|Charles Russell Lowell|
Lowell believed “the world advanced by impossibilities achieved.” He was thinking of his maternal grandfather, Patrick Tracy Jackson, the founder of the city of Lowell, who had harnessed water power and made a fortune as a leading pioneer in the American textile industry. He was thinking of his father, Charles Russell Lowell, Sr., who had tried to be the first American to smelt iron and had gone bankrupt in the attempt. Lowell was also thinking of the railroad reducing a three week journey to three days.
|James Russell Lowell|
Through the 1850s Lowell was tempted to dedicate himself to the struggle, but he resisted. Committed to recouping the family fortune he made a brilliant start in the iron business. Then tuberculosis struck and Lowell spent two years convalescing in Europe. He toured the galleries of Rome with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He became an accomplished horseman, learning to use a saber in North Africa. Once well enough, he resumed his career; this time in the boom town of Burlington, Iowa, which overlooked the Mississippi river, as treasurer of the fledgling Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad.
Two years in the Midwest building a business and observing the birth of the Republican Party did much to sober his politics. As he came to understand the economic realities of industrialization, he recognized that the slave economy had a limited life span. By 1860 when he returned east to become manager of an iron foundry in western Maryland, his plan was to spend ten years in business, making enough money to then devote himself to public service.
|Fort Sumter Flag|
|A charge at Malvern Hill on the 4th day|
His opportunity came in late 1862, when he went back to Boston to raise, train and command the Second Massachusetts Cavalry. And he began his intimate association with the three principals behind the Massachusetts war effort. Gov. John Albion Andrew, a radical Christian evangelical abolitionist from Maine, the China Trade merchant, John Murray Forbes, a man of astounding enterprise, and the textile magnate, Amos Adams Lawrence. Lowell became involved in the creation of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, which his friend Robert Gould Shaw commanded. Over the winter of 1862-63 the two regiments, one white one black, trained together. Lowell became engaged to Shaw's sister Josephine, known as Effie. They were a charmed couple at the forefront of the war’s turn from a fight to restore the union, to the larger and radical objective of emancipation.
By the summer of 1863 Lowell had returned to the front and his war had turned nasty. The victory at Gettysburg was tempered by more deaths, most intimately his classmate Paul Revere, grandson of the revolutionary rider, his cousins, Samuel Storrow, and Sumner Paine. Then came news of the senseless slaughter of the 54th Regiment at Fort Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina in mid-July. Lowell’s cousin Cabot Russel was missing, last seen on the ramparts with Shaw. And it was Robert Gould Shaw's heroic death that had the greatest impact on Lowell. The accumulated guilt of surviving when so many of his nearest friends and relations had not crystallized as Lowell struggled to console his wife over the loss of her brother. He developed an almost mystical sense of personal mission.
|Mosby and his Rangers|
|Vienna Camp with stables and tents below, Officers quarters on the hill|
|Lowell and Officers of the 2nd Mass Cavalry|
A summary execution only sixteen miles from Washington was exceptional even in this case where treason was the additional and graver offense. Lowell submitted to his superiors a complete record of the court-martial hearing and stated frankly that he had ordered and carried out the execution. He expected to be court-martialed, but his report was buried by his superiors. Even more extraordinary, the condemned man used his final words to support Lowell’s order for his own execution. (Herman Melville, who stayed with Lowell two months later, was fascinated by this event and used it in Billy Budd.)
In August 1864 Lowell and his regiment gladly left behind Mosby and guerrilla warfare for the Cavalry Corps in the newly organized Middle Military Department, destined for the Second Shenandoah Valley Campaign under General Philip Sheridan. The objective was to defeat the forces of General Jubal Early and drive the Confederates out of their stronghold, sanctuary, and source of supply, the Shenandoah Valley. If he succeeded, the noose around Lee's main army would tighten and the end be near; if he failed, the Confederates might hold out much longer, and in the face of the gathering voice for peace at any price in the North, might gain their independence.
|Alfred Waud's drawing of the Cavalry burning the Shenandoah Valley, October 1864|
|General Philip Sheridan|
|General John Buford and his staff|
Through this period, Lowell had the close support of his wife, Effie, who after their marriage in October 1863 came to live in his headquarters caring for the wounded, and establishing a small school for the refugee ex-slaves who collected at the encampment. In late July 1864 she returned home four months pregnant. Their almost daily correspondence until his death is a remarkable record. Lowell felt free to discuss politics, military policy, and the moral ambiguity of his difficult decisions. Many of the letters discuss their life after the war, the birth of their child, Lowell's desire to survive. He also wrote to his friends who were now out of the war. The only one from his family, from his childhood gang, from his Harvard class still fighting, Lowell accepted that his fate was to fight for all of them. To his surviving friends – men like Greeley Curtis, and Charles Francis Adams, friends from the Boston Latin School, Frank Barlow, also a protégé of Emerson, who proved an even better general that Lowell but had broken down at new of his wife’s death from yellow fever—as a nurse she had twice saved his life. Oliver Wendell Holmes, his much younger and adoring cousin, who later became the legendary Supreme Court Justice. And his closest cousin and best friend, Henry Lee Higginson who subsequently founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra and for the rest of his life made charitable gifts in Lowell’s name. To these friends, Lowell now declared his ideal to be “the useful citizen, a mighty unpretending hero” and his goal for life after the war was to “look a Southern stranger in the eye.” He urged his friends to set that as their goal as well.
By mid-October Early’s men no longer had forage in the ShenandoahValley, they would have to fight soon or cede the valley to the Union. Lowell was convinced that the fate of the nation would be decided not on the battlefield but at the ballot box. McClellan had promised to sue for peace, a peace that would preserve slavery and, from Lowell’s point of view, render pointless all that his kinsmen had died for. Lincoln’s reelection was paramount.
But heroic action was only part of it. The moral and ethical challenges he faced along the way remind us that nothing is very simple. Initially, he had been as anxious as any to be tested in battle. But that had changed with experience. He passed the test but the lesson learned was not what he expected. Military leadership was not, Lowell learned, the ultimate challenge so many young men had imagined it would be. He wrote his wife, “I wish I could feel as sure of doing my duty elsewhere as I am of doing it on the field of battle.” With chagrin he confessed that he found it easier to see “what needs to be done” in the crisis of the battlefield than in the relative calm of civilian life. And in 1864 as he made his way across a battlefield, sending men to kill and be killed, to burn wheat fields, and to execute guerrillas, what sustained him was his new ideal of heroics, what he called “a patriot’s duty:” performing the small, lackluster duties that need to be done in peace time for peaceful living.
|RWEmerson w/Charles L Emerson|
|Effie with Carlotta|