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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

"The Magnificent Yankee"


Bob Dame's article on Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Man Who Was Touched With Fire"
was published in the March 2001 issue of America's Civil War magazine


Legal Scholar

Supreme Court Justice 

Holmes' famous 1884 Memorial Day speech: "In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire"

Holmes' 1895 Memorial Day speech: "The Soldiers' Faith"

Holmes' resting place at Arlington National Cemetery

Holmes' favorite poem: "Soldier Buried on the Battlefield"

Other web pages about Holmes

The most famous Harvard man of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a towering figure in American jurisprudence, and one of the Twentieth Century's most influential public figures. Holmes the soldier served with distinction, surviving three wounds and rising to the rank of Captain in the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry. He later served as Brevet Colonel and aide-de-camp on the staff of Sixth Corps General Horatio Wright. Holmes is of course better known as "The Great Dissenter".

For thirty years, from 1902 to 1932, Holmes' brilliant intellect held sway over the US Supreme Court, and immeasurably influenced the American legal system. According to no less an authority than The Honorable Richard Posner, present day Chief Federal Judge of the Seventh Circuit, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was "the most illustrious figure in the history of American law". (Take that, Johnnie Cochran!)

Anecdotes about Holmes' numerous contacts with American Presidents highlight his status as a major figure in American intellectual and cultural history.

  • During the late 1840s, John Quincy Adams, born in 1761, and President from 1825 to 1829,   was a frequent visitor to the Holmes household and was a mentor to young "Wendell".
  • In 1864, 23-yr-old Holmes the soldier was at Fort Stevens, near Washington, D.C., while it was under Confederate assault. He screamed at a tall civilian in a suit and top hat recklessly peering over the fortress wall: "GET DOWN, YOU DAMNED FOOL!". The civilian was President Lincoln, who immediately complied.(The authenticity of this story has been questioned.)
  • In 1902 we find the 61-yr-old Holmes, being considered for a US Supreme Court nomination by President Theodore Roosevelt, secretly visiting the family summer home at Sagamore Hills, NY, and regaling the Roosevelt children with stories of his Civil War service. (Indeed fellow soldier Teddy Roosevelt knew little of Holmes' judicial writings, and nominated him based on admiration for an 1895 speech by Holmes on "The Soldier's Faith").
  • In 1924, Holmes received the Roosevelt Medal for distinguished public service from President Calvin Coolidge in a public ceremony.
  • In 1933, retired Supreme Court Justice Holmes was paid a courtesy call by President-elect Franklin Roosevelt. Holmes was found reading Plato in the Greek language. When Roosevelt asked the reason, Holmes, then 92 years old, answered, "Why, to improve my mind". Holmes then told a spellbound Roosevelt anecdotes of the Battle of Bunker Hill, as witnessed by Holmes' grandmother.
  • While President Richard Nixon never met Holmes, Nixon will forever be linked with one of Holmes' Supreme Court law clerks--the infamous Alger Hiss, who died in 1996.

For all his fame and accomplishments as a jurist and legal scholar, Holmes took the most pride from his service with the Harvard Regiment. Using his immense talents as a writer, he paid homage throughout his long life to his fellow Harvard men of the 20th Mass. One of the most quoted Memorial Day speeches ever given was a brilliant 1884 Holmes' address containing the phrase: "In our youth our hearts were touched with fire". This 1884 speech also contains touching tributes to fallen 20th Massachusetts comrades.

Holmes' life-long wish was to be interred with his fellow soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. When he was laid to rest in 1935, eight infantrymen raised their rifles and fired three volleys, one for each of the battles in which Holmes was wounded: Ball's Bluff, Antietam and Second Fredericksburg. Holmes' gravesite at Arlington rests under a tree, not far from another Massachusetts native, John F. Kennedy. The very top of Holmes' gravestone lists what this Supreme Court Justice and legal icon considered his greatest honor in life: "Captain and Brevet Colonel, 20th Mass. Volunteer Infantry".

* "The Magnificent Yankee" is the title of a 1950 Hollywood movie about Holmes.



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