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Historians have lost a friend and mentor

By Ned Jilton II • Nov 13, 2019 at 5:30 PM

Sad news out of Virginia Tech earlier this month: Civil War historian, author and professor James I. “Bud” Robertson passed away at the age of 89.
 Robertson was a well-known Civil War historian even before coming to Virginia Tech in 1967. President John F. Kennedy selected Bud to serve as executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission in the early ’60s, and he continued to work on the commission for President Lyndon Johnson following Kennedy’s death.

Still active 50 years later, Robertson was appointed by the Virginia Senate as a charter member of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. He also became the founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

A Virginia Tech colleague and former director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, William C. “Jack” Davis, said of Robertson’s passing, “For fully six decades, Bud Robertson was a dominant figure in his field and a great encouragement to all who would study our turbulent past during the middle of the 19th century. Moreover, amid a conversation that can still become bitter and confrontational, his was a voice for reason, patience and understanding. In the offing, he has become virtually ‘Mr. Virginia,’ a spokesperson for the commonwealth past, present and future. His voice is now sorely missed — and irreplaceable.”

“History is the greatest teacher you will ever have,” Robertson often told his students in the 44 years he taught at Tech. His upper division course on the Civil War era attracted 300 or more students per semester, making it one of the largest classes of its kind in the nation.

But many times there were students among the 300-plus that were not signed up for the course. I have talked to several Tech alumni who said they or someone they knew slipped into Robertson’s lectures to hear him speak, even though they were not a part of the class.

Robertson’s teaching went beyond the classroom. He wrote many award-winning books, including what many call the definitive work on “Stonewall” Jackson. He also delivered more than 350 radio essays that aired weekly for nearly 15 years on National Public Radio.

In fact, the first time I ever heard Bud speak was on Blue Ridge Public Television out of Norton. He was working on a series of Civil War videos and helping to raise money for the local PBS station. You could hear the passion for his subject in his voice and see his enthusiasm as he talked not just about battles but the people and places.

Bud Robertson was a friend to many a Civil War Round Table group and spoke here in Kingsport frequently.

“We of the Tri Cities Civil War Round Table have very many fond memories of being with and listening to Bud,” said Wayne Strong, the organization’s director. “Bud always made me feel like we were close friends and verbally appreciated my hospitality. He was a gentleman’s gentleman and a strong Christian. He captivated his audience with his expertise of the subjects, southern charm, tone and Tidewater dialect.”

Brian Wills, who taught history at UVa-Wise for many years and is now the director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, fondly remembers Robertson.

“His ability to hold an audience spellbound as he weaved stories (in person or on radio) or indicated the ways in which the American Civil War impacted the people of a divided and subsequently reunited nation and their posterity were hardly surpassed. He knew prisons and chaplains as well as he did Stonewall Jackson or Ambrose Powell Hill. His work in media has ensured that generations will know the nature of the war in Virginia and across a bloody land,” Wills said. “I was fortunate to travel with Bud on many occasions. It was a thrill and an education to watch him work and share that stage with him.

“Lastly, Bud was a tremendous friend to many of those with whom he came into contact. He had no patience with those who wanted to discard, dismiss or revise history solely to fit any agenda, but he did as much, if not more, to win such persons over to the importance and significance of even those aspects of our collective past that have troubled some long after the guns fell silent and the veterans last shook hands across the chasm that had separated them.”

Another person who shared the stage with Robertson from time to time was Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and another of the leading Civil War historians in the country.

Last week after the death of Robertson, Gallagher said, “Bud Robertson lived an impressive life filled with success as a teacher at Virginia Tech, as a publishing scholar, as an editor and as a historian who spent a great deal of time reaching non-academic audiences of many kinds. His love of history, especially that of the Civil War and of his home state of Virginia, translated effectively to all those who heard him speak during a career that lasted six decades.”

In 2011, Virginia Tech hosted one of the Signature Conferences of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, bringing together historians from around the world, and I was very lucky to be in the audience. That same year Robertson announced his retirement.

Before the start of the finial session of the conference, Robertson was given the honor of Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History of Virginia Tech. Bud graciously thanked everyone there for their kindness and for the honor. It was then that, in a building where cheering is normally reserved for athletes shooting a ball through a hoop, a teacher received a standing ovation and shouts of, “Thank you Dr. Robertson.”

With tears in his eyes he thanked the crowd again and begged them to stop. After all, there was still the finial session of speakers left to go.

Robertson was the last speaker of the day. When he stepped up to the podium he began, “Gen. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was a deeply religious man. Many in modern times would dismiss him as a zealot. Be that as it may, Jackson once declared: ‘I have so fixed the habit of praying in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing.’ ”

For the next 20 minuets, Robertson held the crowd spellbound as he spoke not of generals, battles and politicians — but about water.

He spoke of how rivers formed our country. He spoke of how rain would be a blessing to a farmer but a curse to an army. He spoke of the thirst of soldiers and when they did have water, it tended to be filthy and caused illness, even death.

Then Robertson said, “Today, water only comes to our attention when there is too much or as a scenic beauty. We think of water with a meal as customary rather than as a necessary part of nourishment. We bend over a water cooler and suck away with never a hesitation about the waters purity or our need. But there was a time 150 years ago when water was a blessing, second only to life itself.”

Robertson then reached into the podium, brought out a glass of water and raised it up in front of him saying, “Thanks be to God,” and took a drink.