Legendary Civil War historian James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., dies

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James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, stands in his home study with some of his published works.

“History is the greatest teacher you will ever have,” James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr. often told his students. If history is the greatest teacher, many of them might have argued, then he was the second greatest.

Robertson, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Tech, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 89 years old.

Robertson used vivid stories to bring the American Civil War to life not just for generations of Virginia Tech students, but also for millions across the world through his award-winning books, frequent television appearances, popular radio essays, and passionate advocacy of history.

Dr. Bud, as he liked to be called, grew up poor near the train tracks in Danville, Va., with dreams of becoming a railroad engineer. Yet when he asked for a railroad job at the age of 17, the yardmaster, who knew him well, told him to go to college first. The rest is literally history.

Robertson went on to earn a bachelor’s in history from Randolph-Macon College and a master’s degree and doctorate, also in history, from Emory University.

During the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, President John F. Kennedy asked Robertson to serve as executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. At the time, the committee was foundering under the pressure of both the emerging civil rights movement and regional differences. Robertson used his diplomatic talents to shepherd 34 state and 100 local centennial committees into organizing a successful and dignified commemoration.

In 1967, Robertson joined the faculty of Virginia Tech, where he offered the nation’s largest Civil War course to an average of 300 students each semester. During his 44 years at the university, more than 22,000 Virginia Tech students took his class. In several instances, he ended up teaching three generations of the same families.

Robertson held the C. P. “Sally” Miles Professorship at Virginia Tech from 1976 until his appointment in 1992 as Alumni Distinguished Professor, a preeminent appointment reserved for recognition of faculty members who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishments and academic citizenship.

In 1999, Robertson became founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. From its home in the Virginia Tech Department of History, the center educates scholars and the public about the causes and consequences of one of the nation’s most momentous conflicts. The center’s annual Civil War Weekend is just one of the ongoing, vibrant programs that Robertson established.

The consummate teacher was also a celebrated author and editor, with more than 20 books on the Civil War to his credit. One of those works was based on another of Robertson’s boyhood passions — General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The book, considered a definitive biography, won eight national awards and became a key source for a 2003 movie, “Gods and Generals,” for which Robertson served as the chief historical consultant.

“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,” said William C. “Jack” Davis, former director of the center and himself the author or editor of more than 50 books on the Civil War and the history of the South. “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.

“The next generations must have a knowledge of the past,” Robertson said. “If you do not know where you have been, you have no idea where you should go.”

A lecturer of national acclaim, Robertson also delivered more than 350 radio essays that aired weekly for nearly 15 years on National Public Radio affiliates as far away as Alaska. Those broadcasts featured the stories of the men, women, children, and even animals who endured the heartbreak of the Civil War.

“If you don’t understand the emotion of the war,” he would say, “you’ll never understand the war.”

Under Robertson’s championship, in 2015 the Commonwealth of Virginia adopted “Our Great Virginia,” based on the folk song “Oh, Shenandoah,” as the traditional state song.

“Virginia is the Mother State,” he said. “It should be the leader in all facets of the Republic. This makes the absence of a state song glaring. The physical beauty and incomparable history of Virginia need to be transformed as well into the emotions of music. ‘Our Great Virginia’ fulfills that need.”

In a White House ceremony on April 17, 1962, members of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission present a special Centennial medallion to President John F. Kennedy. James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., then executive director of the commission, stands just to Kennedy’s left (second from right in the photo).

Robertson received numerous prestigious honors. One honor in particular was unusual for a historian: In 2008, he was elected to the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. Robertson spent several years as a faculty representative from Virginia Tech to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. From 1979 to 1991 he served as faculty chairman of athletics and president of the Virginia Tech Athletic Association. Notably, for a historian immersed in the nuances of major battles, he also worked as an Atlantic Coast Conference football referee for 16 years.

Robertson was a long-time, generous supporter of Virginia Tech, but not all of his generosity to the university was monetary. He was instrumental in establishing a special Civil War collection at the University Libraries at Virginia Tech. He also donated most of his own 7,000-volume collection — one of the country’s largest private collections of Civil War books — to both that special collection and to Randolph-Macon College.

“Dr. Robertson was so many things,”  said Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and the James I. Robertson Jr. Associate Professor in Civil War Studies. “Above all else he was a Hokie, unfailingly dedicated to Virginia Tech and the thousands of students he taught here.”

Those students became alumni, of course, and Robertson was especially proud of being recognized as a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award. Memorably, he proposed to his second wife, Elizabeth “Betty Lee” Robertson, in front of a crowd of Hokies at an alumni chapter event in 2010. The following year, the talk he delivered for that chapter was “Sweethearts of the Civil War.”

Robertson’s first wife, Elizabeth “Libba” Robertson, predeceased him in 2008. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth “Betty Lee” Robertson; his sons, James I. Robertson III and Howard Robertson; his daughter, Beth Brown; his stepson, William W. Lee Jr.; his stepdaughter, Elizabeth A. Lee; seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.