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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

The Diary of a Union Soldier (1862)

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Elisha Hunt Rhodes (1842–1917) was a boy when he enlisted as a private in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers; he was a man and the colonel in charge of the regiment when it was disbanded in July 1865. His story shows how the war and the Union Army offered opportunities for advancement to able—and lucky, for many an able man died—young men who could face, survive, and grow through adversity. Rhodes's pluck, intelligence, and sense of responsibility showed at an early age. When his father died, the sixteen-year-old boy left school and became a clerk for a mill supplier so he could support his mother and two brothers. Because his family needed him, he resisted enlisting in the first regiment raised by Rhode Island, but when the call went out to form the second one, he could not contain his desire to join the army. After obtaining his mother's consent, he marched off to war.


*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

Camp Brightwood, Tuesday morning, March 25/62, One o'clock—We are to leave Camp at 7 A.M. to take steamer, destination unknown. So Goodbye old Camp Brightwood where we have had lots of fun and learned a soldier's duty. May God bless and prosper us.

*   *   *

Newport News, Va., March 29/62—We are now at Newport News where the Union Army can be found. The next place is Yorktown where the Rebels will be found.

March 31/62—Our tents have come, and we are in comfort again. Plenty of beef, pork, ham, bacon, etc. Yesterday I had a beefsteak and sweet potatoes. Very good living for a soldier. I called at General Keyes' Headquarters yesterday. I am well and contented as usual. Camp life agrees with me.

*   *   *

Battlefield of Williamsburg, Va., May 7th 1862—Sunday last we received news of the evacuation of Yorktown, and we were ordered to leave our camp at Young's Farm and join the main Army. We crossed the river at Lee's Mills and then followed the line of forts and rifle pits until midnight when we encamped in a deserted Rebel camp. Everything denoted the haste in which the Rebels left their works. It rained hard all night, and we lay in the mud and water but felt happy, for now it was our turn to chase and the Rebels to run. Early Monday morning we moved towards Williamsburg, and about noon we began to hear the roar of cannon and rattle of musketry. We pushed on through mud that caused teams to be mired and batteries to halt, but by taking advantage of the woods and fields where the ground was not so soft or cut up, our Division arrived under fire at 4 P.M. Here we were placed in the reserves and remained until nearly dark when our Brigade was pushed to the front and took position in the edge of a piece of woods about six hundred yards in front of Fort Magruder. Until dark we could see the Rebel gunners load and fire the cannon from the fort, and we had to stand it, for we were ordered for some reason not to fire. All night the shells continued to burst over our heads, and in the mud and discomfort we prayed for daylight. Sometime after midnight we could hear the rumble of teams in the direction of Williamsburg, and just as day began to break Major Nelson Viall and myself crawled towards the fort. After approaching quite near and not seeing anyone we arose and walked up the glacis and looked into an embrasure. Behold, the fort was deserted. We hurried around to the rear and entered the gate. The ground was covered with dead men and horses. I found in one of the tents left standing some documents that gave the number of the garrison. While we were in the fort the 10th Mass. charged across the open space and entered the fort. They were surprised to find two Rhode Island soldiers already in possession. Both General Couch and Gen. Charles Devens who commands our Brigade made speeches to our Regiment and thanked the men for their coolness under fire. The field presented a horrible appearance, and in one small spot I counted sixty dead bodies. The Rebels threw away much of their baggage, and the road is filled with broken teams and gun carriages. Our Cavalry are now in pursuit, and many prisoners are being sent to the rear. Thank God for this victory and may we have many more and so end the war.

May 8th 1862—Monday night orders were received for a Light Brigade under command of General George Stoneman to be formed and follow the retreating Rebels. The 2nd R.I. Vols, Col. Frank Wheaton; the 98th Penn. Vols, Col. John F. Ballier; the 6th U.S. Cavalry; the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Col. Farnsworth Robertson's and Tidball's regular Batteries were detailed for this duty. Colonel Wheaton commands the two Infantry Regiments and Lt. Colonel Steere the 2nd R.I. We are now fifteen miles from Williamsburg on the road to Richmond, and we pick up prisoners every mile. The bugle has just sounded the advance and we must move.

