James “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Tech, will speak at the Blacksburg Museum in downtown Blacksburg from 5:30-7 p.m., Thursday, June 7 on the topic “Is History Dead?”
Professor Robertson is well qualified to address this topic. During his 44-year career at Virginia Tech, he taught an estimated 20,000 plus students, and reached millions of people through books, essays, radio and television appearances and public lectures. He was the founding Executive Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, and is widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential scholars of the US Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
The lecture will be free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Persons wishing to attend should RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call the museum at 540-558-0746. This columnist has already reserved his seat.
Robertson has long been a strong proponent of local history. He has remarked that history begins locally and that “local history is the seed from which a nation’s annals spring.”
He made those remarks during a videotaped lecture titled “The Civil War Years in Blacksburg” that he gave in Blacksburg Council chambers fourteen years ago. That lecture was part of the local 2004 Historic Lecture Series sponsored jointly by the Blacksburg Museum and the Smithfield Plantation.
In the lecture Robertson observes that his two key instructors in local Blacksburg history were the engineering professor Nelson Price and the Virginia Tech architect J. Ambler Johnson.
Robertson’s highly instructive lecture is online at www.tinyurl.com/Robertson2004. It is well worth watching.
Robertson tells that the origin of Blacksburg, even before it took that name in 1798, was as a wagon stop on the great southwest road. “On the eve of the Civil War Blacksburg was less than 70 years old. It was a tiny village. It had developed and it had grown almost solely as a rest stop for the wagon trains.”
He added: “The wagon trains coming west, wagon trains that carried Davy Crockett, Boone, Clay, others, would all stop at the bottom of the hill where the cheese factory is at Luster’s Gate …and then one whole day would be spent climbing . … Once they got to the top of the hill the animals were worn out. So here, on the crest of this plateau, the wagon trains stopped to rest — and that’s where Blacksburg began — it was a wagon train stop.”
The cheese factory was a one-time enterprise of William Saunders who ran Virginia Tech’s dairy operations in the 1930s. Today the factory is a triplex of condominiums at 2720, 2722 and 2724 Lusters Gate Road.
Robertson answered very forcefully during the question-and-answer session that followed his 2004 lecture.
Discussing the cause of the Civil War he noted that “There are people, who are obviously F students in history, who persist in writing letters to newspaper editors saying slavery didn’t have anything to do with the Civil War — and that’s an F student in history flat out.”
He went on: “Slavery had everything to do with the Civil War, and if you simply look at the National Congress from 1846-1861 — fifteen years! fifteen years!— all the National Congress argued about was slavery; every year brings a crisis, and that crisis is over slavery. And you start this thing that States Rights had something to do with it. States Rights didn’t have anything to do with it. States Rights was a Southern escape that southerners used when the heat got hot, in the 1850s, then they began to say that the states had all this sovereignty which they didn’t have then and they don’t have now.”
Robertson also highly lauded political compromise with strong implications for our modern political era:
“Our democracy is the most blessed form of government that God ever gave to man: it’s the most dangerous, because in a democracy, … everybody gets to talk — and the results can be devastating, sometimes everything can break loose. Only one thing holds a democracy together, the ability to compromise. That’s it, nothing else, the ability to compromise. And when democracy loses that one thing, democracy falls apart; and there is historical precedent for it: the American Civil War, where Northerners and Southerners argued and argued and argued and speaking soon turned to shouting, and it’s just a small step from shouting to shooting.”
It should be fascinating to hear what Professor Robertson has to say on June 7 about the death or non-death of history.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.