The American Civil War (1861-65) marked a very definite turning point in Warwick’s history. Many young men from the town’s oldest families once again went to war. O.P. Fuller’s history of the town lists at least 15 Arnolds, six Rhodeses, 15 Greenes and eight Gortons in the ranks. They were joined by Braytons, Rays, Bennetts and Browns. In addition, new names in the area were added from the ranks of the Irish who had come to build the railroad in the 1840s and who worked in the mills. Now names such as Carroll, Gallagher, Finnegan, Duffy and O’Neill appeared with frequency in all regiments from Warwick.
The Civil War has often been called “the last of the old wars and the first of the new” because of advances in technology and military strategy. The same words can be used to describe the economic and social life in Warwick as tremendous changes resulted from the conflict. Warwick responded to all eight calls for volunteers and, as the war progressed, the list of dead and wounded began to grow. The death toll in this war was staggering. Over 1,033 Rhode Island troop members died in the struggle. The state contributed 28,000 men to the Union cause and 2,130 of these came from Kent County. Among the most famous Warwick heroes were Elisha Hunt Rhodes, George Sears Greene, Governor William Sprague, Samuel Dana Greene and Charles R. Brayton.
Rhode Island, the last state to join the Union, was the first to offer to defend it as Gov. Sprague led the First R.I. Regiment to Washington, D.C. He was also present at the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run. During the fight, in which the First and Second Rhode Island Regiments took part, Sprague narrowly missed death a number of times. In the panic that followed the Union Army’s attempt to make an orderly retreat, 167 R.I. troops died. After this battle, the First R.I. Regiment disbanded and Sprague returned to Rhode Island.
The 2nd Regiment remained and went on to take part in nearly every significant action of the war in the east. One of the soldiers who captured the very essence of the war was Elisha Hunt Rhodes. He enlisted as a private at age 19 in 1861 and rose to the rank of colonel by the end of the war. Rhodes’ story is eloquently retold in "All for the Union," edited by his kinsman, Robert Hunt Rhodes.
Rhodes made it very clear from the very first he was doing it “all for the Union.” His letters bring forth an insight into the struggle that is unequaled. From these letters Rhodes takes us through the war from the troops leaving Providence to the Potomac to the Rappahanock (which he says “resembles the Pawtuxet very much”) and on to the final victory at Appomattox. Rhodes participated in the first battle of Bull Run, where the nation learned of the horrible reality of war. He and the R.I. 2nd, along with the 4th, 7th and 12th R.I. Regiments, were present at the tragic disaster at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. At this battle, the 12th was in the “hottest part of the fight” and lost 109 men, killed or wounded. Sixteen of these casualties were from Warwick. Rhodes was also a participant in the Wilderness Campaign and in the siege of Petersburg.