Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. to John L. Motley, April 27, 1862

Boston, April 27, 1862.

My Dear Motley: I saw Lowell day before yesterday, and asked him if he had written as you requested and as I begged him to do. He told me he had, and I congratulated you on having a new correspondent to bring you into intelligent relations with American matters, as seen through a keen pair of Boston eyes, and a new channel through which your intense sympathies can be reached. I trust that between us you can be kept pretty well supplied with that particular kind of knowledge which all exiles want, and which the newspapers do not give—knowledge of things, persons, affairs public and private, localized, individualized, idiosyncratized, from those whose ways of looking at matters you know well, and from all whose statements and guesses you know just what to discount to make their “personal equation” square with your own. The general conviction now, as shown in the talk one hears, in the tone of the papers, in the sales of government stocks, is that of fast-growing confidence in the speedy discomfiture of the rebels at all points. This very morning we have two rebel stories that New Orleans has surrendered, its forts having been taken after some thirty hours' attack. At the same time comes the story that the rebels are falling back from Corinth.

Both seem altogether probable, but whether true or not the feeling is very general now that we are going straight to our aims, not, perhaps, without serious checks from time to time, but irresistibly and rapidly. The great interior communications of the rebels are being broken up. General Mitchell has broken the vertebral column of the Memphis and Charlestown Railroad, and while McClellan, with 130,000 men or more, is creeping up to Yorktown with his mounds and batteries, we see McDowell and Banks and Burnside drawing in gradually and sweeping the rebels in one vast battue before them. On the Mississippi, again, and its tributaries, our successes have made us confident. We do not now ask whether, but when. That truly magnificent capture of “No. 10” has given us all a feeling that we are moving to our ends as fate moves, and that nothing will stop us. I think the cutting of that canal through the swamps and forests ranks with the miracles of this war, with the Monitor achievement, and with the Burnside exploit, which last was so heroically carried out in the face of storms such as broke up the Spanish Armada. As for the canal, no doubt we see things in exaggerated proportions on this side, but to me the feat is like that of Cyrus, when he drew off the waters of the Euphrates and marched his army through the bed of the river. So of the Monitor — Minotaur, old Mr. Quincy said to me, “it should have been” — its appearance in front of the great megalosaurus or dinotherium, which came out in its scaly armor that no one could pierce, breathing fire and smoke from its nostrils; is it not the age of fables and of heroes and demigods over again?

And all this makes me think of our “boys,” as we used to call our men, who are doing the real work of the time — your nephews, my son, and our many friends. We have not heard so much of the cavalry, to which I believe Lawrence is attached. But Burnside! how you must have followed him in the midst of storm, of shipwreck, of trial by thirst, if not by famine, of stormy landings on naked beaches, through Roanoke, through Newbern, until at last we find him knocking at the back door that leads to Norfolk, and read this very day that the city is trembling all over in fear of an attack from him, while Fort Macon is making ready at the other end of his field of labor to follow Pulaski. I have heard of Lewis Stackpole; at one time they said his knee troubled him, that he was not able to march as he would like; but you must know more about this than I do. Of course my eyes are on the field before Yorktown. The last note from my boy was on a three-cornered scrap of paper, and began, “In the woods, near the enemy.” It was cheery and manly.

Wendell came home in good health, but for his wound, which was well in a few weeks; but the life he led here was a very hard one, — late hours, excitement all the time, — and I really thought that he would be better in camp than fretting at his absence from it and living in a round of incessant over-stimulating society. I think he finds camp life agrees with him particularly well. Did you happen to know anything of Captain Bartlett, of the Twentieth? I suppose not. He was made a captain when a junior in our college; a remarkable military taste, talent, and air. He lost his leg the other day, when setting pickets before Yorktown. His chief regret was not being able to follow the fortunes of the army any longer. I meant to have told you that my boy was made a captain the other day. He does not care to take the place, being first lieutenant under his most intimate friend Hallowell. The two want to go into battle together, like Nisus and Euryalus. How our little unit out of the six or seven hundred thousand grows in dimensions as we talk or write about it!

I wish I could give you an idea of the momentary phase of the public mind as I see its manifestations here, which are probably not unlike those elsewhere. I will tell you one thing which strikes me. People talk less about what is going on, and more quietly. There is, as I said, a feeling that the curtain is like to drop pretty soon on the first act of the drama, that the military part of the play will be mainly over in a few months. Not extermination, nor pacification, perhaps, but extinction of the hopes of the rebels as to anything they can do with great armies in the field, and the consequent essential break-up of the rebellion. But aprรจs? That, of course, is exercising those who have done croaking about the war. I dined at last week, with the Friday Club, and sat next –––. He was as lugubrious on what was to come after the war as he was a year ago with respect to its immediate danger. Then he could hardly bear to think that so accomplished an officer as General Lee was to be opposed to our Northern leaders. Yet who troubles himself very particularly about General Lee nowadays? He thinks there are to be such hatreds between North and South as have not been since the times of the Greek Republic. I suppose seventy years must be at the bottom of all this despondency. Not that everybody does not see terrible difficulties; but let us fight this quarrel fairly out, not patch it up, and it will go hard but we will find some way of living together in a continent that has so much room as this. Of the precise mode no man knoweth. . . .

Yours always,
O. W. H.

SOURCE: George William Curtis, editor, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley in Two Volumes, Library Edition, Volume 2, p. 252-6

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