Harvard Memorial Biographies:
James Savage

James Savage, Jr., the subject of this memoir, was the only son of the Hon. James Savage of Boston, well known for his historical researches connected with the early settlers of New England, and of Elizabeth Otis (Stillman) Savage.

Major Thomas Savage, the founder of the family in America, came to this country in 1635, settled in Boston, and rendered valuable service to the Colony as commander of the Massachusetts forces in King Philip's war. His son inherited the martial instincts of thre father, and was the "noble, heroic youth" spoken of by the old chronicler of that war, who, holding the rank of Ensign in Captain Mosley's company, was twice wounded. These words might be aptly quoted to describe James Savage, Jr.

Born in Boston, April 21, 1832, he inherited a sensitive, earnest, and joyous nature, united with a physical constitution not equal to the enterprises which his adventerous spirit craved. His love of outdoor play was inexhaustible; and the city streets among which his childhood was spent, while depriving him of the freedom of the country, gave him equal opportunity for adventure in a different way. A favorite enjoyment was to lead a band of playmates to some distant part of the city, by cross-routes known only to boys and cats, scaling sheds and walls, climbing the leads of houses, and dropping from eaves, at imminent risk of their necks. One of his comrades says: "We knew no barrier too high nor place too difficult to enter. We were not mischievous or ill-disposed. Neither man nor animal suffered from our games; but the delight of starting at Brattle Square and going to Boylston Street 'across lots,' never entering a public street except to cross it, can never be known to those who have not, as I have, chased Jim Savage in coram and hie-spy. The boy who took to the street for security or success lost caste at once." The same companion says: "I have not seen Savage for years, but I remember him as yesterday, full of fun and courage, with his 'hockey' in hand, ready to plunge into any melee to get a blow at the ball. He was thin, and light in weight, and in a severe hustle would get pushed to the outside by mere want of weight, but he was sure to go in again and again. His side at football would win if he could make it, for in a rush or race it took a good player to compete with him; and yet withal he was such a gentle and noble fellow that everybody loved him, and felt that he would never do a mean thing. He was one that never complained or made a fuss if the game was not arranged to suit him; all he wanted was fair play."

In those days, 20 years ago, Boston boys were often called into sterner encounters; there were frequently severe battles between the sons of more wealthy parents and the Irish boys. Beside these contests there were long-standing feuds between Northenders and Southenders, between Boston and Roxbury boys. Temple Place, James's home, was nearly middle ground, and those who lived in that neighborhood were ever in danger of a blow. James Savage never engaged in a quarrel if he could avoid it, but when one was forced upon him he never thought of dodging. If a friend was in trouble, or an insult offered to those who could not defend themselves, James was ready to strike; and when he did strike, it was with all his might. Many of his comapanions have said, in later days, that he was unconquerable as long as his strength lasted. Careless of pain, his only thought was to reduce his opponent to submission.

But the boy's life was not all play; for, though not distinguished as a scholar, he was exceedingly fond of reading, particularly those books of history which treat of the wars of Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages. He never wearied of the feats of knight-errantry, and read and re-read Irving's Conquest of Granada until he had it by heart. In the winter evenings, when a very little boy, he would sit at the table and fight the battles of the Moors and Spaniards, using spools to represent the contending knights and squadrons....

...His relish for the heroic made him delight in the poetry which recounts the deeds of valor in stirring verse; and he seemed never weary, even when he became a man, of reading Macaulay's Lays, Aytoun's Border Minstrelsy, and Scott's poems. On the even of actual battle, James was heard quoting from "Henry of Navarre." Being so full of romantic feeling, it was to be expected that he would have a vivid perception of beauty, and so, indeed, he did; it was to him the manifestation of God in the world. he had a fine ear, and his musical taste was apparent when so small that he had to climb upon the music-stool before the piano, and twine his legs around its stem to keep from falling off. Thus perched, he would study out simple tunes, and then practise them until they were perfectly familiar. As he grew older, his pleasure in this art increased, and led him to an excellence rarely attained by amateurs, especially in the delicacy of touch and feeling with which he played. Possessed of a good voice and ear, he sang with ease; and when he had no instrument at hand, he found in song an expression for his feelings, whether sad or joyous, often helping others to beguile a weary hour in city and camp by singing.

Added to his love of music was a love of nature, which he seemed to have inherited from his mother, who, through her life, was keenly alive to all that reminded her of the fields and flowers, the forests and mountains, of her native State.

