). I wonder how many other men carried such an item capable of “self deliverance” in the Civil War; I imagine quite a few did. I’ve heard many a modern-day Soldier say that the last round they carry is saved for themselves, given the likelihood of decapitation / execution if captured by contemporary enemies. Going out on your own terms seems to be a common desire.

  2. Beautiful photo and nicely written piece but I don’t think that’s correct about the wound “piercing both lungs.” I’d be curious about the source for that.

    While researching my book on Ball’s Bluff, I looked at the report of the 20th Massachusetts’ surgeon, Edward Revere, which lists the casualties and wounds at that battle. Dr. Revere notes Holmes’ wound simply as a “flesh wound of the chest” with no elaboration. That would indicate that the bullet merely passed through the meaty part of his breast without hitting any organs.

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