Saturday, August 04, 2012

Faces of the Civil War: Antietam deserters

F. Dixon Tucker, a private in the 16th Connecticut from Wethersfield, deserted at Antietam 
and fled to England. (Photo courtesy Tad Sattler via Connecticut State Library)


We like to think of soldiers doing noble deeds in battle, perhaps defiantly planting the national colors before the enemy or dying a heroic death, as Private Charles Walker and Lieutenant Marvin Wait did during the Battle of Antietam. Of course, that's not always the case.

Sometimes soldiers shirk from duty or run from a fight because of cowardice, lack of conviction in a cause or simply because they are scared out of their minds. Given the circumstances of the 16th Connecticut's fight at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, I often wonder if I would have skedaddled.

What would you have done? Consider these circumstances:

In a regimental history published 10 years after the war, Bernard Blakeslee, a lieutenant in the 16th Connecticut, wrote that at Antietam, the "air was filled with bullets and fiendish missiles."

"Hundreds of cannon were now aimed at us; grape and cannister, marbles and railroad iron were showered down like rain," he recalled. "... A battery was ordered up to engage the enemy, but it was whirled back in less than five minutes, losing every officer, seven men, and five horses. To see those men stand there and be shot down till they received orders to retire was a fearful sight." (1)

As the rebels routed the green regiment in John Otto's 40-acre cornfield late that Wednesday afternoon (see my video below), some men in the 16th Connecticut did choose to run rather than fight. In a letter to his sister from a camp near Sharpsburg on Sept. 23, 1862, George Robbins of the 16th Connecticut was blunt.

"I did not run until the rest did," wrote Robbins, a 22-year-old private from Farmington, "and as the regiment was all scattered around, I went into the woods and stayed overnight and went back (to the regiment) the next morning." (2)

According to the 1860 U.S. census, Fellows D. Tucker was one of three children living
with  Mark and Eliza Tucker. Fellows' father was a clergyman. He apparently had
two other sisters.  (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
At least two men in the 16th Connecticut deserted that awful day, fleeing all the way to England for the duration of the war. F. Dixon Tucker and Henry W. Rhodes, Company A soldiers from Wethersfield, were among thousands of Union army deserters during the Civil War.

An 18-year-old private, Tucker spent almost the rest of his life in exile in Europe, returning to the United States at least once, apparently surreptitiously. A sea captain before the Civil War, Rhodes, a 36-year-old corporal, returned to live in the United States, scratching out an existence in Connecticut near the end of his life. (3)

Their motives for deserting are unclear, and the available historical record on both men is sketchy.

Tucker, whose first name was Fellows, was the son of Eliza and Mark Tucker, a prominent clergyman. Born in Providence, R.I., he moved to Connecticut with the rest of his family at a young age. According to the 1860 U.S. census, Fellows and two of his siblings, 14-year-old Frank and 11-year-old Mark, lived with their parents in Wethersfield, a town founded in 1643 along the Connecticut River, about five miles from Hartford. Fellows also had two older sisters, both apparently married in 1860. One of his sisters eventually settled in Italy.

Enlisting in the Union army on July 21, 1861, at the Old Academy Hall in Wethersfield, Tucker mustered into the 16th Connecticut as a private on Aug. 24, 1862. After he deserted, he found employment as a clerk in an English shipyard in Birkenhead, on the west bank of the River Mersey, opposite Liverpool. It was in Birkenhead that the Confederate warship Alabama was secretly built in the spring of 1862. Described as "a man of education," Tucker visited the United States after the war, "his comings and goings being known only to his friends. He declined to avail himself of amnesty ... preferring exile."

At least one photo of Tucker from his life in England survives. Looking dapper in his Sunday best, the young man peers confidently into the camera for the carte de visite image taken at Henry Keet's studio in Liverpool. The reverse and front of the CDV are signed, probably by Tucker himself.

Did he miss his comrades in the 16th Connecticut? Did he long for life in America? Perhaps we'll never know. Fellow Dixon Tucker, the son of a Connecticut pastor, is believed to have died in England.

Henry W. Rhodes was listed as a seaman in the 1860 U.S. census.
Although his given name was Henry, Rhodes went by the nickname "Captain," and no wonder, given that he  spent much of life before the Civil War as a sea captain, crossing the Atlantic from the United States to Europe.

Born in Litchfield, Conn., Henry was the son of Sarah and Joseph Rhodes. Enlisting in the Union army on Aug. 7, 1862, Rhodes was mustered into the 16th Connecticut as a corporal 17 days later. "Captain" married an Englishwoman and settled in a residence on Columbus Avenue in New Haven, Conn., after he returned to the United States, but by 1868, three years after the Civil War had ended, Rhodes was "liviing in destitution and want."

Perhaps shunned by his former comrades for deserting his regiment, Henry W. Rhodes -- described as a "great sufferer" -- died of heart disease on July 2, 1868. Only 42 years old, he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven.

No trace was found of his widow, who is presumed to have returned England.

(1) "History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers,"  B.F. Blakeslee, 1875, Page 15
(2) George Robbins letter to his sister, Connecticut Historical Society Civil War Manuscripts Project, Location: MS 84647B 
(3) "Military and Biographical Data of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers," George Q. Whitney Papers, Connecticut State Library, RG 69. Note: Most of the biographical information on Tucker and Rhodes in this post is from this source.
Carte de visite of F. Dixon Tucker taken in Liverpool, England. 
(Photo: Connecticut State Library, George Q. Whitney Collection.)


MORE ON 16TH CONNECTICUT: Stories of the men who fought and died at Antietam.
MORE ON ANTIETAM: Read my extensive thread on the battle and the men who fought in it.

3 comments:

Hazel Ballan said...

I can't begin to tell you how excited we are in finding this web page. Fellows Dixon Tucker was my husband's great grandfather and these are the first photos he has ever seen of him. May we have permission to copy them?
We knew about his army life, the fleeing to the UK and return to the USA but were uncertain of why he went back - perhaps to visit his family? Do you have any other info on him?
Thank you so much for putting the photos on-line.

John Banks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Banks said...

Hi, Hazel: Thrilled you found the info. E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net. Not sure if you are in Connecticut, but I am speaking on Saturday at Avon Library. Perhaps we can connect then. More info here: http://john-banks.blogspot.com/2012/09/antietam-if-youre-in-connecticut.html