Civil War Talk Radio: October 17, 2008

Air Date: 101708
Subject: Robert E. Rodes
Book: Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography
Guest: Darrell L. Collins

Summary: Darrell L. Collins speaks about his new biography of Robert Rodes, a somewhat forgotten name in Civil War circles.

Brett’s Summary: Gerry starts by asking Darrell Collins about how he got interested in Robert Rodes.  The author first heard a talk by James Robertson and his interest grew from there.  He was shocked to find an important figure such as Rodes did not yet have a major recent biography.

Collins found that one of the reasons Rodes did not have a biography was due to the fact that his widow burned his letters shortly prior to her death.  This prevented researchers from using what is typically a MAJOR source for any biographer.  To combat this, Collins decided to use a trick he learned from James Robertson: sending form letters to research institutions around the country asking if they had any information in their holdings pertaining to Rodes, and he was surprised by the number of responses he got.  In addition, he did quite a bit of traveling to find more information on the general.  The author commented on the enjoyment he found in visiting the archives.

Rodes was an engineer prior to the Civil War.  He attended VMI and was offered a teaching assistant job there.  He wanted to become a professor, but Stonewall Jackson eventually won the position at Rodes’ expense.  Interestingly, he received a position at VMI…for the fall of 1861.  Obviously he never filled that position.

At the beginning of the war, Rodes was elected Captain of an Alabama company, and was eventually elected Colonel of the 5th Alabama.  After First Manassas, Rodes was promoted to Brigadier General.  As the first third of the program ended, the discussion turned to Rodes’ motivations.

As the second section began, talk again turned to the fact that no “Robert Rodes papers” collection exists.  Rodes’ wife “honored his memory” by burning his personal papers shortly prior to her own death in 1907.  Gerry explained his fondness for working on 19th Century subjects because typically their thoughts are on paper.  Collins points out that many letters Rodes wrote do exist, but these are scattered in many places.  Collins really enjoyed hunting these down.  Apparently only two letters to his wife are known to have survived.  One is actually available at the time the episode originally aired from the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, Illinois.  I found it very revealing that Collins “got a head start” by using the internet to help him find leads.  I believe that the internet will eventually make research easier and easier.  Look at a site such as Harry Smeltzer’s Bull Runnings, for instance, where Harry is attempting to put together as much on the First Battle of Bull Run as he can find and placing it online.

Author Collins next turns to Rodes’ will, written prior to the Civil War.  He found it revealing that Rodes had no regard for keeping slave families intact, instead viewing slaves as investments rather than as people.

Another “revealing” letter written by Rodes after First Manassas found Rodes focusing on God for the first time in his letters, after he had seen the carnage at the battle.  Collins found it fascinating that the battlefield played a large role in making Rodes a more religious man.

Rodes first commanded his brigade in a fight at Seven Pines.  He was late getting up to the line of battle.  Collins was impressed by Rodes’ improvisation in a difficult situation.  Rodes was wounded at the battle, probably in the right forearm according to the author, and the wound was still an issue at Gaines’ Mill.

Collins believes Rodes’ role at South Mountain was one of his best defensive performances of the war.  At South Mountain, Rodes held off Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves for most of the late afternoon with only his brigade.  Collins believes this potentially saved the Confederate position at Turner’s Gap from disaster.  At Antietam Rodes’ brigade was in the Sunken Lane.  He was again wounded, this time in the thigh.  Rodes dressed his own wound and continued to fight.

By early 1863, Rodes had become an acting division commander, taking over a division permanently after Chancellorsville.  Rodes was one of a VERY few men to attain division command in the Army of Northern Virginia without having gone to West Point.

At the beginning of the third and last section of this episode, Gerry asked Darrell Collins about Bryan Grimes, especially since a town near East Carolina University was named after the general.  Grimes was one of the few other non-West Pointers to attain division command in the ANV.  Collins relates that the two generals had a “somewhat stormy relationship” which started off at Fredericksburg and which was not smoothed over until after Spotsylvania Court House, where Rodes was impressed with Grimes’ performance there.

At Chancellorsville Rodes was involved in Jackson’s flank attack, and he eventually found himself in command of the entire Corps after several others were wounded.    Rodes wasn’t in command long, as within a few hours J.E.B. Stuart was placed in command of the Second Corps.  Collins suggested that many Second Corps officers did not have faith in Rodes since he was relatively unknown.  Rodes agreed to allow Stuart to take command, believing the men of the Corps would fight better under someone they knew.

Rodes’ Division was involved in the rout of the XI Corps at Gettysburg on July 1, but Gerry asks Collins about some of the fighting which occurred in the campaign prior to the main battle.  The author here mentions that one of Rodes’ problems was that he always waited until his full complement of men was available before launching an attack.

Gerry jumped ahead to the Overland Campaign.  Collins related that Rodes fought well during the Overland Campaign in some extremely difficult circumstances, especially in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania.

After the Overland Campaign, Rodes and the rest of the Second Corps were sent to the Shenandoah Valley.  Early’s force, including Rodes, got VERY close to Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1864.  The raid failed, and Early’s men fought Phil Sheridan in the second Valley Campaign.  On September 19, 1864, Rodes was killed at the Third Battle of Winchester.

Gerry ends by mentioning Rodes was always in the thick of the fight.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC.

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