James I. Robertson Jr, 1930-2019

Tributes paid to a ‘spellbinding lecturer’ and ‘beloved teacher’ appointed by President Kennedy to lead a major memorial project

November 28, 2019
James I. Robertson Jr, 1930-2019

A leading historian who took his expertise in the American Civil War well beyond the walls of the classroom has died.

James I. Robertson Jr – who answered to the name “Dr Bud” – was born in Danville, Virginia in 1930. Although he initially wanted to become a railway engineer, the yardmaster advised him to go to college instead, so he studied history at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia (1955) and went on to both a master’s (1956) and a PhD (1959) at Emory University in Georgia. Yet he returned to his home state for the bulk of his career: after joining the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1967, he was promoted to C. P. “Sally” Miles professor (1976-92) and then alumni distinguished professor until he retired and became emeritus in 2011.

A leading expert on the American Civil War, Professor Robertson published many books and taught the largest course in the country about it, eventually to more than 25,000 students. In 1999, he became the founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. He also established a specialist collection in the university library and donated most of his own 7,000 volumes to Virginia Tech and Randolph-Macon.

Yet Professor Robertson’s impact within the academy was more than matched by his influence beyond it. President John F. Kennedy appointed him executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission – a delicate task that required him to oversee a large number of state and local committees that had very different perspectives on the war, at a time when the civil rights movement was also asking searching questions about national history.

Furthermore, Professor Robertson’s hundreds of “essays” for National Public Radio focused on the experiences of individual men, women, children and even animals during the Civil War, thus playing a crucial role in educating the wider public about the emotional aspects of the conflict. His celebrated biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (1997), formed the basis for Ronald Maxwell’s film Gods and Generals (2003).

Paul Quigley, current director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, described Professor Robertson as “so many things: spellbinding lecturer, beloved teacher, accomplished author, guardian of Civil War history, big band player, ordained deacon, even football referee. Above all else he was a Hokie, unfailingly dedicated to Virginia Tech and the thousands of students he taught here.”

Professor Robertson died after a long illness on 2 November and is survived by his wife Elizabeth, two sons, a daughter, two stepchildren, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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