I read a lot of battle narratives – they are the fuel that drives this blog. With that said, I am also very fond of biographies. Every now and then an exceptional biography comes along – one which combines the tale of a true soldier with their exploits on the battlefield. This is the case with Darrell Collins’ book, “Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography.” Collins, the author of two other books on the Civil War, has received critical acclaim in the past. While I try to focus my book reviews on new releases, “Major General Robert E. Rodes” is very worthy of this tardy review. Published in July 2008 by Savas Beatie, LLC, it is one of only two modern biographies on Rodes, one of the most solid division commanders in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Collins’ biography of Rodes covers his early life, growing up near Lynchburg, Virginia through his divisional leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia. Not lacking any detail, the book is over 500 pages. Collins’ prose brings Rodes to life with the general jumping off the pages with excellent literary imagery. Born on March 29, 1829, Robert Emmett Rodes was the son of David Rodes – a general in the Virginia Militia. The younger Rodes would attend the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), graduating in 1848. While Robert wanted to study engineering at the University of Virginia, his father had other plans for him. Ultimately, Rodes would become a math teacher at VMI.
The author provides much detail of Rodes’ professional life, a journey that would take him through much of the south as an engineer, working for a canal operation and several railroads. Collins makes a strong case for these years, working in the private sector, molding Rodes into the individual that would bravely lead his regiment, brigade and division into battles during the Civil War. Rodes, a strict disciplinarian, would ultimately meet his wife, Hortense Woodruff, while an engineer for the Northeast and Southwest Alabama Railroad.
Never losing his interest in VMI, or teaching, he would accept a professorship at VMI in 1861. Unfortunately, he was never able to start his new career as the Civil War would interrupt his plans. Collins again provides a wonderful glimpse into Rodes’ life, detailing his time as captain of the Alabama “Warrior Guards” and his appointment to colonel of the 5th Alabama Infantry regiment. Collins writing is very balanced, not glossing over the anger Rodes experienced when his regiment did not participate in the First Battle of Manassas, or the overly hard drilling he put his regiment through after the battle.
Collins’ knowledge of the Civil War, and expertise of battlefield tactics, is on display in the detailed descriptions of Rodes battlefield exploits while in the Army of Northern Virginia. The author becomes a virtual battlefield guide for major battles that Rodes led his troops in: Seven Pines, Gaines’ Mill, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Opequon. Rodes led from the front and would be wounded several times before he would finally be killed at Winchester. The author’s free-flowing style makes “Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia” an enjoyable journey through the major battles of the Eastern Theater. I recommend this book for anyone that is a serious student of the Civil War.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Collins recently. The text based interview follows. Enjoy!
Details about “Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia”
Written by: Darrell L. Collins
Paperback: 524 pages
Publisher: Savas Beatie, LLC
Date of First Edition: July 7, 2008
Interview with Darrell L. Collins, author of “Major General Robert E. Rodes”
This Mighty Scourge (TMS): Darrell, can you tell my listeners a little about yourself and how you became interested in the Civil War? Were there any mentors that influenced your interest in history?
Darrell Collins (DC): I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in the Civil War. This is due in large measure to the fact that I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that appreciated history. I remember my parents and grandparents telling me stories about the Civil War that they had heard from their grandparents. I grew up in Michigan, but my family heritage goes back many generations to the Virginia-West Virginia area. Perhaps the most fascinating story I recall concerned my Confederate great-grandfather facing his own Union brother at the small battle of Droop Mountain in West Virginia, not far from their common home. Such great stories set me on a life-long quest to learn more about this war of brother against brother.
TMS: I recently finished reading “Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia.” I must say that I really enjoyed the book and believe it provides a fresh look at one of the most successful commanders in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Why did you choose Rodes for a full length biography?
DC: Thank you for the compliment and I am glad you enjoyed the book. In 1997, I attended a Civil War conference in Frederick, Md. The keynote speaker was James Robertson, who had just published what I consider to be the definitive biography of Stonewall Jackson. At the time, I had written a few books on the Civil War, but not a biography. Robertson’s fascinating talk about his quest to know Jackson inspired me to set out on a similar adventure. I, too, wanted to do a general in Lee’s army, one who had participated in nearly all its major campaigns. I soon discovered that no major work had been done on Rodes. We seemed a perfect match.
TMS: Rodes was raised in Lynchburg, Virginia. His family sent him to private schools during his youth. As a young man he attended the Virginia Military Institute – known as VMI. Upon graduating from VMI, his father, David Rodes tried to get his son appointed as an officer in the Regular Army. Unfortunately, with the Mexican War having recently ended, the U.S. Army had been downsized and there was no position available for Robert. He would end up taking a teaching position, at VMI, with a rank of lieutenant. Can you tell me how this teaching assignment impacted him?