Camp near Pamunkey River, Va., May 11/62—Friday our Cavalry came up with the Rebels and charged through the lines, and falling into an ambush, turned and came back. The Cavalry lost three killed and several wounded but brought back a number of prisoners. The Rebels opened with skill and we were ordered to move up. Our Artillery replied and the Rebel rear guard moved on. We followed to this place and are now waiting orders. Food is scarce, and all that we have to eat is the cattle killed by the way. No bread or salt in the Regiment and I am most starved. But it is all for the Union and we do not complain.

May 12th 1862—Left camp in the evening and marched to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. Here we found three gun boats, and we feel more comfortable. In the evening we attended an outdoor jubilee meeting held by the Negroes. One of them preached a sermon. He tried to prove from the Bible that truth that every man must seek his own salvation. . . .

*   *   *

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.

Harrison's Landing, James River, July 3/62—We left Malvern Hill last night and in the midst of a pouring rain marched to this place where we arrived early this morning. O how tired and sleepy I am. We have had no rest since June 24th, and we are nearly dead. The first thing I noticed in the river was the steamer Canonicus of Providence. It made me think of home. We stacked arms and the men laid down in the rain and went to sleep. Lieutenant-Colonel Viall threw a piece of canvas over a bush and putting some straw upon the ground invited me to share it with him. We had just gone to sleep when a Rebel Battery opened and sent their shells over our heads. We turned out in a hurry and just in time, too, for a shot or shell struck in the straw that we had just left. This shot covered Colonel Viall's horse with mud. We were ordered to leave our knapsacks and go after this Rebel Battery. But our men could hardly move, and after going a short distance we halted and other troops went on in pursuit. Battery "E" 1st R.I. Artillery sent out some guns and I hear that one of the Rebel guns was captured. We returned to our knapsacks and the men are trying to sleep.

July 4th 1862—This morning all the troops were put to work upon the line of forts that have been laid out. As I was going to the spring I met General McClellan who said good morning pleasantly and told our party that as soon as the forts were finished we should have rest. He took a drink of water from a canteen and lighted a cigar from one of the men's pipes. At Malvern Hill he rode in front of our Regiment and was loudly cheered. I have been down to the river. I rode the Adjutant's horse and enjoyed the sight of the vessels. Gun boats and transports are anchored in the stream. Rest is what we want now, and I hope we shall get it. I could sleep for a week. The weather is very hot, but we have moved our camp to a wood where we get the shade. This is a queer 4th of July, but we have not forgotten that it is our national birthday, and a salute has been fired. We expect to have something to eat before long. Soldiering is not fun, but duty keeps us in the ranks. Well, the war must end some time, and the Union will be restored. I wonder what our next move will be. I hope it will be more successful than our last.

Harrison's Landing, Va., July 9/62—The weather is extremely hot, and as the men are at work on the forts they suffer much. The Army is full of sick men, but so far our Regiment seems to have escaped. The swamp in which we lived while in front of Richmond caused chills and fever. I have been very well, in fact not sick at all. Lt. Col. Nelson Viall of our Regiment is now in command of the 10th Mass. Vols., their field officers being all sick or wounded. Fred Arnold is in the hospital in Washington. Last night President Lincoln made a visit to the Army. As he passed along the lines salutes were fired, and the men turned out and cheered. We see General McClellan nearly every day, and he often speaks to the men. How I should like to see my home. In God's own time we shall meet on earth or in Heaven. I have been busy all day preparing muster and pay rolls. We hope to get some money some day.

