A Young Soldier Found in the “Dead Room”

One of my interests in family history research is bringing to light little known or totally unknown family members.  A 20-year-old, who served a couple of months in the Civil War before dying of disease, without ever marrying or having children, is an example of one of our “forgotten” relatives.

We wouldn’t know much about the life and death of Jefferson Robbins, if he hadn’t died young during the Civil War, and if his mother hadn’t applied for a federal pension based upon his military service.  That record provides a surprising amount of information about a young man in the Union Army dying of disease shortly after enlisting.

The son of Hiram and Catharine (Wise) Robbins, Jefferson was born in Harrison County in 1841.  (Hiram had first married in Decatur County but after the death of his wife, moved to Harrison County where he remarried).  Harrison County is a lovely, green, farming and wooded area, on the north bank of the Ohio River where the first state capital of Indiana, Corydon, was located.  When the Civil War broke out, the 20-year-old Jefferson enlisted in nearby New Albany, Indiana, on 18 September 1861 and was sent across the Ohio to the military camps in Kentucky.  Three months later he was dead.

Of the 600,000 casualties (north and south) during the war, two-thirds were caused by disease.  Dysentery, typhoid fever, malaria, pneumonia, and small pox among others were the common killers of the day.  Jefferson Robbins died of typhoid fever on 19 December 1861.  Typhoid is an intestinal infection that is spread by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacteria “Salmonella typhi” and caused huge epidemics in army camps.  Symptoms included fever, headache, belly ache, red lesions, and either constipation or diarrhea.  There was no effective treatment.  Only in 1911 was a vaccination available and made mandatory for U.S. soldiers.

A neighbor back in Harrison County was visiting his son, also in the army and in the hospital in Louisville, and while there the father asked if any other members of his son’s company were in the hospital.  He was told that Jefferson Robbins was there.  He searched through the wards but could not find him.  He was finally told by the hospital steward to check the “dead room.”  There he found the body of Jefferson.  On his own initiative he brought the body of the young soldier back across the river to his mother in Indiana.


Excerpt from Catharine Robbins Bishiop application for a pension based on her son Jefferson Robbins’ Civil War service

Jefferson’s death must have struck his mother Catharine very hard.  Her husband Hiram Robbins had died in 1852, she was remarried to a Michael Bishop, who soon deserted her, leaving her in a limbo situation with five surviving children.  So not only had she lost her oldest son, but Jefferson helped support his mother and was probably in the army for the $13 a month pay that privates received. We know that he supported his mother before his death because her pension application provides an economic history of her life in the years leading up to the Civil War.  A neighbor wrote out an affidavit in which he stated “…the said Jefferson Robbins was a work hand on the farm of this affiant at the time of his enlistment in said service and had been for more than 2 years previous; that he used the profits of his labor economically and after took a portion of it in such articles as were necessary to [and] for the comfort and support of his mother, Catharine Robbins; that he manifested great anxiety as to the welfare and comfort of his mother…”

In her pension application Catharine stated “…that the said soldier wrote her one or two letters after his enlistment but they have been destroyed, and cannot be furnished; that he died before he was paid for any service as a soldier and she therefore received no money from him while he was in the service, and cannot therefore furnish any letters sent her from the army by her said son; that she has not owned any property of any kind whatever since the death of her said husband, save and except about $200 of personal effects as household goods.”  Catharine received her pension, though not without a criminal investigation into her original attorney’s behavior of keeping some of the money she was owed, but that’s another story.


My sister and I visited Jefferson’s grave in Indiana in 2015.  It is located in a quiet corner of a quiet county.  You drive southeast out of the small farming community of New Middleton and then off on a long gravel road through the woods until you reach the small secluded cemetery.  It is cared for and it didn’t take long to find Jefferson’s grave.  Standing in front of it, and remembering the story of how he came to be here, I couldn’t help but wonder if we weren’t some of the first people to visit his grave since his family laid him to rest in 1862?

(Family line:  Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-Micajah Robbins-Hiram Robbins-Jefferson Robbins)

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