Remembering War Dead

On Memorial Day, Americans frequently visit cemeteries and place flags and flowers on the grave of anyone who has served in America’s armed forced.  But Memorial Day is officially the day for remembering those who died while in military service.  We have many, many relatives in the Robbins family who have served in the military, and we also have those who died while in service.  An early post on this blog told the story of Jefferson Robbins and his lonely grave in southern Indiana.  This post will discuss his uncle Harrison Robbins who is buried in a more prominent location.

Gravestone of Harrison Robbins

Harrison Robbins was born about 1820 in Henry County, Kentucky, and taken by his parents Micajah and Elizabeth Robbins north to Decatur County, Indiana, sometime in the early 1830s.  Later as a young man he moved south to Breckinridge County, Kentucky, where other Robbins’ were moving from Indiana, and where in 1845 he was married to Eleanor Swink. (As an aside, in the future, various Swinks and Robbins would move to Colorado, settling in Otero County, where the small town of Swink exists to this day – but that’s a story for a future post).  There seems to have been quite a bit of travel back and forth between Decatur County and Breckinridge County.  We find many of our family living in one place one year, the other place a couple years later, then back to their original location several years after that.  And in fact, by 1847, Harrison, Eleanor, and their first-born child Elizabeth, were in Decatur County.

Harrison was not young, about 41 years old, when he enlisted on 18 September 1861.  He and Eleanor had six children by then:  Elizabeth, Rachel, Ann, Henry C., Lafayette (“Lafe”), and Stephen Robbins.  What made a man of his age, a husband, and a father, enlist in the Union Army?  He must have been motivated by patriotism and devotion to the preservation of the Union.  His enlistment came just two months after the first Battle of Bull Run, which the Union lost, and which demonstrated that the Union wasn’t going to be preserved without bloodshed.  His political views might possibly be determined by the name of one of his sons, Henry Clay Robbins, as the noted political leader Henry Clay, by then deceased, was known as “the Great Compromiser,” who stood for the Union above all else.

Whatever the reason, after enlistment, Harrison was mustered into the 37th Indiana Infantry at Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  The 37th was attached to the Army of the Ohio, and ordered to Kentucky in October of 1861.  After that the regiment was involved in the invasion of Tennessee and the capture of Huntsville, Alabama.  In June of 1862 Harrison was promoted to the rank of corporal and was then involved in the siege and capture of Nashville in the fall of 1862.  In December, the Army of the Ohio, now under the command of William S. Rosecrans, moved southeast from Nashville and took position near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The Battle of Stones River opened on December 31, 1862.  Both the Union and the Confederate commanders (Rosecrans and Bragg) planned attacks that day, but Bragg was quicker.  The Union Army was hit hard and driven back, but not driven from the field.  Over the next several days they fought off several Confederate attacks and in the end it was Bragg who led his Confederates back south.  The battle was noted for having the highest percentage of casualties on both sides.  Sadly, Harrison Robbins was one of those casualties.

Excerpt from George Puntenney’s “History of the Thirty-seventh regiment of Indiana infantry volunteers : its organization, campaigns, and battles–Sept., ’61-Oct., ’64”

The only thing we know specifically about his death is what his widow Eleanor reported in her pension application a few months later, that “….his death was caused by being shot through the bowels…”  In 1864, the 111th United States Colored Troops disinterred bodies from the Stones River and other battlefields, and reburied them in the newly established Stones River National Cemetery.  Today that is where Harrison Robbins rests.  I’ve visited that cemetery twice over the years and Harrison’s grave is a very easy one to find, just a few steps from the central flag pole.

Harrison’s children ranged in age from 3 to 15 years and Eleanor wasted no time in applying for a widow’s pension.  It’s too bad that it’s from a such a record that we have this information, but Eleanor did list all of her children and their birth dates and places, a listing we can’t find for a lot of families of the same time period.  She never remarried but the family seems to have split somewhat.  In 1870 only some can be found in the U.S. census.  Rachel and brother Lafayette, for example, are found living in the household of a C. and Rachel Kirby.

Over the years, the children separated even further.  Daughter Elizabeth (Robbins) Murray ended up in Benton County, Indiana, with her family; son Henry C. Robbins lived in Kansas and Missouri before moving to Sheridan, Wyoming; Lafayette Robbins joined some of his Robbins and Swink cousins in Colorado, where he died in 1924.  He had been married to Maleta Hubbard in 1911 in Breckinridge County, Kentucky – he returned to Kentucky from the west to marry into a family who already had several Robbins connections.  Harrison’s widow Eleanor lived with her daughter Elizabeth Murray and died in 1883.  It is not known if she died in Decatur or Benton County.

Stones River National Cemetery

Today Harrison Robbins’ grave is in a prominent national cemetery, as part of the Stones River National Battlefield.  A long way from home, but not forgotten.

(Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-Micajah Robbins-Harrison Robbins)


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)