Massachusetts supplied almost 150,000 troops to the Union Army during the Civil War.
One of the state’s most honored regiments, the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, fought in nearly every major campaign, including Ball’s Bluff in 1861, Antietam and Fredericksburg in 1862, Gettysburg in 1863, and the Battle of the Wilderness campaign in 1864.
The regiment’s valor came at great cost: of the two thousand active Union regiments, the 20th Massachusetts ranked fifth in casualties. While still in college, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., son of the prominent writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, joined the 20th Massachusetts and served for three years before injuries forced him to leave the army.
In a stirring Memorial Day address to fellow veterans in 1884, Holmes attributed great value to his experience in the Civil War. This speech contains one of Holmes’ most enduring lines:
“Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”
When Holmes was laid to rest in 1935 in Arlington National Cemetery, infantrymen raised their rifles and fired three volleys, one for each of the battles in which Holmes was wounded.