(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News, July 26 & 27, 2012, as “R.I. Soldier Was Driven by Sense of Duty,” and “Faith in God, Union Kept Soldier Alive.”
Highlighted in Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary, The Civil War, Elisha Hunt Rhodes is perhaps the most widely known Rhode Islander of the Civil War. Rhodes came to Burns’ attention through the publication of his Civil War diary, “All for the Union,” in 1985 by his great-grandson, Robert Hunt Rhodes. The first entry was written in May 1861, shortly after the war began, and the diary closes with an entry dated July 28, 1865.
As a member of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Regiment, he fought in all the major battles waged by the Army of the Potomac, from First Bull Run in 1861 to Appomattox in 1865. Hailing from the village of Pawtuxet, Cranston, he entered military service as a private and left it four years later as a colonel. Written in plain, direct, and unvarnished style, his diary is a bounty of insights into Army life, his spirit of service, his battle experiences, and his religious faith and drive to see the war to its conclusion.
Rhodes’ diary portrays the challenges and small pleasures of Army life away from the battlefield. In departing Rhode Island on June 19, 1861, he states: “My knapsack was heavy; in fact it was so heavy that I could hardly stagger under the load.” In July, he is short of food, so he and a friend catch a rooster and cook it. “As I had no salt I could only add hard bread….” They try to eat him, but “he was tough, and we had to give it up.” In camp in Washington, DC, he writes in August: “Camp life is dull, but I suppose that it is part of a soldier’s duty, and it will be lively enough before we reach home again.” In January, 1862, he complains: “Mud, mud. … Will the mud never dry up so that the Army can move? I hope so, for I am tired and weary of mud and routine work. I want to see service and have the war over so that I can go home.” On March 21 he reflects: “I have now been in service ten months and feel like a veteran. Sleeping on the ground is fun, and a bed of pine boughs better than one of feathers. At the end of that month he notes: “I am well and contented as usual. Camp life agrees with me.” A few weeks later he writes: “Cooking coffee and soup in the same tin cup is not my forte, but I have to do it or starve.”(15 April 62) While he had been initially somewhat bored at times, by April 23, 1862, he could say: “We never get lonesome now, for something exciting is going on all the time.”
Rhodes’ diary reveals a young man who sincerely wishes to perform his duty for his country. On guard duty early in his service, he accepts the tedious requirements of guard duty though Confederate forces are not near. “I do not complain of this for I want to know the whole duty of a soldier.” (11 July 61) With his regiment ready for action, his commander orders him to remain in camp, an order Rhodes cannot accept. “I objected to this plan and finally told my Captain that if he left me in camp I would run away and join the Regiment on the road as soon as it became dark.” His commander relents and allows him to go. Rhodes experiences periods of homesickness, but seeing the war through is more important. “I want to see service and have the war over so that I can go home.” (31 Jan 62) Assigned to division headquarters for a period, Rhodes notes: “but I want to be with the boys in the next campaign and do my part as a soldier. I have no fear of the future. If I die upon the battlefield I hope to receive the reward of the righteous and feel resigned to God’s will.” (6 March 62) On June 26 he complains about some of the work given to him during a night of battle, but he then states: “I did not like the work, but it was duty, and I try to do my duty always.” On Independence Day, 1862, he writes: “Soldiering is not fun, but duty keeps us in the ranks. Well, the war must end some time, and the Union will be restored.”
Rhodes sees his first combat action at the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861. He writes of the Confederates opening fire. “I remember that my first sensation was one of astonishment at the peculiar whir of the bullets, and that the Regiment immediately laid down without waiting for orders.” In the afternoon, it appears the Union forces have won but the enemy renews the fight. The “woods and roads were soon filled with fleeing men.” Eventually as the Union forces retreated, “a panic seemed to seize upon every one.” … “Of the horrors of that night, I can give you no adequate idea. I suffered untold horrors from thirst and fatigue but struggled on, clinging to my gun and cartridge box. Many times I sat down in the mud determined to go no further, and willing to die to end my misery.” By a year later Rhodes had seen action with the 2nd RI Regiment in such major battles as Yorktown (April-May, 1862), Williamsburg (May & July, 1862), Seven Pines (May-June 1862), and Malvern Hill (July, 1862). Of the Battle of Malvern Hill, he writes: “O the horrors of this day’s work, but at last we have stopped the Rebel advance, and instead of following us they are fleeing to Richmond.” (1 July 62) “Rest is what we want now, and I hope we shall get it. I could sleep for a week.” (4 July 62)
Through the war, Rhodes manages to keep his faith in God and in the Union cause. Early in his service on the first Sunday away from home, he notes that the day is not “much like a Sunday in Rhode Island, but yet we have tried to keep the day holy and recognize the fact that God is still our Lord.” (24 June 61) The next day in seeing President Lincoln for the first time, he writes: “He looks like a good honest man, and I trust that with God’s help he can bring our country safely out of its peril.” Months after his first combat, he notes “Army life is not so disagreeable as I imagined it would be, and I trust that I am prepared to do my whole duty unto death if it is required. I trust that I shall be able to live, or die if need be, like a Christian soldier.” (12 October 61) In March of the following year, he pens: “I have no fear of the future. If I die upon the battlefield I hope to receive the reward of the righteous and feel resigned to God’s will.” (6 March 62) On March 21, his twentieth birthday, he reflects: “The past year has been an eventful one to me, and I thank God for all his mercies to me. I trust my life in the future may be spent in his service.” With action soon coming at Yorktown the following month, he notes: “I am cheerful and in good spirits, trusting that God will bring us in safety to victory.” (6 April 62) After the Battle of Fair Oaks, he writes: “The old Second has again been in battle, and although many have been killed and wounded I, by the goodness of God, escaped unhurt.” (26 June 62)
By July 1862, 150 years ago, Elisha Hunt Rhodes was a veteran of numerous engagements and battles. He had been recommended for promotion and was about to become a second lieutenant. His diary shows that through it all he had kept his faith in his god, his country, his regiment and himself. In his entry for June 4, 1862, as he was completing one year of service, he uses the phrase he will use many times in his diary: “We can see the Rebel guns, and the shells fly over our camp. They sound like a steam whistle. We have no tents, and our blankets are wet most of the time. But it is all for the Union.” (italics added)