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Magnificient yankee

Gentleman, soldier, strategist, Charles Russell Lowell became a symbol of idealism in action

The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 1835-64
By Carol Bundy
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 548 pp., illustrated, $35

When Robert Gould Shaw was killed leading his 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the glory-winning assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., Charles Russell Lowell Jr. wrote to Shaw's sister -- his fiancee -- that ''I see now that the best Colonel of the best black regiment had to die, it was a sacrifice we owed, -- and how could it have been paid more gloriously?"

That theme of sacrifice to redeem the nation from slavery is brilliantly explored and movingly expounded in Carol Bundy's notable biography of Lowell, ''The Nature of Sacrifice." Lowell died, like Shaw, leading his regiment -- the Second Massachusetts Cavalry -- in battle and understood that his own death was likewise a sacrifice that was required for the cause of freedom.

Lowell was mortally wounded on Oct. 19, 1864, at the Battle of Cedar Creek, in the Shenandoah Valley -- a battle of some consequence, since a Union defeat could have cost Lincoln the election, which was just two weeks off. In historical memory, Lowell has been much overshadowed by Shaw -- who with his all-black infantry is the subject of what may be the finest of American war monuments, the Saint-Gaudens monument on Beacon Street.

But as the Civil War was approaching its final stage -- Lee surrendered at Appomattox not quite six months after Cedar Creek -- Lowell's friends and admirers, Bundy writes, ''had even begun to imagine his postwar career: running their railroad, or seeking political office, or (for the idealists) rebuilding the recovered nation."

Bundy's account provides solid evidence for their speculations.

As the leading scholar of his class at Harvard, Lowell gave the 1854 commencement address. After graduation, he became a protege of the industrialist John Murray Forbes, undertaking such tasks as acquiring land for a railroad line in Iowa and managing an ironworks in Maryland.

Turning to his personal life, Bundy provides charming accounts of his boyhood in Boston and of his romantic relationship with Josephine Shaw.

After their wedding, hurried by the death of her brother, the 18-year-old bride -- Effie, as she was known -- lived in the regiment's camp in northern Virginia, ''generally making herself useful" and most days riding on horseback outside the safety of the camp. ''She was, with her excellent manners, her intelligence, and her grit, entirely original."

Their daughter was born just a month after Lowell's death. Effie never remarried but devoted herself to social causes, inspiring and directing reform of New York's public welfare system.

Bundy, who lives in Cambridge -- and is a great-great-great-niece of Lowell's -- has written for films. ''The Nature of Sacrifice," her first book, is not just a model of historical research, but is also written with great style.

Here is Bundy assembling the mourners at Lowell's funeral in Harvard Yard: ''splendidly got-up members of Boston's Cotton Aristocracy"; ''clumps of Lowell's former classmates and friends, some on crutches, some maimed, others gaunt and frail"; and the ''serious, sober" members of the Harvard Corporation, ''reminders of an authority older than the nation and the Commonwealth."

And here is her thrilling account of the cavalry charge at Woodstock, Va., just 10 days before Cedar Creek: ''Lowell ordered the bugles to sound the charge. . . . From the dark mass of uniforms and horses came the glint of the sun sparkling off four thousand sabers as they were drawn. The Reserve Brigade gave a whoop and took off. [They soon are passing] the point of no return: galloping now, their only option was to outrun the guns as the hail of bullets intensified. The horses too become crazed with excitement, no longer galloping but leaping at breakneck speed."

More than his Boston contemporaries, Bundy writes, Lowell ''had shown true military talent."

He had a ''signature" tactic, ''a brilliant maneuver that came to have a huge part in the making of the federal cavalry" -- dismounting some of his troop to provide cover while the rest charged the enemy. And Lowell ''taught his men the mechanics of safety and risk taking, [and] the power of taking the psychological upper hand."

But it was the cause that was paramount, and that would demand sacrifice and martyrdom.

The abolitionist movement that was so important a force in antebellum Boston had ''cultivated images of martyrdom," Bundy writes, many seeing it ''as a regenerative force with moral power." Shaw and other men from Boston's leading families who were killed in battle were hailed as martyrs, and after Shaw's death, ''Lowell, too, began to adopt elements of this martyr mentality."

The theme of sacrifice is so key to Bundy's account that it is a central element in one questionable incident -- Lowell's ordering of the summary execution of a private, William Ormsby, who had deserted and apparently joined the Confederates.

If Shaw and others ''had been sacrificed," Bundy writes, then for Lowell, Ormsby, who had put the safety of the unit at risk, ''would have to be sacrificed, too."

But ''what Lowell could not have anticipated," Bundy writes, was Ormsby's ''willingness to cooperate" in making that point. Facing the firing squad, he ''[twisted] to face the whole regiment." ''I want you to know," he said, ''that I did not desert because I didn't believe in our cause. I know it is right. And it is right that I should die for deserting it."

Said Lowell, as he lay dying, ''My only regret is that I cannot do something more for our cause." His officers came, one at a time, and then ''what was left of the men of the regiment filed past, company by company."

Michael Kenney regularly reviews for the Globe.

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