We have seen in him the adventurous boy, the eager playmate; yet there was a side to his character in singular contrast to this, and not less conspicuous to the ordinary observer. He was extremelt shy and diffident, although free from the false pride which, centring in self-esteem, renders so many unable to do their best from dread of failure and ridicule. At school he was a fair scholar, doing his duty and getting his lessons without needing either bridle or spur, and yet, when suddenly called upon to show what he knew, he would hesitate and forget, and be often unable to say a word. In after years this diffidence did not altogether leave him, but was a cause of disappointment to him on many occasions.

In would seem that this boy, living so much in the open air, would have been rugged and sturdy, with a constitution capable of defying all ordinary ills. But the kindly influences of air and exercise were not suffient to secure his perfect health, and in his 13th year he was sent to school in Lunenberg, Worcester County, that he might have the benefit of pure country air and simple food. In spite of this, however, he ultimately became a sufferer from dyspepsia, which not only prostrated his body, but reacted on his mind, causing frequent despondency, and making it more difficult to conquer the diffidence so natural to him.

In the summer of 1849 he entered Harvard University, having finished his preparations at the Boston Latin School; but he did not enter without "conditions," obliging him to make up during the first term for his seemingly defective preparation in certain studies. When he came up to be examined, his constitutional diffidence so possessed him that he was unable to give proof of attainment commensurate with his actual knowledge, or with the requirements of a free admission, and thus he started on his college career opporessed by the weight of these added tasks as well as dispirited by ill health. In the midst of these difficulties, he found his spirits cheered and his mind sustained by his piano, which at the same time drew many friends around him. The musically inclined in his Class soon found him out, but until his Senior year he did not become truly known to his classmates. Though much inclined to be alone at times, few men were more dependent on the love of friends and the pleasures of social intercourse.

During the 3 previous years he had lost his mother and 2 lovely sisters, whose deaths followed each other at short intervals, the passing bell of one prolonging its sad tone into that of the next. Yearning for sympathy, the quiet, unchanging love which his home afforded had sustained him; and when these blows fell upon him, he was bowed by a sadness which only such deep and tender natures feel. He loved his friends with great earnestness and yet was so little demonstrative that some of whom he loved the best were often unaware of the depth of his affection, until sorrow or danger threatened, when the warmth of his attachment showed itself in untiring devotion.

Although not a disciple of any special religious creed, he was in the truest sense a religious man, penetrated by a clear faith and living trust in God, whose presence he seemed to feel ever around him. Long after, and almost at the end of his earthly career, he expressed to a friend his firm conviction that God was ever near to comfort and sustain his trusting creatures; adding, that he felt "as if God's hand was always under him." The friend asked him how he had attained this earnest faith? He replied, "By contemplation."

...It could not be expected that a young man of his temperament should attain to college honors. Though eager in the acquisition of knowledge, he was by nature devoid of the ambition of distinction which is an incentive to study; and even had this motive been added, it could not have overcome the diffidence which also stood in the way of his success. A classmate who sat next to him for 4 years says: "It was impossible for him to recite. He would go into the class as well prepared as any one, and on being called upon, stand up, and sometimes be unable to say a word. A mist seemed to rise before him, and he could not recall anything that he was expected to answer." But his college life was by no means unprofitable in book learning. He studied botany and the natural sciences with eagerness, and read all books within his reach which treated of theoretical and pratical agriculture and landscape gardening. Long before graduating he had determined to pursue agriculture in some form as a profession.

The pleasure of his last college days and anticipated travels was clouded by the loss of another dearly loved sister in the summer of 1854; but James's tone of mind and body had become more elastic during the last few months of a happier life, and though he suffered, he yielded less to sorrow than before. In all his trials he turned for solace to nature and music...

In the autumn of 1854 he sailed for Europe. accompanied by two classmates and intimate friends,--Horace Furness & Atherton Blight. It was James's especial plan to study agricultural chemistry as a preparation for his chosen profession; and with this view he attended the lectures of Prof. Liebig at Munich and Prof. Rose at Berlin...

It had been his intention to spend another studious winter in Berlin; but the damp and chilly climate proved so unfavorable to his health, that he was compelled to retreat to Italy, where he enjoyed himself to the utmost. "In no city have I enjoyed so much as in Rome," he writes April 1, 1856, "and the parting will be a sad one." After a short stay in France and England, he returned home that summer.

