A lecturer and historian whose reputation extends well beyond the Blacksburg, Va., campus, James I. “Bud“ Robertson Jr. is a renowned expert on America’s Civil War.
He will retire in spring 2011 after 43 years in the classroom.
While he can regale an audience with accounts of battle lines, tactics, and artillery, Robertson, an Alumni Distinguished Professor of History in the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, has focused his research on the human, social, and cultural aspects of the war. His lectures weave in stories of romance and Christmas, hymns and disease, children and mothers. He has a particular affinity for the animals of the war with ardent descriptions of the demeanor of Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, or the antics of a regiment-loved terrier mascot.
Over 14 years, Robertson wrote and narrated a collection of 350 radio commentaries that were aired on National Public Radio stations. Paul Lancaster, the Virginia Tech broadcast technician who edited the clips, said, “In producing the features, I’d have to listen to each one three or four times. And each time I listened, I’d learn something new. Bud knows how to tell a story.”
Robertson’s radio experience burgeoned into television, where he served as program host of a three-hour, award-winning Blue Ridge Public Television documentary entitled “Virginia in the Civil War: A Sesquicentennial Remembrance." Designed for use in the classroom, the program was broken down into nine 20-minute segments and distributed free to all public elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as every library system in Virginia. Robertson said he considers this “one of my greatest achievements.”
He authored and edited dozens of books, but Robertson’s seminal work is a 957-page volume on Stonewall Jackson, which took five years to research and two to write. It won eight national awards. In October 2011, National Geographic is publishing “The Untold Civil War,” an amalgamation of Robertson’s radio broadcasts with an expanded expose of the human experience of the war, told in Robertson’s style and accompanied by National Geographic’s photography.
President John F. Kennedy tapped Robertson to serve as executive director of the national commission of the Civil War Centennial in 1961. Kennedy was riled by the nearly warring factions that wanted to celebrate with trinkets rather than commemorate with dignity. Robertson took up the reins of a nation still divided and worked with 34 state and 100 local centennial commissions, all amidst the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement.
Robertson has more than one visit to the Oval Office under his belt. Kennedy’s aides called him to the White House on the evening of the president’s assassination to redecorate the East Room as it looked when Lincoln’s body lay in state in April of 1865. Robertson, who hurried to Washington in a dreary rain, knew exactly where to find those pertinent details, from the positioning of the black bunting to the location of the Lincoln catafalque on which Kennedy’s remains were laid.
When Robertson started at Virginia Tech in 1967, the university did not have a reputation for Civil War studies. “Diaries and memoirs are things that fascinate me,” said Robertson, who has collected and cajoled others to donate to the American Civil War collections at Newman Library. The compilation includes thousands of letters and diaries from both Union and Confederate soldiers, homefront letters, memoirs, and contemporary research files. It now numbers more than 8,000 books and is considered among the top Civil War monograph collections in the world. In 1999, Robertson founded the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and has served as its executive director since.
Robertson said, “A good professor is as young as his students. I’ve kept on teaching long after I should retire because I love the kids.” The 22,000 Hokies who have taken Robertson’s class probably all remember a statement similar to this, “If you don’t understand the emotions, you won’t understand the war. You have to come to know them,” Robertson said, “and then you get to understand history.”
Bud Robertson grew up in Danville, the last capital of the Confederacy, listening to tales from his grandmother about her father’s Civil War exploits.
Robertson served as a consultant to the movie “Gods and Generals,” becoming good friends with actor Robert Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee.
A member of Virginia Tech’s Sports Hall of Fame, Robertson officiated Atlantic Coast Conference football for 16 years, presided over the former Metro Conference, served as faculty chair of athletics and president of the Virginia Tech Athletic Association, and chaired the search committee that selected Frank Beamer as head football coach.
Robertson played drums in a big band, worked part-time in a funeral home during graduate school, and served in the Air Force during the Korean War.
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