Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> First-Person Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

John S. Robson, b. 1844
How a One-Legged Rebel Lives: Reminiscences of the Civil War: The Story of the Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, as Told by a High Private in the "Foot Cavalry": From Alleghany Mountain to Chancellorsville: With the Complete Regimental Rosters of Both the Great Armies at Gettysburg
Durham, NC: Educator Co. Printers and Binders, 1898.

Summary

John S. Robson was raised in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and attended school at Mossy Creek Academy in Augusta County before enlisting in the Confederate Army. Little more is known of Robson's life other than what he includes in his first-hand account of the war. The first edition of Robson's narrative appeared in 1876 as How a One-Legged Rebel Lives, or, A History of the 52nd Virginia Regiment; Incidents in the Life of the Writer, During and Since the Close of the War, Concluding with a Biographical Sketch of John [i.e. William] Randolph Barbee, the Distinguished Virginia Sculptor and was published by W.H. Wade and Company Printers of Richmond, Virginia. Robson's narrative went into five editions, including the most recent one, which was published in 1984.

Robson prefaces How a One-Legged Rebel Lives by explaining that his "chief object" in writing his narrative is to earn money for living expenses, because it was difficult for disabled veterans to find lucrative work after the war (p. 3). The story begins with his enlistment in the Confederate army at age sixteen. Robson left school and volunteered on June 16, 1861, when his "patriotism boiled over," and, caught up by the war fever, he joined Company D in the 52nd Regiment of the Virginia Infantry (p. 6). He describes the Confederate army as a largely democratic organization with many soldiers who came from the upper class believing that it was nobler to serve in the lower ranks than as officers. He also notes that soldiers who joined early were generally optimistic about the length of the war, with some enlisting for a maximum of twelve months, thinking it likely they would be discharged sooner. However, rampant hunger quickly disillusioned these men. Morale slipped further in the winter months as dozens in Robson's company died of exposure while others faced unexpected disasters, such as a broken dam and a fire in the camp.

Despite these hardships, the soldiers remained positive about their battle record. Robson details many of the battles, such as Allegheny Mountain and Port Republic, in which he fought or about which he heard from other soldiers, and he gives approximate casualty reports for both sides in each battle with comparisons of Union and Confederate dead and wounded. In one of the most compelling chapters of the work, Robson describes a typical battle from the individual soldier's point of view and explains that when the fighting is over, "each man tells his neighbor what he saw, and by tomorrow each one of us imagines he saw the whole battle [...] some of us, after a while, swear to being an eye witness to every scene and movement of that battle" (p. 99-100). His most detailed accounts follow the campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, whom Robson describes as the hero of his story. He notes the men's unwavering faith in both Jackson and Robert E. Lee and attributes this partially to their high visibility in battle, noting the Union generals were rarely seen at the front of the fields. Another key element in the CSA's early success, according to Robson, was strategy—especially in the partnership between Jackson and Lee. Robson believes that had Jackson lived to fight at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have won the Civil War.

He does not describe the events that led to the amputation of his right leg until the final chapter of the narrative, and even then, he does so with little detail, speaking only of his time in the hospital after the injury. He spends most of the chapter discussing the details of the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia (October 1864), in which he served as a courier for General John Pengram. He writes only briefly and abstractly of his travels and acquaintances after the war.

Overall, Robson remains committed to what he believes to be the Confederate cause in which Southerners rejected the "tyranny" and "fanaticism" of the central Republican government (p. 35). He insists that he, like most soldiers North and South, and even the leaders on both sides of the conflict did not view the Civil War as a war over slavery. Instead, both sides fought to preserve their visions of the Constitution. He criticizes the brutality of Union generals such as Pope and Sherman and consistently brings attention to the CSA's success in the face of seemingly insurmountable disadvantages in resources.

The volume also contains a list of generals that served in the Confederate army, general personnel statistics for both armies, a list of battles and skirmishes fought in Virginia, and officer rosters for both forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Advertisements for a variety of services and goods, including prosthetic limbs, can be found at the end of the 1898 edition. Robson also reprints an untitled poem attributed to Father Abram J. Ryan, a chaplain in the Confederate Army and later a well-known poet. This poem does not appear in any of Ryan's published volumes.

Jennifer L. Larson

Document menu