May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
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.”
Abraham Lincoln understood them only too well. “Destroy the rebel army,” he had told McClellan before the battle, and when the general shrank from doing so, he removed him from command. In “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” one of seven essays included in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and recently published by Oxford University Press ($17.95), James M. McPherson examines Elisha Rhodes’s war from the viewpoint of the man whose national strategy finally won it.
When the fighting began, much fun was made of Lincoln’s ignorance of military matters; he himself had once lampooned it, recalling on the floor of Congress the “charges upon the wild onions … [and the] bloody struggles with the musquetoes” in which he had taken part during the Black Hawk War. Professional soldiers bristled at what they took to be his amateurish meddling, and historians have sometimes criticized his long, stumbling search for a successful commander.
McPherson argues that such studies “are based on too restricted a definition of strategy.” Lincoln’s genius lay not in the details of thrust and counter-thrust on the battlefield but in the subtler realm of politics, of which his mastery is still too little understood. The Civil War was primarily a political struggle. Politics dictated even his choice of commanders; his appointment of generals whose sole qualification was that they were prominent Democrats or Irishmen or Germans may have led to some temporary military reverses, but it also helped guarantee victory in the long run by ensuring that substantial numbers of their otherwise disaffected supporters stuck with the Union.
And it was Lincoln who saw sooner than almost anyone else that the strategy of strictly limited war with which he had begun the struggle—protection of enemy property (including slaves), the seizure of territory rather than the annihilation of armies—would never bring back the rebellious states.
What was needed was what U. S. Grant called “complete conquest,” and to embolden his armies to accomplish that grim goal, Lincoln resolved to “strike at the heart of the rebellion” by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and recruiting blacks for the Army. (Like) a good many white Federals, Elisha Rhodes was appalled at first, then had his mind changed by the new troops’ cool performance under fire. “I have not been much in favor of colored soldiers,” he wrote after one hot day in the Petersburg trenches, but yesterday’s work convinced me that they will fight. So Hurrah for the colored troops!”)
After that, all hope of compromise was gone. Jefferson Davis, Lincoln said, “cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.”
To win that victory, Lincoln placed Grant in overall command. “General Grant is a short thick set man and rode his horse like a big of meal,” Elisha Rhodes wrote. “I was a little disappointed in the appearance but I like to look of his eye.” Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Elisha Rhodes was ever disappointed by U. S. Grant once his vast armies began to move.
Rhodes got one more chance to fight in front of the President. Lincoln and his wife were again in attendance outside Petersburg when, on March 25, 1865, Robert E. Lee mounted a desperate assault aimed at lifting the siege. When Fort Stedman fell, the 2d Rhode Island was on the right of the force Grant sent in to take it back. The fighting was savage but decisive. “Our whole line … rushed forward,” Lee had lost another sixteen hundred men. The Union line had held.
Later that day a band of Confederate prisoners watched Lincoln and Grant ride past them toward a divisional review that Lee’s assault had only momentarily postponed. Both men were “seemingly unconcerned … as if nothing had happened,” a prisoner remembered. It was at that moment, he said, that he and his comrades “with one accord agreed that our cause was lost.”
“Well, I have endured this life for nearly four years,” Rhodes wrote five days later, “and I sometimes think that I enjoy it. Great events are to happen in a few days, and I want to be there to see the end. The end of the war will be the end of slavery, and then our land will be ‘The Land of the Free.’”
Thanks to the courage and endurance of Rhodes and his comrades—and to the political skill and implacability of their commander in chief—Appomattox was then just ten days away.