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Sports Heroes Who Served: Harvard Athlete, Ardent Abolitionist Became a Civil War Hero

Oct. 12, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Norwood Penrose Hallowell, who went by the name Pen, was born on April 13, 1839, in Philadelphia.

His father, Morris Longstreth Hallowell, and mother, Hannah Penrose Hallowell, raised their family as Quakers and ardent abolitionists.

Soldier poses for photo.
Norwood Penrose Hallowell
Army Capt. Norwood Penrose Hallowell sometime in 1862.
Photo By: Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society
VIRIN: 620602-O-D0439-001

From 1858 to 1861, Hallowell attended Harvard College, excelling in rowing and swimming. In 1859, Harvard's rowing team beat Yale. The Harvard-Yale Regatta, as it is now called, still takes place every year, except in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it was Hallowell's prowess at swimming that would later aid him well during the Civil War.

As an abolitionist, Hallowell was eager to join the Union Army, which he did on July 10, 1861. He encouraged his friend, fellow abolitionist and former Harvard classmate, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr to also serve. Both received commissions in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Soldier poses for photo.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Army 2nd Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., June 29, 2015.
Photo By: Courtesy of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
VIRIN: 610629-O-D0439-001

Holmes and Hallowell saw combat in the Battle of Ball's Bluff on Oct. 21, 1861, in Loudon County, Virginia.

The battle didn't go well for the Union forces under the command of Army Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Union forces crossed the Potomac River from Maryland, heading for nearby Leesburg, Virginia. However, the Union forces were beaten back to the Potomac by Confederate troops.

Unfortunately for the Union soldiers, there was a shortage of boats to evacuate the soldiers back to the Maryland side of the river.

Soldiers kill each other.
Ball's Bluff
Painting of the Battle of Ball's Bluff, which took place Oct. 21, 1861, in Virginia.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 611021-O-D0439-001C

Hallowell distinguished himself during the battle by leading a line of skirmishers to hold off the Confederate forces. Hallowell then swam across the Potomac River, constructed a makeshift raft, and made several trips to the Virginia bank to rescue trapped Union soldiers before his raft fell apart.

Undoubtedly because of his valorous actions that day, Hallowell was promoted to captain on Nov. 26, 1861.

Soldiers are in hand-to-hand combat.
Battle Glendale
Engraving of the Battle Glendale, which took place June 30, 1862, in Virginia.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 620630-O-D0439-001C

On June 30, 1862, Hallowell was wounded in the Battle of Glendale in Virginia on June 30, 1862, and suffered even more severe wounds during the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, Sept. 17, 1862.

At Antietam, his left arm was shattered by a bullet, but it was later saved by a surgeon. His buddy Holmes was shot in the neck at Antietam. Both took refuge in a farmhouse, a historic site now known as the Royer-Nicodemus House and Farm, and both were eventually evacuated to safety.

Soldiers kill each other.
Battle Antietam
Painting of the Battle Antietam, which took place Sept. 17, 1862, in Maryland.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 620917-O-D0439-001C

On April 17, 1863, Hallowell was promoted to lieutenant colonel, as deputy commander of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all-Black regiments in the United States.

On May 30, 1863, he accepted Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew's personal request for him to be made colonel in command of the 55th Massachusetts, another all-Black regiment.

He and his regiment were stationed at Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and they participated in the siege and eventual taking of Fort Wagner in 1863. Hallowell was one of the first to enter the fort after its abandonment.

Due to his wounds, Hallowell was discharged on Nov. 2, 1863.

Other Interesting Facts

  • Hallowell's brother, Edward Needles Hallowell, also became a commander of an all-Black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which participated in the taking of Fort Wagner.
  • Hallowell's other brother, Richard Price Hallowell, also served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War.
  • Hallowell's sister, Anna Hallowell, was a nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War.
  • The Hallowell home in Philadelphia was employed as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
  • Hallowell wrote a book, "The Negro as a Soldier in the War of the Rebellion," published in 1897.
  • Hallowell's lifelong friend, Holmes, served as a distinguished associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932.

Hallowell died in Medford on April 11, 1914, in Medford, Massachusetts, two days before his 75th birthday.

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Sports Heroes Graphic
Sports Heroes Who Served graphic - with title
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903