Charles R. Roland: Historian and WWII Veteran of the Battle of the Bulge turns 100

This studio portrait was taken by a chain-smoking French photographer in Paris. Circa 1945

The following is a brief biography of Dr. Charles P. Roland on his 100th birthday, written by acclaimed author and Kentucky historian Thomas H. Appleton. It is reposted here by permission of the author.  Professor Roland’s personal information has been removed, however, if admirers would like to send their regards please fill out a comment which will be forwarded to him.

Dr. Charles P. Roland, who served two memorable yearlong stints as visiting professor of military history [United States Military Academy, West Point], recently celebrated his one hundredth birthday.  On April 8, 2018 some 150 relatives, friends, and admirers gathered on the campus of his longtime academic home, the University of Kentucky, to mark the occasion with testimonials, proclamations, and a robust rendering of “The Army Goes Rolling Along.”

It was a fitting tribute to the scholar, teacher, and World War II veteran who is acknowledged as a leading authority on the history of the Civil War.  Although Roland’s Ph.D. mentors at Louisiana State University, the eminent historians Bell Wiley and T. Harry Williams, nurtured his mature interest in the war, his fascination with the nation’s bloodiest conflict came naturally. The native Tennessean grew up just miles from the battlefields of Shiloh.  As a boy he heard accounts of the conflict from those who fought in it.  “There were quite a number of veterans of the Civil War living in that area,” Roland remembers.  Not surprisingly, his first major book was a biography of General Albert Sidney Johnston (1964), who died in that battle.  Roland is also the author of An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War (1991) and Reflections on Lee: A Historian’s Assessment (1995).  Among his many honors is having been elected president of the Southern Historical Association and the Kentucky Civil War Round Table.  In 1992, the Secretary of the Army decorated him for Distinguished Civilian Service. 

Roland’s knowledge of World War II is even more intimate.  He was drafted into the Army a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.  By early fall 1944, his unit, the 99th Infantry Division, was ordered overseas to the European theater.  Now a captain, he was serving as the operations officer of the 3rd Battalion, 394th Infantry Regiment.  On December 16, Roland and his regiment suddenly found themselves fighting not only the harshness of the Ardennes winter but a massive attack from the Panzer Corps that signaled the beginning of what came to be called the Battle of the Bulge.  “The flash and roar of exploding shells was incessant as the enemy artillery blasted the approaches behind us and our own artillery blasted those in front,“ Roland has written.  “In all directions the landscape was a Dante’s inferno of burning towns and villages.”  For meritorious service at Elsenborn Ridge he received a Bronze Star; he also earned a Purple Heart for a wound received in action.  Long after the war, Roland, always a gifted storyteller, would hold audiences in thrall as he recalled his experiences in combat.  His talk, “GI Charlie,” later formed the basis for his engaging autobiography titled My Odyssey Through History: Memoirs of War and Academe (2003).

At West Point, Roland’s students were exposed not only to his masterful lectures but also to his mischievous sense of humor, as his close friends on the faculty, Conrad Crane and James Blake, can attest.  One day, for example, Roland, then in his early seventies, wore his BDUs to class.  He delighted in the quizzical looks on the faces of cadets who saluted as he passed.  “They must have thought I was the oldest captain in the US Army,” he says with a laugh.

Allie Lee Aycock and Charles Roland were married on January 28, 1948

Roland’s wife Allie Lee especially enjoyed the couple’s two years at West Point, where she was the consummate hostess at their homes on Bowman Loop and Washington Road.  In a letter she wrote to a friend in 1991, she remarked: “We are again savoring the beauty of this place.  We feel particularly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend this much time here.  It is a favored spot.” Allie Lee passed away several weeks after her husband’s one hundredth birthday.  They had been married seventy years.  As one of the Rolands’ friends noted on their golden anniversary, “I have rarely known a couple who seemed so blissfully happy together.  Even the most casual observer realizes that Allie Lee Aycock and Charles Roland have achieved the most successful merger since Sears and Roebuck.”

Photo taken when Dr. Roland led a tour of the Bulge on the 50th anniversary, December 1994
Dr. Roland at 100 

Military History Division, West Point, 1985-86 and 1991-92.

Recent scholarship:  History Teaches Us To Hope: Reflections on the Civil War and Southern History.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

Earlier scholarship: My Odyssey through History: Memoirs of War and Academe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004; Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001; An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004; Reflections on Lee: A Historian’s Assessment. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1995; The Confederacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960; and more.

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