Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Promise to his Mother: Killed in the West Woods, Part 2.


This is the second in my three-part series, “Killed in the West Woods.” This post briefly describes the death of a color-bearer attached to the 34th New York, a man who upheld a solemn promise to his mother.

Few regiments in Maj. Gen. Sedgwick’s division suffered as badly as the 34th New York, the regiment that held the left of Sedgwick’s first line-of-battle. Because of its position, the 34th New York was the first unit in the division to be struck by the Confederate counterattack. When hit, the regiment came undone rapidly, the panicked soldiers flying hither and yon. During its short half-hour battle, the 34th New York lost 154 of 311 men, a 49% casualty rate.

Of course, not everyone in the 34th New York gave way. A knot of soldiers rallied around the regiment’s two color-bearers, Sergeant Charles Barton and Sergeant Chester S. Rhodes.

We will never truly know what went through the mind of Sergeant Rhodes, the color-bearer who died that morning, but his messmate, Private Philo H. Bell, claimed to know. Years later, Private Bell recalled a scene when the ladies of Crown Point, New York, presented the flag to its bearer back on May 1, 1861. In fact, Sergeant Chester Rhodes’s mother, Lois Rogers Rhodes, put the new flag into her son’s hands that day. With tears rolling down her cheeks (so Private Bell specified) she said, “Chester, the ladies of Crown Point have put great confidence in you; they have placed that banner in your hands. Go to the front, bear it aloft, and never turn from the enemy.” Accepting that condition, Sergeant Rhodes hugged his mother, bade her goodbye, and took the banner.

At Antietam, sixteen months later, Sergeant Rhodes saw his regiment collapsing around him and remembered the promise he had made. Turning to his comrades in Company H, he vowed, “I will run no farther.” Holding the line, he stood in the face of the Confederate onslaught. Seven bullets struck him. Five bullets struck the other color sergeant, Charles Barton. Other soldiers picked up the fallen flags and bore them aloft. Barton survived his wound. Rhodes did not.

After the battle, grave diggers buried Rhodes on the field. Currently, his remains lie in Antietam National Cemetery, Grave 778.

At the West Woods, it was easy for a Union soldier to consider the possibility of running away. Sedgwick’s division was so badly flanked there was little else any stout-hearted blue-coated soldier could do. Somehow, Sergeant Rhodes summoned determination that compelled him to run no more. He did everything he could to fulfill his promise to his mother.

This image depicts the color-bearers of the 34th New York Volunteers. Although identification is uncertain, Sergeant Chester S. Rhodes is most likely standing at right and Sergeant Charles Barton is standing at left.


This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the fight at the West Woods. The Confederates are in the foreground. Maj. Gen. Sedgwick's troops--with the 34th New York in the front line--are in the distance.

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