DC: There is no doubt in my mind that Rodes loved and admired his father, a Virginia Militia general, court clerk, and speculator in land and slaves. Though loving and kind, David Rodes was strict and controlling, making the major decisions regarding his son’s future. After VMI, young Robert wanted to continue in education in engineering by attending the University of Virginia, but his father, though fairly well-off, refused to pay for it. Instead, he came up with such schemes as getting Robert a commission in the army, becoming a court clerk in Richmond, or sending him out to Missouri to be a “preacher.” When all these failed to materialize, Robert, almost by default, accepted a position at VMI teaching basic math courses to freshmen. This, however, Robert truly loved doing. From then on he wanted nothing more than a career in teaching, his ultimate goal being a full professorship at his beloved VMI.
TMS: VMI was a growing institution. With its growth, a professorship position opened which Rodes applied for. He would not end up getting the position – a position that would be filled by none other than Thomas J. Jackson – the future “Stonewall.” Rodes enjoyed teaching immensely, but financial considerations required him to take an engineering position with the North River Canal and later with the South Side Railroad where he was in charge of surveying the line from Farmville towards Lynchburg. Can you describe this period in Rodes’ life and the toils of being an engineer for the South Side Railroad?
DC: The new chair that went to Jackson, Rodes did not get for two reasons: he had little training in the subjects to be taught (chemistry, geology, and mineralogy), and VMI Superintendent Francis Smith though a great admirer of Rodes, wished to follow the example of the West Point Academy by not making full professors of its graduates until VMI had been open at least twenty years (VMI opened in 1839). Unable to survive on the meager pay of an assistant professor, Rodes reluctantly left his beloved VMI and began a career as an engineer in the field. This proved to be a very tough life, working long hours outside in all kinds of weather, living in tents or hovels for weeks at a time, with little or no social life. It was an existence Rodes learned to both love and hate.
TMS: One of the most enjoyable aspects of your book was the glimpses into Rodes’ character and moral beliefs. One such example was during the period of time he was working on the South Side Railroad. With his father losing his banking job, Rodes would bring his younger sister to live with him. While it was rough living along the unfinished railroad, Robert would take care of his sister, providing for her needs. This action and many others throughout his short life, would show the compassionate side of the future military commander. What say you?
DC: In 1850, Virginia adopted a new state constitution, which stipulated, among other things, that a number of positions in state government filled by appointment now had to be filled by popular election. Despite having held the position of district court clerk for more than twenty years, David Rodes was voted out of office in 1852. Erroneously concluding that his father now was financially strapped, Robert offered to take in his teenage sister Sally. Sally, however, refused to live in a one-room hovel with her brother, preferring instead to live in much more comfortable surroundings with friends in Charlottesville. This offer by Rodes, as you say, was but one of many examples of his compassion. Another example was his attempt to help a financially destitute friend by buying his watch for $75, an entire month’s wage for Rodes at the time. There was, however, another side of Rodes that showed a definite lack of compassion, a prime example being his wish at the start of the war to settle his debts by selling the young children of his house-slave Hannah.
TMS: Rodes was extremely ambitious. Over the coming years he would lose several assistant engineer positions, with different railroads. This was fairly common as the road would either run out of money or would reach a point in its construction where fewer engineers were needed. He would end up working twice for the NE & SW Alabama Railroad. The first time the railroad ran out of money and the second time he came back as chief engineer. It was during his first tenure, in Alabama, that he would meet Hortense Woodruff – his future wife. Can you elaborate on what Rodes was experiencing during this difficult time and what gave him the financial security to marry Hortense?
DC: In addition for working for the Southside Railroad in Virginia, and the Northeast and Southwest Alabama Railroad in Alabama, Rodes worked a short time with different railroads in Texas, Missouri, and North Carolina. Though he loved engineering, he hated the ephemeral nature of his work. His return to Alabama in 1856 and appointment as chief engineer two years later gave him four things that finally secured his happiness: 1) a permanent job, with little or no threat of layoff, 2) a headquarters office—no more living in the field, 3) excellent pay–$3,000 a year, more than 15 times that of a common laborer, and 4) his chance to once again pursue and finally marry Hortense.
TMS: While no longer teaching, Rodes remained very interested in the educational system. After he left VMI, he continued to remain in regular contact with Francis H. Smith, the head of VMI. These letters provided much insight into the maturing Rodes – a man you described as being a strict disciplinarian. How did this help mold him into the commander he would become later in life?
DC: Living under the guidance of his strict militia-general father, Rodes grew up in an environment of discipline. Added to the discipline imposed by the military setting at VMI, was the self discipline Rodes developed as an engineer working under extremely harsh conditions for long periods of time. In 1859, the University of Alabama was considering converting into a military institute similar to VMI. The Board of Directors consulted Rodes. He strongly recommended that the only way to “control the pupils” was to build a tall brick wall around the entire campus. I think this is quite revealing.
