On May 1, 1861, 19 year old Elisha Hunt Rhodes asked his widowed mother’s permission to join the Rhode Island Volunteers, a local Militia that was preparing to answer President Lincoln’s call to counter the recent “Southern Rebellion.” She begged him to stay home and Elisha, the family’s primary breadwinner, would not go without her permission. He wrote; “Sunday was a sorrowful one at our home. My mother went about with tears in her eyes while I felt disappointment that I could not express, and therefore nursed my sorrow in silence.” As he recalled later, his mother came into his room that evening and said, “My son, other mothers are called to make this sacrifice, why should not I.” The next day Elisha left home, but with a promise to his mother to write often.
And, for the next four years, he did just that; writing almost daily either to his mother, his sister, his friends, or in a journal.
Fortunately for future generations, Elisha’s family preserved his journal and letters and the book “All for the Union” was published in 1985.
Elisha had never been far from Pawtuxet, Rhode Island and only rarely fired a musket. He wrote that he wanted to be one of the 75,000 volunteers from 18 states to join together in “Abraham Lincoln’s great cause to restore the dream of George Washington and re-unite the country.”
The boys of Pawtuxet and the surrounding small towns were “new to soldiering” but immediately began marching drills and Elisha wrote, “I soon thought myself quite a soldier. I was elected First Sergeant, much to my surprise. Just what a First Sergeant’s duties might be, I have no idea.” Two weeks later he wrote, “We are off to Washington with mixed feelings of excitement, joy and sorrow.”
His Rhode Island volunteer unit was assigned to a regular U.S. Army Brigade when they arrived in the Capital and Elisha became a Private, a role in which he felt comfortable as “decisions and orders come from others” and he seemed to enjoy the drudgery of daily training. He was quickly promoted to Corporal, “I believe because I do not complain as much.”
“July 11. President Lincoln visited our camp. I like the looks of him.” And, on July 15th, Elisha wrote: “It begins to look warlike and we shall probably have a chance to pay our southern brethren a visit upon the sacred soil of Virginia very soon. Well, I hope we shall be successful and give the rebels a good pounding.”
The place Elisha was headed was called Manassas by Virginians and Bull Run by Union strategists. On July 19, Elisha first learned what war was really like.
“We were not at first in the battle. But it soon came to us. We were saluted by a volley of musketry which went over our heads. My first sensation was the whir of the bullets.” Then the bullets began to find their mark and the 2nd Rhode Island lost their Captain, and boys on either side of Elisha were struck. The troops, including Elisha, began to fall back and soon the main Union force was in full and disorganized retreat.
He later recalled, “I struggled on, clinging to my gun and cartridge box. Many times I sat down and determined to go no further and willing to die to end my misery, but would go on. At daylight we could see the spires of Washington. The loss of the regiment in this disastrous affair was 93.”
The Union had not pounded the rebels as Elisha hoped and the rout of the Northern army quickly became known as “the great skedaddle.”
“July 24. I am certain that I have killed rebels, but I do not rejoice except that I still live”.
“Oct 16 (1861). We have lost so many good men. I trust that I am prepared to do my duty unto death if it is required”.
Over the next six months, The Union army consolidated forces around Washington. President Lincoln called for more troops, military training intensified, and a spring offensive against the South was planned. Union forces grew to 270,000 men who were anxious to “get on with it” as Elisha wrote on January 31, 1862.
“Mud, mud, mud. If I was the owner of this town I would sell it cheap. Will the mud never dry up so this army can move. I want to see service and I want the war over so that I can go home.”
In March Elisha was again promoted to Sergeant Major, “My elevation comes more as a result of exposure to war and remaining alive than to any military prowess.”
Beginning in April, 1862, Elisha became part of what was known as General George McClellan’s peninsula campaign, a long slow slog which was intended to eventually lead the Union Army to the Confederate Capital in Richmond, Virginia. They never made it. The Southern forces, which were greatly outnumbered, engaged in a tactical retreat that featured numerous quick assaults which devastated the Union troops they encountered. At Williamsburg, Elisha found himself in his second battle. Although considered a Union victory, Elisha wrote, “The field presented a horrible appearance, and in one spot I counted sixty dead bodies. But I thank God for this victory and may we have many more and so end this war.”
On May 20th, Elisha noted, “Richmond is just nine miles off. The Negroes are delighted to see us but the Whites look as if they would like to kill us.” Then on May 24th, he wrote, “We can see the spires of the churches in Richmond.”
