Review: Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography

by Brett Schulte on July 6, 2009 · 1 comment

MajorGeneralRobertERodesOfTheArmyOfNorthernVirginiaCollinsCollins, Darrell L. Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography. Savas Beatie LLC (July 7, 2008). 524 pages, illustrations, maps, index. ISBN: 978-1932714098 $32.95 (Hardcover).

How could a man become a division commander (or higher) in Robert E. Lee’s famed Army of Northern Virginia?  The golden ticket was a West Point education, which makes it all the more remarkable Robert Emmett Rodes was able to achieve that position as a VMI graduate.  Using numerous primary sources and writing without the benefit of a majority of Rodes’ own letters, author Darrell L. Collins has crafted what is destined to be the best account of the general’s life for decades to come.

Robert Emmett Rodes was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1829.  After several attempts to attend West Point failed Rodes went to Virginia Military Institute, graduating in 1848.  He hoped to be an educator after graduation and was for a time at his alma mater, but failure to achieve a promotion which went to “Stonewall” Jackson led him to his checkered but ultimately successful career as a railroad engineer.  He had just accepted an invitation to again become a professor at VMI, his dream job, when the Civil War broke out.  By that time Rodes had relocated to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had married Virginia Hortense Woodruff in 1857.  Rodes started the war as colonel of the 5th Alabama, and he held a special place in his heart for the regiment from that point forward.  By the time of the Peninsula Campaign Rodes was already a brigade commander, distinguished himself at Seven Pines with a solid attack, and was wounded.  He next took part in the Antietam Campaign, performing well while facing overwhelming odds at South Mountain.  His brigade helped to defend the Sunken Road at Antietam and he was wounded a second time.  Rodes led a division at Chancellorsville.  At that battle, he took charge of the Second Corps after Jackson’s wounding before selflessly yielding to J.E.B. Stuart.  Rodes had a bad three days at Gettysburg, a fact which Collins believes prevented him from being considered for Corps command.  Rodes soldiered on as a division commander in the Second Corps through the Overland Campaign and on Early’s adventures in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond until his death at Third Winchester on September 19, 1864.  He had been one of the best division commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia, beloved by his men despite being a disciplinarian, and largely responsible for the creation of that army’s sharpshooter battalions.

Rodes’ wife Hortense burned his collection of letters after his death, making the job of future biographers exceedingly more difficult.  Despite this, some of the letters Rodes wrote do still exist in various collections across the country, and many pieces of correspondence written to the general also exist.  In this way, and filling in the details with the recollections of those who were close to or came into contact with Rodes, Collins was able to piece together a surprisingly complete picture of the general’s life.  His bibliography shows his commitment to research, with materials from collections around the country consulted.  Despite his best efforts, some events such as Rodes’ feud with Colonel Edward A. O’Neal in 1863 were unable to be fully explained.  For more on Collins’ methods and how the book came about, listen to the October 17, 2008 episode of Civil War Talk Radio.

This was a stellar biography with one major exception.  Robert Rodes and his subordinate Eugene Blackford were largely responsible for the formation of sharpshooter battalions in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Collins barely mentions this fact.  I was expecting this biography to contain much information about the sharpshooters after reading felloe TOCWOC blogger Fred Ray’s excellent book Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia, which shows the extent of Rodes’ involvement.  A minor quibble was the tendency at times to simply tell the story of Rodes’ command more than the story of the man himself, but I suspect this was unavoidable in places due to the dearth of relevant material.

In Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography, author Darrell Collins pieced together as many sources as he could to make up for the near complete absence of letters from Rodes himself.  His efforts have resulted in a readable and entertaining retelling of the life of one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s best division commanders.  The addition of more on Rodes’ involvement with the sharpshooter battalions’ creation would have improved this book.  Fans of Civil War biographies will enjoy the book, as will those interested in the detailed workings of the Army of Northern Virginia.  All in all, Darrell Collins’ biography of Robert E. Rodes looks to be, if not the definitive account of the general’s life, then at the very least one which will serve as the standard work on Rodes for years to come.

Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography recently won the 2009 Douglas Southall Freeman Award for best book on a Southern subject. Also, it was a Finalist (only 5 in that category) for the Army Historical Award’s Distinguished Writing Award for Biography.

UPDATE: It has come to  my attention that author Darrell Collins did not have access to Fred Ray’s book because his manuscript was already finished by the time Fred’s book was published.

I would like to thank Sarah Keeney and Ted Savas at Savas Beatie LLC.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fred Ray July 6, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Yep, too bad Collins was not able to get in a section on Rodes the tactical innovator, which is a story yet to be written. He was one of the most forward-thinking generals on either side, a fact that is seldom mentioned.

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