His father’s death at sea when Elisha was only sixteen left him the sole supporter of his family. He left school to work as a clerk in the office of a mill supplier. When the Civil War erupted, he promptly enlisted as a private in Co.D, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers . He remained in this unit from June 5, 1861 until it was disbanded on July 28, 1865 rising from the rank of private to that of colonel.
Rhodes participated in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac from Bull Run to Appomattox, keeping a detailed diary of his war experiences which writer and producer Ken Burns has described as “one of the most remarkable diaries I have ever read,” and a diary that “came to represent, better than any other I found, the spirit of the Union soldier.” Historian David Mc Cullough called the memoirs his “number-one favorite,” and James McPherson, the premier living Civil War scholar, termed the journal “one of the best firsthand accounts I have read of campaigning and combat in the Civil War” by “one of the Civil War’s most remarkable soldiers.”
After the war Rhodes engaged in marketing cottons and woolens throughout the country, but his truly significant efforts still pertained to the military. He headed veterans organizations, organized reunions at various battlefields, and helped raise funds for monuments in battlefield parks. He served in the Rhode Island Militia becoming state adjutant general, and he was a founder and first president of the Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Historical Society of Rhode Island, a position that enabled him to continue his Civil War writings.
Rhodes also engaged in political life serving in such posts as a member of the Providence School Board, assessor of taxes in Providence, and Collector of Internal Revenue for the District of Rhode Island.
General Rhodes was an active Mason and a deacon and Sunday school superintendent at Providence’s Central Baptist Church. He died on January 14, 1917 at the age of seventy-five.
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