TMS: Robert E. Rodes would finally get an opportunity to pursue his dream – teaching a VMI. The board of VMI appointed Rodes Professor of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He was to start on September 1, 1861. Unfortunately the gathering war clouds of 1860 and early 1861 would intervene. Rodes was well prepared for command. After John Brown’s failed raid at Harpers Ferry, Tuscaloosa County funded the “Warrior Guards.” Rodes would be elected their captain. While he drilled his men hard, and kept strict discipline throughout the company, his men would grow to respect Rodes. He was knowledgeable and turned the raw men into soldiers quickly. With the formation of the 5th Alabama, Rodes would be appointed their colonel. Many of the Warrior Guards would follow Rodes into Confederate service – another sign of the respect they felt for him. Can you describe this period of time?
DC: As chief engineer of the NE & SW Alabama, Rodes worked in the company headquarters town of Eutaw, the seat of Greene County, some thirty miles southwest of Tuscaloosa. Because of Hortense’s frequent illnesses (described only as “neuralgia”), the couple moved in with her parents in Tuscaloosa. This fortuitous circumstance made Robert eligible in 1859 to be elected captain of the Warrior Guards. By November of the following year, Rodes had so thoroughly trained the Guards that at the fair of West Alabama they won the banner as best drilled company. When the Guards went to Montgomery, the following May, to be sworn into Confederate service, they became Company H of the 5th Alabama Infantry, and Rodes, his reputation for command now firmly established, was elected colonel.
TMS: After spending a period of time in Florida, the 5th Alabama was sent to Virginia. They arrived at Manassas Junction on June 19, 1861 and were assigned to Brigadier General Richard S. Ewell’s Brigade. The 6th Alabama, 6th Louisiana (later to be part of the Louisiana Tigers) and the Washington (LA) Artillery were also in the brigade – along with four companies of cavalry. To protect the gathering Confederate army, Rodes was sent east towards Centreville and posted at Farr’s Crossroads. It was there, on July 17, that Rodes would first meet the enemy. Unfortunately, supporting forces had withdrawn leaving Rodes isolated, and in front of the rest of the army. His 5th Alabama fought bravely, in what would best be described as a small skirmish, but once he realized he was surrounded he ordered his regiment to “recede” – a term he would use instead of “retreat.” Can you describe the early war preparations, his arrival in Virginia and his first action at Farr’s Crossroads?
DC: Immediately after forming in May 1861, the 5th Alabama was sent down to Pensacola, Florida to be part of General Braxton Bragg’s force besieging Fort Pickens. By the time the regiment reached Virginia in mid-June, Rodes had molded it into a highly efficient and well-trained unit. He was sent up the Braddock Road to serve as an advance picket at Farr’s Crossroads. Here Rodes’ engineering skills, more than his military training, served him well, his keen eye for terrain selecting an excellent defensive position for his men. Eventually approached and nearly surrounded by about 2,000 men of Samuel Heintzelman’s division, Rodes refused to “recede” until he received specific orders to do so from General Ewell down at Union Mills Ford. It was, as I have written, a splendid little affair for Rodes and the 5th Alabama.
TMS: On July 21, 1861 the first large scale battle was fought in the Civil War. The First Battle of Bull Run would be a terrific victory for the Confederate army – however, without the arrival of Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston’s command, from the Shenandoah Valley, it could have easily been a terrible Confederate defeat. Rodes would see little action during the battle as he was posted away from the action. This caused a growing resentment that you described as “petty and even illogical.” Additionally, he would start a strict drill program that was so hard that the men suffered terribly. Finally a surgeon told him he was going to kill all of his men – with the result being less drill during the heat of the day. Can you describe Rodes during this period of time – the resentment he felt for not being part of the Confederate victory at Bull Run and his increasing use of hard drill?
DC: For four brief days after Farr’s Crossroads, Rodes basked in an atmosphere of back-slapping congratulations. He appears to have thoroughly enjoyed the accolades, which all to soon were reduced to insignificance by the momentous battle of the 21st. Already possessing a reputation for having a well-trained, efficient regiment, he seemed determined after Bull Run to further build on that reputation as additional proof that he was indeed, battlefield glory or no, a capable officer. Rodes, however, may also have had the welfare of his men in mind when he put them on his harsh training regimen. Though he did not participate in the great battle of the 21st, he witnessed its horrible aftermath, with its acres of dead and wounded men. Only the severest discipline and training might spare his own men this awful fate in the next great contest.
