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Civil War historian talks about human side of conflict

March 28, 2013
  • James I. Robertson Jr., one of the most distinguished authors of Civil War history, was invited to join the Hagerstown Civil War Round Table on Thursday night at the Homewood Suites on Pullman Lane.
James I. Robertson Jr., one of the most distinguished authors of Civil War history, was invited to join the Hagerstown Civil War Round Table on Thursday night at the Homewood Suites on Pullman Lane.

There was “Crazy Betsy,” a Richmond, Va., woman who pulled off her job as a successful Union spy by acting like an insane woman whom no one would ever get close to.

Or the story about “Old Abe,” an Eagle that was a mascot for the 8th Wisconsin infantry in the Civil War.

The bird was kept on perch by soldiers and it endured about a dozen battles.

And the story of an 11-year-old girl from Upstate New York who wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln to tell him that he was a very ugly man. The girl told Lincoln in her letter that she believed Lincoln would be more appealing to voters in his 1860 presidential campaign if he grew a beard.

Lincoln agreed to grow a beard and carried the girl’s letter with him for years.

James I. Robertson Jr., one of the most distinguished authors of Civil War history, said those are types of stories people need to hear to better understand the war between the states.

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Stories like those and others are contained in Robertson’s new book “The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War.”

Robertson was invited to join the Hagerstown Civil War Round Table on Thursday night at the Homewood Suites on Pullman Lane to talk about the book. The round table is a group of local men and women interested in the study of the Civil War.

Robertson was executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission and worked with Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson in marking the war’s 100th anniversary, according to the Virginia Tech, where Robertson taught Civil War history for 44 years.

Robertson has written 20 books on the Civil War and his biography of Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson was used as the base for the movie “Gods and Generals,” scenes from which were shot in the Tri-State area.

Robertson said before his appearance at Thursday’s event that he believes too many history teachers today are moving away from human emotions associated with the Civil War and that there is too much emphasis on statistics and demographics.

“Unless you understand the emotions present in the Civil War, you will never understand the war,” said the 82-year-old Robertson, who said he often brought his students to tears in his college class.

“I worked hard at it. I think they need to feel the pain and hurt,” Robertson said.

Robertson said 8th Wisconsin soldiers kept Old Abe’s wings clipped so the Eagle could not fly away in battle. Robertson explained how the bird would be “flapping his wings and screeching and hollering” as the battles ensued.

“They said Confederate sharpshooters by the hundreds tried to pick him off but they couldn’t,” Robertson said.

The successful Union spy from Richmond was Elizabeth Van Lew and she wore hideous clothes and threw fits in public, Robertson said.

“Everybody steered clear of her,” Robertson said. Meanwhile, Van Lew was gathering Confederate intelligence and passing it onto the Union, Robertson said. Van Lew was eventually recognized as the best source of information for the North, Robertson said.

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