—Major Henry Abbott, 20th Massachusetts
Caterpillars? All the talk of Harvard recently—and quite a few bloggers were speaking of it, including Kevin, and Dimitri, and Eric—specifically, the hiring of a Civil War scholar as president, not to mention the first woman to hold that position, got me thinking about the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, sometimes called the "Harvard Regiment," due to the preponderance of Harvard-connected officers in that unit.
Indeed, their blue uniforms were well complemented by their blue blood. Harvard graduate Richard Miller penned a regimental history, Harvard's Civil War, published by the University Press of New England in 2005. UPNE's description of the regiment drops some big names: "Its officers were drawn from elite circles of New England politics, literature, and commerce. This was the regiment of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; of his cousins, William Lowell Putnam and James Jackson Lowell, both nephews of James Russell Lowell; of Paul Joseph Revere and his brother Edward H. R. Revere, both grandsons of Paul Revere; and of Sumner Paine, great-grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Robert Treat Paine."
I haven't read Miller's book, but the subject interests me. A more familiar (to me), and widely-read volume with Harvard/ 20th Mass connections is Fallen Leaves, The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, still in print in paperback from Kent State.
[A side note: when I was a Stanford University Press, Helen Trimpi, who I think had both Harvard and Stanford connections, and a steadfast member of the South Bay Civil War Round Table, submitted an in-process manuscript that was a sort of biographical register of Confederate officers with Harvard ties—I hope she's able to get that information out in some published fashion]
One might naturally imagine that a group of aristocratic officers from Boston, ground zero for the abolitionist movement, would be firmly in the anti-slavery camp. Not so. My associations with the 20th Massachusetts track back to the early days of Civil War Regiments journal. In the first issue of our 3rd year, we published a well-researched, well-written article on the 20th Massachusetts, by Anthony J. Milano. Mr. Milano, however, called the unit by its other moniker: "The Copperhead Regiment" (the letters I excerpt below all come from Milano's excellent article in Vol. 3, No. 1 of CWR, and are mainly from the Holmes Manuscript Collection at the Harvard Law School Library, and the Abbott Letter Manuscript Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard).
They were not "copperheads" in the Vallandigham sense—they were not traitors to the Union—but they were decidedly opposed to a war to end slavery. Indeed, as early as 1861, an anonymous member of the regiment wrote to state's stridently abolitionist governor, John Andrew, to complain that "with but two or three exceptions those of our officers boast of their pro-slavery opinions and purposes. . ." In short, they were pro-Union, anti-abolitionist, McClellan Democrats.
Oliver Wendell Holmes was a Union man, but had no faith in the Union's ability to subdue the South. In a letter to his sister, in November of 1862, he wrote:
I've pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence & I am almost ready to hope spring will see an end—I prefer intervention to save our credit but believe me, we never shall lick 'em—The Army is tired with its hard, & its terrible experience & still more with its mismanagement & I think before long the majority will say that we are vainly working to effect what never happens—the subjugation (for that is it) of a great civilized nation. We shan't do it—at least the Army can't—. . .
Apparently his father thought such talk sounded like his heart wasn't with the Union, and a month later, Holmes wrote to his father to make the distinction clear: "I never I believe have shown, as you seem to hint, any wavering in my belief in the right of our cause—it is my disbelief in our success by arms in wh. I differ from you. . .and I believe I represent the conviction of the Army."
Needless to say, the "copperheads" of the 20th Massachusetts were none too pleased with Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The prolific letter writer, Major Henry Abbott, wrote to his aunt soon after: ". . .The president's proclamation is of course received with universal disgust, particularly the part which enjoins the officers to see that it is carried out. You may be sure that we shan't look to anything of the king, having decidedly too much reverence for the Constitution. . ."
After the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Abbott could not contain his anger that "the miserable Dutchmen, broke & ran all of them at the first shot, as I always reasoned they would," and he railed against "Hooker," and his higher-ups. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, "I should think the whole nation would cry out for McClellan. Lincoln & Halleck are traitors and caterpillars. . . . It certainly seems as if it were impossible for abolitionists to stop lying & doing all they can to injure this army."
Later, at Gettysburg, the 20th Massachusetts was nearly decimated, losing 8 officers and 101 enlisted men killed or wounded out of the 240 men who entered the fray. Among the dead were Colonel Revere, Lt. Sumner Paine, and Lt. Henry Ropes, each a part of the Copperhead clique of Crimson aristocrats. Holmes had been wounded earlier, at Fredericksburg, and his father, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., gave a speech at Boston on the day after the Gettysburg fighting ended, calling on all citizens of the U.S. to get behind President Lincoln, and to reject calls for a negotiated peace.
Major Abbott, on August 7th, 1863, wrote to his mother to say Holmes senior was "a miserable little manikin, dried up morally and physically, & there is certainly nothing more aggravating than to have a little fool make orations & talk about traitors & the man who quarrels with the pilot when the ship is in danger. . ."
But Gettysburg pretty much marked the end of the "Copperhead Regiment" designation. For the balance of the war, all the way to Appomattox, that distinguishing characteristic among its officers was lost. Say what you will about about those pro-slavery, Harvard Copperheads -- they did their duty, as volunteers, amidst all the grumbling. One of the last of them, the angry young Major Henry Abbott, was killed in the Wilderness in May of 1864.
One can only imagine the vitriol that would have issued from his pen had he lived long enough to see Lincoln summarily defeat McClellan—with overwhelming support from the army rank and file—the following November.
Some 20th Massachusetts links:
- Letters of the Harvard Regiment
- Abbott Family Civil War letters guide
- 20th Massachusetts bibliography
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