Manassas: The Missing Robinson House

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.   It is the start of a series of musings from a historian of the culture and politics of Civil War America, drawn from his notes and photographs upon bringing this perspective “back to the battlefield.”

On a Sunday in July, a few weeks before the vaunted sesquicentennial re-enactment, I enjoyed a balmy day at the Manassas battlefield. Like many of the sites I visited, the National Park Service looked ready: the new signs were beautifully designed, the ranger talks were entertaining and informative, and the trail directions were clear. The Manassas Battlefield is an excellent place to see the different scale of battles between 1861 and 1862—the difference between a skirmish between untested men across a few small hills and a major engagement across miles of terrain, with armies hardened by the experience of war.

First Manassas is a battle I teach about, and one that likely makes even a quick overview of the Civil War—the first momentous battle of the war, with its gallant story of Thomas Jonathan Jackson “standing like a stone wall,” its funny-if-it-was-not-so-serious story of the confusion of uniforms and of the Union’s picnickers clogging the road back to Washington, and its poignant story of 85-year-old Judith Henry, a child of the Revolution years unyielding in her desire to stay in her house—and then her death as the only civilian casualty of the battle.

But walking the First Manassas battlefield I came across a site that seems crucial to a contemporary understanding of the Civil War and its memory: the Robinson House—or, rather, its absence.

Across the field from the reconstructed Henry House—where Judith died—lies the ruins of the Robinson House, another battlefield landmark for the two Manassas battles. As I learned in the NPS display inside the Henry House, the white family farm of the elderly Henrys abutted the homestead of James “Gentleman Jim” Robinson, a free black man of mixed heritage whose farm stood within view of Henry Hill. Robinson’s house was damaged at Second Manassas, and he received money from the Southern Claims Commission. Expanded and changed, there it stood through the Reconstruction years, through Jim Crow, through the modern civil rights movement, through desegregation—until the summer of 1993.

On July 26, 1993, arson destroyed much of the Robinson House, and the family and the National Park Service agreed the rest must be taken down. According to the investigation by the FBI, ATF, NPS, and the Prince William County Fire Marshal, as reported by the Washington Post at the time, the house was a historic shell, with no electricity, gas, or other interior source of flame—and the spraying of graffiti about “gays in the Army” in the weeks before suggested the site was targeted specifically.

At Appomattox, at Fredericksburg, and even at Manassas, National Park Service-administered battlefields are full of reconstructions—from an earlier era. Now the National Park Service has a policy of not rebuilding structures any more. Some archaeology was done and the Park Service includes the experience of James Robinson in its teaching lessons about Manassas, but the absence of the house on the battlefield seems to be to do a disservice in its omission, as much as a modern addition like the Gettysburg National Tower once did.  And of course a historic reconstruction would take money—but it seems an important site to represent on the landscape, not keep as just another ruin.

At this moment of the battle’s sesquicentennial, it is important to tell the story of Manassas from as many viewpoints as possible, and to reach as many visitors as possible with a story of that reaches out to the culture and politics of the moment and brings them back to the battlefield. Through a cruel twist of fate, the arsonists could succeed in erasing the place of the Robinson House and some of the battlefield’s free blacks through the current NPS policy. It should be rethought so this space and its importance to the Manassas battles can be recovered.

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18 comments… add one

  • James F. Epperson Jul 22, 2011

    Why does someone upset about gays in the military burn an ancient home on a Civil War battlefield that had belonged to a free black family?

    • Adam Arenson Jul 22, 2011

      An excellent question; the only unifying logic, to me, is an effort to erase the story of minority groups from U.S. history.

      • Andy Hall Jul 22, 2011

        I’m skeptical the thinking went that far. I could be nothing more complex than, I’m angry at the feds and that’s an easy target. I’d be surprised if the arsonist knew anything about the structure’s history, or targeted it because of that.

        • Adam Arenson Jul 22, 2011

          Possibly, Andy — but why target that building, rather than one of the others at the national battlefield? Others are closer to the roads/easier to access, or further from park surveillance, etc.

          In any case, the absence of the building does erase something crucial from the First Manassas battlefield.

  • Ron Baumgarten Jul 22, 2011

    One thing that struck me at yesterday’s ceremonies at Manassas NMP was the absence of African-Americans in the crowd. The speakers, including Ed Ayers and even Bob McDonnell, discussed the evils of slavery, and how the Civil War was ultimately about freedom for enslaved persons. Yet the message fell mainly on white ears. I am not exactly sure why African-Americans are less than engaged in visiting Civil War parks, but reconstructing the Robinson House would perhaps make the story that much more engaging for blacks. (Incidentally, I had not realized that the house was still standing until that recently.) Only issue is, how do you get the story out once you have ensured that it will be told?

    • Adam Arenson Jul 22, 2011

      Thanks for this reflection, Ron. I think the Park Service is trying to teach the story of Gentleman Jim Robinson through its panels in the Henry House, and through its teacher materials — and a building on the horizon would help too.

      As for the general challenge of what stories individuals hear when they go back to the battlefield, see my further reflections in the posts to come, in the next few weeks.

