Politics and Military

Peace Goes to War In 1861: Isaac Peace Rodman at Antietam

Six generals died in the Civil War Battle of Antietam. Perhaps the least likely military leader in the group was Isaac Peace Rodman. Of the six generals to die, three were on the Union side and three were on the Confederate. And of the three Union generals, two were graduates of the military academy at West Point. Rodman was not.

Isaac Peace Rodman was raised in a Quaker family to be a pacifist. His middle name gives an idea of how serious his family was about their Quaker beliefs.

isaac peace Rodman

Portrait of Isaac Peace Rodman

In 1861, when the American Civil War broke out, Rodman faced a dilemma. He was a pacifist Quaker. Peace was a long standing name in the Rodman/Hazard families. They even named their village in South Kingstown, R.I. Peace Dale after the family name.

Rodman profited handsomely from the slavery in the American south. He and his brother owned a mill that sold fabric in the south, called Kersey, that planters used to clothe their slaves.

At the same time, he was a political leader, serving in both houses of the Rhode Island legislature. He was, by marriage, part of the politically powerful Hazard family. His political position made him a logical leader in the war against the south. When the south declared its independence, one of its first actions was to renounce its debts.

The war, and the end of orders for fabric, sank the Rodman mills. But there was also a history of anti-slavery sentiment in the Hazard and Rodman families. They were Republicans and Rowland Hazard had also worked behind the scenes to help free black people wrongly jailed in the South.

Rodman quickly decided what side he would be on, abandoning his pacifist beliefs. He petitioned the Secretary of State in Rhode Island to re-establish the Narragansett Guards, South Kingstown’s militia, and he was elected its captain. And in July, the regiment from Rhode Island saw its first action at the First Battle of Bull Run.

In the months that followed, Rodman would lead the troops in the Battle of Roanoke Island, the Battle of New Bern and the Battle of Fort Macon. After nearly a year of service, Rodman returned to Rhode Island to convalesce from Typhoid fever. But his stay did not last long.

Rodman’s fellow Rhode Islander, General Ambrose Burnside, wrote to Rodman and explained the need for more soldiers to mount the Union’s Maryland campaign and drive confederate General Robert Lee out of Maryland.

Rodman’s military career would end at Antietam at Sharpsburg, Md. The battle there on September 17, 1862 is the deadliest day in American history, resulting in roughly 23,000 dead, wounded or missing soldiers.

Rodman’s death came as part of Burnside’s monumental struggle to capture the bridge at the battlefield that now bears his name.

Burnside’s plan was to attack the Confederates on the north side of the bridge both directly and with a contingent of troops he had sent downstream to cross the river and approach from the other side.  Once across the Antietam Creek, the forces would prepare for battle against the Confederates on the main battlefield at Antietam. The goal would be to push the Confederates westward off the field.

Rodman, by then a brigadier general, was to lead the troops downstream and across the creek. One flaw in Burnside’s plan was that he did not realize the troops crossing the river would have to go two miles downstream to find a spot where they could cross.

The delay cost Burnside hours. When Rodman finally managed to cross the creek, two miles from the bridge, he mounted a charge against the Confederate troops. But the time in crossing had been too costly.

Confederate General A.P. Hill had been able to bring his army from Harper’s Ferry in time to repulse Rodman’s troops. Rodman now saw the size of the army he faced. He saw that his troops would bear the brunt the attack from Hill’s army. Rodman mounted a horse to ride to his commanders with this information, and was shot through the left side of his chest.

Though Rodman was taken from the battlefield to a military hospital, the wound to his left lung was a fatal one. He would die 13 days later in the hospital at Sharpsburg, Md.

Though basically a draw, Confederates had withdrawn from the battlefield first and the Battle of Antietam provided a turning point in the war. President Abraham Lincoln had been waiting for a victory to announce his emancipation proclamation, and Antietam was his opportunity.

Rodman’s body was returned to Rhode Island and Rhode Island Senator Henry Anthony spoke at Rodman’s funeral:

“Here lies the true type of the patriot soldier. Born and educated to peaceful pursuits, with no thirst for military distinction, with little taste or predilection for military life, he answered the earliest call of his country, and drew his sword in her defense.”

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