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150 Years Ago: Wednesday, May 29, 1861


This morning U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair meets with U.S. President Lincoln over General Benjamin Butler’s stance on runaway slaves. Blair is not anti-slavery but he agrees with Butler’s actions to declare escaped slaves as Union “contraband”, which in turn protects the former slaves from being returned to their former owners. Butler is also hiring the “contraband” to help out at Fort Monroe.

Lincoln calls the action taken “Butler’s Fugitive Slave Law” and approves of it. Though Blair doesn’t object to Butler hiring able-bodied men, he does not like the idea of Butler providing food and shelter to the women and children who are also coming to the Fort. Blair suggests that Butler “leave the Secessionists to take care of the non-working classes of people”, but also understands that it defeats Butler’s efforts – and the efforts of the former slaves – to try and keep the families together. Blair then suggests that Butler use them as spies “because they are accustomed to travel in the nighttime and can go where no one not accustomed to the sly tricks they practice from infancy to old age could penetrate.”

In Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy has its first legislative session. Albert Sidney Johnston is appointed full General in the Confederate Army.

For the last few months Miss Dorothea Dix has been seeking approval to provide nursing services for the Union. She is finally authorized by U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron to hire nurses after promising that she will hire only older, homely women who are not looking for an adventure or romantic pursuits; Cameron also believes this will reduce the chances of men sinning with their bedside nurse.

In Washington, another bill is received for “curtain materials and trimmings of every decoration” from a Philadelphia merchant; this purchase made by Mary Lincoln for the White House totals $7,500.

In the capital city of Providence, Rhode Island, Elisha Hunt Rhodes is chosen by Major John Slocum to act as a clerk in the effort to chose 25 men to serve in the Rhode Island First Light Infantry. Nineteen year old Rhodes had arrived at the Infantry Armory several weeks earlier where he had enlisted along with an old schoolmate and had been elected First Sergeant. The volunteers had come after Lincoln’s second proclamation asking men to serve for three years or until the end of the war, whatever came sooner. Rhodes, along with approximately 100 others, had spent the days drilling and the evenings talking about soldiering. At night they were allowed to return home to sleep, as they were citizens, not true soldiers. It was during his time at the Armory that Rhodes begins a diary to record his journey.

Slocum, along with surgeon Francis L. Wheaton, are looking for strong, healthy men for the Infantry. Rhodes, who is acquainted with the men, is given clear instructions from Slocum. “We only want good men. Now when a good man comes up to be examined you look up. If the man is not right you just go on with your writing.” The first man to come into the room is Rhodes’s old schoolmate, Levi F. Carr. Carr is a big, strong young man; Rhodes looks up as Carr enters the room, and Carr is asked to take off his clothes for examination. After Carr passes the thorough examination by the doctor he is moved into the next room.

After Carr’s examination, Rhodes stands up and addresses the doctor: “I want to go.” The doctor protests, “Young man, you cannot go. You are not fit to be a soldier.” Rhodes begs, detailing the drilling and work he has done since his arrival. Seeing this exchange, Slocum asks Rhodes how old he is, if his health is good, if his father is alive (which he is not) and if his mother is willing to let him go. Though Rhodes’s mother initially did not want her oldest son leaving for war, she had eventually come to the conclusion that as other mothers were making sacrifices in letting their sons go, she should be no different. She had given her consent as that is what her son wished to do.

Rhodes’s answers are good enough for Slocum, who instructs Rhodes to put his name down on the list as one of the 25 chosen. Dr. Wheaton asks Slocum if Rhodes should be examined, to which Slocum gives a resounding “No!”. The doctor is still not satisfied, telling Slocum that Rhodes is too scrawny and will be in a hospital within a week, after which they will likely have to send him home. Slocum doesn’t care; if it happens, they will send Rhodes home. His mind is made up; Rhodes’s sincere enthusiasm and drive for wanting to become a true soldier and not just a citizen volunteer has impressed the Major.

Rhodes records in his diary that not all men are as lucky. He writes about a “large fine built fellow” who is known to bully the younger boys. Rhodes does not look up from his writing when the man enters the room. Dr. Wheaton does not give the man an examination. “You cannot go. You are not a well man.” The man, shocked, asks what is wrong with him. The doctor appears to not have expected that question, yet quickly answers. “You have a heart disease.” The man protests and denies the doctor’s claim. He insists on being examined, but the doctor declines. Though he likely did not have anything wrong with his heart, Rhodes’ judgment of his character alone prevents him from being chosen for this select group.

By late afternoon the 25 men have been selected for the Rhode Island First Light Infantry. Rhodes is given his first command to march them to the Cadet Armory and present them to Captain William Steere. Rhodes marches the squad through the city streets and when they arrive he forms the men into a line. He salutes Steere and presents the men. At first the Captain refuses to take the men. He had already formed his own company and is upset that he is to take this group of men instead. Rhodes does not know what to do, so they all stand there for some time. Finally Steere gives in to the situation. He asks Rhodes what his position was with the volunteer infantry; First Sergeant doesn’t mean anything here. Steere reclassifies Rhodes as a Private and tells him to take his place in line. Rhodes, unaware of any differences between a Private and Sergeant, doesn’t care.

The first night is difficult, as Rhodes and the others are no longer allowed to go home in the evening. They are directed to sleep on the uncomfortable floor of the Cadet Armory, though they do so with much noise and complaining. The men are still technically citizens and feel they should be able to do as they please. Unfortunately the simple days of drilling and talking are over. They are one step closer to becoming real soldiers, and the stricter rules now apply to them.

About thecivilwarproject

Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. The site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.

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