TMS: One of the challenges you faced when writing this book was cited in the introduction. While much of Rodes’ correspondence with his father, friends and military associates was saved, Hortense burned all of her correspondence with her husband after his death – letters that would have provided a glimpse into the heart of Rodes. How did you work around this lack of primary source material and what other difficulties did you encounter when researching this book?
DC: Lacking this essential primary source material, I decided to approach my subject not only from his own perspectives, as revealed in his extant letters, reports, etc., but also from the perspectives of those people on whose lives he had a significant impact. Simply put, a biography is an attempt to understand an individual. A full understanding thus requires an investigation into not only what the main subject thought, believed, felt, and did, but also the effect of all these on the people with whom he interacted. I therefore relied heavily on the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the people who knew Rodes, who worked with him, who befriended him, and who entrusted their lives to him.
TMS: Rodes’ hard work paid off. On October 25, 1861, Rodes was promoted brigadier general in the Confederate Army. His brigade included the 5th, 6th and 12th Alabama regiments and the 12th Mississippi. Interestingly enough, Alabama law required that the new commander for Rodes’ 5th Alabama would be elected by a vote of the regiment. This created quite a controversy. Can you elaborate for my readers?
DC: Back in May, Rodes had been chosen colonel of the 5th Alabama by a vote of the men in the regiment. He considered that method appropriate for new, raw units in the process of formation. He strongly protested, however, against that method for veteran regiments, arguing, reasonably enough, that it ran too great a risk of not putting in place the best man for the job. Respecting the principle of state’s rights, on which the new nation had been founded, Confederate authorities and General Beauregard refused to intervene in the matter, whereby Alabama’s Governor Shorter stood firm in his insistence that the new colonel be elected. Ironically, the men chose Lieutenant Colonel Allen Jones, the man Rodes preferred for the job.
TMS: During US Major General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign Rodes’ brigade would not see action at Yorktown or Williamsburg. They would, however, receive their “baptism of fire” at Seven Pines. During the Confederate charge, which Rodes’ brigade led, his brigade would suffer a 50% casualty rate. Additionally, Rodes received a significant wound to his arm. Can you describe his performance at Fair Oaks?
DC: Before Seven Pines, Rodes possessed a well-deserved reputation for having molded his brigade, as he had done with the 5th Alabama, into an efficient, well-trained unit. He remained, however, an untested, unproven, and unknown quantity as a combat officer, his little affair at Farr’s Crossroads notwithstanding. Rodes emerged from the battle with soaring praise as immanently worthy of the high position he held. D.H. Hill, his division commander, had launched the attack before Rodes was fully deployed. Rodes’ intense training now paid off as he sent his men into the fight en echelon. Once they smashed through the first Federal position, Rodes expertly straightened his line and pressed on, always inspiring and leading his men from the front. Rodes truly impressed me, as he did his contemporaries, with both his ability and courage.
TMS: Darrell, your book includes wonderful maps. These were made by Timothy Reese. I am unfamiliar with Mr. Reese. Can you tell my readers a little bit about him and how your partnership was formed?
DC: For my previous books I drew and developed my own maps. They were adequate, but for Rodes I wanted the services of a professional cartographer. My publisher, Ted Savas, recommended Timothy Reese, a prominent Civil War mapmaker used by Savas on several other projects. I would send Tim sketches of the battles I wanted to use, indicating where I wished to place special emphasis regarding Rodes, and he turned them into the beautiful maps you see in the book. I was very glad and grateful to have his services.
TMS: While still suffering a fever, and significant pain from his wounded arm, Rodes was again leading his brigade during the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. His beloved 5th Alabama would perform very well during the attack against the Federal position but would eventually be forced to retire. Unfortunately, Rodes would open the wound on his arm and would leave the field. Taking his place was Colonel John B. Gordon. Can you provide an analysis of Rodes’ Brigade’s actions at Gaines’ Mill?
DC: Rodes returned to duty too soon, a mere three weeks after receiving his wound at Seven Pines. Convinced, however, that a major, if not war-winning campaign was about to begin, he resumed command of his brigade on June 20, five days before the beginning of the Seven Days’ Battles. At Gaines’ Mill, Rodes’ Brigade held the left-center of Jackson’s line, poised to strike Porter’s Yankees across a dense, almost swampy thicket, and then 400 yards of open ground. At 7 p.m., the men rushed forward, Rodes’ troops emerging from the thicket widely scattered and spread out. Rodes was reorganizing his line when he wisely and nobly concluded he no longer was fit to go on. The Confederates, including Rodes’ Brigade, ultimately went on to achieve a stunning victory.
TMS: While convalescing at a hospital in Richmond, Gordon would continue to command Rodes’ Brigade. At the battle of Malvern Hill, the brigade would again suffer staggering losses – 450 men from all causes. While severely depleted after the Peninsula Campaign, and the Seven Days, Rodes’ Brigade had earned a reputation for hard fighting and bravery. What say you?
