Colonel Charles Russell Lowell was born in Boston in 1835, and killed in October 1864 at the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley. A disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lowell argued at his Harvard Commencement in 1854 that the value of young men was not their physical labor but their fresh ideals: out of their dreams would come new realities. Ten years later he died as so many young men have died, serving his country: commanding a Union cavalry brigade alongside George Armstrong Custer and displaying a pragmatism and courage that astonished even the most hard-bitten professional officers. In the crucible of civil war, Lowell’s idealism was tested by bitter truths and starkest realities. Tempered and thus refined, he became the Transcendental Cavalier.
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 waterpower 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.
He also meant the eradication of slavery for he was the third generation in his family to oppose the institution. His paternal grandfather, the Reverend Charles Lowell, was one of very few Boston ministers who spoke out against slavery. Lowell’s uncle James Russell Lowell’s abolition took a more literary and political line. He was the editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard and his own poem, Biglow Papers gave voice to New England’s opposition to the South’s expansionist war with Mexico, and then the rancorous national fight over the spoils of that war which resulted in the Compromise of 1850 with its notorious Fugitive Slave Law. In 1854 when Charlie Lowell watched the fugitive slave Anthony Burns marched down to board ship and return to bondage, he was convinced that his parents’ generation had failed. To them the slave remained property. Only a new generation, his own, for whom the slave’s humanity was foremost, would have the will to abolish slavery.
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 boomtown 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.
It was not to be. Lincoln’s election, which he wholeheartedly supported, was the catalyst for secession. Although Lowell was in New Orleans when Louisiana seceded he doubted anything so dramatic as war would occur. He did not respond to Lincoln’s call for troops after the firing on Fort Sumter, and it was only by coincidence that he was in Baltimore on April 19, 1861 when an angry mob attacked Massachusetts Volunteers as they changed trains for Washington. This attack, and the spilling of Massachusetts’ blood, motivated Lowell to go directly to Washington and apply for a commission in the Regular Army. The rest of his short life was in uniform.
Awaiting his commission, Lowell worked as the Agent for Massachusetts troops, seeing at first hand how confused and chaotic the mobilization effort was. Commissioned a Captain in the Sixth U.S. Cavalry, he became friends with many of the young West Point officers who would later be the making of the Union cavalry. During the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, he became an aide-de-camp to General George McClellan and served at Antietam, where he earned the coveted honor of delivering the captured battle flags to the Secretary of War.
While these early experiences would prove invaluable later in the war, they were not immediately satisfying. The cavalry was not properly used. McClellan was a master planner but hesitant in action. As a regular officer, Lowell was appointed to a staff position, while his friends in the Volunteer Army were fighting and dying. In April 1861, Lowell predicted the volunteers would be “food for cannons” but he had no idea of the emotional impact of that truth until Oct. 61 when his cousin, William Lowell Putnam, was killed at Ball’s Bluff; in July his brother, James Jackson Lowell was killed on the Peninsula. On Aug. 9, at Cedar Mountain, a good portion of his childhood companions died. Among them was Richard Goodwin, so ill that only with the help of his servant was he able to march to battle. Hardly had he reached the front when both he and his servant were killed, neither having actually fought. Richard Cary, part of Lowell’s childhood gang, the Temple Court gang. Cary was also tubercular, and married. James Savage was a Christian abolitionist, a man of searing rectitude, universally admired and adored by his men. He had been the leader of Lowell’s childhood comrades. The hero of the snowball fight between the “Beacon Street Cowards” and the “Newcomers” recounted in The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams. Most traumatic was the death of Stephen Perkins. Shot three times in the head, Perkins had had a kind of Grecian beauty. Lowell and Perkins had crossed the Alps together. Exhilarated by traversing glaciers and debating the meaning of life. It was Perkins who had posed the question: “I wonder we shall go on constantly expecting life to unfold itself, and the great possibilities to appear in us and outside of us, until we are surprised that death has come for us, when we hardly seem to ourselves to have lived.” It is the question that Henry James turned into the short story, The Beast in the Jungle.
At Second Bull Run, his cousin Warren Dutton died. And at Antietam, among many others, William Sedgwick and Wilder Dwight. Those at home saw them as heroes and martyrs; Lowell was more conscious of the errors and sloppiness that contributed to their deaths. A redoubled sense of obligation went hand in hand with resolve to help make the Army an effective and disciplined fighting force.
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.
From a base in Vienna, Virginia, he began a ten-month struggle to counter guerrilla operations in Virginia, specifically to foil and defeat John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers, the swashbuckling heroes of Confederate lore. But from Lowell’s perspective this was “inglorious warfare;” his men called it police work. Mosby fought “rough.” Like most guerrillas, his strength lay in breaking every rule and convention regarding war. Ambushes were constant. And in two instances, devastating for the regiment—favorite officers killed, large numbers of men taken prisoner, and for those who survived, the experience of humiliating defeat in an unfair fight.
