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.