The Amend Corner

The historic role of good luck

By Don Amend
Posted 4/13/21

I’ve always been a reader. 

I can’t help it; it’s in the DNA handed down from my father, so I’m stuck with it.

Whenever Dad had a spare minute with nothing going on …

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The Amend Corner

The historic role of good luck

Posted

I’ve always been a reader. 

I can’t help it; it’s in the DNA handed down from my father, so I’m stuck with it.

Whenever Dad had a spare minute with nothing going on — which was rare, given that he had six kids who, as a group, were rather noisy — he pulled out a paperback or unfolded a newspaper and read it.

I picked up the reading habit early in life, beginning with “Winnie the Pooh” and progressing into being a voracious reader of literature and nonfiction. Then I married into a family of readers and within a few years, I was raising two new readers. Now, I am the proud grandpa of four youngsters who enjoy reading.

We don’t all read the same stuff, though. Dad was partial to mysteries, and my wife reads one popular novel after another. I prefer classic novels such as “Les Miserables” and nonfiction, particularly about American and world history, with some social and political reading thrown in.

This love of reading has been especially useful this past year. Going out on the town has been ill-advised, not by government mandates, but by my spouse’s protective instincts. She apparently wants me to stay around for a while longer, and has insisted on being cautious.

Well, that’s OK, because staying at home gives me a whole lot of time to, as you probably can guess, read books, and I have discovered that writers have mined two significant events in our nation’s history — the Civil War and World War II — for things to write about. As a result, I’ve learned about many elements of those wars that I had never heard of before, such as the career of a single airplane and crew and their exploits against the Japanese. I’ve learned about spies I’ve never heard of before and about how close a future film star, Audrey Hepburn, came to starvation in the closing days of the Hitler’s war.

One story, especially, caught my eye, because it told of the incredible good luck of one Union soldier, a captain with the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. During the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, a bullet struck him in the mid-section, knocking the wind out of him.  Fortunately, the bullet had expended most of its energy before it hit the captain, and it only bruised his belly, although it did knock him unconscious. When he recovered, the commanding officer ordered him to the rear but he disobeyed the order and led a charge against the enemy. A few minutes later he was hit again. This time, the bullet entered his chest on his left side and exited on his right, missing his heart, but nicking a lung.

Despite the wound, he recovered quickly and two days later was able to travel to Philadelphia, where his father, a doctor, found him and took him home to Boston. By November, he was able to walk, and by March, he was back with the 20th Massachusetts.

In September 1862, less than a year after his injury at Ball’s Bluff, the captain was hit again during the Battle of Antietam — one of the bloodiest of the Civil War battles. His unit was retreating at the time, so he had his back to the enemy when a bullet hit him in the back of the neck, and he fell to the ground unconscious. He regained consciousness after two fellow officers picked him up, and with their help, he walked to the field hospital. The bullet, which had traveled clear through his neck, miraculously missed all the vital parts located there, his spine, his trachea and esophagus, and the vital vessels that supply the brain with blood.

Once again, the officer recovered quickly and was able the next day to write a letter home. In November, he returned to his unit, in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg. He missed the first day of the battle because he was suffering from dysentery, and the next day, he was wounded for the third time. A Confederate artillery barrage forced him to hit the ground, but a fragment of a shell hit him in the heel, shattering the bone. At first doctors thought they might have to amputate his foot, but in the end, he kept the foot. This time, though, he did not recover so quickly, and during his months of recuperation, the 20th Massachusetts fought at Gettysburg and suffered extensive casualties. 

The officer, Cpt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, spent the rest of the war as a staff officer and saw no more combat.

Holmes was not through serving his country, though. In 1902, Presisdent Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served until 1932 when he was 91. He is the longest-serving justice in history and the oldest justice to serve. His work on the court changed the way the court approached their deliberations and rulings during those years.

This story reminds me that history is more than a record of great events and larger than life heroes. It is also composed of the actions of countless ordinary people. Oliver Wendell Holmes was, without doubt, a great man who left his mark on the U.S. Supreme Court during his three decades of service. But his service as an officer leading ordinary Massachusetts men was part of the greatness he brought to that high office. That’s something worth remembering.

It’s also worth remembering the wounds he received came within an inch or so of killing him, demonstrating that extraordinary good luck is part of history, too.

The Amend Corner

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