"If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I
loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will
whisper your name... Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for
me, for we shall meet again..."
Excerpt from Sullivan Ballou's last letter to his wife, written one week
before his death at the Battle of Bull Run.
Ken Burns immortalized two Rhode Island soldiers in his PBS-TV documentary on
the Civil War - Sullivan Ballou and Elisha Hunt Rhodes. The recitation of the
poignant words written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife one week before his death
on the battlefield was among the most affecting moments of Burns's documentary.
Elisha Rhodes kept a diary during his years of service that a descendant
published as All For The Union: a history of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer
Infantry in the War of the Great Rebellion as told by the diary and letters of
Elisha Hunt Rhodes…(edited by Robert Hunt Rhodes, A. Mowbray, 1985). Yet
these men were only two of the more than 24,000 soldiers who served in the
infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, light artillery, and in the hospital guards.
The best way to begin searching for your own Civil War ancestors in Rhode
Island is to seek out the many print and manuscript resources that are
available. They may help you discover some new facets of your ancestor's
participation in the war.
Printed SourcesAfter the Civil War had ended, publishers
sought to capitalize on public sentiment by printing books regaling Rhode
Island's role in the conflict. Every researcher of Civil War soldiers in Rhode
Island should consult the following books. The reference department of your
local public library can help you locate copies and possibly borrow them via
If your ancestor fought in a Rhode Island regiment they will appear in this
comprehensive two-volume set. Soldiers are arranged by regiment and indexed
alphabetically by surname. These volumes also show when soldiers enlisted, their
rank, and the battles in which they participated.
Sullivan Ballou's romanticized biography appears in this volume along with an
engraved portrait. There is no index, but it doesn't take long to browse the
table of contents.
Bell & Howell provided a valuable resource to Civil War researchers when
they filmed these regimental histories onto microfiche and made them available
to libraries. If you want to verify a history exists, check the catalog at the
Library of Congress www.loc.gov or look in Rhode Island: A Bibliography by the
Committee for a New England Bibliography (University Press of New England). Each
citation shows where editors found a copy. These histories provide a general
overview of each regiment as well as some specific exploits.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to find an account of the war in your ancestor's own
words? It just may be possible to find such a narrative in these volumes, in
which members of the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society shared
their memories. Even if you your ancestor was not included you might locate an
account by another member of their regiment.
Check this volume for names of participants who died in service to their
There is an abundance of manuscript material on Rhode Islanders in the Civil
War. Collections include letters, diaries, census documents, and enlistment
papers, just for a start.
Rhode Island State Archives337 Washington St.Providence, RI 02903
The Archives has enlistment papers, regimental books, and compiled military
records. Write to them for a copy of their leaflet on Civil War material.
The National Archives
Once you discover the regiment or regiments your ancestors served with you
can write to the National Archives for military service records and pension
materials. In particular check the "Index to compiled Service Records of
Volunteer Union Soldiers who served in Organizations from the State of Rhode
Island." (National Archives micropublication M555 7 rolls) and "Compiled records
showing service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations" (M594 [225
rolls]. For Rhode Island, see rolls 186-187.
Rhode Island Historical
Society121 Hope St.Providence, RI 02906(401) 331-8575
Their library contains copies of the books mentioned in this article as well
as a large manuscript department. Contact them prior to visiting.
Search Josiah, the library's online catalog, to find information on
their collections. This is a private library that allows qualified researchers
access to use their facilities.
The Rhode Island state censuses of 1865 and 1905 indicate whether or not
respondents served in the military. The 1865 census, with index, is on microfilm
at the Rhode Island Historical Society and both censuses are available at the
Rhode Island State Archives. One of the remaining pieces of the 1890 United
States Census is the Schedule for Union Veterans and Widows (Index by
Accelerated Indexing). Copies of this micropublication are available at the
Rhode Island Historical Society and branches of the National Archives.
Photography helped bring the war home. Men wrote letters home and enclosed
pictures taken by itinerant photographers that accompanied the troops. Relatives
at home also sent pictures of their loved ones to ease the homesickness. You can
discover clues about what regiment an ancestor served with by examining the
uniform worn in these images. Some, like the French-inspired Zouaves, wore
gaudy, distinctive outfits of full trousers, vests, and hats. Start your search
with the digitized military images online at the United States Military History
There are also a number of websites that make searching for your Civil War
veteran easier. One site that helped me find data on my own ancestor is the Sons of Union
Veterans of the Civil War.
Although this site is a work in progress, it contains muster rolls for a
number of Rhode Island regiments. You may use the search feature to try to find
your ancestor and read the regimental histories and highlights of major battles.
If you locate an ancestor in their database, send an email to them so they can add your
name to the next project they have planned - a database containing the
descendants of all Rhode Island Civil War soldiers.
Still looking for a Civil War soldier or sailor? You might be looking in
the wrong state. Because Rhode Island is such a small state, your ancestor might
have crossed the state line to enlist in Massachusetts or Connecticut. Even if
you find a record in Rhode Island, don't forget to check the adjacent states as
well. The term of service varied and sometimes men served in more than one
Military service was only one way that Rhode Islanders contributed to the war
effort. Rhode Island factories and mills provided fabric for uniforms, as well
as rifles and cannons for the troops. Women and children supported the troops
through relief projects and wrote letters to the soldiers. While you might not
find an Elisha Hunt Rhodes or a Sullivan Ballou in your family tree, you may be
able to uncover interesting facts about your ancestors living in Rhode Island
during the Civil War.