He passed the remaining season of fine weather in vain search for a farm where he might carry out his plans and use the knowledge of agriculture he had long been acquiring. The decided wish of his father, however, induced him to devote himself to the study of the law during the following winter, attending the lectures at Cambridge and reading at home. But his constitution wwas wholly unfit for a sedentary life; and his taste leading him otherwise, it was without regret on his own account that he relinquished his studies, though it pained him to disappoint his friends...

"I gave up the study of the law last week, and have returned the ponderous volumes to the library at Cambridge, and have settled with the steward. I have been studying hard at Kent and Greenleaf ever since I left you, and making myself generally miserable thereby. I have not the health for such study, if I had the taste, which is also wanting. As you may guess, I have taken to farming. The last 2 weeks have been spent in looking for a farm near Boston..."

The spot at length selected was in Ashland, MA. In his eagerness to become a farmer he attached no importance to the absence of cogenial companions....He liked the work, and took no exception to its quality. He was ready for whatever was to be done, and found a continual and varied pleasure in preparing and planting his land and harvesting his crops...

During his first years he did not suffer from the isolation of his life, but by degrees it preyed upon his spirits and his health. In the long evenings his fireside was lonely. Although his walls were hung with pictures and mementos of home and travel, and his shelves filled with his favorite authors, their silent voices failed to give him the companionship he craved....He finally wrote to a friend:

"Of all the disappointments, I have learned that no young man who has not firm health and a wife can go into farming country and give himself up to the pursuits of agriculture. My farm is for sale. Of the requisites mentioned above, I have neither the first nor the second. I have only failed because my health was not improved as I expected, and because I was not able to live deprived of all society..."

The autumn of 1859 at length arrived. The country was generally depressed. A gloomy uncertainty prevailed at the North, and the progress of events was watched with painful anxiety. In his early manhood, James had given little thought to the political strifes, or even to the general movement of public affairs. But later he had become aroused by the teachings of Theodore Parker, and his attention was strongly drawn to the condition of the Southern States. When he saw plainly the outrages of the system of slavery, he hesitated no longer, but from that moment gave his earnest heart to the work, feeling that all he could give and all he could do towards the freedom of the slave he was bound by his duty to God and humanity to offer.

Clear and strong as were these convictions, and sympathizing as he did with the high motives and heorism of Captain John Brown (though not approving of his course of action), he attended the meeting in commemoration of his death, held in Boston, in 1860, where he remained through the day, despite the insults of an excited mob, and showed then and on subsequent like occasions his determination at all personal risks to protect freedom of disussion, and, as he said, to "give truth fair play."

In the ensuing winter he joined the Salignac Drill-Club in Boston, where he soon became a sergeant. One of his brother officers writes of this club as follows:

"I found a new class then forming. The first day we were drilled by a sergeant who did not seem to have a power of imparting instruction. The second day by another sergeant, whose name I did not know, but with whom all things went smoothly. I was very much impressed with his simple and earnest manner....About a week after joining the class, I mentioned to one of the old members whom I knew that I wanted very much to take some part in organizing a negro force. He said to me, 'Why don't you talk to Savage about it; he is one of your kind.' I asked him to point Savage out. He did so, and to my delight he proved to be the favorite sergeant. He seemed much interested, but said he had promised to take hold of Gordon's regiment, and proposed to me to go into it. I took his advice."

In the spring of 1861 it had become clear that war was the only alternative. A friend, who gave a dinner to a number of classmates at that time, says:

"Savage was one of the company. Of course we were all excited, and all talked more or less about the state of the country and the war; and, although all but myself have since then served in the army, Savage was the only one that day who had decided to go into the service; and it was singular to see how simple a matter it seemed to him. There was no excitement or enthusiasm; it was to him an obvious duty, to be done as a matter of course."

...In conjunction with his friends, Wilder Dwight (who afterwards fell at the battle of Antietam) and Greely S. Curtis (eventually Colonel of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry), a plan was formed to organize a regiment of infantry to be offered to the United States. It was anxiously discussed at his home in Temple Place. In order to give it a high military character, two graduates of West Point, Messrs. Gordon and Andrews, who had formerly resigned their commissions in the army, were induced to take the highest appointments. Mr. Dwight undertook to get permission to raise the regiment as well as to secure funds for arming abd equipping the men; while Curtis and Savage were to carry forward the organization and recruiting. Their efforts resulted in the formation of the 2d Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, in which Dwight was commissioned as Major, and Curtis and Savage were Captains. It will be admitted by all that this regiment has been unsurpassed for discilpine, for efficiency, and probably for its fearful losses of officers and men on the battle-field.

From the beginning of the enterprise James manifested a new impulse of life. The romantic feelings of his childhood had been absorbed by the military histories of former times, and the interest that bound his thoughts with never-wearied attention to the old battle-fields of England and Spain was now gathered in living power to the real strife, the actual war of his own people in a cause worthy of all sacrifice. His health improved, and, however much he suffered from indigestion, his old enemy, dyspepsia, never prostrated him. Camp life agreed with him, and he learned to laugh over the impunity with which he dined on hard bread and salt pork,--a dinner which formerly would have been to him impossible of digestion. From the day he received his appointment as Captain he worked diligently to recruit and drill his men. His company was one of the first to complete its number. He went, in company with his Lt. Henry Lee Higginson (afterwards Major, 1st MA CAV), to the neighborhood of Fitchburg, where he obtained recruits of the first quality. The whole company felt James's personal influence, and, although not better drilled than some others, it was always distinguished for good behavior.

More than 2 months were passed in drilling and preparation at Camp Andrew, formerly Brook Farm, 10 miles from Boston. On the 8th of July the regiment entered the city to take its departure for the seat of war. During the rest of that summer it remained at Harper's Ferry and Maryland Heights. There was little to do besides guard duty and drilling; but James was never at a loss for occupation and amusement in the woods and fields, and his tent was the frequent resort of those officers especially whose tendencies of thought were progressive rather than conservative, while one of those who disagreed with his opinions wrote home at this time that he never left Savage's tent without wishing to be a better man...

...The first time his company and himself were under fire was when deployed as skirmishers in the advance of the army under Banks up the Shenandoah Valley. After describing the position of his men, he says:

"Then the shelling would be splendid for a minute or two, till the enemy retired. It was the first experience of our men under fire; and a grand display it was, like a terrible thunder-storm, only more exciting....Yesterday I picked the first flower I have seen,--a hepatica. I passed it running, for I had my company deployed as skirmishers, and was chasing away 6 or 8 Rebel cavalry, who had the impertinence to approach our camp and fire on a squad going for water. It was getting dark; but as I ran through the wood, the flower attracted my attention, all alone as it stood up above the dry oak leaves, and I made a dash at it and captured it, though I believe the Rebels got off in safety, unless a bullet or two went with them."

He had steadily declined proffered promotion, which would remove him from his loved 2d Regiment, saying that he would never leave it save for a colored regiment. But his ardent desire to aid the slave in securing his freedom was stronger than even his affection for his regiment. Major Copeland describes an interview with James when the question of raising such a colored regiment was discussed. The matter had been talked over between Major Copeland and Lt. Shaw, before mentioning it to James. He says:

"...I began to describe our plan for a colored regiment, and our belief that through it we could insert a wedge which would not only sever the connection between master and slave, but which would aid the race in its own regeneration. At length I said, 'Now, Jim, we want you to go with us, will you?' Jim was lying down, resting on his elbow; he sprang up instantly, seized my hand, and, giving it a hearty shake, said, 'Yes, I'll go with you, if it is only as sergeant.' No one was more disappointed at the failure of the plan, and no one would have been more proud than he to have seen his dearly beloved 'Bob' [Robert Gould Shaw] leading his determined and well-drilled command into the field of action."

...He was promoted to be Major of the regiment on June 13, 1862 (Lieut.-Colonel, Sept. 17); and it is the testimony of all that the period immediately after this was almost the happiest of his life. His health was good, his gayety overflowing, all diffidence and despondency disappeared, the country in which they were ecamped was beautiful, and his daily rides, in the society of his favorite companions (Shaw, Russell, Copeland, and Dr. Stone), were a constant delight. The latter writes:

"I think James was never more happy since the time he joined the army than in the short time he acted as Major after receiving his commission. The fatigue of marching was not to be compared with what he had to bear while in the line. It was only his strong determination to keep up and do his duty that prevented him many times while in the line from going in an ambulance, as I often tried to persuade him to do..."

...In the following letter from Lt. Miller, formerly one of James's sergeants, we may read the story of his wounds and capture [at Cedar Mountain, 9 August, 1862].

"...My Captain (Abbott) had just given the order to fall back on the regiment, when I was struck and fell insensible. When I recovered my senses, I attempted to walk back to the regiment, but was taken prisoner, and led 2 miles to the rear of the enemy's lines, where they laid me on the ground with about 150 more wounded. About midnight the surgeon dressed my wound, and told me that Major Savage, of my regiment, was also wounded and a prisoner. In the morning I got one of the nurses to lead me to the Major, when I laid down beside him, and we talked and chatted together to pass the time during the day. The Major was very cheerful, though in considerable pain....Major Savage received 3 wounds. First, a bullet broke his right arm near the shoulder, the ball lodging in the flesh; second, another ball broke his right leg just above the ankle; while he was falling he received a severe contusion on the left hip from a spent ball. About a week after our capture, the surgeons decided to remove the ball in his arm by cutting it out....Three weeks from the day of our capture, Professor Davis and several other surgeons decided, in consultation, that the Major's leg would never heal, and should be amputated. Upon the Major being informed of the decision, he merely remarked, 'The sooner the better.' The same afternoon he was taken out of the ward to the tent where all amputations were performed....In about an hour and a half the Major was brought back. The leg was taken off about 6" below the knee....The next day the stump began to bleed, and it was only by great skill and promptitude that the surgeons saved him from bleeding to death. This was the first time I had any serious doubts about his ultimate recovery. But on the second day it bled again. The bleeding was stopped by applying iodine. It bled a third time, when they were obliged to open the flaps and re-tie the artery. The Major was now so low that the surgeons decided he could not possibly survive 12 hours. They gave him large quantities of brandy. Thinking he would not live till morning, and as he seemed sensible of his condition, I asked him if he would like to see and converse with a chaplain, or if he had any message to send to any of his friends. But to all these questions he answered, 'No.' His mind seemed at peace."

...For some days there was very confused accounts of James's fate, though the general opinion seemed to be that he was severely though no fatally wounded. The only comfort to be had was the assurance that his loved Harry (Captain Russell) had stayed by to cheer and aid him, though he must in consequence become a prisoner....Uncertainty was at last removed by the receipt of a letter from the Surgeon dated August 18th, giving an account of his case and its chances, with a note also from Mr. I.J. Randolph to his friend Professor Rogers, the brother-in-law of Major Savage, saying that he would endeavor to communicate once a week with his friends of his condition. The last words written by dear James came at the bottom of the Surgeon's letter, feebly traced by his left hand, to his brother, Professor Rogers.

"My Dearest William,--Your friends here leave nothing to be desired. I am pretty much broken up, but a, sure of the best treatment. Best love to all. From your Major."

...After some weeks, during which occasional letters were received from the surgeon and other friends, giving rise to alternate hopes and fears, a letter came, bearing on its envelope the words, "Announcing the death of a prisoner of war." It was from Dr. J. S. Davis, stating that James had died of exhaustion, on the 22d of October, without acute suffering. His mind had been perfectly clear till within a few hours of death...

So passed away the noble and earnest soldier, wh had been the truest and most unselfish of sons, brothers, and friends, and whose sole question in the hour of doubt was, "What is it right for me to do?" When conscience answered, he hesitated not, but braced his soul to the work. The sweet steadfastness and patience with which he bore his sorrows endeared him to his enemies, and when overborne by the agonies of the surgical operations, he strangled the utterances of pain.

...To those who knew him well, he was inexpressibly dear...This extended to the men under his command, as the following letter well illustrates. It was written by one of his men while in hosipital.

"Captain James Savage:--Dear and honored Sir, permit me, with the first returning of my strength, to pay my grateful acknowledgments to you, my duly appreciated and always beloved Captain. I think you yourself feel that none of your company, though all loving you so fully, understood the reason for that love as myself. O, never-to-be-forgotten days, when Captain Savage deigned a smile of approbation on the proud color-company drilling under his most gentle, yet most complete, command. How many of your men have I heard say, 'How sweet it were to die defending Captain Savage.'"

...Robert Shaw wrote, after the death of his friend:--

"There is no life like the one we have been leading to show what a man is really made of; and Jim's true purity, conscientiousness, and manliness were well known to us all. The mere fact of having him among us did us all much good....Neither shall I ever forget the three weeks I lived in the same room with him at Frederick, when I learned how truly good a man can be....Out of his own family, there can be no more sincere mourning for his loss than in this regiment; and the best wish we can have for a friend is, that he may resemble James Savage."


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