Unlike "Old Bald Head" Ewell, "Jubilee" Early, and "Old Clubby" Johnson, the other three high-ranking commanders of the Second Corps, Robert Rodes looked every inch the heroic leader of men. Over six feet tall, slender, blond, with a sandy mustache that drooped below the corners of his mouth, a strong dimpled chin and flashing blue eyes, he was a majestic figure astride his black charger. Douglas Southall Freeman, the famous Confederate historian, became positively giddy when describing Rodes. Freeman wrote that Rodes looked like he "stepped from the pages of Beowulf," and referred to the Southern officer as "a Norse God in Confederate gray," and a "Wotan still young." Freeman also paid Rodes one of his highest compliments by terming him "the personification of the new type of Confederate leader."
In the summer of 1863, Rodes was one of the Army of Northern Virginia's brightest stars. Certainly part of his mystique was due to his dashing looks, but he had won his major generalcy mainly by being in the thick of the hard fighting in battle after battle, with the wounds to prove it. He was the only division commander in Lee's army who hadn't graduated from West Point. A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, he had gone to the Virginia Military Institute instead, graduating with distinction in the class of 1848. Appointed assistant professor that year, he applied for a professorship in 1850, but Thomas (later "Stonewall") Jackson was chosen instead. Rodes, like many officers of that time, then went to work for the railroad. Moving to Alabama, he worked for various rail lines both as a civil engineer and executive. He married in Tuscaloosa in 1857, and moved back to Virginia, where he accepted the professorship of Applied Mathematics at his alma mater, the job previously held by Jackson. He had been there only briefly when the war broke out.
Rodes volunteered at the first clash of arms and organized the "Warrior Guards, " a company of Alabamians in May 1861. Within days he was made colonel of the 5th Alabama regiment. Commended by Beauregard as an "excellent officer," Rodes was promoted to brigadier general and given a brigade in October 1861. On the Peninsula in the summer of 1862, he led his brigade in battle for the first time. Rodes displayed martial prowess in a series of attacks at Seven Pines, continuing to fight even after he was wounded in the arm by a bullet. He relinquished command at the end of the day's fighting but was back on duty within the month and fought at Gaines' Mill. He was still suffering from his arm wound, however, and had to again forego field duty just before Malvern Hill. Rodes emerged from the Peninsula with a reputation as a hard-hitting brigadier; high-ranking officers like James Longstreet commented on the VMI graduate's "Coolness, ability, and determination" in combat. were Longstreet's list of Rodes's qualities. His next battles were in September. At South Mountain, his isolated brigade gallantly held back an entire Union division all afternoon. At Sharpsburg, he was again wounded, this time only slightly, by a shell fragment in the thigh while defending the Bloody Lane.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg his brigade was not directly engaged. His chance for higher command came in January 1863 when D. H. Hill was sent to North Carolina. Edward Johnson, whom Jackson wanted to take command of the division, was still convalescing from an ankle wound, and Rodes was put in charge by virtue of being the division's senior brigadier.
Two months late, at Chancellorsville, Rodes's fiery drive helped ensure the success of Jackson's surprising, crushing attack on the Union right flank. One witness wrote his "eyes were everywhere, and every now and then he would stop to attend to some detail of the arrangement of his line or his troops, and then ride on again, humming to himself and catching the ends of his long, tawny moustache between his lips." His battle cry, delivered in a clarion voice heard above the din, was "Forward, men, over friend or foe!" After the battle, the mortally wounded Jackson stirred from his bed to urge for a "battlefield promotion" for Rodes, whose leadership he described as "magnificent." Such promotions, Jackson thought, were "the greatest incentives to gallantry in others." As Lee wished both to reward Rodes and please Jackson, Rodes was made major general for the coming campaign in Pennsylvania.
Rodes had consistently distinguished himself as a brigadier and he had also shone in his first performance as a division commander at Chancellorsville. Though not as experienced at this level of command as many of the other division leaders, he was a rising star. His only liability was an overconfidence that had the potential to lead to recklessness.
| On July 1, Rodes planned to continue the previous day's march south
from Carlisle in response to Lee's orders to concentrate the army around
Cashtown. Rodes had his division on the road at sunrise. Some time before
9:00 A.M., Ewell learned that Hill was fighting the Union First Corps. In
response, he ordered Rodes to turn south toward Gettysburg upon reaching
Middletown. By 11:30 A.M. Rodes had approached close enough to hear infantry
fire, and turned his lead brigade onto the northern spur of Oak Hill in order
to come in on the flank of the Federals drawn up to oppose Hill. This was
probably a mistake, for if he had kept to the road he would have sped into the
unguarded rear of the First Corps before most of its men were deployed.|
After advancing for a mile through the dense woods on Oak Hill, Rodes was able to observe the enemy line to the south end-on. He deployed his division with Doles, O'Neal, and Iverson in his first line (from east to west), and Ramseur and Daniels in his second. He began by shelling the enemy--another bad idea, since it announced his presence on the enemy's flank and gave them time to redeploy to meet him.
