A photo of a man from the waist up standing with his arms crossed against his chest and smirking. Behind him is a screen that says \"PEGGY RHODS And the Underground RR For Mennonities and Dunkers who refused to fight in the American Civil War\" in black text with a photo of the book cover for \"Peggy's War\" next to it.
Karl Rhodes, author of the novel “Peggy’s War,” is a 1983 graduate of VCU, where he majored in mass communications with a news-editorial concentration. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Meet-a-Ram: Alum Karl Rhodes tells the gripping story of a relative’s role in the underground railroad

The former journalist’s novel, 'Peggy’s War,' is a deeply researched account of Peggy Rhodes, who concealed Southerners who refused to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Share this story

Karl Rhodes’ first novel, “Peggy’s War,” started as a genealogical project. Rhodes was researching his great-great-grandfather, Henry H. Rhodes, but found almost nothing about him. He tried Henry’s wife, Margaret “Peggy” Rhodes, and discovered her testimony before the Southern Claims Commission about her time managing a depot on the underground railroad in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

“At that point, I knew I had to write ‘Peggy's War,’” Rhodes said. “Her role in the underground railroad had been mentioned in a few history books, but I wanted to flesh out the story with a fact-based novel.”

Rhodes is a 1983 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he majored in mass communications with a news-editorial concentration (print journalism). Rhodes retired from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, where he was a senior managing editor in the Research Department. Previously, he was director of external communications for Media General and executive editor of Virginia Business magazine.

He shared with VCU News the story behind “Peggy’s War” and what his research revealed to him.

Tell us about Peggy Rhodes

Peggy ran a depot on the underground railroad for Mennonites and Dunkers (German Baptist Brethren) who refused to fight in the Civil War. She concealed draft dodgers and deserters in a secret cellar below a trapdoor in her bedroom floor. She also delivered mail for the underground while raising five small children, managing a 120-acre farm, and taking care of a husband who was dying of consumption (tuberculosis). Peggy was a remarkable woman.

Why did you find her story so compelling?

During the war, Peggy lived in a constant state of fear, but she didn't let that stop her from doing the right thing. She was opposed to slavery, secession, and the war. That's nice, but the story becomes compelling when Peggy acts on her convictions and takes incredible risks to save lives and support the Union. The underground railroad started as a friends-and-family thing, but after the first year or so, Peggy did not know any of the young men who were hiding under her bedroom floor, sometimes five or six at a time. She was only able to sleep when her exhaustion surpassed her fear.

Your research was extensive and went far beyond Peggy to her entire community. Were there elements of your research that most surprised you as you pulled on these various threads?

There are many surprises in “Peggy's War,” and I shouldn't spoil it for the readers, but the biggest surprise for me came during Sheridan's burning of the Shenandoah Valley, when Custer's cavalry rides up to Peggy's front door and gives her 15 minutes to empty the house before they set it on fire. I won't tell you what happens next, but Peggy had to be thinking something like: “I have taken all these risks to support the Union, and now the Union is going to burn down my house!”

Why did you gravitate toward the novel form to tell Peggy’s story?

I agonized over whether “Peggy's War” should be fiction or nonfiction. I wanted to tell the true story, but I also wanted to introduce the story to a broad audience – not just a few Civil War scholars. So I settled on what some people call “creative nonfiction” – a novel that adheres to the historical facts and connects those facts by using literary devices, such as foreshadowing and dialogue. I took the extra step of adding 500 endnotes that I hope will prompt historians to dig deeper into this mostly unknown chapter of Virginia history.

You have spoken at events about your book and the historical basis for it, including at the Library of Virginia.  What have you found most strikes a chord about Peggy’s story with those audiences?

I try to tailor each presentation to the audience. In March, at the Library of Virginia, we discussed the refugees from Peggy's depot who ended up in Richmond's Castle Thunder. In May, at the Mennonite Life Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I focused on the music of “Peggy's War.” And in July, at the Society of Women and the Civil War in Atlanta, I will put the spotlight back on Peggy. I also should mention that the Shenandoah Mennonite Historians will be doing bus tours of “Peggy's War” sites this summer. I think place-based presentations attract the most readers.

How did your background in journalism aid you in your work on this book?

I owe a lot to my journalism professors at VCU – Robert Hughes (newswriting), Jack Hunter (advanced reporting) and Charlie Fair (public affairs reporting) to name just three. They taught me to strive for objectivity by allowing everyone in a controversial story to make their best case. I think that lesson has been lost among today's journalists and among some historians as well. So I was thrilled when a “Peggy's War” reviewer said: “One of the things that I most appreciated about ‘Peggy's War’ was the respect it gave to the complexities of conviction in the different characters.”

Has the experience of researching and writing this book inspired you to look for more projects like it?

Right now, I am pretty focused on promoting “Peggy's War,” but I will follow up with a book about Peggy's son, Will Rhodes, who was caught in the middle when the Virginia Mennonite Church split in 1901. That schism created what we now call Old Order Mennonites, many of them directly descended from Peggy. I am happy to report, by the way, that many of my Old Order cousins have become avid readers of “Peggy's War.” I am so pleased that the book is available in old country stores run by conservative Mennonites as well as museum gift shops staffed by U.S. Army veterans. Perhaps that demonstrates the value of objective storytelling.

Editor’s note: Meet-a-Ram is an occasional VCU News series about the students, faculty, staff and alumni who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study.