Charles Russell Lowell

Wut's wurds to them whose faith an' truth

On war's red techstone rang true metal,

Who ventered life an' love an, youth

For the gret prize o' death in battle?

To him who, deadly hurt, agen

Flashed on afore the charge's thunder,

Tippin' with fire the bolt of men

Thet rived the rebel line asunder?


Charles Russell Lowell was born in Boston, January 2, 1835. He was the

eldest son of Charles Russell and Anna Cabot (Jackson) Lowell, and the

nephew of James Russell Lowell. He bore the name, distinguished in many

branches, of a family which was of the best New England stock. Educated

in the Boston public schools, he entered Harvard College in 1850.

Although one of the youngest members of his class, he went rapidly to

the front, and graduated not only the first scholar of his year, but

the foremost man of his class. He was, however, much more than a fine

scholar, for even then he showed unusual intellectual qualities. He read

widely and loved letters. He was a student of philosophy and religion, a

thinker, and, best of all, a man of ideals--"the glory of youth," as

he called them in his valedictory oration. But he was something still

better and finer than a mere idealist; he was a man of action, eager to

put his ideals into practice and bring them to the test of daily life.

With his mind full of plans for raising the condition of workingmen

while he made his own career, he entered the iron mills of the Ames

Company, at Chicopee. Here he remained as a workingman for six months,

and then received an important post in the Trenton Iron Works of New

Jersey. There his health broke down. Consumption threatened him, and all

his bright hopes and ambitions were overcast and checked. He was obliged

to leave his business and go to Europe, where he traveled for two years,

fighting the dread disease that was upon him. In 1858 he returned, and

took a position on a Western railroad. Although the work was new to

him, he manifested the same capacity that he had always shown, and more

especially his power over other men and his ability in organization. In

two years his health was reestablished, and in 1860 he took charge of

the Mount Savage Iron Works, at Cumberland, Maryland. He was there

when news came of the attack made by the mob upon the 6th Massachusetts

Regiment, in Baltimore. Two days later he had made his way to

Washington, one of the first comers from the North, and at once applied

for a commission in the regular army. While he was waiting, he employed

himself in looking after the Massachusetts troops, and also, it is

understood, as a scout for the Government, dangerous work which suited

his bold and adventurous nature.

In May he received his commission as captain in the United States

cavalry. Employed at first in recruiting and then in drill, he gave

himself up to the study of tactics and the science of war. The career

above all others to which he was suited had come to him. The field, at

last, lay open before him, where all his great qualities of mind and

heart, his high courage, his power of leadership and of organization, and

his intellectual powers could find full play. He moved rapidly forward,

just as he had already done in college and in business. His regiment,

in 1862, was under Stoneman in the Peninsula, and was engaged in many

actions, where Lowell's cool bravery made him constantly conspicuous.

At the close of the campaign he was brevetted major, for distinguished

services at Williamsburg and Slatersville.

In July, Lowell was detailed for duty as an aid to General McClellan.

At Malvern Hill and South Mountain his gallantry and efficiency were

strongly shown, but it was at Antietam that he distinguished himself

most. Sent with orders to General Sedgwick's division, he found it

retreating in confusion, under a hot fire. He did not stop to think

of orders, but rode rapidly from point to point of the line, rallying

company after company by the mere force and power of his word and look,

checking the rout, while the storm of bullets swept all round him. His

horse was shot under him, a ball passed through his coat, another

broke his sword-hilt, but he came off unscathed, and his service was

recognized by his being sent to Washington with the captured flags of

the enemy.

The following winter he was ordered to Boston, to recruit a regiment

of cavalry, of which he was appointed colonel. While the recruiting was

going on, a serious mutiny broke out, but the man who, like Cromwell's

soldiers, "rejoiced greatly" in the day of battle was entirely capable

of meeting this different trial. He shot the ringleader dead, and by

the force of his own strong will quelled the outbreak completely and at


In May, he went to Virginia with his regiment, where he was engaged in

resisting and following Mosby, and the following summer he was opposed

to General Early in the neighborhood of Washington. On July 14, when

on a reconnoissance his advance guard was surprised, and he met them

retreating in wild confusion, with the enemy at their heels. Riding into

the midst of the fugitives, Lowell shouted, "Dismount!" The sharp word

of command, the presence of the man himself, and the magic of discipline

prevailed. The men sprang down, drew up in line, received the enemy,

with a heavy fire, and as the assailants wavered, Lowell advanced at

once, and saved the day.

