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Rhodes Burrows: Blockade runner and POW

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published June 10. 2012 4:00AM

Rhodes Burrows didn't think there was anything remotely civil about the Civil War. It had damaged his health, caused dissent within his family and destroyed his livelihood. It had turned his life upside-down and nearly killed him.

The Burrows family has been in Mystic for three and a half centuries. Direct descendants of Robert, the Puritan immigrant, still live there. In the 1650s Robert ran a ferry service across Mystic River, near today's I-95 span. Robert's great-grandson, Hubbard, was killed defending Groton during the Revolution. Another descendant, Lemuel, fought with daring effectiveness in the War of 1812 from an "armed rowboat." Burrows men whaled and sealed, opened the Midwest and traveled the world from Europe to South America to Asia. They befriended freedom-fighters, explorers, presidents, kings and czars. The family has an eye-popping pedigree of accomplishments.

Burrows Street could memorialize any of these movers and shakers, but I learned from Dorrie Hanna at the Mystic River Historical Society that it may be named for Daniel, a soldier with George Washington, or perhaps for Daniel's son who fought in the War of 1812. But this story is about Rhodes Burrows, whose house is on Burrows Street and whose story is conflicted, like the times he lived in.

Rhodes made his living from the sea. That's what Mystic men did. He had five boats and a fish-drying operation in Cuba. He traded up and down the East Coast, usually over-wintering his fleet off Brunswick, Georgia. He often spent the winter in Brunswick, sometimes accompanied by his grandmother. Rhodes felt quite at home in this important Southern port.

When the Civil War broke out, Rhodes considered himself a non-combatant. The Confederates weren't just faceless monsters trying to destroy the Union; they were real people, and many of them were his friends. Despite divided loyalties, he tried to stay out of the turmoil and just keep plying his trade. Rhodes wasn't the only Mystic man who conducted illicit business with the South because, frankly, blockade running was lucrative. But it was risky; if caught, Rhodes faced financial ruin with the seizure of his boats as prizes of war.

Trouble finally hit from an unexpected quarter - the Confederacy. Rhodes had sailed out of New London toward an undeclared destination with a full cargo, showing up a little later in Charleston Harbor. When a barge of armed Confederates bumped purposefully up against his schooner, Rhodes wasn't alarmed because he was well known in the South as a neutral party. Rhodes didn't realize that the rebels wanted the schooner for themselves; she'd been built by the Greenman Brothers in Mystic and was known for speed, useful for eluding the Union and bringing in supplies from British ships lurking offshore.

Rhodes was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, a Confederate hellhole second only to Andersonville for its vile conditions and horrific mortality rate. He endured two years of suffering from overcrowding, deplorable sanitation and scarce rations. The prison, formerly a tobacco warehouse, had small, barred windows without glass, making it an airless inferno in summer and a deepfreeze in winter. When Rhodes came home as part of a prisoner exchange, he was wearing a ragged Confederate overcoat he'd purchased in prison to keep warm.

Although in compromised health, Rhodes lived another 12 years with his wife Miranda in their cozy home on Burrows Street. He was lucky to be alive, but things were never the same. Light-heartedness and optimism were yesterday's emotions.

I wonder how Rhodes' ancestors would have felt about his blockade running. Although his immediate relatives were pragmatic business people as well as patriots, they must have had opinions they weren't shy about expressing. If Rhodes was criticized, I'm betting Grandma was quick to spring to her boy's defense. Family dynamics are always entertaining - other people's family dynamics, that is.

The divisive impact of this war on the Burrows family was a microcosm of its national impact. Apparently choosing sides, even in an epic Civil War, is complicated when you're in the moment, living through it.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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