DC: Up to the very morning of the battle of Seven Pines, many of Rodes’ men despaired that they were being left out of the war, having stood in reserve at Williamsburg, seen no real action at Yorktown, and heard the guns but fired none of their own at Manassas. After Malvern, many had had more than enough of this war, 1,650 of their number having been placed on the casualty lists. Rodes’ Brigade had indeed earned it reputation as one of the best combat units in Lee’s army.
TMS: Rodes would return to his brigade after the Battle of Second Bull Run. Part of Daniel Harvey Hill’s Division, it would engage the Federal forces at Turner’s Gap. The fighting would be brutal during the battle of South Mountain as the Army of Northern Virginia attempted to keep the Federals from pushing through the gaps. Can you describe the fighting Rodes’ men experienced at Turner’s Gap?
DC: I believe that at South Mountain Rodes performed one of his greatest services for the Confederacy. If McClellan had pushed through the gaps, and thus interposed between Longstreet at Frederick and Jackson at Harper’s Ferry, untold disaster might have befallen Lee’s army. Rodes’ Brigade played a crucial role in preventing that from happening. The ground on South Mountain was rough and broken, but Rodes, with his keen engineering eye for terrain, placed his men to such advantage that they held off an entire division (Meade’s) for several hours without help. To avoid being overwhelmed, Rodes then pulled back his men into an excellent L-shaped line that held off the enemy until darkness mercifully ended the fight. The brigade, however, again lost heavily, this time about 400 men.
TMS: After the fighting at Turner’s Gap, the strength of the brigade had been reduced to around 1,200 effectives – not much larger than the original strength of Rodes’ 5th Alabama when it mustered into Confederate service. Arriving at Antietam, D.H. Hill’s division, including Rodes’ Brigade, would be assigned a position south of the Sunken Road. Described after the battle as Bloody Lane, Rodes would face US Major General William French’s Federal Division. Needless to say, while eventually being pushed to the high ground beyond the road, Rodes’ Brigade would suffer during the fight in this sector. Can you elaborate?
DC: Having once been convinced that they were being left out of the war, Rodes’ men now consistently found themselves placed at the crucial spot in nearly every great battle of Lee’s army, the Bloody Lane being yet another example. I have walked the length of this narrow road, marveling at the courage of Rodes as he did the same under much more dangerous circumstances, encouraging his men as they, along with George Anderson’s brigade on their right, threw back charge after charge. I walked back 100 yards or so to the barn where Rodes and an aide had ridden to bring up reinforcements, and saw the approximate spots where the aide took a bullet in the face and Rodes a piece of shrapnel in the thigh. Faced with overwhelming numbers, Rodes’ and Anderson’s men eventually broke, but many were rallied by Hill, Longstreet, and a thigh-bandaged Rodes, and once again, Lee’s army was saved.
TMS: After the Maryland Campaign, Rodes would be assigned temporary command of Hill’s Division while in the Shenandoah Valley. During this period of time, Rodes would command one of his future brigadier generals, Bryan Grimes. An interesting exchange would take place between these two warriors during this time – an exchange that would cause future issues when Rodes was later made a division commander. Can you provide some details on what took place?
DC: As senior brigadier, Rodes in late November 1862 assumed temporary command of Hill’s division while that officer was away on business. Soon afterwards, Lee ordered the 2nd Corps to proceed from the Valley to Fredericksburg, Rodes putting the division in motion on November 21. Unaware that Rodes was in command of the division, Grimes, in temporary command of Ramseur’s Brigade, complained to him about the order that forbade the men to remove their shoes and pants to cross the cold, waist-deep Shenandoah River. Grimes was quite taken aback by the sharp rebuke he received from Rodes, only to be further angered by him later that same day for being chastised at not ordering his men to stack arms during a halt, and still later for not hurrying along sufficiently to a nearby town. These unpleasant exchanges soured relations between the two men for nearly a year and a half, finally being mitigated by what Grimes called Rodes’ “gentlemanly gesture,” probably the division commander’s strong endorsement of Grimes’ promotion to brigadier.
TMS: During the spring of 1863, D.H. Hill was sent to North Carolina. There was much anticipation about who would take his place in command of the division. While Rodes was the senior brigadier general, Edward “Allegheny” Johnson would receive the promotion. How did this affect Rodes?
DC: Though he desperately wanted the promotion, Rodes, unlike many of his colleagues, refused to campaign for it by soliciting endorsements from fellow officers and prominent politicians. He felt highly gratified, however, when unsolicited references poured in for him. Nonetheless, Rodes did not let his hopes get too high, reasoning that since he was not a ”West Point man” he had little chance of becoming a major general. He thus took Johnson’s promotion in stride, especially since that officer was still recovering from a wound and probably would not take command for some time. In the meantime, Chancellorsville took place.
