All For The Union

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At midday on July 12, 1864, as the steamer Peril nosed into the Sixteenth Street wharf in Washington, D.C., and the men of the 2d Rhode Island and 37th Massachusetts Volunteers began to step ashore, they heard the sound of distant fighting. “I supposed it was troops drilling,” Capt. Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2d Rhode Island noted in his journal. In fact, the troops were fighting for their lives; Jubal Early’s Confederates had reached Fort Stevens, the northernmost of the Federal strongpoints that ringed the capital, just four miles from the White House.

The newly arrived New England veterans were hurried northward along Pennsylvania Avenue. “The people … seemed to be very happy to see us and were much frightened,” Rhodes remembered. “Many citizens had guns in their hands and the Treasury clerks were drawn up in front of the Treasury Building. One young man had on a straw hat, linen duster, kid gloves, well polished boots and eyeglasses. He also had a full set of equipments and a musket. Wishing to be polite to me as I passed he ‘Presented Arms’ with the barrel of his musket to the front. Our boys cheered him in great style. Several citizens fell into our ranks with guns in their hands and seemed to be full of fight.”

Toward dusk, Rhodes continued, “Our columns passed through the gate of Fort Stevens, and on the parapet I saw President Lincoln standing looking at the troops. Mrs. Lincoln and other ladies were sitting in a carriage behind the earthworks. We marched in line of battle into a peach orchard in front of Fort Stevens, and here the fight began. For a short time it was warm work, but as the President and many ladies were looking at us every man tried to do his best. Just at dark I was ordered to take my Regiment to the right of the line which I did at a double quick. I never saw the 2nd R.I. behave better. An old gentleman, a citizen in a black silk hat with a gun in his hand, went with us and taking a position behind a stump fired as cool as a veteran. The Rebels at first supposing us to be Penn. Militia stood their ground, but prisoners told me when they saw our lines advance without a break they knew we were veterans. … The Rebels broke and fled. I lost three men wounded. It was a fine little fight but did not last long. A surgeon standing on the fort beside President Lincoln was wounded. We slept upon the field, glad that we had saved Washington from capture. … Early should have attacked early in the morning. ‘Early was Late.’”

 

All for the Union, the Civil War diary kept by Elisha Hunt Rhodes, lovingly edited by his grandson and just published for the first time for a wide audience this spring by Orion Books ($20.00), is filled with just such vivid vignettes. When the war began, Rhodes was just nineteen, the son of a Pawtuxet mariner who had drowned at sea, and he had had a hard time talking his widowed mother into letting him join the Army. He started out as a private, so narrow-chested and slope-shouldered that the examining physician almost barred him from the service and so ignorant of soldiering that when his fellow recruits elected him first sergeant that afternoon, he had to confess that “just what a First Sergeant’s duty might be I had no idea.” He left the Army four years later as the colonel of his regiment, a seasoned veteran at twenty-three.

No single Union soldier can be said to have been representative of all his comrades. Armies, perhaps especially American armies, are made up of individuals. But when Ken and Ric Burns and I were searching for a Northern soldier whose fortunes we might follow through all nine episodes of the recent PBS series “The Civil War,” Elisha Hunt Rhodes seemed perfectly suited for the part.

The sheer number of battles through which he lived recommended him. He and his 2d Rhode Island saw service in every major campaign waged by the Army of the Potomac, from First Bull Run (where, Rhodes recalled, at the first sound of hostile fire his regiment “immediately laid down without waiting for orders”), through the Peninsula, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, the siege of Petersburg, all the way to Appomattox. But it was also the utterly honest, determinedly modest tone with which he described it all that made him such a convincing witness—and that, I believe, helps make his memoir one of the war’s most evocative.

“I have been successful in my army life,” Rhodes wrote after the fighting was over, “simply because I have been ready and willing to do my duty.” That willingness served him and his country well, but in private even Elisha Rhodes sometimes questioned the wisdom of the commanders who threw away the victories he and his fellow soldiers fought so hard to win. After all that he and his friends had endured on the Peninsula, for example, he could not disguise his disappointment when George McClellan chose to withdraw. “I do not like the appearance of things,” he wrote as his unit started back toward Washington. “We are moving in the wrong direction, it seems to me.” And he was even more unhappy when McClellan failed to pursue Lee’s battered army across the Potomac after Antietam: “Oh 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.”