Wednesday, January 23, 2013

My hunt after the story

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
The December 1862 edition of the Atlantic Monthly carried a long piece titled “My Hunt after the Captain.” The author was a Boston doctor named Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the captain he was hunting was his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. The younger Holmes had been shot through the neck at Antietam. His father went south to find him, and the Atlantic piece described this journey.

On Jan. 23, 1863, a month after the Holmes piece appeared and 150 years ago today, a man who identified himself as F.M.R. wrote a long letter to the Independent Democrat, a newspaper in Concord, N.H., under a title borrowed from Holmes. He called the letter “My Hunt after the Sergeant.”

The letter told how F.M.R. fretted over the fate of a comrade named Sergeant R. Twelve days after the battle of Antietam, F.M.R. received a letter from Sergeant R.’s company commander telling him that “a traitor’s bullet had pierced his lung, and though living, the chances of his recovery were small.” Some days later, F.M.R. received a letter in a “tremulous” hand from Sergeant R. himself.

F.M.R. left his regiment’s camp in Poolesville, Md., to search for the wounded sergeant. He found him recovering in a Union hospital in Frederick, Md. At the sergeant’s request, they drove together in a mule-drawn buggy to Antietam, where they toured the battlefield and found the spot where Sergeant R. was shot.

When I read “My Hunt after the Sergeant,” I knew it was a great start for a chapter in Our War. It fit my criteria perfectly. F.M.R. and Sergeant R. were New Hampshire soldiers, and theirs was a poignant human story. Their journey had a point: It showed that even weeks after the battle, soldiers realized Antietam had been a milestone in the fight for the Union.

But as good as F.M.R.’s letter was, it was only the seed of a chapter. I had my work cut out for me – and, for me, the search for the story proved to be almost as eventful as the story itself.

Freedom M. Rhodes
First, I had to identify the two soldiers. I turned to Gus Ayling’s Register. Ayling, a war veteran, later served as state adjutant general. His thick, dense Register lists every New Hampshire soldier he could identify. I was pretty sure F.M.R. was in the 14th New Hampshire regiment, which was stationed in Poolesville, Md. – the dateline on his letter. That regiment’s roster in Ayling listed only one F.M.R.: Captain Freedom M. Rhodes.

Freedom Rhodes – what a name! Too good to be true!

Even better, the last name rang a bell. I vaguely recalled that after co-authoring a book about the Fifth New Hampshire years ago, I received an email from a descendant of a soldier named Rhodes.

I typed Rhodes in the search window of my email account, and sure enough, in 2002, Fred Goodwin of Nampa, Idaho, contacted me about his ancestor in the Fifth, a soldier named Eldad Rhodes. I checked my Ayling and saw that Eldad Rhodes was a sergeant, wounded at Antietam. He was also from the same town as Freedom Rhodes – Northumberland, N.H. –   and enlisted in the same town – Lancaster.


I emailed Fred Goodwin hoping his address hadn’t changed. It hadn’t. Within a few days he emailed me:
Eldad Rhodes

n  Eldad’s war letters.

n  Eldad’s war diary.

n  A postwar photo of Eldad.

n  Eldad’s drawing of the lean-to near the Pry House at Antietam, built for him by a comrade to aid in his recovery.

n  A photo of the shirt Eldad was wearing when he was shot.

The diary contained several references to Eldad’s brother Freedom. All I needed now was to understand the context of the wound, gather information about other characters in the story and write it.

I came to see this research as a wonderful journey to solve the mystery of a wonderful journey. You’ll find the result, as well as more photos, beginning on page 111 of Our War.

Eldad drew this picture of himself (right) and his caretaker , Cutler Edson, seated by the lean-to Edson built at Antietam. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Is is so cool the way one historical discovery leads to another.