Neither Cutler Edson nor Eldad Rhodes lasted a year and a half with the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, but they were among the regiment’s best diarists. Their diaries and letters convey what soldiers’ lives were like during the early days of the Civil War.
Edson was 41 when he enlisted as a company bugler. A Vermonter by birth, he lived and worked as a brick mason in Enfield, a western New Hampshire town notable for its thriving Shaker village. Rhodes, who joined the regiment three months after Edson, came from the New Hampshire North Country. He was born in Northumberland and was living in Lancaster when he enlisted at the age of 20. Lancaster was the seat of Coos County, the state’s northernmost, and had been the boyhood home of Edward E. Cross, colonel of the 5th New Hampshire.
The paths of Edson and Rhodes crossed in meaningful ways during and after the Civil War.
On Sept. 17, 1862, the 5th New Hampshire crossed Antietam Creek from its camp near the Pry house and marched to battle in the Sunken Road, now also known as Bloody Lane. Rhodes, a sergeant, was shot through the right lung there. Musicians like Edson often did double duty, burying the dead and tending to the wounded. After helping Rhodes from the battlefield to the Pry barn, Edson nursed him for weeks.
Though grateful to Edson, Rhodes had also been wounded at Malvern Hill 2½ months earlier and held surgeons in contempt. In hindsight, perhaps at Antietam their failure to probe his wound with a dirty scalpel saved his life. Eventually Edson took him to a military hospital in nearby Frederick, Md., where Rhodes’s brother Freedom, a captain in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers, found him. Five months after the battle, Eldad was discharged. He went home to live northern New Hampshire but later moved to Claremont.
Edson stayed with the 5th but fell ill. In January 1863, he was discharged at the age of 43 and also wound up in Claremont.
On the surface at least, the two veterans’ postwar connection was a happy one. In 1882 the farmer Eldad Rhodes, then 41, married 26-year-old Abigail Edson, one of the five children of Cutler and Louisa Hoyt Edson. Cutler had died the previous year, but most likely this union would have pleased him. Edson was a Methodist Episcopalian, Rhodes a Congregationalist. Unlike most northerners who volunteered for the war, both men were also abolitionists. Cutler had been especially religious and often wrote in his diary of his love of God and his hope for the destruction of slavery, which he considered a national evil.
|Eldad Rhodes (postwar photo), possibly on his wedding day.|
Today the diaries and letters of these two soldiers are in the hands of their descendant, Fred Goodwin of Nampa, Idaho. He lent them to me, and I told the story of the Rhodes brothers, Eldad and Freedom, in Our War. The back-story of that chapter is here.
Together, the Edson-Rhodes papers follow the 5th New Hampshire’s fortunes from its formation in Concord in 1861 through early 1863. This includes the regiment’s role in Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign – the trip by steamer to Fortress Monroe, the siege of Yorktown, the building of the Grapevine Bridge over the Chickahominy River, the battle of Fair Oaks and the Seven Days battles. Edson and Rhodes were both at Antietam, of course, though not at Fredericksburg with the rest of the 5th.
I have arranged the material chronologically. These posts will not include every diary entry and the letters will be excerpted, but all that is substantive is here. Without omitting the flavor of camp life or its quotidian nature, I have cut repetitive material. I have added or fixed punctuation in some cases for clarity but otherwise left the papers as the Rhodes-Edson descendants transcribed them. I have written contextual material and personal identifications where I thought them helpful, but my purpose is to leave it to Edson and Rhodes to tell the story.
The account begins in Concord, New Hampshire’s capital, as the 5th New Hampshire, 1,000-plus men strong, prepares to cross the Merrimack River from its training camp on Concord Heights to downtown Concord. There they will board a train south. Col. Cross, a hardcore Democrat, had thumbed his nose at the Republican establishment by naming their first encampment Camp Jackson, after Andrew Jackson.
From Cutler Edson’s diary:
Sunday, Oct. 27: this has bin a very buisy day in camp. it has not seemed like Sunday. this evening went in to the Chaplins* tent and had plenty of singing and he offered prayer. it was realy reviving. probably the last that we shal here on this encampment. I yet feel it good to trust in God.
[*Elijah R. Wilkins of Lisbon, N.H., was the 5th’s chaplain.]
Monday Oct. 28: at about 5 oc A.M. we left Camp Jackson for Concord Citty where we ware quartered for the knight, Some in one place and some in another. it was my lot with about 20 others to be quartered in the mayors office in the citty hall where we had a very comfortable place and got a very little sleep.
Tuesday Oct. 29: arose at 4 oc and made preparations for a start. every thing being put to rights, we ware marched to the Depot where we ware comfortably seeted in the cars and in the midst of Thousands of Spectators who wished us all success and prosperity and asked the blessing of God upon us. it was one of the lovliest mornings that ever dawned upon New England Shores. about ¼ before 8 we started with all our luggage horses waggons and all in the whole making between 30 and 40 cars. the most of our boys were in good spirits but there ware some that ware sorry they had enlisted. We went as far as Atkins point in Coneticut in the cars where we took a steam boat and went threw long I. sound.
We pased N.Y. Citty to our right and landed at Jersey Citty a little after sunris.
|Lithograph of the Cooper Shop in Philadelphia|
Wednesday the 30: We left this place about 10 oc in the cars and arrived at Philidelphia about 6 where we had the grandest reseption that we rec’d in all our journey. They have an institution here called the Cooper Shop institution* where they feed all the soldiers that go threw here whether to or from the war. we were provided with plenty of Bred cold meat pickels and coffee which we rec’d with thankfulness. I never shal forget the kindness that we rec’d there and the sympathy they seamed for us.
we ware in the citty till about 12 oc befor we got our luggage re-loaded and redy for a start and there ware thousands in the streats at that late houre, men women and children bidding us Gods spead, the women taking us by the hand and cautioning us to be carefull of our selves, and the kisses we rec’d from little girls maid me think of those I left behind. the people of Philidelphia seam to realise for what we have left our quiet homes and come off down here.
[*William M, Cooper, a Philadelphia merchant, conceived of this friendly way-station for soldiers. It opened on May 26, 1861, at Cooper’s storefront on Ostego Street. Its formal name was the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon. Cooper ran it throughout the war.]
Thursday, Oct. 31: we got into Baltimore about 8 oc this morning. saw the bullet holes in the roof of the Depot where the Mass Boys shot at the rebels when they pas threw.* there is now a gard stationed in the depot to protect our troops and likewise there is picket guards placed all along the rail rode from there to Washington and troops also for our protection. We arrived at Bladensburg Md about dark, where 6 miles this side of Washington on the same ground where the NH 2nd were drilled here.
we left the cars and marched on to the ground and commanded to halt and make our selves comfortable as we could for the knight without any supper with out any covering but the Blue sky and nothing beneath but the Cold earth. but in this I complaned not for it was the best accomedations we could have under the circumstances.
we found 3 Regiments stationed here, 1 from R.I., one from Michigan, 1 from Wisconsin. the R.I. boys made us some coffee and gave us what Bread they had left for there suppers which cheared us up and maid our boys feel more recconciled to there lot. we then spred down our blankets and laid down for the knight.
[*On April 19, 1861, in a skirmish with an antiwar, pro-Southern mob, the 6th Massachusetts Volunteers lost four men killed, the first casualties in hostile action of the Civil War. The incident became a flashpoint for regiments passing through Baltimore.]