Richmond was close and the troops knew it. Elisha wrote, “We can see the end, and we are ready.” But, General McClellan balked. Although he had more troops than his opponents, he continued to insist to President Lincoln that he was outnumbered and he refused to advance. His Brigade commanders began to call McClellan “the Virginia creeper” and Elisha noted, “We are not going to Richmond, I do not know why?”
Elisha Rhodes was always modest as he noted his advancement in the ranks. He was certainly a capable leader and was promoted again on July 24, 1862 to Second Lieutenant. “I am an officer, how I do not know. But I will do my duty to my leaders and my men.” And later, “It seems right that officers should rise through the ranks, for only such can sympathize with the private soldiers.”
In early September, Elisha’s unit did finally move, not toward Richmond, but to a place called Antietam Creek along with 95,000 other northern troops. They could hear the Confederates less than a mile away moving into positions. On the morning of September 17th, the fighting quickly became fierce. In one small section of the battle, Elisha found himself in a vast cornfield with bullets “sweeping the cornstalks and men dropping where they had moments before stood. I have never in my soldier’s life seen such a sight. The dead and wounded covered the ground.”
From his small vantage point, Elisha could not know that on that day, more Americans lost their lives than combined in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Mexican War. And, to put the losses in perspective for our generations, twice as many men died that day than on D-Day in 1944. Antietam was, however, considered a victory for the Union, and gave President Lincoln the confidence to announce the Emancipation Proclamation.
Elisha’s next battle was at Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 11 when he wrote; “It was cold and there were no fires, we looked forward to the march. The air was filled with shot and shell flying over our heads but it was our boys firing into Fredericksburg. The rebels did not often reply but would at times land a shot into our side.”
However, Elisha and his Generals were unaware that the Confederates let them into Fredericksburg and waited with superior positions on the hills outside of town. Fortunately for Elisha, his unit was not one of those ordered by General Burnside to take those hills. Nine thousand Union men were cut down by the Southern forces. The Confederate losses were about 5,000, however, many of those were not casualties but farm boys who deserted to go home for Christmas; most, but not all, came back.
Three weeks later, Elisha Rhodes wrote: “December 31. Well the year 1862 is drawing to a close. As I look back I am bewildered when I think of the hundreds of miles I have tramped, the thousands of dead and wounded. The year has not amounted to much as far as the war is concerned, but we hope for the best and feel sure that in the end the Union will be restored. Goodbye 1862.”
But January did not start any better. Union General Burnside tried to move troops along the northern bank of the frozen Rappahannock River near Falmouth, Virginia. Elisha wrote; “How I would like to have some of those ‘On to Richmond’ fellows out here with us in the snow.” And, “The wagons began to turn over and mules, tethered to the wagons, were drowned in the mud and water. The rebels put up a sign marked ‘Burnside stuck in the mud.’ We can fight the rebels but not in mud.” It was not just a soldier’s complaint as Burnside finally realized that the rebel sign was correct and decided to make camp until the weather improved.
“Feb 1. (1863) General Burnside was relieved today and General Hooker has taken command. A few more changes and I suppose the people North will think the war ended.”
And on February 10th, “I met some rebels today. Firing on pickets is forbidden by both sides and we went down to the river bank. (The rebels) kept up a stream of questions and their band played and we enjoyed the music.”
“March 12. I have been granted furlough.” Then on April 7th,“Back with my army duties. Homesickness cured, but another attack of it expected.”
“Apr 14,63. On picket duty at the river today. Saw fifty Rebels. They are anxious to get northern newspapers and asked but I declined as it is against orders. General Stonewall Jackson came down to the river bank today. Several rebel sentinels told us it was Gen. Jackson. We tipped our hats and they waved back. We could have shot him but we have an agreement that neither side will fire (at pickets), it is simple murder.”
“April 15. (1863) I have become a First Lieutenant and Adjutant of Company B. I believe I am suited to the tasks and can be of service to my men.” Elisha’s unit stayed encamped outside Fredericksburg, opposite a large Confederate force across the river commanded by Robert E. Lee and, as Elisha now knew, also led by General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson whose reputation as a great General was well known among Union soldiers.
Then, on April 26, Elisha learned that Union General Hooker was dividing his forces, but had no idea of the purpose; he only knew his unit would remain in place near Fredericksburg with the river separating the two sides. In fact, Hooker intended to march the other half of his men around the Confederate position to surprise Lee’s army by attacking from a different direction. A week later, Elisha learned that those troops met disaster at a place called Chancellorsville where 15,000 Union soldiers were lost.