Lowell tried to fight “fair,” constrained not only by his own sense of decency but also by General Order 100 or Lieber’s Code. This seminal document was the first attempt to codify the rules of war as they concerned civilians. It’s the base document from which the Geneva Conventions were drawn, the cornerstone of our understanding of humanitarian law. Even thus constrained, Lowell was more successful fighting Mosby than any other Union commander; twice he wounded him but could not kill the elusive guerrilla leader. Time and again, Mosby and his men disappeared into the care of Virginia farmers. These same farmers harassed and reported on every move Lowell made.
Under such pressure the regiment suffered more than its share of low morale. That winter, one of the coldest on record, desertion was rife. In February Mosby’s men ambushed a scouting party. During the skirmish, an outraged sergeant recognized the man shooting at him, a deserter from his own company, and promptly captured him. Brought into camp, the unfortunate youth was, at Lowell’s orders, tried at once by a drumhead court-martial and executed at dawn the following day before the assembled regiment.
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 superiors buried his report. 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 is 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.
Lowell and his men soon learned that much of the ugliness they had assumed was unique to guerrilla action was now pervasive. Grant substantially altered military objectives when he ordered Sheridan’s cavalry to pursue a “scorched earth” policy, destroying civilian resources. At the height of the harvest, in some of the nation’s most fertile and beautiful countryside, the orders to burn were repugnant. Army policy toward civilians was further complicated when Mosby carried his guerrilla activity into the Shenandoah Valley. Despite Lowell’s scrupulous attitude, he and his men were at the heart of the Front Royal Affair, one of the best documented atrocities of the Civil War in which Union officers tortured and killed at least six prisoners.
Sheridan, a trained infantry commander, was responsible for a strategic breakthrough in the use of cavalry. No longer simply tacked on to various infantry forces as scouts, it was used as a massed assault weapon of deadly and omnipotent force. The casualty rate soared. Lowell’s talents were recognized and he was promoted to command the Reserve Brigade of regular cavalry, General Buford’s old command. In this capacity he was in the thickest of the fighting at Winchester and then at Tom’s Brook, popularly known as the “Woodstock Races” because of a thirty mile chase of fleeing Confederates. Victory had become destruction and to experience destruction on this scale, even as the destroyer, was transformative.
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 Shenandoah Valley, 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.
On October 19 as his troops set out on a pre-dawn scout, they spotted Early’s men creeping across a ford in the morning fog, and then heard firing to their left. Without orders Lowell at first waited helplessly. Then, as he realized Early’s surprise attack was succeeding and that the lack of orders was not intentional, he led two brigades three miles across the battlefield as if on military parade. He drew Confederate fire onto his own men. This gave the infantry, caught unprepared in their tents or in camps, and fleeing to the rear in varying degrees of panic and disorder, a chance to calm and reorganize. Reaching the main road he finally received orders to prevent the Confederates, lodged in the village of Middletown, from continuing their pursuit of the Union infantry. Some of his men took the extreme advance position behind stone walls and trees, providing cover for a series of charges on the well-fortified town. Meanwhile the rest of the cavalry massed on the road outside the town, and Early’s men grew timid. Arrogantly parading just out of range, the Union cavalry presented themselves as preparing for a charge. Behind them was chaos as Union infantry officers attempted to rally their men and reform their units.
While returning from one of the charges on Middletown, Lowell was first wounded. Despite a collapsed lung and internal hemorrhaging, he refused to leave the field and continued to conduct his men’s delaying tactics while Sheridan rallied his infantry. Not till 4 in the afternoon was the signal given for the counter assault.
In recognition of his contribution, and knowing that in all likelihood he was already dying, General Merritt asked Lowell to lead the charge. Strapped into his saddle, he rode to the front of the three thousand horsemen. Immediately he gave the signal. The bugles sounded and he took off. The cavalry followed enveloped in deafening thunder of the horses’ hooves pounding the earth. Almost instantly he was shot through the spine by the sharpshooters on the village rooftops. He fell from his horse paralyzed and was carried on a litter behind his men as they retook the village of Middletown. Through the night he dictated final letters, gave orders, and with the dawn of the next day, died.
The Battle of Cedar Creek became a tremendous Union victory, breaking the Confederate cavalry, destroying the strategic value of the Shenandoah Valley, and providing Lincoln with a victory just two weeks before his re-election. In many ways Lowell’s life is a very simple story of a young man who challenged himself to live a heroic life and then went out and lived it. He could look back on all his youthful theories of reform, of self-culture, of subtle Emersonian concepts, and recognize that war had boiled it all down and taught him that the “great secret in doing, is in seeing what needs to be done.”
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.