TMS: I would like to comment on your writing style. One thing I appreciated was how fluidly you could move from a narrative of battle action to providing interesting information on the background of Rodes or another soldier. This made the book very enjoyable to read. Is this style something that came naturally for you or did you consciously try to intersperse the narrative with enlightening stories of the soldiers?
DC: Thank you, Mike. I certainly appreciate those kind words. I did not want this biography to be a mere chronological recitation of what Rodes did. Just as I relied on the diaries, letter, and memoirs of those who knew Rodes in order to provide a fuller understanding of him, I wanted to present their experiences to further illustrate what Rodes may have been going through at the same time. A good example of this is the horror and terror described by Private Nick Weeks of the 3rd Alabama at Chancellorsville on May 3. Rodes at the time is known to have been with the 3rd Alabama, perhaps only a few yards from Private Weeks. What did Rodes confide to his own wife about that terrible day? We will never know. But Nick Weeks gave us some idea of what he, and Rodes, experienced.
TMS: In May 1863, Rodes would lead one of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Divisions at Chancellorsville. It was during Jackson’s flank march, and subsequent engagement with US Major General O.O. Howard’s XI Corps, that Rodes provided his most valuable action during the war. Leading the assault, on the center of the line, Rodes would receive much credit for rolling the Union right flank up, and pushing it to the main Federal line near the Chancellor Tavern. Rodes was continually seen in the thick “of the action,” leading his men from the front. Can you describe this portion of the battle and give an overall analysis of Rodes’ performance?
DC: It was customary practice, if possible, for units on the march to rotate from day to day which should be in the lead and which should bring up the rear. On the morning of May 2, however, there was no time for such rotation. Rodes’ division, being nearest the designated jump-off point on the Furnace Road, automatically drew the honor of leading the march, which meant that ultimately Rodes and his men also would lead the attack. After a grueling march of some twelve miles, which consumed seven hours, Rodes deployed his 8,500 men fairly quickly into a one-and-a-half mile line straddling the Old Turnpike. At the signal, Rodes sent his men forward, crushing the right of the XI Corps, and maintaining the momentum of the attack as long as possible until darkness, confusion, exhaustion and a lack of ammunition finally brought it to a halt. Undoubtedly, it was Rodes’ finest hour. “He seems after Jackson,” wrote Ewell in a private letter, “to be the hero of the fight.”
TMS: On May 10, Rodes was officially promoted major general. Dated May 10, Rodes would take the unusual action of sending it back, requesting that it be made effective May 2. The senate confirmed it with the requested date, effectively making Rodes the official division commander during the fight at Chancellorsville. While most of his soldiers were pleased with his promotion, there was some dissension in the ranks, the soldiers believing that they earned the laurels at Chancellorsville. Can you elaborate?
DC: I found this incident to be somewhat amusing. As the only medium at the time, newspapers were devoured by the soldiers, who scanned every page looking for (favorable) references to their units. When after Chancellorsville the papers heaped praise on Rodes, with little or no mention of his brigades or regiments, some soldiers in the division had had enough. They protested, by way of anonymous letters to various papers, that although Rodes was an excellent officer who did his job, it was the men in the ranks who won the fight. Rodes, by the way, had no delusions about this. On several occasions he is known to have personally visited different regiments and thanked the men for their efforts in the latest battle.
TMS: After a long grueling march to Pennsylvania, in June 1863, Robert Rodes would lead his division to the sounds of fighting, at Gettysburg, on July 1. Upon arriving north of Oak Hill, he would dress his lines and move to attack the Federal XI Corps at Oak Hill. The fighting would be intense, but they would end up pushing the XI and I Corps through the town of Gettysburg and on to Cemetery and Culp’s hills. Can you describe the action during the first day’s fight at Gettysburg?
DC: At Chancellorsville, Jackson and Rodes had achieved the unthinkable dream of assembling a large attack force on the flank of an unsuspecting enemy. At Gettysburg Rodes did it again, this time by chance, when he came up on the right flank of the same XI Corps. Now, however, Rodes took too long to deploy, waiting for his entire division to come up before attacking (What if he had sent even two brigades against the right of the XI Corps?). By the time his troops were up, the I Corps had deployed in front of him. Rodes finally launched his attacks, but they were uncoordinated. The fighting became desperate, and for a time it looked as though the hero of Chancellorsville was facing defeat and humiliation. The timely arrival of Early’s Division on his right changed all that, turned the tide, and pushed the Federals through Gettysburg. Rodes appeared to have agreed with corps commander Ewell that Cemetery Hill could not be taken that day.
