By Jaeger Held ’22
We would like to thank Robert Melphis for generously sharing the letter transcriptions, muster rolls, and several photographs of his ancestor, Erasmus D. Clark, with CWI and thus allowing for our students to study and learn from Clark’s life and wartime experiences.
During the late summer of 1862, a twenty-year-old soldier from Newport, Rhode Island named Erasmus Darwin Clark had his picture taken at a portrait gallery wearing his newly issued Union uniform. In the image, a boyish, clean shaven, and smartly dressed Clark is standing in the position of parade rest while wearing a dark blue forage cap, frock coat and trousers with waist belt and holding an Enfield rifled musket with fixed bayonet. Near the end of his service as a private in Company I of the Seventh Rhode Island Infantry almost three years later, Clark had a second photograph taken which contrasts sharply with the earlier image. In this second image, a seasoned, bearded, and bedraggled Clark faces the photographer and leans back in a chair. The veteran is wearing a forage cap set back on his head, a plain, unbuttoned Army fatigue blouse and federal issue shirt, and sky blue trousers without a waist belt. These two portraits of a single Union soldier are exceptional among Civil War imagery for what they convey of the physical and emotional fatigue of war.
Erasmus Clark was born on July 18, 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island to Octavia Lodiska Willey and William Clarke. He had two younger sisters, Laura (born 1847) and Lydia (born 1849). When the American Civil War began he was living in Newport, and on August 11, 1862 during the second year of the war he enlisted in the Union army for three years’ service. In addition to his change in appearance between 1862 and 1864, Clark’s letters to his family at home shifted significantly after he experienced difficult campaigning with the Ninth Army Corps through Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi. In the early months of his service, Clark wrote long letters to his family at home describing his experiences and the places he went. On November 4, 1862, he wrote to his mother from Virginia, “We have been on the march for a week and I can tell you it is pretty hard work with them knapsacks on our back. But then I suppose that is nothing to what will come.” Clark’s foreboding proved true, as the Seventh Rhode Island fought and suffered heavily in the disastrous Union assaults at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. The regiment then moved west, serving in Kentucky and participating in the Vicksburg Campaign in Mississippi during the summer of 1863. There, many of the New Englanders suffered from an unfamiliar climate and a disease they called “Yazoo Fever.” After returning to Virginia, the regiment fought in the bloody Overland Campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg in the spring of 1864. Amidst the continuous fighting at Spotsylvania Court House and along the North Anna River, Clark intimated the awful slaughter he witnessed, writing home on May 27, 1864, “I pray to God we will not have to go in another battle.”
Following the tragic bloodshed at Cold Harbor in early June, and suffering from a case of dysentery that was probably compounded by emotional and physical fatigue, Clark was admitted to an army hospital on June 15, 1864. In a letter to his mother four days later, he wrote, “I wish that this war was over so that I could come home for I have got about enough war for this time.” Clark’s last surviving letter to his family was written on the final day of June. The Seventh Rhode Island continued their service in the trenches outside Petersburg and participated in the Union’s breakthrough assault on April 2, 1865, which led to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Court House seven days later. All this time, Clark endured a trying existence in a series of Union military hospitals suffering from chronic diarrhea. By war’s end, the Seventh Rhode Island had suffered a casualty rate of more than eighty percent, the highest of any Rhode Island unit during the conflict.
Although he was discharged from military service on May 4, 1865, in accordance with orders from the War Department, Clark was still recorded as absent at Mower General Hospital in Philadelphia when the surviving members of the original Seventh Rhode Island Regiment mustered out of service on June 9, 1865. The weary, invalided soldier finally reported for muster out from Lovell General Hospital in Portsmouth, Rhode Island on July 21, 1865, three days after his twenty-third birthday. After the war, Erasmus Clark returned home to Newport where he married and began a career as a cabinetmaker. Clark lived on until January 19, 1919, when he passed away at age seventy-six and was laid to rest at the Common Burial Ground in Newport, Rhode Island. The letters and images of Erasmus Clark offer poignant insights into the experiences of a common Union soldier during the American Civil War.