An evening with “Bud” Robertson, part 1

Posted on March 29, 2013 by


Not as clear as I would have liked, but my Southern Unionist moment for the evening. Dr. Robertson talking about Elizabeth "Crazy Bet" Van Lew.

Not as clear as I would have liked, but my Southern Unionist moment for the evening. Dr. Robertson talking about Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew.

As I mentioned in my hasty post from just over 12 hours ago, I had the opportunity last night, to listen to Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., at the Hagerstown CWRT. In that distinctive south-central Piedmont Virginia accent, he engaged the audience with quick glimpses of stories from his latest work, The Untold Civil War. His objectives with the book sing true to my own work… to tell the untold stories about common folks in the Civil War.

While I sat listening, however, I heard more than him just talking about the book.

For one, what we had before us was someone who had a major role in the Centennial. That’s something that deserves a pause.

In fact, the best question of the night was the one that asked Dr. Robertson to reflect on the Centennial years. Of course, as some/several readers may know, in 1961, Robertson was nominated by President John F. Kennedy to serve as the executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission… this after the Commission, as Kennedy saw it, was heading disastrously down the wrong course. Indeed, Robertson points to the fiasco known as Third Manassas (the Centennial reenactment held on NPS land… which apparently set the precedent for no further reenactments on NPS land) and in the early attempt to turn the Centennial into more of a “celebration”. After Kennedy cleaned house (giving fourteen members the option to resign before he fired them), that changed. Robertson’s appointment came in the wake of that action… though not immediately, as he explained (though I don’t think I can do it nearly as much justice in writing about it here). Still, the renewed commission still faced bumpy times ahead. Robertson, for example, acknowledges the various trials encountered in holding a commemoration (as opposed to a “celebration”) in the modst of the civil rights movement. More specifically, he points to the example of the commemorative effort for the Emancipation (September 22, 1962). If I heard correctly (and I’m pretty sure I did), Kennedy, appearing rather uneasy over the intersection of the event with the civil rights movement, headed for Cape Cod and appointed Adlai Stevenson II to represent. Ultimately, there was fallout over several things related to the event.

BudRobertson2Robertson also mentioned personal interactions with Kennedy… from his remark as to how photographs didn’t capture “just how red Jack Kennedy’s hair really was”… to extending the invitation to the President, for Caroline to come over sometime to play with his daughter of the same age. The latter received a bit of a chuckle from Kennedy, which Robertson later realized (smiling) was more of a laugh directed at him, personally, for making such a suggestion that would entail all sorts of complications for security. Then too there’s the story of President Lyndon Johnson wanting to have a dinner arranged (on short notice), to which 100 people should be invited. Miraculously it seemed to Robertson, they pulled it off. Good stuff, and I felt like I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

What we didn’t hear about were Robertson’s recollections from 1963, of his working David Mearns, director of the Library of Congress, to assist in the planning of Kennedy’s funeral. As mentioned at the beginning, however, there were some things that he didn’t wish to recount… and understandably so. Still, it would have been interesting to know some details about how they researched President Lincoln’s funeral, after which Kennedy’s was patterned.

In short, it would provide some fascinating reading if Dr. Robertson would put all of his recollections of the Centennial into a book… especially in the manner in which he told those stories to us last night… as if sitting by the warm, crackling fireplace. I’ll add, that it seems to come full circle, back to the point he makes with his recent book… people at the center of some great untold stories. I suppose, to satisfy at least part of my curiousity over the problems faced in the Centennial, I’ll have to settle for a copy of Robert J. Cook’s Troubled Commemoration.

I can’t close this first part of “an evening with ‘Bud’ Robertson” without also mentioning something I didn’t give as much consideration to before. Specifically… how there is such a great, gaping disconnect between government involvement with the Sesquicentennial, as opposed to the Centennial. I know, I know… the times, politics, economy, etc., etc. are different, but… still.

More on Dr. Robertson (but from another angle) to follow.