Introducing Elisha Hunt Rhodes

Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a quintessential New England Yankee, was born on Monday, March 21, 1842 in Pawtuxet Rhode Island and died on Sunday, January 14, 1917 in Providence, Rhode Island at 74 years of age. He came to the attention of most modern readers, like me, when Ken Burns used extensive quotations from his diary and letters, read by an actor with a proper Yankee accent, in the film The Civil War.

Elisha Hunt Rhodes

Elisha Hunt Rhodes

Elisha Hunt Rhodes was the eldest son of Elisha H. and Eliza A. Chace Rhodes. He grew up in the Baptist church and was a life-long member in that denomination. After attending the local grammar school, at 14 he entered Potter & Hammond’s Commercial Colleger in Providence until his father was reported lost at sea commanding the schooner Worcester on a trip to the Bahamas in early December, 1858. Young Elisha became the sole support of his mother and siblings, taking a job as a clerk in the office of Frederick Miller, a supplier to New England’s numerous mills, until the outbreak of the Civil War. In response to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the insurrection of the southern states against the United States, Rhode Island Governor William Sprague issued an order for the immediate muster of the Second Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, to join the Rhode Island Brigade already under General Burnside’s command in Washington. On June 5, 1861, Elisha and two of his friends enlisted as privates. One of those friends died in battle during the war.

Elisha kept a diary and wrote letters home all during the war. Repeatedly, he wrote in his journal, even in times of Federal losses, that it was worth the struggle for it was “All for Union!” He and his regiment managed to be present at numerous key battles and campaigns, from the war’s beginning to its bitter conclusion: the Peninsula Campaign, Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellosville, Gettysburg, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg. Because of his literacy, clerical and administrative skills, he received a dramatic series of promotions, the most significant when he was named regimental

adjutant on November 7, 1863; became a captain on May 5, 1864; assumed command of the depleted regiment as captain on June 5, 1864; and became colonel of the regiment on July 18, 1865. He remained with the Second Regiment from its creation to the end of the war when the regiment was mustered out on July 28, 1865.

On the day the Second Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry disbanded, Colonel Elisha Hunt Rhodes stood on the steps of the Providence City Hall and gave a short farewell address to the men under his command. “Comrades ! The time has come for us to part, after serving together for over four years. Before bidding you farewell, I wish to express my gratitude to you all for your uniform kindness to me, and your attention to duty. Nobly have you served your country, gallantly have you followed our battle scarred flags through the fiercest of the fight. You have never allowed the good name of our State to suffer, but have added to its historic fame. You may well be proud of the part that you have taken in preserving the Union. Your Commanding Officer will ever be proud to say that he served through the Rebellion in the Second Rhode Island Volunteers, and will remember with pleasure the brave men who so nobly supported him during the time that he had Command. We are now to commence a new career. We are to become citizens. Show the Nation that you can be goodcitizens as well as gallant soldiers. Be true to God, your country and yourselves. Farewell !”

Elisha married Caroline Pearce Hunt on June 12, 1866. The couple had two children: Frederick Miller Rhodes, who later married Annie Webb, and Alice Caroline Rhodes, who married Howard Chace. Caroline Hunt Rhodes, a year younger than her husband, outlived him by thirteen years

grave of Elisha & Caroline Rhodes

grave of Elisha & Caroline Rhodes

After the war, Elisha became a successful businessman, using many contacts among fellow veterans and was extremely active in veterans’ affairs. He never missed a regimental reunion. From 1879 until 1893 he served as Brigadier General in command of the Rhode Island State Militia. He and his wife belonged to the Central Baptist Church in Providence, where he served for many years as a deacon and as superintendent of the Sunday School. He also was an active Mason and served for a number of years on the city school board. During the period from 1875 to 1885, he worked as Customs Officer for the District of Rhode Island, an appointment first given to him by Ulysses S Grant when Grant was President of the United States.

In 1985, Robert Hunt Rhodes, one of Elisha’s six great-grandchildren, published All For The Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds a large collection of Elisha Hunt Rhodes’ personal and military papers.

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