For me Heaven will not be Heaven unless there is a history symposium at least once a week. For this week’s symposium they are going to have to set out extra chairs to handle the larger than normal crowds, for I am sure the special guest will be Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson.
Dr. Robertson died November 2 at 89 years old. Simply put, in my humble opinion, Dr. Robertson is the greatest Civil War scholar and teacher ever. Some of his teachings have fallen out of favor today, but I believe what he stood for and taught are as important today as they ever were. I did not plan on discussing the Civil War in this column, but with the passing of this giant in the historical world, I want to dedicate this week to him.
Dr. Robertson will be remembered in history for his academic accomplishments. He was a gifted and accomplished author who wrote more than 18 books. His greatest achievement is the biography of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, making him the leading authority on the general. He was asked by President John F. Kennedy to serve as executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission.
Dr. Robertson was in a difficult position of having to celebrate the War in the midst of the growing Civil Rights movement. He was at the forefront of the controversial position of having to bridge the gap between recognizing the positives in southern generals while understanding the controversy surrounding the Confederacy.
For me, and the thousands of students who were fortunate enough to take his classes, he will always be remembered as a gifted storyteller. It was my pleasure to serve as his graduate assistant for two years (2000-2002), where I learned from him every day. Part of my responsibilities was to attend all his classes.
He had the ability of making history come alive. On more than one occasion I noticed students teary-eyed as they left the auditorium. Especially when he spoke of Jackson’s death, it was hard to find a dry eye in the room. Think about that, how many teachers can bring that kind of emotion. It was like he lost a friend. Students left inspired when he talked about patriotism and duty, grossed out when he talked about diseases and hospitals, and saddened when he spoke of sacrifice.
As a proud son of the South, he resented the current attitude of tearing down our history. He has been seen as a dying breed of historians that still believed Lee and Jackson deserved honor. As part of this column, I want to share his thoughts on the topic as our last conversation was on this subject.
I had been having internal struggles towards removing statues of southern generals. I do understand why some want them removed. The South did stand for slavery and oppression, but I cannot help also feel that it is wrong on some level. These were flawed men for sure, but having studied under men, like Bud Robertson, taught me there was also good. I want to share a part of his last email to me.
Do not apologize for your feelings. You are morally and historically correct.
One cannot look at the past through the lenses of the present. When war clouds gathered in 1860, the so-called United States was 70 years old–too young to have wisdom or experience. In 1860 the Lee family had been living in Virginia for 225 years. When Lee mentioned his “birthright” and “his country,” he was referring to Virginia. The so-called “political correctness” crowd does not have an understanding of this. Lee opposed slavery and considered secession to be revolution, yet he had a consuming sense of duty to come to his country’s defense.
Had Virginia remained in the Union, Lee would have fought just as hard for the Union as he did for Confederacy. One has only to read the story of Lee’s last five years, when he became the greatest spokesman for reconciliation America has ever had, to see the real greatness of the man.
History is the greatest teacher we will ever have, it is tragic that 75% of the American people cannot pass a basic history qualification exam. Winston Churchill’s words are so relevant: “When the present starts arguing with the past, we are going to lose the future.
My best to the family.
In honor of Dr. Robertson, I want to make a suggestion. I propose we start a national dialogue of forgiveness. I am afraid that too many who speak on reconciliation are just trying to blame. Figuring out who is to blame will never solve any of our issues with race or remembrance. Placing blame only fires up our passions, even if you know your side is in the wrong on some issues.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is learning from our mistakes, remembering them, and changing for the better. With forgiveness, White Southerners can embrace the good parts of their heritage while they stand beside and ask forgiveness from Black Americans. If forgiveness is truly asked for and truly accepted, we can all learn from our past and be able to stand hand-in-hand in partnership towards the future.
We are becoming a divided nation, not quite to the level that caused the Civil War, but yet it is that very War that is causing us to remain divided. Maybe if we can find a way to stop attacking and start forgiving we can save this nation, fix what divides us, maybe fulfill the wish of the Civil War president who gave his life for the cause of unity: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Dr. James W. Finck