CRANSTON, R.I. — Security officer James Bailey only went into the basement of the state's 122-year-old prison to clear out the piles of junk deemed a fire hazard.
What the history buff found as he cast his flashlight across scurrying vermin and piles of paper was a treasure trove of Civil War memorabilia--books containing battlefield maps, enlistment papers of volunteers, and orders written with quill and ink.
"I started working through the pile," Bailey said. "There were a lot of old prison-commitment books from the early 20th Century. And then I found this one book with ornate lettering. It said, 'Special Order, Second Regiment, RIV.' "
It was the hardcover handwritten orders of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and his Civil War regiment of Rhode Island volunteers. The book dated from May 30, 1861, to April 22, 1864.
Rhodes became a familiar figure to the 14 million viewers of Ken Burns' 1990 television documentary, "The Civil War." Burns relied heavily on Rhodes' diary, which was first published in 1865. Rhodes survived the war and afterward started a textile-supply mill in Cranston.
"I was overwhelmed," Bailey said. "I immediately recognized the historical significance of this book."
He called state archivist Gwenn Stearn, who joined Bailey in the search, and they found another Civil War-era book containing, in addition to orders and maps, log entries from commanders. Some entries were critical--annoyed with "straggling" and liquor among enlisted men--while others were congratulatory.
"Comrades! Salem Heights might well be inscribed upon you(r) banners. Your bravery saved the New Jersey reg't in the woods from complete annihilation or certain capture. When other Reg'ts were being driven back in disorder, your bold and determined Advance and Your unfaltering pertinacity till Support could arrive completely checked an enemy well nigh victorious," read an entry.
"Though your loss was heavy, the 3rd of May was a bright day for the honor of the Reg's. Your native state may well be proud of You . . . Col. H. Rogers, Jun, Near Fredericksburg, May 10, '63."
How the books made their way to the maximum-security prison basement is a mystery.
Their discovery "fills in the blanks of the history of the regiment and are valuable historic documents because they once again bring history alive," Stearn said.
The books have been put on display in the state archives office in Providence.