All For The Union by Elijah Hunt Rhodes

This is the account of the American Civil War. Rhodes was a young Rhode Island man who entered the Union army at the age of 19. Four years later, he left it as a 23-year-old Lt Colonel, having fought at nearly every major engagement of the eastern theatre with the Army of the Potomac. And during all that time, he kept this diary.

It’s a brutally straight forward, honest account of the Civil War, from the training, to the battles, from the lows of Bull Run and Fredericksburg to the highs of Gettysburg and Appomatox. Through all that war, Rhodes maintains an account that seems indifferent at times, but flares into emotional rhetoric at others. He skillfully recounts the visits of Northern politicians to camps and their influence on the army. He recounts the armies huge faith in men like McClennan and and Grant, which turns to near-hatred following brutal battles. He talks about his own growth, from an enlisted man begging for a furlough, to an officer handing them out.

It is a very human memoir. Rhodes was not educated, nor did he have a flair for words. But his account has clarity, something sorely lacking from many military memoirs. Rhodes’ words are simple, his views of what is going on around him down-to earth.

Throughout it all, Rhodes maintains his one guiding light: that despite all the hardships and the death, it doesn’t matter as ‘it is all for the union.’ The words are intriguing to me in an age when nationalism and patriotic feeling are at a premium. Men like Rhodes went to war and were willing to die for the very concept of ‘the Union’. He makes little mention of slavery, for him it all about preserving the United States. Rhodes was a clerk in a Rhode Island town. What did the Union mean to him? How much did it really effect his life?

Enough that he took up arms to defend it. To find out why the cause of protecting the United States was so important to this man is reason enough to get through the text.

Rhodes’ tale is one of the best memoirs on war I’ve ever read. He is truthful when he describes his regiment panicking and laying down when first coming under fire. You begin to understand the exhilaration a soldier can feel just surviving a battle by reading his thoughts on Gettysburg and the Wilderness. He is a compassionate soldier: approaching the end, his only written thoughts are getting his men home alive.

An amazing story. Richard Sharpe was fictional. E.H. Rhodes was very, very real, one of the true American heroes.

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