Civil War documents found in trash pile

April 13, 1995|By Tom Mooney | Tom Mooney,Providence Journal-Bulletin

One day last month in the dank basement of the 122-year-old maximum-security prison in Cranston, R.I, security officer James Bailey cast a flashlight beam over scurrying vermin and piles of decaying junk.

The state fire marshal's office had recommended that the basement be cleaned. But before everything was thrown out, Mr. Bailey wanted a look around.

A history buff with some archaeology experience, he knew treasures sometimes lurk in creepy places. He found some buried in a waist-deep mound of moldy, half-eaten papers.

"I started working through the pile," Mr. Bailey recalled. "There were a lot of old [prison] commitment books from the early 20th century. And then I found this one book with ornate lettering. It said 'Special Order, Second Regiment, RIV.' "

Its dates: May 30, 1861 to April 22, 1864.

Mr. Bailey flipped open the musty hardcover, exposing the handwritten orders of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and his Civil War regiment of Rhode Island volunteers.

"I was overwhelmed," Mr. Bailey said. "I immediately recognized the historical significance of this book."

"The shouting of 'Hen' [as in chicken-hearted] when the roll is being called in other companies and regiments must at once be stopped. Such insults to other companies and regiments will not be tolerated. . . . By Command of Col. H. Rogers Jr., 2nd Rhode Island Vols., Near Warrenton, Va., July 28, 1863."

What was a ledger of 2nd Regiment orders, carried through some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, doing in the basement of the state prison? And, what else was down there?

For two days, Mr. Bailey and state archivist Gwenn Stearn donned masks and gloves, and gingerly sifted through the decomposing rubble. To their delight, they discovered yet another orders book, identical to the first except labeled "General Order" and bent from humidity to the contours of the pile. Its dates: June 23, 1861, to April 20, 1864.

Measuring 9 inches by 11 1/2 inches and about 1 inch thick, the two books provide glimpses into the daily life of a Civil War regiment -- from a commander's annoyance with "straggling" in the ranks and worry over liquor in the hands of enlisted men to his congratulations for gallantry.

"Comrades! Salem Heights might well be inscribed upon you[r] banners. Your bravery saved the New Jersey reg't in the woods from complete annihilation or certain capture. When other Reg'ts were being driven back in disorder, your bold and determined Advance and Your unfaltering pertinacity till Support could arrive completely checked an enemy well nigh victorious.

"Though your loss was heavy, the 3d of May was a bright day for the honor of the Reg's. Your native State may well be proud of You. . . . [Signed] Col. H. Rogers Jun, Near Fredricksburg, May 10, '63."

The General Order book also notes, in elegant penmanship and official diction, the promotion of Rhodes to adjutant, the regiment's administrative-affairs officer.

Rhodes became a familiar character to the viewers of Ken Burns' 1990 television documentary, "The Civil War." Mr. Burns relied heavily on Rhodes' diary, first published in 1985, to tell the story of the war from a Union soldier's point of view.

How the order books ended up in the basement of maximum security remains a mystery.

The state archives, which fall under the purview of the secretary of state, have "literally hundreds of cubic feet" of Civil War records, said Mr. Stearn, including similar ledgers of the 2nd Regiment. But most of these were kept together in state offices.

The discovery of the stray prison volumes, said Mr. Stearn, "fills in the blanks of the history of the regiment and are valuable historic documents because they once again bring history alive."

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