An Interview with Resisting Sherman: A Confederate Surgeon's Journal and the Civil War in the Carolinas, 1865 author Thomas Heard Robertson, Jr.
: How are you related to Surgeon Robertson?
Robertson, Jr.: Francis Marion Robertson is my great-great-grandfather. My Robertson family line through him includes citizen-soldiers of six generations in every major American war, from a lieutenant in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War through my father's service with the last United States horse cavalry unit in World War II.
: How did you come to edit the journal?
Robertson, Jr.: This branch of my family never throws anything away! That's been both a blessing and a curse for me. I have ended up with a basement full of papers and other stuff, including a little 1950s-vintage, nylon stocking box that contains Dr. F. M. Robertson's thin leather-bound diary. I found the little inherited volume fascinating because the surgeon recorded daily his journey through four states over three months time near the end of the Civil War.
: That in itself makes it uncommon.
Robertson, Jr.: It does. His entries cover both the Southern military responses to the Federal invasion and the everyday events of the people he encountered along the way. I do not know of another similar eyewitness account of this length and depth during those final weeks of the Confederacy in the Deep South. There may be one, but I don't know of it.
: Civil War students and many people today know a little something about Sherman's March to the Sea through Georgia, but not much about his subsequent Carolinas Campaign, which this journal discusses.
Robertson, Jr.: It is still quite overlooked, which puzzles me, although that is beginning to change. The campaign was tough for the local people - it meted out much more punishing effects than many realize. My level of knowledge was about equal to the average historian when I began my research. I knew, of course, the general history of Sherman's campaigns and the end of the war. The people and events of the diary led me to a much deeper understanding of the chaotic end of the Southern Confederacy in that part of the South.
: What surprised you the most as you read the journal for the first time?
Robertson, Jr.: As I read through the surgeon's narrative the first time, I realized there were important stories threaded inside that needed to be shared and further explored. I was surprised at the detail of his daily accounts, and the intimacy with which he described the generals and political figures. I later figured out that Dr. Robertson really did know the generals and politicians personally, through his various previous associations with them as a West Point cadet, political activist, and Presbyterian church leader.
: You utilized extensive footnotes and sidebars within the text on a wide variety of subjects. Why?
Robertson, Jr.: Every time I have read the diary I gleaned something new out of it, probably because the doctor made many subtle references here and there to subjects that he and his audience at the time would have already understood. They all would have known about the people and events of the time, and he did not have to retell them. In my case, I needed to know those background stories to fully understand the diary. So I decided to include as much additional information as possible in the footnotes - probably more than the usual academic references - to explain or complement the text. A few things were either too long for footnotes or seemed better suited as stand-alone subjects, so I presented them as sidebars. They cover a potpourri of topics, from the politics of the Radical Republicans vs. Abraham Lincoln to a recipe for a then-popular apple pie, and even songs with their musical scores. These subjects are mentioned in passing by the surgeon, but I have tried to make them come alive for the modern reader so they could see and understand his world as he did.
: Anything in particular surprise you during your research?
Robertson, Jr.: Yes. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that newly elected President Abraham Lincoln had used a letter from Dr. F. M. Robertson as evidence to imprison the former Clerk of the United States House of Representatives for suspicion of treason! I ran across the text of the letter in the Official Records of the United States and Confederate Armies. In February 1861, Robertson wrote to his former Whig Party acquaintance Samuel J. Anderson, who was then living in New York. In this letter, he described the political and economic situation in South Carolina and the national crisis symbolically brewing at Fort Sumter. That cast suspicion on Anderson and he was jailed in August 1861. His Republican captors released him a few months later after he took an oath of allegiance to the United States.
: Your Prologue and Epilogue offer a lot of background on the war in the Charleston area prior to the opening of the diary and what happened afterward. Why did you make them as comprehensive as you did?
Robertson, Jr.: When I started, I had aimed merely to set the stage for the opening diary narrative, which begins with the evacuation of Charleston by the Confederate army in February 1865. I also intended to give only the basic background of the surgeon himself and to introduce some of the characters who would be mentioned in the diary. But, as I did the research on these subjects, particularly the doctor's relatives (who included his five sons in Confederate service), I found that most of them were involved in one important turning point of the war or another, from the very beginning to the very end. So I decided to include their stories. Taken together, they illustrate pretty well what was going on in the Deep South, both before and after the timeframe of the journal.
: Tell us about the events following Sherman's march north through the Carolinas. What type of coverage will readers discover here?
Robertson, Jr.: The Epilogue depicts the postwar time frame mostly by telling the stories of what happened to the surgeon and his immediate family after the fighting was over. One thing I was amazed to find out was that Dr. Robertson's younger brother, Dr. John Joseph Robertson, hosted the fleeing President Jefferson Davis, Mrs. Davis, and part of the Confederate Cabinet overnight on May 2, 1865, at the local branch of the Bank of Georgia in Washington, Georgia. J. J. Robertson was cashier of the bank and lived upstairs with his wife and family. Davis and the remnant Confederate Cabinet met at the bank the next morning and dispersed just before Federal troops entered the town in pursuit.
: Can you give readers a peek at the battles and other events discussed in the journal?
Robertson, Jr.: Surgeon Robertson mentions several battles and skirmishes in his journal, including the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads, fought near Johnsonville where Robertson had camped with a branch of General Hardee's army just two days before. The doctor seems to enjoy telling us that Union General Kilpatrick was completely surprised by the Confederate attack before daylight, and "barely made his escape in his drawers. A woman was, also, captured in his camp in her night dress. . . . his mistress . . . doubtless."
I have also included an account of the Battle of Averasboro as a sidebar. The Confederates made a strategic defensive stand there, and the doctor's son Jimmy was wounded by a minie ball. General Hardee executed the engagement as a classic delaying action, at a strategic pinch point between two rivers that were both in flood stage. His troops considered the battle a Confederate victory, because they had successfully held off a much-larger Union force at a time when they badly needed a morale boost. Hardee's stand gained valuable time that allowed his commander, General Joe Johnston, to marshal all of the available Confederate forces to fight what would turn out to be the final large battle in North Carolina at Bentonville three days later.
: You retraced the diarist's route. How was that effort helpful in your work?
Robertson, Jr.: In 2003 and 2004, my sisters and I followed the actual route that our ancestor took and wrote about so long ago. We covered hundreds of miles and found it remarkable that we could follow in his footsteps fairly precisely. Many of the country roads, houses, and landmarks mentioned in the diary were still there after nearly 150 years. We also heard the stories of Sherman's march still alive in the minds of people we met along the way. Beside that, standing on the battleground where our great-grandfather Jimmy Robertson was shot just days before the end of the war was a pretty powerful experience. For me, following the diary on the ground made me realize the broader value of the history of that time all the more, and convinced me that I really did have to share that history with others by editing the journal for publication.
: We are glad you did. Thank you for your time, Mr. Robertson.
Robertson, Jr.: You're welcome.
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