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James I. “Bud” Robertson, professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., is one of the nation’s preeminent Civil War scholars—the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend. In 1961 Robertson was tapped to serve as the executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission, and had a large role in salvaging and repurposing the Centennial after it got off to a bad start. As the Sesquicentennial commemoration gets underway, we asked him to look back at his Centennial experiences.

Where does your great interest in the Civil War come from?

I inherited the interest. I grew up in Danville, Va., and I can remember sitting in my grandmother’s lap listening to her tell me what my great-grandfather and great-uncle had done in Lewis Armistead’s Brigade of Pickett’s Division. My father being a Civil War buff and considering my roots, it was almost natural I would be a big student of the Civil War.

Armistead’s Brigade saw lots of action.

My great-grandfather and his brother were in the 57th Virginia, and they survived Pickett’s Charge. My great-uncle was killed in June 1864, but my great-grandfather survived the war. I have a daguerreotype of the two brothers in uniform, seated and holding hands.

The Centennial commemoration began under a cloud, correct?

The Centennial began under the leadership of people who were more interested in public relations and having a good time. It took on too much of a celebratory spirit without any commemorative spirit.

In 1961, when the national Centennial meeting was held in Charleston, S.C., the hotel there refused to give a room to Madeline Williams, an African-American delegate from New Jersey. President Kennedy intervened and ordered the assembly to move to the Charleston naval station. Most of the Southern delegates went down the street and held their own national assembly.

The original commission also asked the folks in Harpers Ferry not to commemorate John Brown’s Raid, fearing it would be out of keeping with the celebratory, positive attitude that they wanted. And then there was a big reenactment in Manassas in which all kinds of things began to go wrong or did go wrong.

As a native Southerner, how did you react to those incidents?

I was teaching at the University of Iowa at the time, and I wasn’t paying that much attention because I didn’t expect it to have any effect on me.

How did you get directly involved in the Centennial commission?

There was criticism from all across the nation. President Kennedy intervened and purged the commission. He appointed Allan Nevins, a top-notch historian, as the new chairman and made Congressman Fred Schwengel, a first-rate Lincoln scholar, as the vice chairman. Schwengel, who represented the district of Iowa that included the University of Iowa, immediately nominated me as executive director.

When Nevins was guest-lecturing at the University of Illinois, I went over there, and he and I sat on the steps of the library and chatted for about half an hour. And then he stood up, shook my hand and said he was calling the White House right then, and he would see me in Washington.

Did you manage to quickly implement changes?

No, no. That took time because so much damage had already been done. Basically in the first six months I just visited each state in the country and talked with its commission. I just had to start mending fences, and I started with the southern states and moved on out to the Midwest and to New England.

When did you realize you were starting to have a positive impact?

By the end of 1962, we had pretty much straightened things out. Nevins made it plain that this was going to be a commemoration that would leave no one out regardless of age, race or anything else. There were some bumps along the road, but once I got to know people and people understood that the national commission was not going to intrude into state programs—that we were there to offer our help—things smoothed out.

How did African Americans react to the commission’s efforts?

It was just one of those tragic coincidences of history that the Centennial and the civil rights movement came at the same time—and that produced friction, understandable friction, certainly.

We tried as hard as we could. We were not as successful as we would have liked to have been. I think that many black Americans wanted to be involved with the Centennial, but their leaders said otherwise.

What would you count as your biggest Centennial success?

That we survived [laughs]. I believed then, and I believe now, that the American people were more united and more aware of the Civil War in 1965 than they were in 1961, and I think that was our greatest achievement. I think we helped bring the country together and put this observance of the Civil War on a more serious note.

There were programs that went on that the national commission did not particularly like, but we have a constitutional amendment that talks about freedom of assembly, and we couldn’t stop people from saying what they wanted to say—that’s infringement of freedom of speech— and people who criticized the commission need to realize that the commission couldn’t pounce on or control anyone.

What did you do after the Centennial ended? Where did you go?

I was so tired of it all, the Washington atmosphere. I received an offer from the University of Montana and went west for two years—and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The serenity of the Big Sky country was in such contrast to the chaos of the District of Columbia that it was nice to be out there.

I remember getting a letter from Congressmen Schwengel in 1966, the year after I got out there, and he wanted me to write a book about my Centennial experiences. No way was I going to write a book like that. Let sleeping dogs lie. But now that we’re coming to the Sesquicentennial, I recognize people will be making comparisons with what happened 50 years ago. That’s why I agreed to speak on what really happened in those days.

How do you think the Sesquicentennial compares with the Centennial?

The country is not the same. Back in the late 1950s we were not fighting anyone; Korea was behind us, Vietnam lay ahead of us. This was the laid-back Eisenhower administration. The biggest thing going on as 1960 approached was the construction of the interstate highway system. In that kind of quiet atmosphere Americans were in the mood to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. That kind of environment does not exist at all now.

This country is so polarized, it’s so politicized, it’s so full of negativism and confrontation, that I’m just not sure that the Sesquicentennial can come anywhere close to matching the Centennial. Certainly many states are bypassing any observance of the Sesquicentennial for economic reasons—there just isn’t money. I think the Sesquicentennial will have a difficult time getting on its feet and proceeding forward. It will, there’s no question about that, but I don’t think we’re going to have the inclusiveness, if you will, of so many Americans as we did in the 1960s.


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.