TMS: On the afternoon of July 2, Early’s 2d Corps Division attacked the Federals on East Cemetery Hill. The vaunted Louisiana Tigers pushed through the Federal rifle pits and reached the reserve artillery. Rodes’ Division was supposed to support the attack from the northwest. His division did not make it into the fight and Early was forced to give up the ground his bloodied division fought so hard to take. Your book is fair and balanced, and you do not give Rodes a pass for his poor performance at Gettysburg. What happened that prevented Rodes from supporting Early on the afternoon of day two at Gettysburg?
DC: July 2 at Gettysburg undoubtedly was one of Rodes’ worst days as a commander. He failed to appreciate the difficulty he faced in getting his division into position for an attack for which he had all day to prepare. And once in position, it was his brigadiers who reported back to him the strength of the enemy line and the impossibility of the attack, which indicated that Rodes had not ordered any fact-finding reconnaissances. These omissions were very uncharacteristic of Rodes, and on the surface they seem inexplicable. In the course of my research, however, I discovered a possible explanation. Observers claimed they saw Rodes that day frequently lying in an ambulance, apparently quite ill, and obviously incapable of command. If so, Rodes deserves severe criticism for not turning over his division to a more-fit officer. I assume pride prevented him from doing so. When in thirty years his grandson would ask, “What did you do grandfather at the great battle of Gettysburg, the day we won the war?” there is no way Rodes is going to answer, “Nothing, I was sick.”
TMS: During the fall and winter, of 1863, Rodes worked diligently to put the right commanders in charge of his brigades. Alfred Iverson would be shuttled out of the Army of Northern Virginia while Edward O’Neal, who Rodes had no confidence in, was left in command. Eventually O’Neal would be replaced, but the struggles Rodes endured clearly highlighted the political realities of high command. Can you tell my listeners about Rodes’ actions to firm up his command structure?
DC: At Gettysburg on July 1, Iverson sent his men into a deadly crossfire that nearly destroyed the brigade, while he remained in the rear, having ordered no reconnaissance and sent out no pickets. Afterwards, his men openly refused to serve under him. Clearly, he had to go. Lee tactfully removed Iverson by making him a provost marshal. Even before Gettysburg, Rodes harbored doubts about O’Neal, apparently concerning disciplinary issues related to Rodes’ old brigade. The relationship between the two men turned bitterly sour, O’Neal going so far as to accuse Rodes of “drunken debaucheries,” an accusation unsubstantiated by any sources I have discovered. The final straw for Rodes came at Gettysburg on July 1, when O’Neal, like Iverson, did not advance with his brigade. Determined to be rid of the colonel, Rodes resisted the efforts of both Lee and Alabama politicians to have O’Neal made a brigadier. At some cost to his popularity back home, Rodes eventually won out, and Cullen Battle became the new commander of the brigade.
TMS: In the spring of 1864, the Federals had a new commander – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. He wasted little time setting his army in motion. Rodes would arrive near the old Chancellorsville battlefield in early May and would take part in the campaign’s opening battle – The Wilderness. With his division posted along the Orange Turnpike, Rodes would attack the Federal V Corps and Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps. How would you grade Rodes’ performance at The Wilderness?
DC: The fighting in the Wilderness was bloody and desperate, with several moments when victory or defeat hung in the balance. Rodes was involved in two of those moments, the first when John Jones’ Brigade of Johnson’s Division collapsed in front of him under the weight of fierce V Corps attacks, and Rodes moved up his division in time to steady the line and hold the position. The second occurred the next day, May 6, when Rodes sent Stephen Ramseur’s Brigade to the right just in time to fill a gap in the line and stop Burnsides’ IX Corps from breaking through. Unlike at Gettysburg, Rodes throughout the Overland Campaign would be in top form.
TMS: At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Rodes’ Division was posted at the Mule Shoe Salient. It would receive the brunt of Emory Upton’s attack on May 9. On May 12, Rodes was again at the epicenter of a Federal attack against the salient – this time from the entire Federal II Corps. Rodes, and his brigadier, Stephen Ramseur, were able to repulse the Federal onslaught, saving the day for Lee. Can you describe Rodes’ contributions to the battle of Spotsylvania Court House?
DC: Part of what drew me to Rodes as his biographer was the fact that so often he found himself, quite by chance, to be in the hottest spots and most crucial situations, from the Bloody Lane to the Bloody Angle, in many of the great battles fought by the Army of Northern Virginia. At the Mule Shoe I believe Rodes performed magnificently, both as a masterful tactician, moving Ramseur, for example, like a knight on a chessboard—over two spaces and up one, and as a brave leader of his men, many claiming afterwards that they consistently saw him “within rods of the firing.” After Spotsylvania, I think no one could deny that Rodes was Lee’s toughest and most capable defensive commander.
