The Home Front: 1861 to 1865

Fathers and Sons: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Given that this is so anecdotal, why do we pay attention to it?

We do so because the numerical and statistical evidence is so scanty and because a man like Oliver Wendell Holmes tends (not always!) to write better descriptions and make more informed decisions about the people of his time. If Edgar Allan Poe, who in some ways resembles the very kind of young man Holmes described, had been alive to witness the Civil War, we would surely pay attention to what he said.

Holmes was a very intelligent person, but he may have been influenced by the pseudoscience of phrenology, which was much practiced in America at the time. Introduced in the 1830s, phrenology claimed to ascertain character traits as well as defects from the shape of a person’s skull; there were skull readers on the streets of New York in the 1830s. Holmes seems to have been more interested in the skin and muscles of the face than the bones of the head, but his manner of “reading” or interpreting a person was much in vogue at that time.


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