It’s about time we checked in with Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers. Last we left him was at Bull Run Creek where his regiment guarded the rear of the “skedaddling” Union Army. Now promoted to 2nd Lieutenant as of July 24th, 1862, Rhodes has been tried in battle after battle. He and his buddies are now veterans and enduring the hardships of war. I doubt he or anyone else in his regiment would have ever thought the war would last this long. Nor would they think of the long years of bloodshed and war ahead of them.
By early November of 1862, his regiment were encamped near Berlin, which is about “six miles below Harpers Ferry”. Over the next week or so, however, they would slowly be making their way south and east to the Rappahannock, crossing over the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Potomac River a couple of times along the way. “How I would like to have some of those ‘On to Richmond’ fellows out here with us in the snow.”
Elisha had his own feelings about the switch from McClellan to Burnside when they received the news on November 10th. While Ambrose Burnside is a fellow Rhode Islander, Elisha had this to say. “This has been a sad day for the Army of the Potomac. General McClellan has been relieved from command and has left us. He rode along the lines and was heartily cheered by the men. General Ambrose E. Burnside of Rhode Island is our new Commander. He also rode along our lines and was well received, being cheered as he passed. This change produces much bitter feeling and some indignation. McClellan’s enemies will now rejoice, but the Army loves and respects him. Like loyal soldiers we submit.”
The way to Fredericksburg wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. This is winter in Virginia. And though Elisha is from a place even further north, that doesn’t make him any more resilient to the conditions. He wrote near Stafford Court House, “I am cold, in fact half frozen. As I write some of the officers who are hovering over a huge fire are singing ‘Home Sweet Home’. Well I should like to see my home. Our blankets are wet and we have had no sun to dry them in some time. Yesterday our Regiment was on picket. We struck a new section of country where rail fences were plenty and had good fires. The roads are in bad condition from mud.”
For some time, Elisha and his troops didn’t know where they were going. They weren’t fully aware of the battle that was to come until it was nearly upon them.
“Thursday December 11th we left out camp about two o’clock in the morning and just at daylight reached the banks of the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg. The river is narrow and for about five hundred yards back the ground is nearly of a level with the river. Back of this plain are high bluffs and here we had nearly two hundred cannon in position. These cannon were constantly firing and the roar was tremendous. The air was filled with shot and shell flying over our heads and into Fredericksburg. The Rebels did not often reply but would at times land a shot over onto our side. Just at sunset the 2nd R.I. was ordered to cross the bridge at a place now called Franklin’s Crossing. It is opposite a plantation owned by A.N. Bernard and is about three miles below the city. Companies “B”, “I”, and “K” first charged across the pontoon bridge with arms at a trail while balance of the Regiment followed and as we reached the high ground received a volley that wounded two of our men. The Rebels retreated and we followed for a short distance. Night now came and as the remainder of our Brigade crossed the bridge they gave ‘Three cheers for the Regiment first over.’ Our entire Regiment was deployed across the plain in a semicircle from river to river and remained through the night. General Devens said to us: ‘Boys, you had a hard time, but Rhode Island did well.’ The Army was looking on to see our crossing and we felt that we must do well.”
The plantation owned by Mr. Bernard was called “Mansfield” and served as Franklin’s headquarters during the battle. After the battle, Bernard suffered damages just as many of the other citizens of Fredericksburg. “Bernard’s house was shattered by shot and shell, one shot passing through a plate glass mirror. Bernard left in great haste and left his pistols and purse laying on a table. His books were all scattered about the yard and fine china was used by the men to hold their pork. He has already dug a cellar and intended to build a new house soon. The bricks were piled up in his yard and served as a cover for Rebel skirmishers who fired upon us as we crossed the bridge.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s Elisha’s personal account of the day of battle itself.
“Friday, December 12th we were relieved from picket duty and joined our Brigade which was formed in line of battle near the river bank. By this time the entire left grand Division had crossed and the plain was covered with soldiers and Batteries of Artillery. About noon Artillery on both sides opened and one shell exploded in our Regiment. In fact one Rebel Battery on a hill seemed to have the range of our Regiment and a few men were hit.
Saturday December 13th – We slept on our arms last night and daylight this morning found us in line. The battle began at an early hour and the shot and shell screeched and screamed over our heads. To our right we could see the fight going on for the heights beyond and back of Fredericksburg. General Sumner tried to take the hills but failed. The city was on fire in several places, and the noise was deafening. We could see the long lines of Union troops move up the hill and melt away before the Rebel fire. But we were not idle, although at times there would be a lull in our front and we could watch the fight on the right. At 3pm our Regiment was sent down to the left of the line and ordered to support a Battery. This was no fun for us, for we had to stand the Rebel shells fired at the Battery. Just at dark the firing ceased, but what a scene was before us. The dead and wounded covered the ground in all directions. Ambulances were sent out to pick up the wounded, but the enemy opened fire upon them, and wounded were left to suffer. During the evening if a match was lighted it would bring a shell from the Rebel forts on the hills. At 8pm we were ordered to the rear and our Division rested for the night.”
For the majority of the action, Elisha with his brigade under Devens – along with Cochrane and Rowely – were seated nearly in the middle of everything. They could have seen the slaughter at Maryes Heights, as well as Meade’s breakthrough happening just to their front left. The artillery they were ordered to support might have been settled on the opposite side of the Bowling Green Road, directly west of the Smithfield plantation owned by Mr. Pratt.
For the following days after the major engagement, Elisha and his regiment stayed out of the fray, suffering the artillery fire exchanged between the two armies. Shot and shell flew over their heads, making for a pretty anxious time for the Rhode Islanders. But it wouldn’t last forever.
“Tuesday, December 16th – This morning at one o’clock our Brigade was formed in line to protect the rear of the Left Grand Division as it recrossed the Rappahannock River. We waited until all the troops had reached the Falmouth side and then our Brigade silently moved over the bridge. As soon as we reached the north side the bridge was broken up and the pontoons taken back from the river banks. We were the first to cross the river and the last ones to recross. The 10th Massachusetts Volunteers was the last Regimental organization to cross the river, but a Bridge Guards detailed from the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers and under command of Captain Samuel B.M. Read was the last troop to recross. The Rebels were on the south bank as soon as we left it. The army has met with a severe loss, and I fear little has been gained. The 4th, 7th, and 12th Rhode Island Regiments were in the main battle in rear of the city and their losses we hear were heavy. May God help the poor afflicted friends at home. I am tired, O so tired, and can hardly keep awake. We have had very little sleep since we first crossed the river. My heart is filled with sorrow for our dead, but I am grateful that my life has been spared.”
And despite it all, Elisha and his fellow Rhode Islanders remain loyal to their commander, as he had attested to earlier in his entries. “Notwithstanding our late defeat, we all have confidence in General Burnside. If his plans had been carried out we should have won a victory. We hope to do better next time we try to cross the river.”
Elisha would pass a quiet Christmas with the other soldiers of his camp, singing carols and visiting with his brother-in-law, Colville Brown who came to visit from Washington. Though he would have rather been at home for the holidays, his last entry for 1862 remains positive.
“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 this preserving care over me and the many blessings I have received… 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.”
Rhodes, Elisha Hunt. All For the Union, The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. New York, NY: Orion Books., 1985.