An officer and a gentleman.


Handmade and decorated emblem of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.
Photograph by David Schultz, © 2004 The Rhode Island Historical Society.

Through the use made of his writings in the acclaimed Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, Elisha Hunt Rhodes has become one of Rhode Island's best-known heroes of that epic conflict. Born in Pawtuxet Village in 1842, Rhodes enlisted with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers in 1861 and saw action in almost every key engagement fought by the Army of the Potomac, including the first Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Appomattox Court House. Repeatedly promoted, Rhodes finished the war as the regiment's colonel. All the while, he recorded his experiences in his diary and letters home in words that still powerfully evoke America's bloodiest and most tragic conflict.

Rhodes' diary was edited in 1985 by his great-grandson, Robert Hunt Rhodes, and published as All For the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Ken Burns called it, "One of the most remarkable diaries I have ever read... his diary came to represent, better than any other I found, the spirit of the Union soldier."

The photo above shows a number of the personal objects carried by Rhodes throughout the Civil War, including a folding pipe and case, a folding spoon and fork, brass uniform buttons, collapsible brass candlesticks, a handmade and decorated emblem of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, a jackknife, a pen nib, and a leather cigar case. The clay inkwell was found at Gettysburg and is very similar to one that Rhodes might have used.

Photograph by David Schultz, © 2004 The Rhode Island Historical Society.

After returning to Rhode Island, Elisha Hunt Rhodes maintained his ties to his former comrades-at-arms as a member of the Rhode Island state militia, which he eventually came to command. Rhodes was also a prominent member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans' organization dedicated to assisting wounded veterans as well as the widows and orphans of deceased servicemen. When he died in 1917, Rhodes was mourned by thousands of Rhode Islanders and veterans—including former Confederate officers.

Elisha Hunt Rhodes' personal effects were featured in a special interpretive exhibit—"Prepared to Do My Whole Duty": Elisha Hunt Rhodes in War and Peace—presented by the Rhode Island Historical Society at the Museum of Work and Culture, Woonsocket, April 19 to August 22, 2004. These and other Rhodes materials were generously given to the Society by Robert Hunt Rhodes.

This article last edited November 10, 2015

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