Author Karl Rhodes is coming to Good’s Store in October. He will be stopping at our East Earl store on Saturday, October 14, from 10 am to noon, to greet readers and autograph books, etc.
Also stopping at the East Earl Store at the same time will be Romaine Stauffer, author of a number of stories based on historical figures, and, most recently, The Flow of the Big Spring, a historical work chronicling three centuries of life on the Big Spring Farm near New Holland, PA.
Karl Rhodes is from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and recently published Peggy’s War, the story of his great-great-grandmother, Margaret “Peggy” Rhodes, focusing on her experiences during the era of the Civil War. Peggy Rhodes was a farmwife and mother, living in the area now called Dale Enterprise, near Harrisonburg, VA. During the war, her husband Henry died of consumption, as well as two of her children. In addition to these personal tragedies, Peggy Rhodes and her family also faced trials as non-resistant Mennonites during a time of war and conscription, as Union supporters in a Confederate state, and as people living in a community where armies, both Confederate and Union, requisitioned or outright stole anything they needed from the civilians. However, Peggy stood fast in her beliefs, and she and her husband agreed to participate in an “underground railroad” to smuggle men who were trying to escape being conscripted into the Confederate military over the lines into Union states (usually Maryland or Pennsylvania). They also sometimes sheltered men who were deserting from the Confederate armies to return to their families and farms.
Karl’s book also includes stories of some of Peggy’s male relatives as they tried to escape conscription by fleeing to Maryland, and what happened to a large group of them when they were caught and imprisoned by Virginia authorities.
I took this opportunity to interview Karl Rhodes about his book.
What led you to research and write the story of your great-great-grandmother? Why did you feel that her story should be told?
This project started as genealogical research. I knew nothing about my great-great-grandparents, other than their names and where they were buried. I wanted to find out where they lived and what their lives were like. I wasn’t necessarily looking for an inspirational story, but that’s what I found in the research of David Rodes and Norman Wenger, who compiled an amazing six-volume set called Unionists and the Civil War Experience in the Shenandoah Valley. That’s where I discovered the story of Margaret “Peggy” Rhodes. They called her “a remarkable woman,” and I completely agree. Of all the people mentioned in Rodes and Wenger’s 5,000-plus pages, she stood out the most to me – not just because she was my great-great-grandmother but because she ran a busy depot on the “underground railroad,” pretty much by herself. She protected and fed five or six men at a time in her secret cellar while taking care of her dying husband, raising five children, managing a 120-acre farm, and serving as a “postmaster” for the underground. I wanted to tell that story in a way that is less intimidating than Rodes and Wenger's six volume set.
To all appearances, the Mennonites and Brethren people of the Shenandoah Valley were pretty united in their Unionist attitude. Based on your research, did they face any consequences for this loyalty beyond public disapproval?There were some exceptions, of course, but most of the Mennonites and Brethren (Dunkers) in Rockingham County, Virginia, were united in their opposition to slavery and secession. And, yes, they were singled out for especially harsh treatment by Confederate foragers and conscription scouts during the war. Dunker Elder John Kline was murdered in 1864 because he acted boldly on his nonresistant convictions. Many others were accused of treason to the Confederacy and thrown in jail, although most of them were eventually acquitted or simply released. After the war, the persecution continued for many Mennonites and Dunkers. When Mennonite and Dunker refugees returned to the Shenandoah Valley after the war, they found that much of their property had been stolen or ruined. I also believe that Joseph Beery was murdered in 1874 because of his vote against secession and his role in the “underground railroad.” Doc Heatwole (the oldest of the underground leaders) was not killed, but the name of “Heatwole” was obviously wiped off the map of Rockingham County created in 1866 by former Confederate topographer Jed Hotchkiss.
Obviously the Civil War, to a large degree, began due to a dispute among the states and the American people over whether slavery ought to be legal. Could you describe the attitude of the Mennonites and Brethren in Virginia toward slavery?
Mennonites and Dunkers in the Shenandoah Valley were opposed to slavery, but most of them were not outspoken abolitionists.
In your book, it seems that most of the story concerns white people; black slaves seldom seem to interact with the protagonists (beyond three of them joining a party of Mennonite men fleeing to escape conscription into the Confederate army). Is this because there were very few slaves living in that area? Or is it because there was little interaction between the Mennonites and Brethren on one hand, and their slave-owning neighbors on the other?
The example you mention is the only one that I came across in my research. The “underground railroad” for escaped slaves was not particularly strong in the Shenandoah Valley, but it is interesting to me that the Mennonites and Dunkers knew enough about it to adopt its terminology – underground railroad, depots, trains, etc. Certainly, there were far fewer slaves in the Shenandoah Valley than in eastern Virginia. But it’s worth noting that Virginia Mennonites were allowed to accept slave labor as repayment for their own labor. Therefore, slaves did occasionally work on Mennonite farms. This would not have been likely on the Rhodes farm, however, because Peggy had almost no labor to trade. She more likely traded goods for labor. I don't know about the Dunkers. I doubt that they would have allowed this practice, but I’m not sure.
Based on what I read in your book, it seems that most of the Mennonite and Brethren men in Virginia who fled conscription went to Maryland, Pennsylvania, or maybe Ohio. Since West Virginia had joined the Union as a new state in 1863, why didn’t they just go there? It seems like it would have been easier and closer to their homes…A few refugees did stay in West Virginia for convenience’s sake, but opportunities to find jobs were much greater in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and
Ohio than they were in West Virginia. Also, the Mennonites and Dunkers were far more likely to have friends and relatives in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Additionally, the closest West Virginia counties, Pendleton and Hardy, still harbored a lot of Confederate loyalists, even after 1863.
I know that the destruction in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 fell heavily on the Mennonites and Brethren communities there, despite their Unionist loyalty. Peggy Rhodes was successful in filing a claim with the federal government for (partial) reimbursement. Was this a common occurrence?
Very few people received even partial compensation. Keep in mind that almost no compensation was allowed for property that was destroyed, only for property that was taken by Union soldiers who were following orders to impress property for the benefit of the Union Army. Also, keep in mind that in western Rockingham County, the burning hit Mennonite and Dunker families particularly hard because they happened to be clustered in the area where Lieutenant John Meigs was killed. Sheridan ordered his men to burn EVERYTHING within a five-mile radius of where Meigs died – not just barns, mills, and crops.
On a more personal level, has your great-great-grandmother and her story influenced you?
It did. Her story has reminded me that I must follow Jesus even when the path appears perilous. I don’t agree with everything that Peggy did during the war. She certainly was not completely nonresistant, and I was careful not to portray her as a saint, but I think she set a good example during a tumultuous time when it had to be incredibly difficult for her to live her faith.
Who do you see as the “target audience” for Peggy’s War?
I am not surprised that members of peace churches – Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, and others – are reading and enjoying Peggy's War. But I am also happy to report that the range of retailers selling the book stretches from Amish bookstores in Pennsylvania to Civil War museums in Virginia. I think the target audience is anyone who longs for peace. The last page of the book says, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
Could you describe the process of researching and writing Peggy’s War? What aspects were the most difficult to do? How long did you spend on the project?
It took me about two years to research and write the book. The most difficult aspect of the whole project was having to rewrite significant portions of chapters whenever my research turned up some unexpected historical fact.
If there would be one takeaway that you’d like readers to get from the story of Peggy Rhodes, what would it be?
Again, my mind goes immediately to the last words on the last page. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
Thanks to Karl for the interview. We welcome everyone to come to the East Earl Good’s Store location to meet him on October 14, 2023.
See Peggy’s War by Karl Rhodes here.
Visit Karl Rhodes’s website here.