*   *   *

Harrison's Landing Sunday July 27/62—We are having a fine day and commenced regular camp duties the same as at Camp Brightwood. After "Guard Mount" the Regiment was paraded in front of Colonel Wheaton's quarters and we had church service. The men were seated in the form of a hollow square, and the Chaplain preached from the centre. Some of the men are very much interested, while others are totally indifferent to what is going on. The band is now playing in front of the Colonel's tent, and crowds of soldiers are listening to the music. The Colonel has returned from his visit to Mrs. Wheaton at Fortress Monroe. The Sloop of War Dacotah has arrived. Lieut. Wm. Ames' brother is an officer on board of her. Some of the Rhode Island Artillery boys paid me a visit today.

July 31/62—I have been quite sick for a few days but am all right again now. Col Wheaton has recommended me for promotion to Second Lieutenant, for as the letter reads: "Good conduct in the different engagements on the Peninsular." I suppose my commission will come soon. Hurrah. Yesterday the Army was under arms as it was reported that the Rebel iron clad Merrimac was coming. Well let her come, and bring the Rebel Army with her. We can take care of them now. I have received a box. The cake was spoiled, but the other things were all right.

Harrison's Landing, Va. Aug. 2nd 1862—Today we moved our camp back into a pine grove. Shelter tents have been issued to the men. Each man has one piece about six feet long and four feet wide. Two men button these pieces together, and by throwing it over a ridge pole, supported at each end, a shelter is formed. It is open at each end and serves to shield from the sun, but makes a regular shower bath when it rains. The men carry each a piece of tent in their knapsacks. We have a fine camp with regular company streets. Tonight we had a fine dress parade followed by Divine Service. We have a large open field near our camp which we use for parades and drills. It is rumored that we are to move. I hope it will be towards Richmond.

Aug. 3/62—Thursday morning about 1 o'clock a gun was heard followed by the bursting of a shell near our camp. This was repeated, and soon the gunboats joined in with the heavy shots and we had music. We found that a Rebel Light Battery had taken position on the south side of the James and opened upon our fleet of transports, some of the shells coming over to the camps. The gunboats drove the enemy away, and the next morning troops crossed the river and burned the houses that gave the enemy shelter. We are looking for recruits, but so far in vain. If men are not patriotic enough to volunteer to save the country I hope a draft will be ordered.

*   *   *

Camp near Yorktown, Va., Aug. 24/62—Sunday night again and I fear we are no nearer the end of the war than we were when we first landed at Fortress Monroe five months ago. But then we have learned some things, and now I hope we shall go ahead and capture Richmond. We have moved our camp from near the river to a hill where we get plenty of pure water from a spring. This is a great luxury, for in most of our camps we have been obliged to go long distances for water. This hill was occupied by General Fitz-John Porter's Corps during the late siege, and we occasionally find shot and shell lying about. Each company has a wide street, and we have a parade ground in front of the camp. It looks now as if our Corps (Keyes 4th) would remain on the Peninsular, as most of the other troops have been sent away. I was much surprised at the appearance of Yorktown. We entered town through a gate in a fort built upon a bluff. There are not more than twenty houses in the village and some of these must have been built before the Revolutionary War for they are of the gamble roof style and all tumbling down. Passing through the main street we saw the old forts built by the British Army when it was beseiged by Washington in 1781. Some of these forts were used by the Rebels. Still further on we saw the Rebel works built of bags of sand covered with earth. Some of them were on high bluffs with deep ravines in front. Some of the Rebel guns are still mounted, while others lay upon the ground dismounted by our fire. Passing through another gate we came to the open plain which separated Yorktown from our batteries. Here we halted for a short time, and I visited a large lot enclosed by a rail fence over the entrance to which were the words: "Union Cemetery." . . . We marched on to our old lines where we saw the Batteries for heavy guns and mortars. A darkey said that the shell from our guns "played a tune like a fiddle." We passed through the old camps and encamped near the river. I visited with Levi Carr in one of our bayonet earthworks. It is in the yard of a plantation. The owner told me that he moved away when the fight began, but he might have remained in safety for not one Rebel shot struck his house. He said that he owned hundreds of acres of land, but could only raise two and a half dollars in money, and that he got from our people. The people are very poor indeed. They are reaping their reward. . . .

