Last week, I posted a review of Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of Major General Jeb Stuart, by Jeffry Wert. Since that time, I had the great pleasure to read yet another stellar biography of one of Lee's best officers, Robert Emmett Rodes.
Rodes secured his place as one of the finest high-ranking officers in the Army of Northern Virginia through his intrepid leadership in both brigade and divisional command, particularly at the battles of Seven Pines, South Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania. Yet Rodes has languished somewhat in the long shadows cast by the likes of Lee, Jackson, A.P. Hill, and even Jubal Early. It is no secret that I am a fan of biographies, so when I discovered earlier this year that Savas Beatie published a work on Rodes, it immediately made my list of "must reads." I finally picked up the book last week, and had a hard time since putting it down.
In Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia, author Darrell L. Collins has constructed a balanced interpretation of the Confederate general not only as a battlefield commander, but as a loving, devoted husband and father as well. Such was Collins's portrayal of Rodes, that I felt as I read through the pages that I got to know the native Virginian personally. Although most of Rodes's personal correspondence was destroyed after the war, Collins utilized first-person accounts of those who knew Rodes personally and those who served under his command to tell the general's life story. A railroad engineer who had a tough time finding steady employment during the pre-war years, Rodes, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, began the war as a captain in the 5th Alabama Infantry. His subsequent rise in command was meteoric. Indeed, within just two years, Rodes went from a captain, in command of a company, to divisional command as a major general, his lack of a West Point education notwithstanding. As Collins observes, "In two and a half year years, the vicissitudes of war had transformed him from an obscure and frustrated railroad engineer hoping to be a teacher, to national renown as a major general in command of a division in the Confederacy's most prominent and successful army."
Collins charts Rodes's rise not only in command, but in the estimation of his fellow ANV soldiers as well. He established a reputation as a strict, yet caring disciplinarian, and as a steady and entirely reliable battlefield commander. As such he quickly won the respect and esteem of superior and subordinate alike. Presented in a chronological format, we learn of Rodes's childhood in Lynchburg, his years as a cadet at VMI, and his struggle to establish a successful career as an engineer. As a matter of course, three-quarters of the book deals with Rodes's Civil War experience. Through an objective assessment of Rodes's strengths and weaknesses as an officer, we learn of his (many) successes, as well as his failures on the field of battle. Rodes saw action at most of the major battles of the war's Eastern Theatre, from Bull Run in July 1861, to his death at the age of thirty-five at Third Winchester, on September 19, 1864.
For any serious student of the Civil War, and especially those interested in the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia, this book is a must. It is also a most welcome addition to Civil War historiography, for Collins was able to save Rodes from drifting further and further into the shadows of neglect.
To learn more about Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia, click here.