The Curmudgeon, The Eccentric, and the “Norse God”: How Three Men Impacted the Battle of Gettysburg: Part Four
Rodes on Oak Hill:
The lead elements of the Confederate Second Corps arrived in the area of Oak Hill a prominence on the first day battlefield that overlooks the McPherson Farm (nearly one mile to the south), the town of Gettysburg, as well as an open plain north of the town.
The first division of the Confederate Second Corps to arrive on the field was led by Major General Robert E. Rodes. The 34 year old Rodes was entering his second full battle as a division commander. The Class of 1848 Virginia Military Institute graduate was described by historian Douglas Southall Freeman as “a Norse God in Confederate gray,” and a Wotan still young.” Rodes, unlike Richard Ewell, looked every inch the soldier. He was one of “the most splendid looking officers of the war.”
Prior to the war the Virginia native had taught at VMI, then made his way to the deep south and worked as a civil engineer on numerous railroad projects from Texas to Alabama, finally settling in the latter state.
At the outbreak of war Rodes was set to return to Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute, where he would again serve as a professor. Instead, Rodes traveled back to his adopted Alabama and assumed command of the 5th Alabama Infantry (not to be confused with the 5th Alabama battalion).
Both his officers and men respected him, with the backing of officers the likes of Daniel Harvey Hill, Ewell, and Stonewall Jackson. The Virginian with a sweet tooth for “cakes sweetmeats &c,” was also a stern disciplinarian.
By the Gettysburg Campaign, Rodes quietly put together one of the most solid fighting records in the Army of Northern Virginia. He had performed admirably on the Peninsula at brigade command, as well at South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. At Chancellorsville, Rodes was temporary commander of D. H. Hill’s division, where his division was in the lead for Jackson’s audacious May 2nd flank attack. Following the wounding of Jackson Rodes was the temporary Second Corps commander, though he turned command of the corps over to Jeb Stuart.
On May 7th, 1863, the day after the close of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Rodes’ name for promotion was forwarded to President Jefferson Davis by Lee. The commander simply stated “I desire Genl Rodes to command D.H. Hill’s old Division. He is a good soldier behaved admirably in the last battle and deserves promotion.” Rodes received command of Lee’s largest division entering the Gettysburg Campaign and at five brigades strong was numerically the largest division on the field at Gettysburg. The rolls of June 30, 1863, showed 8,474 officers and men, though in reality about 7,900 of Rodes’ men participated in the battle.
Rodes was a popular choice for division command. Second Corps staff officer James Power Smith said of Rodes, “I like him so much, he is very much admired by all and very popular.” Rodes was a rising star in the Army of Northern Virginia, so much so that he was the only non-West Point graduate to command a division in Lee’s army at Gettysburg.
Dick Ewell accompanied Rodes division on the trek towards Gettysburg along the Carlisle Road. As they approached the field the sound of battle filled the air. Rodes was ordered off the main road towards the sound of the guns. The division ascended Keckler’s Hill and moved to the next prominence to south, the wooded, and aptly named, Oak Hill. Rodes division had arrived on the field exactly on the right flank of the Federal 1st Corps. From the hill, Ewell and Rodes could see Herr Ridge, where more of Hill’s corps was arriving and whose batteries, with 33 guns online, were now battering the 1st Corps line around the McPherson Farm sector.
Evidently, Ewell and Rodes focused on the Federal troops that they could see around the McPherson Farm and in McPherson’s Woods north of the railroad cut (the remnants of Lysander Cutler’s brigade and it should be noted that these woods should not be mistaken for Herbst Woods where the Iron Brigade engaged Archer’s men earlier in the morning).
More Federals had arrived on the field since the death of John Reynolds and the fight for the Railroad Cut had ended sometime before noon. The bulk of the 1st Corps, less one regiment and one brigade were being posted along Seminary, McPherson, and Oak Ridge. On the plain below Oak Hill columns of Federals began streaming from the north end of the town. These were the men of the Federal 11th Corps.
Rodes, who had been ill as he approached Gettysburg, set to work. He began deploying his infantry atop Oak Hill. The right of his division formed on the far side of the Mummasburg Road in a wooded area called Forney Woods. The line continued across Oak Hill proper, terminating on the left near the Carlisle Road, on the plain below Oak Hill. To bolster his battle line, Rodes deployed Lt. Col. Thomas H. Carter’s battalion of artillery.
The Army of Northern Virginia seemed to have the knack of locating the best artillery position on a battlefield. Be it by design or by luck, Rebel gunners often held the best real estate, if not the best guns on the field. At Antietam they held Nicodemus Heights, Fredericksburg it was Marye’s Heights, Chancellorsville it was Hazel Grove, and here on the first day at Gettysburg, it was Oak Hill.
The hill gave the Confederates a beautiful panoramic view of much of the field. From Oak Hill, they could see all the way down the 1st Corps line, to where the ground slopes down toward the Fairfield Road. To the east, they could see all the way to Rock Creek. To the southeast, the view offered Benner’s Hill to the southern cannoneers. To the south, they could view the town, Cemetery Hill, and Little and Big Round Top in the distance.
Eight of Carter’s guns were deployed at two points, each about 50 yards from the Mummasburg Road, targeting McPherson’s Woods and the railroad cut area, which enabled them to enfilade the 1st Corps line in that area. Four more guns were placed on the eastern slope of the ridge, targeting the 11th Corps troops arriving on the plain below. The remaining four guns were placed at the Samuel Cobean Farm, about 375 yards behind the left of Rodes division, “to prevent the enemy from turning Rodes’ extreme left.” All of Carter’s 16 guns were all “warmly engaged.”
With his and Hill’s batteries all playing on the enemy and in possession of Oak Hill, Ewell decided to press the enemy. “It was too late to avoid an engagement without abandoning the position already taken up, and I determined to push the attack vigorously.” Like his predecessor, Ewell found the enemy’s flank and was prepared to play his hand for all it was worth.
Near 2 P.M. of July 1st, Robert Rodes began his assault on the 1st Corps line in earnest. From the start, the assault was fraught with command problems.
Rodes personally oversaw the layout of his division. With the 11th Corps arriving north of town, he decided to leave the four regiments of Brig. Gen. George Doles brigade on the plain along the Carlisle Road (a decision that would pay dividends in the near future). When Ewell’s second division (Early’s division) arrived on the field, Doles would act as the link between the two Second Corps divisions.
The main attack would take place utilizing two of Rodes brigades. Four North Carolina regiments under Brigadier General Alfred Iverson would advance from the John Forney homestead area, while Rodes former brigade, now under Colonel Edward O’Neal of the 26th Alabama, would attack with four of its five Alabama regiments. A third brigade, consisting of five North Carolina regiments commanded by Brigadier General Junius Daniel, would support Iverson, “if necessary”, as the attacks started. If Daniel’s support was not necessary to Iverson he was “to attack on his [Iverson’s] right as soon as possible. Rodes aimed for the right flank of the 1st Corps, with aspirations of rolling down the Federal battle-line and sweeping the enemy from the field.
With the orders issued, it was now up to Rodes subordinate commander to carry forward the assault. Inexplicably neither Iverson nor O’Neal advanced with their men, nor did Iverson deploy skirmishers in front of his battle-line. Essentially one-half of the men were stumbling blindly forward, into an unseen Federal trap.