Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review - "No Place for Glory: Major General Robert E. Rodes and the Confederate Defeat at Gettysburg" by Robert Wynstra

[No Place for Glory: Major General Robert E. Rodes and the Confederate Defeat at Gettysburg by Robert J. Wynstra (Kent State University Press, 2021). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvii,233/307. ISBN:978-1-60635-410-0. $55]

Between the period when he first entered Confederate Army service in 1861 as colonel of the 5th Alabama infantry regiment and his death in action during the Third Battle of Winchester in 1864, VMI-trained Major General Robert E. Rodes earned a reputation as one of the Army of Northern Virginia's finest combat officers. Some have even gone so far as to rate Rodes as that army's premier division commander. However, the battlefield has always been an unforgiving place and even the best generals have bad moments that they'd like to forget. Unfortunately for Rodes, his occurred during consecutive days on the Civil War's grandest stage, the July 1-3, 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. While he would quickly return to form during the Army of Northern Virginia's subsequent campaigns, it has been argued that the stain of Gettysburg ensured that Rodes would not be considered for any of the corps command openings that emerged the following year (though one might also attribute that barrier against further advancement to his lack of a West Point education). A new examination of Rodes's flawed Gettysburg performance and what consequences his actions there had on the course of the great battle are central to Robert Wynstra's new book No Place for Glory: Major General Robert E. Rodes and the Confederate Defeat at Gettysburg.

From an outsider's superficial perspective, Rodes's five-brigade division of nearly 8,000 men might have appeared to be a robust organization at peak fighting capacity by the summer of 1863, but danger lurked within. Every Gettysburg enthusiast knows that General Alfred Iverson and Colonel Edward O'Neal were the weak links among the division's brigade commanders. Wynstra's study certainly reinforces that common perspective, but it also usefully explores the dysfunctional nature of the interpersonal relationship between Rodes and his two most troublesome principal subordinates and shows how that mutual dislike and distrust may have affected Rodes's handling of them during the battle. Rodes also had newcomers to consider. Junius Daniel's North Carolina brigade was by far the largest in the division, but it was also largely untried (at least by mid-war ANV standards) from top to bottom. Fortunately for Rodes, the solid performance of Daniel and his men on July 1, as detailed in the text, did much to retrieve Confederate fortunes after the division's bloody initial repulse.

While it was Rodes's Division that eventually shattered the Oak Hill hinge linking the Union First and Eleventh Corps positions north and west of Gettysburg on July 1, the achievement was gained at a tremendously high human cost (by all accounts far more than it should have been) in three of the five brigades. The book recounts in detail the July 1 fighting along the length of Rodes's front, from the Forney Farm on the west to Carlisle Road on the east, where Rodes's left connected with the right of Jubal Early's fellow Second Corps division. In common with all modern critics, Wynstra finds fault with Rodes's blind deployments and poorly coordinated assault plan, the latter made worse by it being spearheaded by Iverson and O'Neal. Rodes also ordered away a significant part of O'Neal's available strength just before the Alabama brigade's unsuccessful initial attack. Somewhat in defense of Rodes, the decision to lead the attack with the brigades of O'Neal and Iverson (with Daniel in support of Iverson) could have come down to the fact that those were his numerically strongest units. His two best brigade commanders, Stephen Ramseur and George Doles, led the division's two smallest brigades (though Doles's was nearly the same strength as Iverson's). Order of march (Ramseur was bringing up the rear of the divisional column on July 1) and the pressure to deploy quickly might also have figured into the fateful decision. When they did get into action, Ramseur and Doles performed superbly on the day and their efforts, combined with that of Daniel, significantly upgraded the results of the division's Oak Hill assault from complete disaster to costly victory. Though Rodes's overall leadership performance on July 1 was less than exemplary and incurred unacceptable casualties, his division did end up defeating its opposition in a way that significantly contributed to the overall success of that day's action.