*   *   *

Sunday Aug. 31/62—We arrived at Alexandria this morning after a pleasant sail from Yorktown. Here we learned that a battle had been fought at, or near, Manassas. We landed and marched in the direction of the old Bull Run ground where we understand our forces have met the enemy.

Sept. 1st 1862—Today we passed through Fairfax Court House and formed line of battle at Germantown with a battle going on two miles in our front. It rained in torrents, and I never in all my life ever heard such thunder or saw such lightning. It seemed as if Nature was trying to outdo man in the way of noise, for all the time the cannon roared and muskets rattled while the air was filled with flying missiles. But Nature won, and the battle ceased. We camped on the field for the night amid the dead and dying.

Sept. 2nd 1862—This morning we found the entire Army retreating and our Division was left to protect and cover the rear. As soon as our lines were formed our troops that had been fighting the day before passed through to the rear. As the Rebels came in sight we too moved off with the gallant 1st Rhode Island Cavalry with us. The Rebels shelled us lively, but we did not stop and reached Alexandria all right about midnight.

Sept. 3/62—Today we took a steamer at Alexandria and went up the Potomac past Washington, through the draw at Long Bridge and landed at Georgetown. From here we marched up the river and crossed Chain Bridge into Virginia again. It is hard to have reached the point we started from last March, and Richmond is still the Rebel Capital.

Camp near Chain Bridge, Va., Sept. 5/62—Last Wednesday after landing at Alexandria, Levi Carr and myself procured a quart of milk, and as we had only one cup and one spoon sat down to take turns in enjoying our feast. As we were eating Colonel Wheaton called: "Lieutenant Rhodes!" I went across the railroad track to where he was standing where he took me by the hand and congratulated me on my promotion. Well, I am proud, and I think I have a right to be, for thirteen months ago I enlisted as a private and I am now an officer. I am grateful to God for all his mercies to me.

*   *   *

Near Williamsport, Md., Sept. 23/62—. . . [On] the 17th, we saw the Battle of Antietam fought almost at our feet. We could see the long lines of battle, both Union and Rebel and hear the roar as it came from the field. The Rebel trains of waggons were moving all day towards the river. At dark we marched down the mountain and started for the battlefield where we arrived and went into camp. The next morning we were put in the front lines. I have never in my soldier life seen such a sight. The dead and wounded covered the ground. In one spot a Rebel officer and twenty men lay near a wreck of a Battery. It is said Battery "A" 1st R.I. Artillery did this work. The Rebel sharpshooters and skirmishers were still at work and the bullets whizzed merrily. At noon the Rebels asked and received permission to bury their dead, and the firing ceased for awhile but commenced again in the afternoon. The 2nd R.I. was ordered forward and we charged up a hill and driving the enemy away took possession. Here we lay all night with the bullets flying over us most of the time. The next morning the enemy shelled our Regiment, but it was their last shots, for as we moved forward they retired, and we entered Sharpsburg. The town is all battered to pieces and is not worth much. Here we remained until midnight of the 19th when we moved to Williamsport. It was reported that the Rebels were here in force. After forming our lines the entire Division moved on the town with flags flying. It was a grand sight to see our long lines extending through fields and woods, hills and dales, make this advance. Picket or skirmish firing was going on in front, but after marching some distance we halted. Several were killed in the Division and many wounded. Sunday morning we found that the enemy had recrossed the river. 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.