In July, he was put in command of the "Provisional Brigade," and joined

the army of the Shenandoah, of which in August General Sheridan took

command. He was so struck with Lowell's work during the next month that

in September he put him in command of the "Reserved Brigade," a very

fine body of cavalry and artillery. In the fierce and continuous

fighting that ensued Lowell was everywhere conspicuous, and in thirteen

weeks he had as many horses shot under him. But he now had scope to

show more than the dashing gallantry which distinguished him always and

everywhere. His genuine military ability, which surely would have

led him to the front rank of soldiers had his life been spared, his

knowledge, vigilance, and nerve all now became apparent. One brilliant

action succeeded another, but the end was drawing near. It came at

last on the famous day of Cedar Creek, when Sheridan rode down from

Winchester and saved the battle. Lowell had advanced early in the

morning on the right, and his attack prevented the disaster on that wing

which fell upon the surprised army. He then moved to cover the retreat,

and around to the extreme left, where he held his position near

Middletown against repeated assaults. Early in the day his last horse

was shot under him, and a little later, in a charge at one o'clock, he

was struck in the right breast by a spent ball, which embedded itself

in the muscles of the chest. Voice and strength left him. "It is only

my poor lung," he announced, as they urged him to go to the rear; "you

would not have me leave the field without having shed blood." As a

matter of fact, the "poor" lung had collapsed, and there was an internal

hemorrhage. He lay thus, under a rude shelter, for an hour and a half,

and then came the order to advance along the whole line, the victorious

advance of Sheridan and the rallied army. Lowell was helped to his

saddle. "I feel well now," he whispered, and, giving his orders through

one of his staff, had his brigade ready first. Leading the great charge,

he dashed forward, and, just when the fight was hottest, a sudden cry

went up: "The colonel is hit!" He fell from the saddle, struck in the

neck by a ball which severed the spine, and was borne by his officers to

a house in the village, where, clear in mind and calm in spirit, he died

a few hours afterward.

"I do not think there was a quality," said General Sheridan, "which

I could have added to Lowell. He was the perfection of a man and a

soldier." On October 19, the very day on which he fell, his commission

was signed to be a brigadier-general.

This was a noble life and a noble death, worthy of much thought and

admiration from all men. Yet this is not all. It is well for us to see

how such a man looked upon what he was doing, and what it meant to him.

Lowell was one of the silent heroes so much commended by Carlyle. He

never wrote of himself or his own exploits. As some one well said, he

had "the impersonality of genius." But in a few remarkable passages

in his private letters, we can see how the meaning of life and of that

great time unrolled itself before his inner eyes. In June, 1861, he


I cannot say I take any great pleasure in the contemplation of the

future. I fancy you feel much as I do about the profitableness of a

soldier's life, and would not think of trying it, were it not for a

muddled and twisted idea that somehow or other this fight was going to

be one in which decent men ought to engage for the sake of humanity,--I

use the word in its ordinary sense. It seems to me that within a year

the slavery question will again take a prominent place, and that many

cases will arise in which we may get fearfully in the wrong if we put

our cause wholly in the hands of fighting men and foreign legions.

In June, 1863, he wrote:

I wonder whether my theories about self-culture, etc., would ever have

been modified so much, whether I should ever have seen what a necessary

failure they lead to, had it not been for this war. Now I feel every

day, more and more, that a man has no right to himself at all; that,

indeed, he can do nothing useful unless he recognizes this clearly. Here

again, on July 3, is a sentence which it is well to take to heart, and

for all men to remember when their ears are deafened with the cry that

war, no matter what the cause, is the worst thing possible, because it

interferes with comfort, trade, and money-making: "Wars are bad," Lowell

writes, "but there are many things far worse. Anything immediately

comfortable in our affairs I don't see; but comfortable times are not

the ones t hat make a nation great." On July 24, he says:

Many nations fail, that one may become great; ours will fail, unless we

gird up our loins and do humble and honest days' work, without trying

to do the thing by the job, or to get a great nation made by a patent

process. It is not safe to say that we shall not have victories till we

are ready for them. We shall have victories, and whether or no we are

ready for them depends upon ourselves; if we are not ready, we shall

fail,--voila tout. If you ask, what if we do fail? I have nothing to

say; I shouldn't cry over a nation or two, more or less, gone under.

Finally, on September 10, a little more than a month before his death,

he wrote to a disabled officer:

I hope that you are going to live like a plain republican, mindful of

the beauty and of the duty of simplicity. Nothing fancy now, sir, if you

please; it's disreputable to spend money when the government is so

hard up, and when there are so many poor officers. I hope that you have

outgrown all foolish ambitions, and are now content to become a "useful

citizen." Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you will find it much

more difficult to be a useful citizen. Don't seek office, but don't

"disremember" that the "useful citizen" always holds his time, his

trouble, his money, and his life ready at the hint of his country. The

useful citizen is a mighty, unpretending hero; but we are not going to

have any country very long, unless such heroism is developed. There,

what a stale sermon I'm preaching. But, being a soldier, it does seem to

me that I should like nothing so well as being a useful citizen. Well,

trying to be one, I mean. I shall stay in the service, of course, till

the war is over, or till I'm disabled; but then I look forward to a

pleasanter career.

I believe I have lost all my ambitions. I don't think I would turn my

hand to be a distinguished chemist or a famous mathematician. All I now

care about is to be a useful citizen, with money enough to buy bread

and firewood, and to teach my children to ride on horseback, and look

strangers in the face, especially Southern strangers.