As Wynstra relates, there is some evidence to suggest that Rodes was ill during the campaign, sick enough to force him to ride in an ambulance for a period, and the author raises the possibility that that was one factor behind the general's uncharacteristically poor command performance at Gettysburg. The illness is unspecified in the record, but more than one contemporary source reported that Rodes was very visibly inebriated at Carlisle. While Rodes does not rank high on any list of the Civil War's hardest drinking generals, Wynstra does note that he did, like countless other officers of all ranks, occasionally drink to excess during the war, and it is possible that Rodes was still experiencing the aftereffects of Carlisle on July 1.

While the mistakes and failures of Day 1 have received the most popular condemnation, according to Wynstra it was Rodes's failure to support the July 2 assault on Cemetery Hill that was his most consequential misstep of the campaign, the one that contributed most significantly to Confederate defeat in the battle. The dramatic infantry assault on East Cemetery Hill by two brigades from Early Division (Avery's and Hays's) late on July 2 is well documented and has long impressed observers, but its success mattered little without support and that was to come from Rodes's Division to their right. In another uncharacteristic failure, Rodes took too long in extricating his troops from the streets of Gettysburg and assembling them along Long Lane, where they were to link up with two supporting brigades from Pender's (now Lane's) Division for an attack up the western slope of Cemetery Hill. Of course, some care needed to be taken with Union defense lines so close by and bristling with artillery, but by the time Rodes was ready it was well into darkness and Early's two brigades, despairing of Rodes's help, had already been withdrawn. No longer required, the attack was canceled and Rodes's reputation within the army suffered another blow, with Ewell and even Lee himself taking notice of Rodes's shortcomings on the day. Undoubtedly, getting clear of Gettysburg's streets took Rodes longer than he anticipated, but he did little to make up for time lost amid the urban clutter when making his final preparations. It is possible that the Oak Hill disaster made him leery of conducting another hasty attack. According to Wynstra, Rodes had developed a positive reputation within the army for exceptionally meticulous preparation that made his commands successful in the attack and difficult to defeat, and though that mostly admirable trait might have helped on July 1, it did not suit the situation on July 2 when satisficing alacrity should have held priority over perfection of deployment.

On July 3, Rodes was ordered to detach two brigades to assist fellow Second Corps division commander Edward Johnson in the attack on Culp's Hill. Though Rodes himself was not present there, the actions of his troops at Culp's Hill are detailed at length in the text. Disappointed in his diminished role in the battle's final stage, Rodes was left to hunker down in Long Lane with his remaining three brigades and await orders to support the left of Lee's planned assault on the Union center. Those orders never came, and after the repulse of Pickett's Charge Rodes's Division fell back to a strong defensive position.

During three days at Gettysburg, Rodes's Division suffered almost 3,000 casualties. Losses were also very unequally shared, with the brigades of Iverson, O'Neal, and Daniel suffering devastating losses while Doles and Ramseur's casualties, though significant, paled in comparison. A very large portion of the book is devoted to the hospital care and medical treatment of these casualties as well as the collection and burial of the dead. As crippling as the rank and file losses were, the numbers of dead and wounded officers were frightful and, as Wynstra notes, arguably even more irreplaceable.

In its detailed coverage of the retreat from Gettysburg, the book also documents at Monterey Pass and Hagerstown the beginnings of General Iverson's path to at least partial redemption for his abysmal brigade leadership at Gettysburg. Wynstra, who has written extensively elsewhere about Iverson and his Civil War career (see 2010's The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson), also acknowledges Iverson's more celebrated victory at Sunshine Church in Georgia, though he cautions readers regarding how much credit the general deserves in that 1864 action, citing more evidence that Iverson hung well back from the front there just as he had done at Gettysburg.

No Place for Glory is the product of a rigorous primary source investigation in newspapers, archives, and published sources of all kinds. Supported by a handful of fine maps, the narrative created by that impressive body of research provides readers with a fresh appreciation of the role of Rodes's Division in the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign from beginning to end while at the same time conveying a nuanced analysis and understanding of its commander's controversial leadership actions during those critical first two days in July. While the degree to which Rodes's performance contributed to Confederate defeat remains an object of conflicting opinion, what isn't up for debate is that Gettysburg was clearly the general's career low point. Another very fine contribution to the Gettysburg historiography, this volume solidifies its multiple award-winning author's status as one of that campaign's best current historians.

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