American Civil War: Major General Robert E. Rodes

Major General Robert E. Rodes. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Robert E. Rodes - Early Life & Career:

Born March 29, 1829 in Lynchburg, VA, Robert Emmett Rodes was the son of David and Martha Rodes.  Raised in the area, he elected to attend the Virginia Military Institute with an eye towards a military career.  Graduating in 1848, ranked tenth in a class of twenty-four, Rodes was asked to remain at VMI as an assistant professor.  Over the next two years he taught a variety of subjects including physical science, chemistry, and tactics.  In 1850, Rodes departed the school after failing to secure a promotion to professor.  This instead went to his future commander, Thomas J. Jackson.

Traveling south, Rodes found employment with a series of railroads in Alabama.  In September 1857, he married Virginia Hortense Woodruff of Tuscaloosa.  The couple would ultimately have two children.  Serving as the chief engineer of the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad, Rodes held the post until 1861.  With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War that April, he offered his services to the state of Alabama.  Appointed colonel of the 5th Alabama Infantry, Rodes organized the regiment at Camp Jeff Davis in Montgomery that May.

Robert E. Rodes - Early Campaigns:

Ordered north, Rodes' regiment served in Brigadier General Richard S. Ewell's brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21.  Recognized by General P.G.T. Beauregard as an "excellent officer", Rodes received a promotion to brigadier general on October 21.  Assigned to Major General Daniel H. Hill's division, Rodes' brigade joined General Joseph E. Johnston's army in early 1862 for the defense of Richmond.  Operating against Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Rodes first led his new command in combat at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31.  Mounting a series of attacks, he sustained a wound in his arm and was forced from the field.  

Ordered to Richmond to recover, Rodes rejoined his brigade early and led it at the Battle of Gaines' Mill on June 27.  Not fully healed, he was force to leave his command a few days later prior to the fighting at Malvern Hill.  Out action until late that summer, Rodes returned to the Army of Northern Virginia as General Robert E. Lee commenced his invasion of Maryland. On September 14, his brigade mounted a stiff defense at Turner's Gap during the Battle of South Mountain.  Three days later, Rodes' men turned back Union assaults against the Sunken Road at the Battle of Antietam.  Wounded by shell fragments during the fighting, he remained at his post.  Later that fall, Rodes was present at the Battle of Fredericksburg, but his men were not engaged.

Robert E. Rodes - Chancellorsville & Gettysburg:

In January 1863, Hill was transferred to North Carolina.  Though the corps commander, Jackson, desired to give command of the division to Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, this officer could not accept due to wounds sustained at McDowell.  As a result, the position fell to Rodes as the senior brigade commander in the division.  The first division commander in Lee's army to not have attended West Point, Rodes repaid Jackson's confidence at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May.  Spearheading Jackson's audacious flank attack against Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac, his division shattered Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps.  Severely wounded in the fighting, Jackson requested that Rodes be promoted to major general before dying on May 10.

With the loss of Jackson, Lee reorganized the army and Rodes' division moved into Ewell's newly-formed Second Corps.  Advancing into Pennsylvania in June, Lee ordered his army to concentrate around Cashtown in early July.  Obeying this order, Rodes' Division was moving south from Carlisle on July 1 when word was received of fighting at Gettysburg.  Arriving north of the town, he deployed his men on Oak Hill facing the right flank of Major General Abner Doubleday's I Corps.  Through the day, he launched a series of disjointed attacks which suffered heavy losses before finally dislodging Brigadier General John C. Robinson's division and elements of XI Corps.  Pursuing the enemy south through the town, he halted his men before they could assault Cemetery Hill.  Though tasked with supporting attacks on Cemetery Hill the next day, Rodes and his men played little role in the rest of the battle.

Robert E. Rodes - Overland Campaign:

Active in the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns that fall, Rodes continued to lead his division in 1864.  In May, he helped opposed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign at the Battle of the Wilderness where the division attacked Major General Gouverneur K. Warren V Corps.  A few days later, Rodes' division took part in the savage fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.  The remainder of May saw the division participate in the fighting at North Anna and Cold Harbor.  After reaching Petersburg in early June, Second Corps, now led by Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, received orders to depart for the Shenandoah Valley.

Robert E. Rodes - In the Shenandoah:     

Tasked with defending the Shenandoah and drawing troops away from the siege lines at Petersburg, Early moved down (north) the valley sweeping aside Union forces.  Crossing the Potomac, he then sought to menace Washington, DC.  Marching east, he engaged Major General Lew Wallace at Monocacy on July 9.  In the fighting, Rodes' men moved along the Baltimore Pike and demonstrated against Jug Bridge.  Overwhelming Wallace's command, Early then reached Washington and skirmished against Fort Stevens before withdrawing back into Virginia.  The efforts of Early's troops had the desired effect as Grant dispatched sizable forces north with orders to eliminate the Confederate threat in the Valley.

In September, Early found himself opposed by Major General Philip H. Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah.  Concentrating his forces at Winchester, he tasked Rodes with holding the Confederate center.  On September 19, Sheridan opened the Third Battle of Winchester and commenced a large-scale attack against the Confederate lines.  With Union troops driving back both of Early's flanks, Rodes was cut down by an exploding shell as he worked to organize a counterattack.  Following the battle, his remains were taken back to Lynchburg where he was buried at the Presbyterian Cemetery.       

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Robert E. Rodes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General Robert E. Rodes. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Robert E. Rodes." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).