Elisha Hunt Rhodes, as Officer, Sees Action at Antietam and Fredericksburg

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on December 17, 2012, as “Soldier’s Words Still Haunting.”

 The second half of 1862, 150 years ago, saw some momentous events in the life of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a Civil War soldier from the village of Pawtuxet, Cranston, who entered military service for the Union in July 1861, as a private and left it four years later as a colonel.

Rhodes was delighted to obtain a commission as a second lieutenant, effective July 24, 1862. He was understandably proud of his achievement. On September 5 he noted in his diary that his brigade commander, Colonel Frank Wheaton, congratulated him on his promotion. “Well, I am proud, and I think I have a right to be, for 13 months ago I enlisted as a private and I am now an officer.”  Two days later he indicated: “I am very happy over my promotion, for I am one of the youngest officers, being only 20 years old and seven months.”


   2nd Lieutenant Elisha H. Rhodes

             Rhodes was still finding army life agreeable, certainly more so as an officer. He and several other officers in his “mess” had three servants to carry their blankets, tents, and cooking utensils. During halts the servants cooked, erected the officers’ tents and found straw if possible. On the march they ate as their main diet salt pork toasted on a stick with hard bread and coffee. On September 30, they found a bee tree, containing a great quantity of honey. “What a treat it was to us. The bees charged the Regiment and accomplished what the Rebels have never done, put us to flight.”

During this time period Rhodes’ unit, the 2nd RI Volunteers, saw action at two of the War’s greatest battles—Antietam and Fredericksburg. At the Battle of Antietam in September, the 2nd RI arrived on the third day. “…we saw the Battle of Antietam fought almost at our feet.” The unit was placed into the front lines the next day. “I have never in my soldier life seen such a sight. The dead and wounded covered the ground.” His division continued to move to Sharpsburg and then Williamsport. He expressed his frustration at the lack of aggressiveness of the Union forces. “O, why did we not attack them and drive them into the river? I do not understand these things. But then I am only a boy.” The Union action at Antietam proved to be enough of a victory that President Abraham Lincoln felt confident in moving forward with announcing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.

Rhodes’ unit also saw action at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December, 1862, a battle that proved to be a disaster for the Union. Commanding all Union forces at the time was Rhode Island’s own General Ambrose E. Burnside who faced General Robert E. Lee, leading the Confederate forces. On December 13 the battle began early and “the shot and shell screeched and screamed over our heads” wrote Rhodes. Union troops were charging Rebel positions on the heights. “We could see the long lines of Union troops move up the hill and melt away before the Rebel fire.” As evening came, the firing ceased. Ambulances tried to pick up the wounded, but Rebels fired on them. So the “wounded we left to suffer.” Writing on the battlefield the next day, Rhodes stated that they crossed the Rappahannock River and “have been under fire ever since. The Rebels are strongly entrenched, and we have not made much headway.” By December 16 Rhodes could say: “The Army has met with a severe loss, and I fear little has been gained.” … “I am tired, O so tired, and can hardly keep awake.” It was at this battle where Robert E. Lee stated to his staff: “It is well that war is so terrible; otherwise, we might grow too fond of it.”

As the year of 1862 closed, Rhodes took stock and remained optimistic. “As I look back I am bewildered when I think of the hundreds of miles I have tramped, the thousands of dead and wounded that I have seen, and the many strange sights that I have witnessed.” … “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.” (Note: This essay is based on the Civil War diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, All for the Union.”)

See the next essay in the series: “Rhodes Remains: All for the Union.”

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