Elisha Hunt Rhodes was like many soldiers on both sides of the Civil War when he joined the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry at the age of nineteen. Initially, he was a private in Company D. Unlike many of his fellow soldiers, Rhodes advanced in rank until he was a lieutenant colonel and in command of the very same regiment at the age of 23.
But unlike many of the veterans of the four-year struggle, Rhodes returned home and collected his wartime journal and letters into a memoir entitled “All For the Union” that was eventually published by his great-grandson, Robert H. Rhodes.
Rhodes was born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 21, 1842. His father, Captain Elisha H. Rhodes, was drowned at sea when his schooner Worcester was sunk by a hurricane on December 10, 1858. His wife, the former Eliza Chase, was left to raise Elisha and his several sisters and brothers.
Hunt’s regiment, the 2nd Rhode Island began its service in June 1861 in Providence. It was initially assigned to the IV Corps and saw its first action at the First Battle of Bull Run. Heavily engaged, the regiment lost 98 killed, wounded or missing, a bloody introduction to the war. Besides its colonel and two captains, Major Sullivan Ballou, who wrote a touching letter to his wife before the battle, was also killed.
The regiment was to go on and fight in the Shenandoah Valley. In fact, they would be in almost every major battle in the Eastern Theater of the war, including Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fair Oaks, Seven Pines, Oak Grove, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Salem Heights, Banks’ Ford, Rappahannock Station, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, Siege of Petersburg, Jerusalem Plank Road, Opequon (Third Winchester), Hatcher’s Run (Dabney’s Mill), Petersburg (Final Assault & Fall), Pursuit of Lee, Sailor’s Creek, Appomattox Court House.
The original regiment was mustered out June 17, 1864 since they had enlisted for three years. The new recruits and reenlisted men left in the field were organized into a battalion of three companies, to which five new ones were subsequently added in the fall and winter of 1864-5.
Rhodes, like other soldiers, detailed life at the ground level of the Civil War. Ignorant of the tactics and strategy as practiced by the high command, he wrote about the everyday life of a Civil War soldier. Rhodes wrote the following on his birthday in 1862:
March 21/62—I am twenty years of age today. 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. When I look back to March 21/61 I am amazed at what has transpired. Then I was a peaceful clerk in Frederick Miller’s office. Today I am a soldier anxious to move. I feel to thank God that he has kept me within his fold while so many have gone astray, and trust that he will give me Grace to continue to serve Him and my country faithfully. 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. We are still waiting for orders which must come very soon. Many of the men are broken down by the late march, but I am stronger than ever.
Malvern Hill July 1/62—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. The battle of today is beyond description. The enemy advanced through fields of grain and attacked our lines posted upon a long range of hills. Our gun boat threw shell over our heads and into the Rebel lines. All attempts to drive us from our position failed and at night the Rebels retired. Our Regiment supported the Batteries of our camps and did not suffer much, but saw the whole of the grand fight.
By September 1862, Rhodes had been promoted to lieutenant and second-in-command of Company D. While camped near Downsville, Maryland at the end of the Antietam campaign, Rhodes wrote that the nights were cold and the tents inadequate, so the men spent much of their time around big campfires.
October 6/62-But we do not complain, as it is all for the Union. The war will not end until the North wakes up. As it is now conducted it seems to me to be a grand farce. When certain politicians, Army contractors and traitors North are put out of the way, we shall succeed.
By the end of the year Rhodes made an evocative entry on the last day of the year. He probably spoke for many of his fellow Union soldiers about their experiences in 1862.
Dec. 31/62—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 that I have seen, and the many strange sights that I have witnessed. I can truly thank God for his preserving care over me and the many blessings I have received. One year ago tonight I was an enlisted man and stood cap in hand asking for a furlough. Tonight I am an officer and men ask the same favor of me. It seems to me right that officers should rise from the ranks, for only such can sympathize with the private soldiers. 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. Good bye, 1862.
Here’s an excerpt from his diary as his unit marched through Maryland and their way into Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign:
Near Manchester, Md., July 1st 1863–It has rained for a week and the roads are muddy. After marching for twenty miles it is not pleasant to lie down at night in the wet without any cover. I am tired–in fact I never was so tired in my life. But Hurrah! ‘It is all for the Union.’ We are quite near the Pennsylvania line, and it looks now as if we were to cross over. I am still in good health and spirits and have faith that God will guide us on the final victory. The Rebellion must be put down, and we are doing our best.
His unit was not heavily engaged at Gettysburg and in fact arrived on the battlefield on the afternoon of July 2nd. His description of the battle on the day after the fighting gives the reader a view of the terrible fight that had taken place.
July 4th 1863–Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before? This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken Artillery lay on every side. We advanced to a sunken road [Emmitsburg Road] where we deployed as skirmishers and lay down behind a bank of earth. Berdan’s Sharpshooters joined us, and we passed the day in firing upon any Rebels that showed themselves.July 9th 1863–Again I thank God that the Army of the Potomac has at last gained a victory. 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.
If you would like to read the entirety of this extraordinary diary, it can be purchased on Amazon here. Here are just two of the comments about his book:
“One of the best firsthand accounts I have read of campaigning and combat in the Civil War.” — James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
“One of the most remarkable diaries I have ever read. Elisha Hunt Rhodes saw action from Bull Run to Appomattox and somehow survived, and his diary came to represent, better than any other I found, the spirit of the Union soldier.” — Ken Burns, director and writer of The Civil War