Sunday, June 1, 2014

150 Years Ago Today - Cold Harbor

Until recently I have been somewhat negligent of observing the various 150th anniversaries of battles. However, with the Civil War Sesquicentennial now in its last year, and thus quickly coming to and end, I feel a certain obligation to share more of the soldiers' stories when possible. They are after all the ones that deserve the most attention.

If you have viewed the Ken Burns Civil War series from PBS you have likely heard quotes from Elisha Hunt Rhodes (pictured). Rhodes enlisted as a private in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry when a young man of 19. The 2nd Rhode Island was with the Army of the Potomac from First Manssas to Appomattox. By the end of the war, Rhodes was commanding the regiment. Along the way he kept a diary of his experiences and observations.

Although the 2nd Rhode Island was part of the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Division of the VI Corps, the unit missed much of the fighting on the first day of Cold Harbor only by seemingly good luck. Rhodes wrote the following on June 1, 1864:

"This morning our Corps started at an early hour and had a hard march to Cold Harbor where we arrived this afternoon. We were here in 1862 under McClellan, and some of the scenes are familiar. On arriving we formed in line of battle in the rear and in support of the Vermont Brigade. Artillery firing was kept up by both sides until dark, and then we went at our old trade of digging sand. Quite a respectable line of earthworks was made, and we lay down behind them for a little rest. Our brigade just missed a share in the assault that our Corps made just before dark. We were formed in two lines, the 10th and 37th Mass. in the first line and the 2nd R.I. and 7th Mass. in the second line. Just as the line was ready to move forward a force of Rebels with a Battery appeared on our left flank and opened fire. Gen. Thomas H. Neill, now in command of our Division, rode up and ordered our Brigade to move to the left and protect the threatened flank. As we left the line the 2nd Conn. Heavy Artillery, a Regiment two years old but without active service having been on duty in Washington, took our place. This regiment numbered more men than our entire Brigade, and in their charge they lost the Colonel (Kellogg) and a large number of officers and men. Our Brigade charged front and advanced on the enemy and drove them from our flank. When we returned we found that the battle was ended, and but for the Artillery all was quiet."

It must have been an eerie feeling for Rhodes to know that seemingly only fortune saved the 2nd Rhode Island from the devastation that the 2nd Conn. Heavy Artillery (who actually fighting as infantry) suffered in taking the Rhode Islanders place. The Nutmeg State men lost 323 men killed or wounded in their furious charge on the Confederate earthworks at Cold Harbor. With the constant fighting through May and into June, Rhodes must have wondered when the same might happen to him and his men.    

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