An Interview with Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia Author Darrell L. Collins
: When did your fascination with the Civil War begin?
DLC: I cannot remember a time when I wasn't interested in the Civil War. From a very young age, I recall my parents and grandparents telling captivating stories about our West Virginia ancestors serving in the Civil War, on both sides. These stories, such as the one about my great grandfather of the 19 Virginia Cavalry facing his brother of the 10 West Virginia Infantry across the line at the battle of Droop Mountain, just miles from their common home, kindled my interest and set me on a life-long quest to learn more about this war of brother against brother.
: More specifically, how did your interest in Major General Robert E. Rodes develop?
DLC: At a conference in 1997, I listened in awe to James Robertson talk about his ten-year journey spent researching and writing what I believe is the definitive biography of Stonewall Jackson. At the time, I had written three books, none a biography. Robertson's fascinating talk inspired me to try what perhaps is the most difficult of historical writing. I wanted to write about a Confederate general, one who, although having participated in nearly all the great campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia, had never been the subject of a major study. Rodes, the "blond Viking," as Douglas Freeman called him, immediately jumped out as the most eligible, fascinating, and challenging candidate.
: Why do you think there haven't been many scholarly accounts of Rodes?
DLC: It didn't take long for me to discover that a biography of Rodes presented a major problem. A collection of Rodesí papers do not exist, anywhere. Most of his letters and papers had been burned by his well-meaning widow in keeping with a custom in the Old South of honoring the memory of a loved one. This fact alone undoubtedly has had a discouraging effect on anyone, including myself, considering the daunting prospect of undertaking a biography of Rodes.
: Given those circumstances, what type of research did you conduct, and did you uncover any previously unpublished material?
DLC: Again influenced by Robertson, I sent a form letter to various institutions, libraries, and historical societies throughout the country, asking if they possessed any primary material on Rodes. I was pleasantly impressed by the responses, which, together with a number of personal visits, yielded surprising results.
: What were you able to uncover in this way?
DLC: The records of the Northeast and Southwest Alabama Railroad held by the Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama, for example, and the David Rodes (father of Robert) Collection at the Handley Library in Winchester, proved to be gold mines of original sources. Together with several other items found throughout the country, including letters written to and by Rodes, memoirs, diaries, and recollections penned by his contemporaries, I became increasingly optimistic that an interesting biography of Rodes was possible. Though there may be no Robert Rodes Collection, as such, there were enough scattered sources, which, when brought together, definitely made such an effort entirely feasible.
: Was it hard to piece together parts of Rodesí military and personal life?
DLC: The source material on Rodes' pre-war life is surprisingly rich. None of it, however, gives any indication of how he might perform as a leader of thousands of men in the heat of battle. Regardless of one's background, no one can answer that question until the moment of truth arrives. The fact that the engineer-teacher did extremely well as a courageous, effective, and inspiring combat leader makes his story all the more fascinating and remarkable.
: Tell me about Rodesí involvement at Chancellorsville. And, what are some other particularly important moments in his military career?
DLC: Rodes is perhaps best known as leader of the division that spearheaded Stonewall Jackson's famous flank march and attack on Hooker's right at Chancellorsville. The well-deserved accolades received for his outstanding performance included a commission as major general to date from May 2, 1863. But Rodes' contribution to the fight of May 3 may have been just as significant, if not more so. Bringing up his division from reserve, he took over the front line, dashing from flank to flank to maintain the momentum for the attack, at one point even angrily putting his pistol to the head of a recalcitrant junior officer. Rodes also made significant contributions on other battlefields, whereby, for example, he helped prevent disaster to Lee's army at South Mountain, the Bloody Lane at Antietam, the Wilderness, and the Mule Shoe at Spottsylvania.
: A lot of people are asking why another Rodes book is necessary when the first biography titled Warrior in Gray: General Robert Rodes of Lee's Army was published in 2000. How is your book different than this book and why should Civil War readers who already own the first one buy yours?
DLC: There are many criticisms I could level against James Swisher's book but I will try to be brief. For one thing, the book barely touches upon Rodes' prewar life, an extremely crucial period in the development of the future general's character and personality. Likewise, though Swisher has done a fine job with some of the basic material regarding Rodes' military career, he has either missed or misinterpreted many other crucial sources. Based on fresh, extensive research, my book has two full chapters devoted to Rodes' prewar life, and as to the war years, I believe my book offers a far richer and more complete portrait of both Rodes the man and Rodes the general.
: Thanks for your time Darrell.
DLC: Youíre welcome, it was my pleasure.
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