|Monument to the 4th Alabama at Gettysburg.|
Photo by Jen Goellnitz. Creative Commons Licensing.
When William McKendree Robbins marched away from Gettysburg on the evening of July 4th, 1863, He little knew then that he would return some 30 years later, as an official appointee of the federal government.
Robbins served through the end of the war. He earned a promotion to major following the battle of Chickamauga, and on the morning of May 6th, 1864, he was wounded in fighting along the Plank Road during the battle of the Wilderness. After Appomattox, he returned to his native North Carolina, where he practiced law in Salisbury. In 1868, Robbins ran for State senate as a Democrat and won. He served in this position until he became a United States Congressman in 1873, representing the 7th District. In this capacity Robbins served in the 43rd, 44th, and 45th Congresses.
In the final ten years of his life, Major Robbins would find himself once again playing a prominent role on the Gettysburg battlefield. As a 35-year-old captain he led Company G of the 4th Alabama up the slopes of Little Round Top. In 1894, as a 66-year-old former congressman, Robbins would find himself a principle actor in the effort to preserve the history of that battle.
The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association had first undertaken the task of preserving the battlefield in 1864. By the late 1880s though, many believed that the GBMA could not manage this task on its own. The organization needed monetary assistance for a number of tasks, including its desire to acquire and mark the ground occupied by Confederate forces during the battle. In addition, modern developments threatened the battlefield - principally the construction of an Electric Railway line over battlefield lands.
Seeing the struggles of the GBMA, several individuals labored in Washington to have the federal government assume control of the park. In 1893, congress appropriated $25,000 to the War Department "for the purpose of preserving the lines of battle at Gettysburg, PA., and for properly marking with tablets the positions occupied by the various commands of the Armies of the Potomac and of Northern Virgina on that field...." A three-man Gettysburg Battlefield Commission would oversee the expenditure of these funds. The following year, Congressman Dan Sickles introduced H.R. 8096, a bill "to establish a National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.' The bill became law in 1895 and the U.S. War Department assumed jurisdiction over the battlefield.
|Congressman Robbins, "Around the Capital" (detail), |
engraving, Thomas Fleming, 1902, Collection of U.S.
House of Representatives. Accessed here.
Forney had served with the 10th Alabama during the battle of Gettysburg. His inclusion marked an important change in the oversight of the battlefield. From 1864 to 1880, local citizens guided the GBMA. Then, from 1880 until it handed over control of the field, Union veterans controlled the organization. Now, as the federal government prepared to take over the park, for the first time a Southern voice would have a role in its decisions. Unfortunately for Forney - he would have little time to take advantage of his influence. Plagued with ill-health, he passed away in January of 1864. To succeed him - the War Department appointed Major William Mckendree Robbins. In his new position, Robbins would oversee the marking of Confederate positions for the next eleven years.
By 1894 Union veteran organizations and state monument commissions throughout the North had filled the battlefield with monuments. Meanwhile, only one monument stood on the field recognizing a Confederate unit - that of the 1st Maryland on Culp's Hill. The Maryland outfit had applied for and received permission to place their monument on the field in 1884, and dedicated it in November of 1886. The circumstances of its placement aroused some controversy - and the veterans had to designate their unit the "2nd Maryland" to avoid confusion with two federal units that also fought in the area: the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Guard and 1st Maryland Eastern Shore Regiment.
|Monument dedicated to the 1st Maryland |
(Confederate) on Culp's Hill. Photo by Michael Noirot.
Creative Commons Licensing.
By the late 1880s and early 1890s a spirit of reconciliation had taken hold. White northerners and southerners urged each other to bury their differences, reunite as one nation, and look toward a glorious future. Politicians across the country downplayed the causes of the war, and ignored the unfinished work that remained in extending basic civil rights to African-Americans. The nation began to glorify and honor veterans on both sides. The push to purchase and mark the Confederate positions at Gettysburg came during this rising chorus of reconciliation. And it was against this backdrop that Major Robbins - a strong supporter of reconciliation - returned to Gettysburg.
We can reconstruct the efforts of Robbins and his fellow compatriots on the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission through their yearly reports to the War Department. In 1893 and 1894, the Commission had the land along Seminary Ridge surveyed, and drew up plans for what would eventually become Confederate Avenue. They then set about purchasing the land - a process that would take several years to complete.