Rodes was fully deployed by 1:30 in the afternoon, with his first line occupying a mile of ground between the Carlisle Road to the Mummasburg Road. With elements of the Yankee Eleventh Corps now pushed north of town to oppose his left, Rodes led off his attack with O'Neal, his least experienced brigadier. O'Neal bungled his attack badly, and, as Rodes angrily reported, "was repulsed quickly, and with loss." Next to go forward was Iverson, whose brigade was ambushed by Federals hidden behind a stone wall and almost annihilated. This second costly disaster further negated Rodes's initial advantage of his position on the enemy flank. Iverson's collapse also jeopardized the next of Rodes's piecemeal brigade attacks, this one by Daniels on Rodes's far right. Daniel's Brigade was forced to slug it out alone with units of the Union First Corps. After a while, however, Daniel was aided by Ramseur's Brigade going in on his left and Hill's troops on his right, and the exhausted brigades of the enemy First Corps gave way, losing prisoners as they scrambled back toward the town. Meanwhile, Doles on Rodes's left, who had been outnumbered and threatened by the advance of the Union Eleventh Corps, saw Early's Division outflank the Eleventh from the northwest. Doles then went forward, pushing back the Yankees and harvesting prisoners as he advanced.
Rodes halted his brigades before they could storm Cemetery Hill (which angered O'Neal and Ramseur's men, whose blood was up), then rode into the town square and met with Early and Ewell. There the two division chiefs urged Ewell to press the attack against the retreating Federals, to no avail. Later that evening, Rodes--now in a fatigued and unaggressive state of mind--advised against sending Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's newly arrived division to attack Culp's Hill. When Lee rode up that evening to confer with Rodes, Early, and Ewell about the proper use of the Second Corps, Rodes spoke little. At the end of the day, Doles's, Iverson's, and Ramseur's Brigades slept in the town, with O'Neal's Brigade in their right rear along the railroad bed and Daniel further to the west on Seminary Ridge.
On July 2, Rodes was to attack with Ewell's other two divisions, in concert with Longstreet's movement on the Confederate right--Johnson would go in first against Culp's Hill, then Early and Rodes would assail Cemetery Hill from the northeast and northwest, respectively. As it happened, Longstreet didn't attack until after 4:00 in the afternoon, and it was almost dark when Johnson and then Early began their efforts to Rodes's left. Rodes, however, had begun his attack preparations too late to be of help. Moving his brigades from Gettysburg's narrow streets and the fields west of the town evidently took Rodes longer than he anticipated, and by the time his infantrymen were in position, Early's assault had ended. Rodes then unaccountably turned over command of the advancing division to one of his brigadiers, Ramseur, who called off the attack after advancing halfway to the enemy lines in the dark. Rodes recalled his brigades and ordered his men to stand down in the Long Lane leading southwest out of Gettysburg, faced southeast toward Cemetery Hill. Early was justifiably enraged by Rodes's lack of support, and he complained stingingly of Rodes's failure on July 2 for the rest of his life, calling it "the solitary instance of remissness on the part of any portion of the corps in the battle." Officially, Ewell was more forgiving, reporting only that "Major-General Rodes did not advance, for reasons given in his report," though at least one member of Ewell's staff held the opinion that Ewell agreed with Early.
During the night, Rodes sent Daniel's and O'Neal's Brigades to reinforce Johnson's Division, who had made a lodgment on Culp's Hill that evening and were eager to press the advantage in the morning. Rodes now only had three brigades, including Iverson's decimated command, remaining under his direct control. Therefore, his division maintained its position in Long Lane, and was not called upon for offensive action on July 3.
Rodes's Gettysburg performance was extremely disappointing. Though he continued to give good service in command of his division until he was killed in Early's Shenandoah Valley campaign, and though he was not alone among Confederate generals in having an "off day" at Gettysburg, his performance there had an adverse effect on his career. For Rodes, considered a rising talent after Chancellorsville, was never afterward considered for corps command.
For further reading:
D. Massy Griffin. "Rodes on Oak Hill: A Study of Rodes' Division on the First Day of Gettysburg." Gettysburg Magazine 4, Jan 1991
Peyton, Green. "Robert E. Rodes," in Memorial, V.M.I. [Ed. by Charles D. Walker] Philadelphia, 1875
Samito, Christian G. "Robert Rodes, Warrior in Gray." America's Civil War 7, Jan 1995
Wert, Jeffry E. "Robert E. Rodes." Civil War Times Illustrated 16, Dec 1977