The Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, was a stalwart abolitionist and pacifist faith in the 19th century. Yet, young men who otherwise adhered to its tenets joined the military and fought to preserve the Union and free the slaves.
Samuel Rodman Smith, along with his brother Linton, chose not to sit idly by in their hometown of Wilmington when Southern states seceded and provoked a conflict that quickly engulfed the entire nation. They both joined the ranks of the 4th Delaware Regiment in June 1862 (see “The education of Quaker brothers in wartime,” Coastal Point, Aug. 20, 2014).
Rodman Smith’s experiences early in the war were relatively calm in comparison with those serving in units taking heavy casualties in engagements in Virginia and elsewhere in the South. The 4th Delaware was relegated to guard duty at the duPont Powder Works along Brandywine Creek, before moving to a camp in Alexandria, Va.
Life in the army continued to be routine and tranquil for Rod over the next 18 months, as the 4th Delaware maneuvered behind the lines. The unit spent time in various camps along the Rappahannock and Chickahominy rivers.
In early 1864, however, a dramatic change occurred, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant general in chief of the entire Union army following his successful encounters against Confederate forces in the Western theater. Grant came east and decided to accompany the Army of the Potomac in a campaign to confront and defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, Rod Smith received a promotion to captain of Company C, 4th Delaware, and became a participant in Grant’s Overland Campaign. After a number of costly battles in the wilderness, and at Spotsylvania, North Anna and Cold Harbor, Grant forced Lee back into the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg.
With the goal of completely surrounding the city of Petersburg, in February 1865 Grant ordered Maj. Gen Gouveneur Warren’s Fifth Corps to harass the Confederate right flank. The 4th Delaware, under Maj. Daniel Kent, was a part of this movement.
The Rebels burned the bridge over a wide creek along one of the roads the Fifth Corps marched. They left a contingent of troops to fire into and delay advancing Yankees attempting to cross the creek.
Efforts by a number of Union regiments to cross over and take control of the opposite bank were fruitless and costly. Next in line to make the attempt was the 4th Delaware.
Roger A. Martin, author of “Delaware’s Medal of Honor Winners,” described what happened next.
A member of the regiment overheard division commander Maj. Gen. Romeyn Ayres instruct Kent, “You are expected to carry the bridge, [even] if you lose every man,” and 1st Lt. David Buckingham of the 4th Delaware bravely ventured into the frozen creek. He later reported, “I stepped on the ice … [which] broke under my weight … swam to the south side, the Minie balls skimming the water all around me.”
Others, including Kent, followed Buckingham into the icy creek but soon fell back under a barrage of enemy gunfire — Kent sustaining a serious wound. Farther upstream, Rodman Smith spotted what appeared to be a better place to make a crossing. He led his troops into numbing waters that “proved to be over six feet deep … but I was a strong swimmer, and … succeeded in reaching a small island in mid-stream, under a heavy plunging fire.”
Smith’s and Buckingham’s leadership set the tone for the rest of the 4th Delaware and other units that sprang into the stream and took control of the opposite bank, including the capture of a number of Rebel prisoners. Recognition of their heroic actions would soon follow, as their superiors nominated both men for the Medal of Honor.
Given Samuel Rodman Smith’s pacifist Quaker upbringing, the citation lent a sense of irony to the award. It read, “Swam the partly frozen creek, under fire, in the attempt to capture a crossing.”
Perhaps an even greater reward came when Rodman and his brother Linton were on hand at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. They witnessed Gens. Grant and Lee emerging from the McLean House following Lee’s surrender of his army.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at email@example.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.