Robert Emmett Rodes was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1829. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1848 where he studied civil engineering. He also taught at his alma mater as an assistant professor until 1851 and left when a promotion he desired was given to Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. After leaving the Virginia Military Institute, Rodes went on to become the chief engineer for the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
When the Civil War began, Rodes started his Confederate military career as a Colonel in command of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He served at the First Battle of Bull Run and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1861. During the Peninsula Campaign, Rodes was wounded in his arm at the Battle of Seven Pines and was assigned to go to Richmond, Virginia for light duty in the city’s defenses in order to recuperate. He was able to recover in time for General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North in 1862, allowing Rodes to fight at both South Mountain and Antietam.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville, Rodes became a division commander in Stonewall Jackson’s Corps in 1863. He was placed in command of the Corps temporarily when Jackson was mortally wounded. On his deathbed, Jackson recommended that Rodes be promoted to Major General. The promotion went into effect on May 2, 1863. In order to compensate for Jackson’s death, General Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia and Rodes joined the Second Corps under Richard S. Ewell and fought during the Battle of Gettysburg and Overland Campaign of 1864. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Rodes led an assault from Oak Hill against the right flank of the Union I Corps, successfully routing the division and driving them back through the town. Rodes own division sat idle for the remaining two days of the battle.
Rodes was then sent to the Shenandoah Valley with Jubal Early under Lee’s orders to draw Union forces away from Petersburg during the Valley Campaigns of 1864. Both men conducted a long and successful raid down the valley, into Maryland, and into the outskirts of Washington, D.C. before turning back. During this, General Sheridan was sent by General Grant to drive the Confederate forces from the Valley once and for all. On September 19, 1864 the Confederates were attacked by Sheridan’s forces at the Battle of Opequon, also known as the Third Battle of Winchester. Rodes was preparing to attack when he was struck in the head by a Union shell fragment. He died on the field outside Winchester and was mourned as a promising officer killed in the prime of his career. Robert E. Rodes was survived by his wife, Virginia Hortense Woodruff and their two children, Robert E. Rodes Jr. and Bell Yancey Rodes. He is buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Robert Rodes is noted as being one of the youngest Confederate generals during the American Civil War and the first of Robert E. Lee’s divisional commanders not trained at West Point.
Written by Kaitlin Shifflet
Volunteer Lynchburg Museum
Sources: LMS Files
Find a Grave website