    • Andy Hall Jul 22, 2011

      The speakers, including Ed Ayers and even Bob McDonnell, discussed the evils of slavery, and how the Civil War was ultimately about freedom for enslaved persons.

      Uh-oh. Brag Bowling is gonna be pissed.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 23, 2011

      Ron,

      There are no easy answers when it comes to engaging African Americans in the commemoration of the Civil War. The NPS has done a phenomenal job of expanding its interpretation and reaching out to the community. John Hennessy has done quite a bit in the Fredericskburg area, but it also takes some initiative on the part of the black community to take a chance as well.

      I did quite a bit of research in trying to understand the situation in Petersburg, which as you may know is predominantly black. At least one interviewee suggested that the Crater battlefield was considered off limits by the black community during the Jim Crow era. There is also still a good deal of mistrust among some and the sight of Confederate flags on battlefields (even for legitimate purposes) turns many away.

      • Ron Jul 23, 2011

        I certainly agree that attracting African-Americans is a challenge. What I find so intriguing is that I saw many other minority groups at Manassas 150th events, but blacks were so few in number, even though their history is so intimately tied up with the Civil War. Hopefully the efforts of the NPS and others will expand demographic diversity by making Civil War sites and events more relevant to blacks. As you point out, we also need the African-American community to do its share. (And perhaps the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum is a good example of this.) I would really like to see interest in this critical period spread beyond just the predominant white male crowd. It’s not just our father’s or grandfather’s Civil War any longer.

  • John Cummings Jul 22, 2011

    There is plenty of photo documentation from three angles that would allow a reasonably faithful reconstruction of the Civil War period structure. Funding and NPS sanction are the two obstacles.
    I remember the morning the story broke in the Washington Post. Very sad. I always enjoyed making the hike out there, (still do), but the sense of place is impaired now. It means a great deal to have a structure to connect to, even if it was one that was enlarged and improved upon in the years after the war. It was a testament of enduring spirit.
    I will say also, I am seeing more African-American visitors in the past two years at Civil War sites. I find that encouraging, as these are locations of a common heritage.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 23, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, John. You may be right. Not too long ago I took part in a panel discussion with Waite Rawls and Christy Coleman in Brunswick County and roughly half the audience was black. It made for an incredibly rich discussion. I hope you had a good time in Manassas.

      • John Cummings Jul 27, 2011

        Thank you Kevin, I did have a good time out there on the 21st, but had a brief spell from the extreme heat. After an hour in the a/c of the Visitor Center I was able to carry on for some more. It had been a personal goal of mine, to be certain I was there, as my father had attended the 1961 reenactment as a spectator when I was not quite four months old.
        As for the Robinson House and a hopeful validation to recreate the original on site, one should remember that when visiting Appomattox, both the McLean House and the Courthouse building one sees today are total recreations. There’s some motivation, now we need some desire. Hopefully some locals might take up the idea and make it a goal.

  • Ray O'Hara Jul 28, 2011

    I’m all for returning a park to as much of its day of battle state as is practical.
    But I liked the National Tower and lament its demise. I always went up and the view was great and it made understanding the action easier. Too bad there wasn’t one at every battle field.

  • MWORLEY Jan 21, 2013

    Me and my sister, mum and dad came over in 1993 to see the house, but were so upset to know that someone could have done this to a truely remarkable family and all of the family that were able to attend this family reunion were saddened . but as I read today that the rest was taken down and not rebuild another is more than saddened me as just shows me that some things have changed since Gentleman Jim but not all which is the most disappointing of all in times of today.

    • Michon Feb 18, 2013

      MWorley,

      Thank you for this message. I thought that people had forgotten this part. I AM part of the Robinson, Naylor, Harris family bloodline. We ALL were very saddened by the act especially with it happening so very close to our family reunion that August. Miracles and Blessings.

  • John Hare May 11, 2014

    Gentleman Jim Robinson may be the most fascinating story at Manassas. He was born to a freed woman and may have been a Carter on his father’s side. The first land that he owned was by inheritance, but Robinson was tireless, hard-working, and acquisitive. Working as a tavernkeeper, a businessman, and and entrepreneur, he bought the freedom of his wife and all but two of their children as well as more land. By 1875 he was the fourth wealthiest man in the county–and that was after repairing battle damage and adding onto his home. I understand that Steve Harvey is one of his descendants. Couldn’t Mr. Harvey apply some funding and publicity to recostructing the Robinson house? The park service is very eager to make the National Parks more inclusive.

  • Joyce Woods Dec 12, 2014

    The family of Gentleman Jim STILL lives in the area. Of course, we are across America too! However, there are many of us still here. We have family reunions every 3-5 years. We are not notified of what is going on in his behalf – till we hear about it later. Or at least I’m not aware. I went to school in Fairfax County. NEVER in ANY history books about the battles in Manassas have I even heard of the the role that my Great Great Great Grandfather had in these battles. I don’t believe ANYWHERE in VA history is he spoken about – but Carter’s “white” family is! I am VERY VERY PROUD of my history. Jim was born free with means. Obviously, Carter loved Jim’s mother to set her free – and Jim too. He tried to protect and provide for the both of them. Also, the house didn’t burn until we had Congress identify it. America still fails to acknowledge black’s intelligence or diligence. Nothing has changed.

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