Making Gettysburg the shrine it is today required a true team effort, with the input of veterans from both sides
This is the second part of ACW’s two-part story on renowned Civil War veteran William Robbins. William McKendree Robbins’ journal entry for July 1, 1899, read: “This morning I went with Gen. Chamberlain of Maine who was the Colonel of the 20th Me. Reg’t, & we viewed the lines of the fight at the southern end of Little Round Top. Our respective recollections of this battle & its incidents on that ground were in remarkable accord.” Thirty-six years earlier the two men confronted each other as enemies in the desperate struggle for control of that crucial hill, Robbins as major of the 4th Alabama Infantry. Now both men worked for a common cause—to preserve and protect the Gettysburg battlefield for both current and future generations. Robbins, as a commissioner of Gettysburg National Military Park, drew his salary from the government he had once opposed. But no man ever worked harder, more diligently and honestly, to represent the United States government than this former Confederate soldier.
Robbins returned to Gettysburg in a somewhat roundabout way. In May 1893, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont appointed a three-man commission to survey the battlefield and mark the lines of battle of the respective armies. The original commissioners were John P. Nicholson, who had served in the 28th Pennsylvania; civilian John Bachelder, known today as the battle’s greatest historian; and William H. Forney, a veteran of the 10th Alabama. When we consider how triumphant governments usually deal with their opponents in other nations’ civil wars, it is remarkable that less than 30 years after America’s seminal conflict, members of the side that had fought to rupture our nation were given key roles in such a commission.
Misfortune, however, decimated the commission before it began its work in earnest. Forney, in poor health, passed away in January 1894, Bachelder that December. Charles A. Richardson, a 126th New York Infantry veteran, replaced Bachelder and Lamont tapped Robbins to fill in for Forney.
Within a year of Robbins assuming his duties, Congress passed legislation creating Gettysburg National Military Park. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA), which had worked to preserve the Union side of the field since 1864, transferred its 522 acres to the federal government. The task before Robbins, Richardson, and Nicholson was more than simply marking positions and surveying property. They would be responsible for the appraisal and acquisition of land, and for the construction of roads and bridges, as well as other improvements. They were to be battlefield interpreters, supervisors of law enforcement and resource management, and needed to write and supervise contracts—working directly with Congress and the war secretary in securing appropriations.
They also needed to deal with storm damage, vandalism, bullet-collecting visitors, monument dedications, greedy landowners hoping to profit off the government, and those who sought to undermine the effort to build a national park. The job required diplomacy, tact, patience, legal skills, dedication, and a strong work ethic.
Robbins’ journal gives us a good sense of the scope and variety of his daily work. On August 7, 1897, he and Nicholson went to Culp’s Hill to inspect the avenue being built there, then continued to the flag pole on Barlow’s Knoll, and then on to the foundry to inspect the text on the cast-iron tablet of G.T. Anderson’s Brigade.
In one entry, Robbins noted he had spent an entire day writing the inscriptions for tablets to Generals William Robertson’s and Benjamin Benning’s brigades. The limited word count allowed—only “about 15 lines of 10 or 12 words each”—proved a constant challenge.
Veterans frequently visited Robbins at the commission office in the Gettysburg Hotel, and he often took them out on the battlefield—an endeavor he enjoyed immensely. Once, finding a visiting veteran “in narrow circumstances,” Robbins paid for his lodging and food. Among the generals who traversed the field with him were O.O. Howard, Dan Sickles, Alexander Webb, and James Longstreet. Robbins would note that he particularly enjoyed the time he spent with Longstreet and that he found Howard “very pleasant indeed.”
Robbins moved as easily among Union vets as he did among Confederates. He represented the government at the monument dedication of the 13th Vermont and the Union veterans showered him “with many compliments” for his remarks at the event. When Colonel Joseph Hawley, who had fought at Antietam with the 124th Pennsylvania, visited in August 1903, he and Robbins spent an evening at the Eagle Hotel, where “conversation about Civil War incidents” ensued and “time slipped by unnoted until past Church going hour.”
Not all went smoothly. William C. Oates, recent governor of Alabama and former colonel of the 15th Alabama, which had opposed the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, wished to erect a monument to his regiment where they had fought. Park policy, carried over from the GBMA era, was for a regiment’s original monument to be erected where it was placed in their armies’ general line of battle—a policy established after Union regiments began clustering their monuments at the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, leaving a confusing hodgepodge of monuments there.
After the initial monument was placed, a position marker or monument could be erected to show a point to which the unit had advanced. What this meant for Oates was he would have to place his monument on Warfield Ridge, where his regiment began its attack. Robbins did his best to work with Oates and find a compromise, but when the Alabamian could not get his way, he sought to undermine Robbins and the commission by enlisting people to appeal to Congress “to have the Gbg park marked differently from our method, putting the tablets all over the field.” In the end, the secretary of war supported the park commission’s decision.
Robbins’ journal for November 17, 1904, read simply, “Busy with my pen all day at my desk.” It was the last full day he would work at Gettysburg. His health in decline, he headed home to Statesville, N.C., the next day. Although he continued doing commission work from home, his condition worsened. He died May 3, 1905.
“His death is a great loss to his people whom he has lived and served so long,” wrote the Watauga Democrat, “yet his memory is with us still, and his influence for good will live for generations to come.” How true. His good work still stands at Gettysburg and millions have benefited from it.
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.