South Mountain by Rick Reeve

South Mountain by Rick Reeve
South Mountain by Rick Reeve depicting the wounding of General Garland

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Robert Rodes: Defender of the Frostown Gap

In the early afternoon of September 14, Robert Rodes' brigade of Alabamians was ordered to defend and hold at all cost the vital Frostown Gap. If this gap was lost, the Confederate position at Turner's Gap could be turned and those forces defending Turner's could be destroyed. When the Union assault came, Rodes' brigade was stretched precariously thin but for nearly three hours, the tenacious Alabamians held until the weight of Union numbers became too much. Fortunately, reinforcements in the form of Longstreet's command, having completed a forced march from Hagerstown, were immediately thrown into line and bolstered the what was left of Rodes' brigade. The Alabamians under Rodes paid dearly for their resistance but they gained precious time for Longstreet to arrive and also helped their commanding general get noticed by superior officers.

Born on March 20, 1829 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Robert Emmet Rodes was destined to become a military man. His father, David Rodes, who served in he Virginia militia during the revolutionary period eventually attaining the rank of brigadier general. His mother, Martha (Yauncy) Rodes was the daughter of Major John Yauncey, who was a revolutionary war veteran from Bedford County, Virginia. In the fall of 1845, a young Rodes was enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). After an up and down career at the institute, Rodes would graduated 10th out of 24 graduates in 1848. He would attempt to obtain a commission in the United States Army but with the army of a peace time footing, the needs of the officer corps were met by the army academy at West Point. Instead, Rodes would be appointed a professor of Philospophy,  Mathematics, and Tactics at VMI, subjects that he excelled in as a cadet. He would remain at VMI until 1850 when he resign his position and went to work as a railroad civil engineer. He would first work with the Southside Railroad connecting Peterburg, Virginia with Lynchburg. By 1854 this work was completed and he bounced around from various railroad companies in Texas, North Carolina, Missouri, and Alabama for the better part of the 1850's. He would marry Virginia Woodruff in September 1857.

In 1860, Rodes was elected to as the Professor of Applied Mechanics at VMI. Unfortunately, he would never serve in this capacity. Funding for the position was delayed and events of that winter thrust the country closer to civil war. While in Alabama, Rodes had joined a militia company, the "Warrior Guards" based out of Tuscaloosa, and was elected the captain of this company. In January 1861, the governor of Alabama ordered Rodes to report with his company to Fort Morgan, where it would assist in its capture. With this mission successful, Rodes returned with his company to Tuscaloosa where he would spent early 1861 drilling his men. In May, the company was ordered to Montgomery where a new regiment, the 5th Alabama, was being organized. Rodes would be elected colonel of this new regiment. Rodes would move his regiment to Pensecola where it would remain until it was ordered to Manassas to join General P.G.T. Beauregard's army . Rodes would miss out on the fighting of July 21st, but his discipline would garner him a promotion to Brigadier General in October 1861.

Rodes' new brigade consisted of his own 5th Alabama,  the 6th and 12th Alabama regiments, the 12th Mississippi, and a light artillery battery under Captain Thomas Carter. When George McClellan moved the massive Army of the Potomac to the Virginia Peninsula in an attempt to capture Richmond, Rodes moved with the Confederate Army. A heavy artillery battery would be added to his brigade. At the Battle of Williamsburg, Rodes would remain in reserve. When the two opposing armies reached the defences of Richmond in late May, General Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederates, devised a plan that would destroy at least a portion of the Union army. Now attached to D.H. Hill's division, Rodes' brigade was deployed to the right of the Williamsburg Stage Road and within supporting distance of Samuel Garland's brigade. When the Confederate attack began, Rodes men easily drove in the Union Pickets and when the main Union line was reached, the brigade attacked. General Rodes was in the lead when his brigade swept the Union defenders away capturing several cannon. During the assault, General Rodes was wounded and evacuated to Richmond where he would spend the coming month recuperating. Rodes' brigade, numbering about 2,500 going into the battle, lost over 1,000 in the relentless assault.

By the end of June, the General was well enough to rejoin his command for the coming campaign. In his absence, the make up of his brigade changed. The 12th Mississippi was dropped and two Alabama regiments, the 3rd and 26th, were added. He would participate in the Battle of Gaines' Mill but the vigorous movements of the day caused the general's wound to reopen and he was escorted back to Richmond. The command of the brigade fell to Colonel John B. Gordon of the 6th Alabama. Rodes would remain in Richmond recuperating, missing the Second Manassas Campaign. When the beginning of September came, Rodes was restless and with his brigade marching northward to join Lee on the banks of the Potomac, he quietly left Richmond in pursuit of his men. Arriving in Frederick, Maryland on September 6, he took command of his brigade.

