General Robert Rodes of Lee’s Army

Warrior in Gray: General Robert Rodes of Lee’s Army

Boaz, Thomas

At first glance, Robert Emmett Rodes would seem to be a biographer’s perfect subject. A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and later a civilian engineer, he rose from captain of a militia company in 1861 to major general two years later at age thirty-four. Strikingly handsome – Douglas Southall Freeman described him as looking like “the son of a Nordic god” – Rodes was one of the most competent and respected division commanders in Lee’s army. He was twice wounded during his career, and at the peak of his fame died in action at Third Winchester. Yet despite his significant accomplishments, no full scale Rodes biography has ever been written, and he remains a peripheral character in Civil War history.

James K. Swisher seeks to provide the much-needed biography; but as he readily admits in his introduction, Rodes “left few traces.” His widow destroyed all his papers and letters, his parents had predeceased him, and Rodes’ background (his father was a civil servant in Lynchburg) perhaps lacked the Cavalier image necessary to attract adoring fans following his death. No doubt this is why no one else has ever attempted a complete Rodes biography, and the result here is an uneven book that fails to reveal much about the personality of its subject.

Swisher is a talented writer, and to his credit as a biographer he does a good job of developing Rodes’ family background, schooling at VMI, and the wrenching choices he faced in his prewar civilian career. However, this all occurs in the fifteen-page first chapter; the following 285 pages are not nearly as informative as the author loses touch with Robert Rodes and instead focuses extensively upon a generic exposition of the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia. Swisher is not the first military biographer to become enmeshed in such minutiae, but there is far too much of it given the subject.

He does, however, incorporate some of the brief biographical sketches and comments made by Rodes’ contemporaries. One of these, an amusing anecdote about his cook and a stolen 25-pound turkey, is one of the best insights to the personal Robert Rodes. Nonetheless, Rodes is a superfluous character in his own biography. Oddly, neither the main text nor the short epilogue divulge the fate of Rodes’ wife and young children after his death.

At $29.95, Warrior in Gray is at the extreme price point for a book of this kind. It should also be noted that the text is printed in a sans serif typeface that is tiring to the eye.

T. B.

Copyright Military Images Sep/Oct 2000

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