In 1895, the Commission reported:
The position and evolutions of the various commands of the Union Army were mostly determined and marked by the Memorial Association. But those of the Confederate army remained for the commission to ascertain and locate. Much attention has been given to this. Surviving Confederate officers and soldiers have been invited to visit the field; also the authorities of the Southern States have been requested to send commissioners representing Confederate commands to point out positions. The responses from the South to these invitations and requests have been very encouraging, and the commission have had the aid of many Confederate soldiers of intelligence, some of high rank, in fixing positions and movements of Confederate troops.
By 1896, the work on marking the Confederate positions had progressed. The Commission reported on their plans to erect "handsome tablets of iron" marking the location of each battery and each command of infantry and cavalry. The following year the Commission could report that a growing number of Confederate veterans had visited the battlefield. "We interpret this as a favorable indication," their report read, "of growing interest on the part of the Southern States and people in this field." Yet, delays continued to plague Robbins and the other Commissioners, and a two mile gap in the Confederate Avenue proposed in 1893 still existed. The 1898 yearly report concluded:
By 1898 the tablets marking Confederate positions - Robbins' primary work - began to appear on the battlefield. He had much bigger dreams though. To this point, Confederate veterans had shown little interest in erecting their own monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield. Robbins hoped to change all of this. One paragraph of the Commission's 1898 report - undoubtedly written by Robbins - stands out:No part of this battlefield is more interesting than the part covered by that gap in the Confederate avenue. Not only did important movements of the second day's battle originate there, but it was there the Confederate column of the third day under Longstreet was formed and began its advance on that final charge led by Pickett, so sublime in its daring and so tragic in its fate. There is no part of this battlefield so inaccessible as this. Encumbered by bushes and briers and cross fences, with not even an open footpath over it, visitors here never see this ground because they can not reach it.
The following year, Robbins attended a Confederate Veterans' reunion in Charleston, South Carolina, and tried to argue his cause. He offered the following resolutions:
The commission are much gratified to notice an awakening of interest in influential quarters among the people of the Southern States concerning this battlefield and the importance of erecting monuments to commemorate the heroism of their soldiers here, as the people and States of the North have done, and it is hoped that Congress will recognize and foster this praiseworthy sentiment springing up in the South by liberal appropriations of the moneys needed to purchase and acquire title to the lands on which the Confederate troops operated and where their monuments must be placed.
Whereas, The government of the United States has undertaken and is pushing forward the work of permanently marking the lines and positions of the troops of both the contending armies on several great battlefields of the civil war, among them Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Vicksburg and others, with the design of making these battlefields permanent memorials of the prowess of American soldiers without respect to section.Though the veterans adopted these resolutions, Robbins never did realize his dream of memorializing Gettysburg in the same manner that Union veterans accomplished during the 1880s and 1890s. While Confederate Avenue finally came to completion in 1901, and the brigade and battery tablets continued to appear under his supervision, Robbins wanted more. The 1899 Commission report proposed placing tablets denoting the position of each Confederate regiment in the battle.
Resolved, That we, as Confederate Veterans, sympathize with and commend this patriotic purpose of the government and will lend our influence and aid toward its full realization.
Resolved, That we trust the people of the Southern States will take early and effective steps to erect upon these battlefields suitable monuments in honor of our glorious heroes in gray who fought and died for what they believed right.
Resolved, That we rejoice with our brethren throughout the Union that the sectional discord of other days is ended and that we are a reunited people, with one country and one flag.
Apparently the War Department did not see fit to appropriate funds for regimental tablets, and the people of the Southern States, at least during Robbins' lifetime, never stepped forward to bring his dream to fruition. Today on the battlefield only one iron tablet dedicated to a Confederate regiment stands: that of the 4th Alabama on South Confederate Avenue. The tablet was constructed in 1904. By accessing the Park Service's historic structure report on the monument, we can learn that the funding for the tablet came privately from a member of the regiment - presumably Robbins. The same report lists the designer as "William Mckenzie Robbins" (presumably a typo in the middle name).
One year after the 4th Alabama's tablet appeared on the battlefield, Robbins passed away. In his 11 years with the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission he accomplished a great deal - aiding future historians by using a great deal of care in marking the positions of the Army of Northern Virginia. And yet he had hoped to accomplish much more. A small part of his grand scheme lives on, and you can see it every time you pass by the tablet on South Confederate Avenue that tells the deeds of the 4th Alabama at Gettysburg.
Twelve years after Robbins passed away, the period of Confederate monumentation on the field began with the dedication of the Virginia Memorial in June of 1917.