“Sun. May 3. I led my unit into the battle today across the river on pontoon boats. No losses today.”
“May 6. I shall be glad when this war is over and I can be civilized again. I do not like so much death and destruction.” He had just lost 15 men, 3 killed, 12 wounded.
In a bitter moment the next day, finally realizing that the Confederates had won the engagements at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, he wrote, “Too many men lost. For what? The men fought with valor. Do we not have the Generals?”
And, on May 12th he added, “Gen Stonewall Jackson is dead. Shot by mistake by one of his own pickets. That may help us but I do not rejoice at his death.”
In early June, Elisha’s unit was ordered to march northward out of Virginia into Pennsylvania, and assemble near the quiet town of Gettysburg.
It would not be quiet for long.
“July 1, 1863, I live another day but many did not. A shell burst over our heads, immediately followed by showers of iron. The flying iron struck some men down, about 30 men of our brigade were killed or wounded. We had not yet fired a shot.”
Elisha did later fire his weapon, many times that day, and for the next two days. Finally, the battles faded and Elisha had time to write as he realized that he had witnessed a great Union victory.
“July 4, 1863. Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before? I wonder what the South thinks of us Yankees now! I think Gettysburg will cure the rebels of any desire to invade the North again.”
Over the next few days, Elisha would learn that in the three days of fighting, casualties for the Union were over 23,000 killed, wounded or missing which was nearly a third of the men committed to the battle. Elisha did not yet know that the Confederate losses were 28,000 nearly half of Lee’s forces, and that Lee was rapidly retreating into Virginia.
Again, however, the Union Generals, now headed by George Meade, paused and did not pursue Lee’s decimated army and finish the fight. Elisha wrote: “Why do we stand down?”
The next nine months were relatively quiet for Elisha, his letters spoke of camps, short marches, a few skirmishes, but did not mention any casualties in his unit. He almost seemed bored.
On April 19, 1864, Elisha first saw General Ulysses S. Grant and wrote,“He is a short thick set man. I was a little disappointed in the appearance, but I like the look of his eye.”
Grant took 70,000 men, including Lieutenant Elisha Rhodes, further into Virginia to engage Lee’s Army. What followed was not so much a battle but four weeks of daily skirmishes, followed by occasional all out assaults.
The battles became known as the “Wilderness Campaign” and the “Battle of Cold Harbor.”
“June 20. Yesterday, Sergeant Polley showed me a board on which he had carved his name, date of birth and a place for date of death. I asked if he expected to be killed and he said no, that he had made it for fun. Today he was killed.”
Thousands had died in the four weeks but nothing was settled. Grant and Lee had only managed to weaken their armies. But, Elisha must have distinguished himself in those battles for on June 21, 1864 he was promoted to Captain and given command of his regiment. “This is an honor I cherish and a duty I accept. The men seem pleased.”
For Elisha, the rest of the war was dangerous, of course, but he did not find himself in any more pitched battles. On October 4, 1864 he wrote, “I fired my pistol today and my men fired their rifles, and I heard musket shot over us, but we only heard and did not clearly see any rebels. We seem to be chasing ghosts.”
In December he was promoted to Lt. Colonel (he did not mention any earlier promotion to Major) and on April 2, he was promoted to full Colonel, still in command of his regiment. He only noted these changes, without any elaboration.
“Saturday April 15. We cannot realize that President Lincoln is dead. I wept.” And, on the 16th Elisha added, “Could he not have lived to see the end of this war? We do not know the Vice President. We do know General Grant and he will see us through.”
The next two weeks, while the Union and Elisha mourned the death of President Lincoln, Southern leaders realized the hopelessness of their situation and their remaining forces began to surrender.
“April 28. The war is certainly over. The roads are full of Negroes and we told them they were free. An overseer ordered them back to work and they offered to work if paid. I do not know how the matter ended.”
Elisha had spent four years in the Union Army, mostly in Virginia, but he had crossed the Potomac over twenty times.
“July 9. Although I want to go home, yet I think of the separation from comrades some of whom I have known for more than four years, I cannot help feeling sad. I thank God that I have had the opportunity of serving my Country, freeing the slaves, and restoring the Union.”
And then, on July 13, 1865 he wrote simply;
“I am coming home.”
Colonel Elisha Hunt Rhodes was just 23 years old.
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