There are profound and lofty lessons of patriotism and conduct in these

passages, and a very noble philosophy of life and duty both as a man

and as a citizen of a great republic. They throw a flood of light on

the great underlying forces which enabled the American people to save

themselves in that time of storm and stress. They are the utterances of

a very young man, not thirty years old when he died in battle, but much

beyond thirty in head and heart, tried and taught as he had been in a

great war. What precisely such young men thought they were fighting for

is put strikingly by Lowell's younger brother James, who was killed at

Glendale, July 4, 1862. In 1861, James Lowell wrote to his classmates,

who had given him a sword:

Those who died for the cause, not of the Constitution and the laws,--a

superficial cause, the rebels have now the same,--but of civilization

and law, and the self-restrained freedom which is their result. As the

Greeks at Marathon and Salamis, Charles Martel and the Franks at Tours,

and the Germans at the Danube, saved Europe from Asiatic barbarism, so

we, at places to be famous in future times, shall have saved America

from a similar tide of barbarism; and we may hope to be purified and

strengthened ourselves by the struggle.

This is a remarkable passage and a deep thought. Coming from a young

fellow of twenty-four, it is amazing. But the fiery trial of the times

taught fiercely and fast, and James Lowell, just out of college, could

see in the red light around him that not merely the freedom of a race

and the saving of a nation were at stake, but that behind all this

was the forward movement of civilization, brought once again to the

arbitrament of the sword. Slavery was barbarous and barbarizing. It

had dragged down the civilization of the South to a level from which it

would take generations to rise up again. Was this barbarous force now

to prevail in the United States in the nineteenth century? Was it to

destroy a great nation, and fetter human progress in the New World? That

was the great question back of, beyond and above all. Should this force

of barbarism sweep conquering over the land, wrecking an empire in its

onward march, or should it be flung back as Miltiades flung back Asia

at Marathon, and Charles Martel stayed the coming of Islam at Tours? The

brilliant career, the shining courage, best seen always where the dead

were lying thickest, the heroic death of Charles Lowell, are good for

us all to know and to remember. Yet this imperfect story of his life

has not been placed here for these things alone. Many thousand others,

officers and soldiers alike, in the great Civil War gave their lives as

freely as he, and brought to the service of their country the best that

was in them. He was a fine example of many who, like him, offered up

all they had for their country. But Lowell was also something more

than this. He was a high type of a class, and a proof of certain very

important things, and this is a point worthy of much consideration.

The name of John Hampden stands out in the history of the

English-speaking people, admired and unquestioned. He was neither a

great statesman, nor a great soldier; he was not a brilliant orator, nor

a famous writer. He fell bravely in an unimportant skirmish at Chalgrove

Field, fighting for freedom and what he believed to be right. Yet he

fills a great place in the past, both for what he did and what he

was, and the reason for this is of high importance. John Hampden was

a gentleman, with all the advantages that the accidents of birth could

give. He was rich, educated, well born, of high traditions. English

civilization of that day could produce nothing better. The memorable

fact is that, when the time came for the test, he did not fail. He was

a type of what was best among the English people, and when the call

sounded, he was ready. He was brave, honest, high-minded, and he

gave all, even his life, to his country. In the hour of need, the

representative of what was best and most fortunate in England was put to

the touch, and proved to be current gold. All men knew what that meant,

and Hampden's memory is one of the glories of the English-speaking


Charles Lowell has the same meaning for us when rightly understood. He

had all that birth, breeding, education, and tradition could give. The

resources of our American life and civilization could produce nothing

better. How would he and such men as he stand the great ordeal when it

came? If wealth, education, and breeding were to result in a class

who could only carp and criticize, accumulate money, give way to

self-indulgence, and cherish low foreign ideals, then would it have

appeared that there was a radical unsoundness in our society, refinement

would have been proved to be weakness, and the highest education would

have been shown to be a curse, rather than a blessing. But Charles

Lowell, and hundreds of others like him, in greater or less degree, all

over the land, met the great test and emerged triumphant. The Harvard

men may be taken as fairly representing the colleges and universities of

America. Harvard had, in 1860, 4157 living graduates, and 823 students,

presumably over eighteen years old. Probably 3000 of her students and

graduates were of military age, and not physically disqualified for

military service. Of this number, 1230 entered the Union army or navy.

One hundred and fifty-six died in service, and 67 were killed in action.

Many did not go who might have gone, unquestionably, but the record is a

noble one. Nearly one man of every two Harvard men came forward to serve

his country when war was at our gates, and this proportion holds true,

no doubt, of the other universities of the North. It is well for the

country, well for learning, well for our civilization, that such a

record was made at such a time. Charles Lowell, and those like him,

showed, once for all, that the men to whom fortune had been kindest were

capable of the noblest patriotism, and shrank from no sacrifices. They

taught the lesson which can never be heard too often--that the man to

whom the accidents of birth and fortune have given most is the man who

owes most to his country. If patriotism should exist anywhere, it should

be strongest with such men as these, and their service should be ever

ready. How nobly Charles Lowell in this spirit answered the great

question, his life and death, alike victorious, show to all men.

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