TMS: Grant would move around Lee’s right flank, and again meet Lee – this time at the North Anna River. Wisely choosing not to enter a pitched battle there, Grant pushed further south where he fought Lee at Cold Harbor. Early’s 2d Corps, including Rodes’ Division, were used offensively, while Grant attacked other portions of the line. Can you provide an analysis of Rodes’ performance at Cold Harbor?
DC: In perhaps the grandest assault of the war, involving three times the number of men who made “Pickett’s Charge,” Grant on the morning of June 3 sent 40,000 to smash the center of the Confederate line. Lee’s men required little more than thirty minutes to shoot down 7,000 of these men and stop the attack cold. At the same time, Grant had sent Burnsides’ IX Corps around to hit Lee’s left north of the Old Church Road. Early and Rodes easily stopped him. The whole bloody affair was perhaps Grant’s greatest mistake during the war.
TMS: In June 1864, Jubal Early’s 2d Corps was sent to the Shenandoah Valley to repulse US Major General David Hunter’s forces operating there. Rodes’ entire division was depleted to 3,000 soldiers of all arms. Early’s Army of the Valley quickly pushed all Federal forces from the upper Shenandoah Valley. In an effort to draw forces from Grant’s position at Petersburg, Early moved into Maryland and defeated US Major General Lew Wallace’s small force at Monocacy. However, with his sights set on Washington, Early’s plans were somewhat thwarted as Wallace held him at Monocacy long enough for reinforcements to arrive from Petersburg. While the Army of the Valley did reach the outskirts of Washington, they were not able to break the defenses before they were forced to pull back. Can you elaborate on Rodes contributions during the offensive actions of the 1864 Valley Campaign?
DC: With no more than twelve or thirteen thousand men at any one time, Early adopted the policy of being constantly on the move, whereby he hoped to magnify his numbers by way of creating numerous threats. Thus while their comrades in the 1st and 3rd Corps were suffering in the trenches before Petersburg, Early and Rodes’ men were dashing up and down the Shenandoah Valley and venturing into Maryland to the very borders of the District of Columbia. These tactics proved largely successful, clearing the entire Valley of all Federal forces, threatening Washington, and relieving Lee by drawing off thousands of enemy troops from around Petersburg. During this time, Rodes’ men often were hungry and barefoot, but their morale remained remarkably high. Rodes never let them forget that they were soldiers.
TMS: Having returned to the Shenandoah Valley, Early’s Army of the Valley had a new Federal commander to contend with – US Major General Philip Sheridan. Placed in charge of the Middle Department, Sheridan proved up to the task. He would attack a widely strung out Confederate army on October 19, at Third Winchester. Facing the bulk of the attack was Stephen Ramseur’s Division. Significantly outnumbered, Ramseur’s position was difficult. Rodes’ Division would quickly move to reinforce Ramseur with John B. Gordon’s division also participating. Upon arriving Rodes quickly assessed the situation and determined that drastic action was needed – an attack against the numerically superior Federal army. During the attack, leading as always from the front, Rodes would be killed by either a piece of shrapnel, or minie ball, to the head. Early would suffer a terrible defeat at Third Winchester and would forever lose the services of one of the preeminent Confederate division commanders with Rodes’ untimely death. Can you tell my listeners about this pivotal battle and the death of Rodes?
DC: A price Early unwittingly paid for his remarkable success in the Shenandoah Valley during the summer of 1864, was overconfidence in himself coupled with a corresponding contempt for any Federal commander sent against him. Rodes seemed to be aware of the growing problem. He cautioned Early against ultimately taking one chance too many, whereby he feared Sheridan would pounce on his scattered forces and defeat them piecemeal. Early refused to listen. Thus on the morning of September 19, Early’s forces, as one of his soldiers later complained, were “scattered from Dan to Bersheba.” Ramseur was two miles west of Winchester, with Rodes six miles beyond that at Stephenson’s Depot, and Gordon eight miles beyond that at Bunker Hill. With remarkable speed, Rodes and Gordon arrived on the field and deployed to help Ramseur, who was under tremendous pressure form Sheridan. Regardless, with 40,000 against 12,000 the battle was hopeless. Rodes was sending Battle’s Brigade into the fight when his luck finally ran out and he was struck down. The loss devastated his men, many later unreasonably concluding that had Rodes not been killed they would have won the battle of Third Winchester. Throughout the Confederacy many considered the severity of the loss to be second only to that of “the great Jackson.”
TMS: Darrell, are you working on any new projects?
DC: I have a few projects in mind, but I have settled on nothing yet. Mike, let me add that I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and I feel honored to have it placed on your excellent Blog.