Rodes would remain with his brigade in Frederick until September 10th when his brigade, as part of D.H. Hill's Division made up the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia as the main body marched towards Hagerstown to await Jackson's successful capture of Harper's Ferry. On the 13th, Rodes brigade would be in position along and near Beaver Creek watching the roads leading southward for any Union troops that may escape from Harper's Ferry in the direction of Boonsboro.

On the 14th, Rodes and his brigade was ordered to relieved George B. Anderson's brigade which was posted just west of Boonsboro. Around noon, the brigade was ordered to South Mountain to reinforce those confederates already engaged. Reporting to General Hill, Rodes recieved orders to go into position to the north of the gap covering the ridge line immediately to the left of the National Pike. Going into position under occasional artillery fire, Rodes deployed skirmishers to his front a left. After remaining there for nearly an hour, Rodes was ordered again to shift farther north, going into position along the ridgeline covering the Frostown Gap. Going into this last position, Rodes deployed his brigade facing east with the 6th Alabama on the left flank, with the 5th, 3rd, and 26th Alabama in the right-center, center, and left-center respectively, and the 12th Alabama made up the brigades left flank. As Rodes was placing his men, the Pennsylvania Reserve Division was in full view and he could see they were going into battlelines. In his report he wrote, " This was about 3 P.M. and it was perfectly evident that my force of about 1,200 muskets was opposed to one which outflanked mine on either side by at least a half a mile." Knowing he was outnumbered, Rodes knew that if he withdrew the Confederate positions at the mountain gaps to the south would become untenable and the result could be devastating.

As he stated in his report, at about three in the afternoon, the Union advance began and immediately, the skirmishers were engaged. The Confederate skirmish line fired several devastating volleys before withdrawing to the main line. Advancing cautiously, the Union advance finally reached the main confederate line and after a massive volley from the Confederates, the battle began in earnest. To the left of Rodes position was a prominent hill from which an artillery battery could rain fire down on either line. Repeatedly sending request for artillery, Rodes feared that this hill would be occupied by Union forces. He ordered the 6th Alabama to move farther to the left to occupy this hill. The movement was successfully done under fire and when Gordon saw the chance, he ordered his regiment to charge, repelling an enemy advance against the position. Despite this effort, Union troops would capture this hill and turn Rodes left flank.

After about 2 hours of desperate fighting, Rodes brigade was pushed to the breaking point. His regiments were taking heavy casualties and the Union force had slowly stretched Rodes men out in an attempt to turn the confederate left. With his brigade dwindling away, Rodes was in desperate need for some good news. This news came with word the reinforcements had arrived and were in the process of connecting to his right flank. Rodes, seeing that with this news and the casualties his brigade was taking, ordered his brigade to fall back to the southern slope of a gorge that his brigade had been straddling. This allowed him to meet the brunt of the assault coming against his left flank.

Up to this time he only had four regiments engaged heavily. The 12th Alabama was still supporting a battery that was posted on the mountain spur. When this regiment was relieved, the Alabamians went to the aid of their brethren and fell into Rodes line bolstering it with what few men were available. The final stand in this new position. Rodes brigade was hammered by the new assaults. One regiment was cut in two and the others were not in a connected line which left large gaps for the advancing Union troops to push through. By nightfall, Rodes brigade was in full retreat, with the exception of the 6th Alabama which was putting up a rather savage resistance. With one final volley, the fighting ended for the night with random flashes coming from the skirmish line. Around midnight, Rodes was ordered to retreat off the mountain leaving over 400 casualties behind.

Rodes led his battered brigade to Sharpsburg where they would hold the sunken road in a savage fight that took even more men from the firing line, over 200. When the brigade had entered Maryland, it numbered about 1,200 men, as it retreated across the Potomac, over 600 men and boys from Alabama remained in Maryland soaking the states soil with their lifes blood.

Rodes brigade would lick its wounds and recieve some new recruits as well as those that had recovered from sickness and wounds to help raise their numbers again. Rodes would lead his brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 but it would not be heavily engaged. Rodes would be given the command of D.H. Hill's division when Hill was ordered to North Carolina. Rodes' Division would be the brunt of Stonewall Jackson's flank attack at Chancellorsville in May 1863 and at Gettysburg, now a major general, Rodes would lead his division against the right flank of the Union 1st Corps in the Confederate drive to capture Gettysburg. After the heavy fight on the 1st day, Rodes division would remain idle the remainder of the battle.

Maj. General Rodes grave
During 1864, Rodes would lead his division at the battles of The Wilderness, Spotslyvania, and Cold Harbor. His division would be apart of Jubal Early's movement into Maryland that reached the gates of Washington, D.C. During Early's retreat up the Shenandoah Valley, Rodes would find himself in the fight for his life outside of Winchester. Again, facing an overwhelming Union attack, he determined that his division would by time for the rest of Early's force to retreat. This would prove costly. Leading a counterattack, Rodes was mortally wounded by an exploding shell. He would die on the battlefield and his body would be transported in an ambulance to safety. He would be buried in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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