On this day in 1862, Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the Second Rhode Island spends Christmas Day in camp, singing with other officers and writing in his diary: “I should like to be home this Christmas night.”
Rhodes is one of the most famous diarists of the Civil War. He was born in 1842 in Cranston, Rhode Island, the son of a sea captain. He joined the Union army when hostilities erupted in 1861, and fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia,on July 21, 1861. Rhodesserved with the Second Rhode Island Infantry for the duration of the war, andfought in nearly every major battle in which the Army of the Potomac was engaged. Rhodes became an officer at age 20 and eventually rose from private to colonel. His vivid account of the war was edited and published by his great-grandson, Robert Hunt Rhodes, in 1985 as “All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes.”Filmmaker Ken Burns featured Rhodes’ war experiences in his 1990 documentary “The Civil War.”
Christmas 1862 was the second of Rhodes’ four Christmases spent in the Army of the Potomac, and his location for each charts the progress of the army. The first two were spent in camps around Washington, D.C., the third near Brandy Station in northern Virginia, and the fourth in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia. When in camp, Christmas was a welcome but short respite from the monotony of an army winter. Rhodes does not record an entry for 1861, and he comments in 1862 that it was a quiet day in which the soldiers were excused from drill and he was visited by his brother-in-law from Washington. In 1863, he rode his newly acquired army horse, Kate, on Christmas Day, andgave a dinner party for other officers in the regiment, during which they tried to celebrate the holiday “in a becoming manner.” He spent his last army Christmas in a small hut outside Petersburg. The Union army was laying siege to the city, but there was little activity during the cold weather. On Christmas Eve, Rhodes entertained officers from the 49th Pennsylvania, and after their departure officers from the 37th Massachusetts serenaded him. On Christmas morning, he took a ride and watched Union soldiers hauling logs to build warmer quarters. Rhodes commented, “This is the birth of the Saviour, but we have paid very little attention to it in a religious way.” He closed his entry by writing, “This is my fourth Christmas in the Army. I wonder if it will be my last.”
It was. Rhodes was discharged shortly after the end of the war in April 1865, andreturned to Rhode Island. He worked as a cotton and wool trader for the rest of his life and, like many soldiers, remained active in veteran affairs. In 1912, he brought his grandson, Frederick Miller Rhodes Jr. to Virginia to show him the fields on whichhe had struggled a half-century before. Elisha Hunt Rhodes died on January 14, 1917.