*   *   *

Near Downsville, Md., Tuesday Sept. 30th 1862—Still in Maryland with all sorts of rumors about our next move. The days are hot and the nights cold, and just now we are having beautiful weather with moonlight nights, which makes guard duty very pleasant. I suppose that we shall be looking for winter quarters soon. We have a mess composed of the following officers: Capt. Samuel B. M. Read and Lieut. Benjamin B. Manchester of Co. "I," Lieut. Edward A. Russell commanding Co. "C" and Captain Stephen H. Brown and Lieut. Elisha H. Rhodes of Co. "D." We have attached to our mess three servants to carry our blankets, shelter tents and a few simple cooking utensils. When we halt the servants put up our shelter tents and find us straw if possible. They do our cooking and look after things generally. Near our present camp there lives an old lady who supplies our mess with soft bread. On the march salt pork toasted on a stick with hard bread and coffee is our principal diet. . . . Sunday last a soldier of Co. "A" died and was buried with military honors. It was not an unusual scene for us, yet it is always solemn. First came the muffled drums playing the "Dead March" then the usual escort for a private. Eight privates, commanded by a corporal, with arms reversed. Then an ambulance with the body in a common board coffin covered with the Stars and Stripes. Co. "A" with side arms only followed while the Company officers brought up the rear. On arriving at the grave the Chaplain offered prayer and made some remarks. The coffin was then lowered into the grave, and three volleys were fired by the guard, and then the grave was filled up. The procession returned to camp with the drums playing a "Quick March." Everything went on as usual in camp as if nothing had happened, for death is so common that little sentiment is wasted. It is not like death at home. May God prepare us all for this event which must sooner or later come to all of us.

*   *   *

Oct. 8/62—. . . The people in Maryland appear as a rule to be loyal to our government and have suffered much during the past few weeks. The nights are cold, and, as our shelter tents furnish poor protection, the men spend a good deal of the night about huge camp fires. 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. General McClellan is popular with the Army, and we feel that he has not had a fair chance.1

*   *   *

Near Downsville, Oct. 10th 1862—Mrs. Wheaton, the wife of our Colonel, is in camp. She is very kind to the officers and men and is a great favorite with all. Gen. Charles Devens is now in command of our Division and Colonel Wheaton commands the Brigade. Lt. William Ames is sick in Washington. It is reported that he is to be made Major of the 12th R.I. Vols. Well, he will make a good one. The weather is very fine and we have had no rain for a long time. Orders have come for us to move and we are all ready, but know nothing of our destination. Virginia probably.

Camp near Downsville, Md., Oct. 15th 1862—For the past four days it has been cloudy and very cold and as the men have no overcoats they suffer some. We are, however, expecting new clothing very soon. We are very much ashamed that the Rebels were allowed to make their late raid into Pennsylvania. If this Army cannot protect the loyal states we had better sell out and go home. I ought not to complain, but I am mortified to think that we did not catch some of the Rebel raiders. We are all ready for a move. Let me describe the camp after marching orders are received. We see an orderly or staff officer dash into camp with his horse covered with foam, and he says: "Colonel Wheaton, your Regiment will move in fifteen minutes." The orders are sent around to the Captains, and down comes the shelter tents, blankets are packed up and haversacks filled with rations. Perhaps, and it usually happens, all the straw is burned, when another orderly rides leisurely into camp and says: "The order to move is countermanded." Then we go to work, set up our shelters and get ready to live again. Some of the men will be quite glad while the growlers who always find fault say: "It is always so, and we never shall leave this camp." The same men will want to get back after marching a few miles. I am acting Adjutant for a few days.

*   *   *

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.


1. Since I wrote the above as a boy, I have changed my mind in regard to Gen. McClellan. I now honestly believe that while he was a good organizer of Armies, yet he lacked the skill to plan campaigns or handle large bodies of troops. [E. Hunt Rhodes, 1885] (Return to text)
[From Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed., All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (1985: New York: Orion Books, 1991) pp. 60–61, 64–65, 73–79, 81–85, 92–93. [Editorial insertions appear in square brackets—Ed.]]

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