Allen D. Boyer


Sheldon M. Novick. Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1989. Pp. 522. $21.95.

June 1, 1862, in the Virginia Tidewater, the 20th Massachusetts Regiment was ordered to prepare for an attack by Confederate cavalry. Fixing their bayonets, the men formed up in a hollow square. Company G, led by Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., faced the direction from which the enemy was expected. As Sheldon Novick relates the story, Captain Holmes

"unsheathed his sword and held his pistol ready-a cavalry charge would come right on them, and the men would have to stand. Wendell swore loudly that he would shoot the first man who ran or fired against orders.

But the Confederate cavalry did not come. Darkness fell, and the men of Company G cheered their captain for his bravery."

Three aspects of this deserve consideration: what Holmes said he would do, how he said it, and how his men reacted. Properly read, the incident is a parable of our own relationship with our most celebrated judge.