Monday, August 07, 2006

CWL --- The Nature of Sacrifice: Charles Russell Lowell's Civil War

The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Rusell Lowell, Jr. 1835-1864, Carol Bundy, Farrer Strauss and Giroux, 560pp., endnotes, index, 2005, $35.00.

Within the first several chapters, this reader found Charlie Lowell a 'child of the(19)sixties living in the 1850s and not the Brahmin snob that he thought he would encounter.

Born in 1835, immediately before his family slipped from high social standing and wealth and into the 'poor cousins' category, Charlie the grew up in the 'high'culture' of Boston of close-knit kinship relations and opportunities.

With Transcendentalists and Abolitionists as neighbors and relatives, with books and debate as a part of family dinner discourse, and with newspapers and current bestsellers as a part of the table top literature of the household, Charlie grew into an apparently aimless but articulate Harvard student. Slight in build and height, surpassed all, after giving the commencement day address at Harvard in 1856, he took a manual laborers job on the Boston wharfs.

He approached manual labor and business in general with the soul of a philosopher and philanthropist. He was a subversive idealist in the workplace, a worker with a social conscience, and a son who wished to succeed where his father failed. Charlie chose the iron industry as his place in the world. By 1860, after an interlude in Europe recovering from tuberculosis, he was managing an iron foundry, west of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Voting Republican in the presidential election, he watched the secession crisis from western Maryland. The attack on Massachusetts troops by a Baltimore mob in the spring of 1861 brought him into the ranks of the Union army as a cavalry captain.

By 1863, after seeing action on the Peninsula and serving on McClellan's staff during the Sharpsburg campaign, Charlie Lowell commanded the 2nd Massachusetts cavalry in what he considered a 'backwater' assignment, Mosby's Confederacy. It was difficult and distastefull duty for him but one at which he excelled. Lowell collected near missed throughout the war; on the Peninsula he shook out his bedroll from behind his saddle and minie balls dropped out. At Antietam, he discovered his horse to be winded and removed the saddle and found the beast hit several times under it. As a colonel of a brigade during the 1864 Shenandoah campaign, he participated and rationalized the destruction of civilian farmsteads. He finally received a wound from a ball that clipped his elbow, traveled up his sleeve,crossed his shoulder, traveled down and cut a small portion of his spine. He died within 24 hours; he was survived by his wife whom he married in 1863 and was seven months pregnant.

The nature of Charles Russell Lowell's sacrifice was multi-faceted: the happy bachelor who left a wife and child, the workplace manager with a heart for the workers, sleight twenty-somenthing who had become a leader of cavalrymen, and the intellectual who became a anti-guerrilla fighter.

This biography surprises in many ways. Charlie Lowell is put in the context of a family on economic decline, of a social conscience within the environment of the empheral ideas of Transcendentalism, and of a top achieving Harvard student who condemns the college's curriculum of constant mind-numbing rote memorization. In 1861, few would have picked Charlie Lowell become a successful leader of cavalrymen. Appreciated by McClellan, Stanton, and Mosby, Lowell became a hero. The nature of Lowell's sacrifice was the loss of a future earned by a man who believed that there are no problems, only solutions and seized his duty to find a way to succeed.

No comments: