The Story of First Lieutenant P. Marion Holmes
Civil War Soldier and Son of Charlestown
To paraphrase Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now praise valiant men.” We are now in the midst of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance lasting from 2011 to 2015, marking 150 years since that tragic conflict was fought that sundered the Union, pitted fellow Americans against each other, ravaged cities, towns and farms, and produced a horrendous toll of nearly 620,000 dead and 476,000 wounded.
As Historian of the Charlestown Historical Society the writer frequently handles public requests for Charlestown-related historical information. One of the most interesting inquiries received involved an artifact of the Civil War, a 19th Century revolver inscribed on its ivory handle with these words: “Presented to P. M. Holmes, May 25, 1861/By the Bunker Hill Club, Charlestown, Mass.” Figure 1 shows the pistol and its inscribed handle. The gun’s owner, Wilfred Doe of Dowling Park, Florida, wanted to know the story behind the inscription. Who was P. M. Holmes? What was the Bunker Hill Club? And what occasioned the club to make the presentation of the revolver?
The results of the writer’s research are here recorded. They tell the story of a patriotic and valiant young Charlestown man who answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call to colors in the opening days of what would be a 4-year bloody and traumatic Civil War. As we observe the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of that war, let us look back with gratitude and respect upon the gallant men of Charlestown who bore the battle, suffered the wounds, and, in many cases, gave, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion” to the Union Cause.
And a Great Cause it was: First, the preservation of the Union of States established in the blood and sacrifice of the 6-year Revolutionary War that ended “four score” years previously. And second, the abolition of the inhumane and despicable practice of slavery that violated the core principles upon which our great Republic was founded: “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Charlestown’s Training Field, site of the training and parading of the town’s Militia since its earliest years, became the appropriate site of the community’s Civil War monument dedicated in 1872 to the soldiers and sailors of that conflict. The statue, seen in Figure 2, depicts a victorious “America” crowning a Union soldier and sailor with laurel wreaths.
Over the 4-year period of the Civil War over 4,000 men of Charlestown answered the call to arms. They represented an extraordinary 16 percent of the town’s total population of about 25,000. From that vast field let us consider one exemplar who epitomizes the caliber of men Charlestown produced and sent to fight in the terrible crucible of war. By coincidence, this year marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the battlefield death of that man, P. Marion Holmes.
Named for his father, Peter Holmes, Marion preferred to be known by his middle name. His father and mother, Elmira Cobb Holmes, were residents of Kingston, a seaside South Shore town just north of Plymouth, prior to migrating to Boston in the 1840’s. By 1845 Peter Holmes had established a cork dealership on Blackstone Street near Faneuil Hall. The Holmeses lived on Stillman Place in the North End.
By 1855 Peter had moved his cork business to larger quarters a block north on Blackstone Street. Figure 3 shows an advertisement for the enterprise as it appeared in a Boston City Directory. The family home was now on N. Margin Street, still in the North End. Sadly, Elmira died that year when Marion, born in 1840, was only 15 years old. She was mourned both by Peter and Marion and by her birth family, the Cobbs, a prominent Kingston family. Elmira’s younger brother, Philander Cobb, was a well-known merchant and politician, serving on the Democratic state central committee and as delegate to national party conventions. He also served terms in various Kingston town offices and as a State Representative.
By 1860, Marion had finished school and was working in his father’s cork business. Living in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument and within steps of the tablets listing those fallen in the battle and the venue for training the town’s militia, Marion seemed inspired by the example of those intrepid men fighting and dying for freedom and independence.
He also apparently reserved special admiration for the battle’s leading casualty, Provincial Congress President and patriot leader, Joseph Warren, killed by a shot to the head in the waning moments of the battle. So inspired, Marion became a Private in the Charlestown City Guard, the town militia, at his first opportunity. He also joined a young men’s civic organization known as the Bunker Hill Club with meeting rooms in an upper floor of the Bunker Hill National Bank building facing City Square. As seen in Figure 5, the building is decorated for a patriotic holiday.
Marion was a month short of his 21st birthday when the Civil War began in Charlestown’s southern namesake, Charleston, South Carolina with the shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Within a week of the war’s beginning, the City Guard was mobilized in response to an urgent request from Washington that the Governor send militia units to defend that city. The City Guard became a component of the Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia on April 19. Two days later, the Fifth was on a train to Washington. When the regiment arrived there on May 1, it was first assigned to guard the Treasury Department building.
The Fifth was later called into camp at Alexandria, Virginia. During that period, the Charlestown City Guard had its picture taken in front of the Marshall House seen in Figure 6 with Marion identified by an arrow. Only it wasn’t the real Marshall House but a prop created by the photographer by putting a Marshall House sign on another building. The actual Marshall House in Alexandria, shown in the Figure 6 inset, was then famous for being the site of the first combat blood spilled in the Civil War outside of Fort Sumter.
Union Col. E. E. Ellsworth, leading a patrol of the nearly empty streets of Alexandria, observed a large rebel flag flying atop an inn known as the Marshall House. Returning from the roof after tearing down the flag he was confronted by the proprietor, James Jackson, who shot him dead with a shotgun. Jackson, in turn, was killed on the spot by one of Ellsworth’s men. Both men became martyrs for their respective causes.
On July 16, the Fifth Regiment joined other regiments in advancing on Manassas, Virginia to confront an approaching Confederate army. The Regiment participated in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21. After the battle, they resumed guard duties in Washington until the completion of their three-month obligation. Ordered to Boston on July 29, they were mustered out on July 31. The Charlestown City Guard returned to a jubilant welcome in Charlestown.
It is likely that it was during these celebrations that Marion received the gift of a revolver from the Bunker Hill Club whose members apparently held Marion in high esteem. Inscribed on the revolver’s ivory handle was Marion’s name and the date, May 25, 1861. It is possible that the revolver was intended as a birthday gift to mark his 21st birthday on May 28. It also may have represented the Club’s confidence that Private Marion’s next military assignment would be as an officer allowed to carry a side-arm.
Marion could have ended his war service at the point he was mustered out on July 31, 1861. Instead, in the spring of 1862, eager to rejoin the fight to preserve the Union and abolish slavery, Marion recruited a company of Charlestown volunteers that took the name of an earlier town militia, the Warren Phalanx, named for Marion’s hero, Joseph Warren. The Phalanx’s initial muster list appears in Figure 7 as printed in the Charlestown Advertiser of August 30, 1862.
On his uniform Marion wore the insignia of his new rank of Second Lieutenant and also the golden badge of the Bunker Hill Club depicting the Bunker Hill Monument encircled by the words of the Roman poet Horace quoted by Major General Joseph Warren before joining the Battle of Bunker Hill as a frontline Private: “Dulce Est Pro Patria Mori.” “It is sweet to die for one’s country.” Warren’s death at battle’s end made the words prophetic. The badge appears in Figure 8.
The Warren Phalanx was assigned to the 34th a three-year enlistment. The 34th was organized at Worcester on August 1, moved to Washington, D.C. aboard the steamer Merrimac on August 15, and encamped at Arlington Heights, Virginia until August 22. On that date the Phalanx was reassigned to the 36th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry.
The 36th Regiment began a highly active series of assignments that kept it on the move and engaged in several significant battles. After duty in Maryland in October the Regiment was moved to Virginia in November and participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 12 to 15, 1862. In February 1863, the Regiment was moved to Newport News, Virginia and, in March, to Lexington, Kentucky and other locations in that state.
On May 2, 1863, Marion was promoted to First Lieutenant at the beginning of a march to Mississippi where the 36th supported General Ulysses S. Grant’s Siege of Vicksburg during June and July. When Vicksburg fell on July 4, they proceeded east to Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, and laid siege to that city until it also fell on July 16.
The 36th then returned to Kentucky where Marion’s gallantry and proficiency as an officer earned him command of the Warren Phalanx. In his new post he increased the respect and admiration received from his superior officers and the affection of the men under his command. After various movements, the 36th Burnside for operations in East Tennessee. At the Battle of Blue Springs on October 10, Lieutenant Holmes was severely wounded by a ball in the ankle but refused to leave the field until the battle was over. Taken to the hospital, where he might have lain for weeks, after a short recuperation period he insisted on returning to duty to be with his men.
The next march was to Lenoirs, Tennessee. Marion, limping and in pain, proceeded on the march with difficulty but with fortitude. Pressed by a large Confederate force under General James Longstreet, Burnside began withdrawing toward Union-controlled Knoxville and the safety of its fortifications.
The two armies, on parallel roads, raced for a junction known as Campbell’s Station on the road to Knoxville. Longstreet hoped to arrive first and interrupt Burnside’s retreat before he could reach Knoxville. Burnside made it through the junction first, then arrayed his forces along a ridge beyond the junction to blunt the Confederate advance and protect his retreat. After a late-day battle, in which the Union line held its ground, ceased at nightfall, Burnside, under cover of darkness, completed the withdrawal of his forces to Knoxville. During the brief clash of forces at Campbell’s Station on November 16, 1863, Lieutenant P. Marion Holmes was felled by a rebel’s musket ball to the head, a fate identical to that of his hero, Joseph Warren.
At considerable risk, Marion’s men attempted to rescue his body but were unable to do so. Placed in a marked grave, the body was later exhumed by two Charlestown men and returned home for interment. His funeral service at the First Parish Church on Town Hill, on January 18, 1864, was attended by a large throng including family members, the Mayor and other city officials, Naval officers from the Navy Yard in full uniform, returned members of the Warren Phalanx, and members of the Bunker Hill Club.
The Rev. J. B. Miles, in his eulogy, paid tribute to Lieutenant Holmes’ “remarkable patriotism, heroic conduct and undaunted bravery, which had made him the idol of his command.” One of his men sent these praiseful words, “Poor Marion! He was a splendid man, a good soldier, kind and attentive ever to the wants and condition of his men. He died a noble death. May his memory long endure.” On his tombstone in the Holmes family plot in Kingston’s Evergreen Cemetery, Marion’s father had engraved these words, “An affectionate son and brother, a true friend and brave soldier.”
The sentiments of the men whom Marion led in battle perhaps reveal best the high regard in which he was held for his qualities as a leader, a patriot and a caring and considerate human being. The Resolutions of the Warren Phalanx Association appearing in the Charlestown Advertiser of January 16, 1864 express those sentiments as seen in Figure 9.
Finally, his brother members of the Bunker Hill Club, whose golden badge Marion wore proudly on his uniform, unanimously resolved as follows:
“Whereas, by the death of Lieut. P. Marion Holmes (who fell while gallantly defending his country on the field of battle), the members of this Club have to lament the loss of one of its most valued members, they cannot willingly consent to this separation from their beloved companion, without paying that deserved tribute, which words can feebly express, to the noble and generous qualities, manly bearing, and devoted patriotism, which won for him the love and respect of all associated with him in civil life, and endeared him to those brave comrades in arms, who, like him, were ready to give up all, even life itself, to support the Constitution and Laws of the nation, maintain its existence, and sustain the supremacy of its glorious flag.”
During this Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, let us recall with prayerful gratitude Lieutenant P. Marion Holmes and the 4,000 other Charlestown men who fought, suffered and died to preserve for us all, “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
SOURCES: Bunker Hill Club, A Brief Memorial of Lieut. P. Marion Holmes of 36thReg. Mass. Vols. (Charlestown: Watsons’s Press, 1864); Charlestown Advertiser of August 30, 1852 and January 16, 1864; Boston Daily Globe of November 5, 1894; James Edward Stone, Register of the Charlestown Men in the Service During the Civil War 1861-1865 (Boston: Old School Boys Association, 1919); A Committee of the Regiment, History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (Boston: Press of Rodewell and Churchill, 1884); Massachusetts Civil War Research Center, Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Infantry and Thirty-Sixth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (www.massachusettscivilwar.com); Battle of Campbell’s Station, 16 November 1863 (www.historyofwar.org); The Marshall House. (www.alexandria.lib.va.us).