James I. Robertson Jr., an authority on the Civil War who published several dozen deeply researched books that humanized historical figures like Stonewall Jackson, died Nov. 2 at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia. He was 89.
His wife, Elizabeth Lee Robertson, said the cause was complications of metastatic cancer. He had taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg for 44 years.
Robertson, who went by Bud, wrote books that appealed to general audiences as well as academics.
“History is human emotion,” he said in an interview for “Dr. Bud, The People’s Historian,” a documentary film scheduled to be released next year, and it “should be the most fascinating subject in the world.”
“You take away the humanization of history,” he added, “and you’ve got nothing but a bunch of boring facts, and history poorly taught is the worst, most boring subject in the world.”
Robertson wrote or edited many books about the Civil War, including “For Us the Living: The Civil War in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts” (2010), which featured lavish illustrations by the artist Mort Kunstler; “Robert E. Lee: Virginian Soldier, American Citizen” (2005); and “General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior” (1987).
His most lauded book was “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend” (1997). More than 900 pages long, it was the product of seven years of research.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson, better known as Stonewall, was a critical military leader for the Confederacy — so much so that many historians point to his death in 1863, days after he was mistakenly shot by Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Chancellorsville, as the beginning of the end for the South.
Jackson, who had a reputation as a taciturn, eccentric battlefield genius and a religious zealot, was often glorified by earlier generations as a figure of near legend, but Robertson sought to present an unvarnished portrait of him.
“Robertson has tracked down all this source material — finding a good deal that is new along the way — and, equally important, has subjected all of it to rigorous testing,” Civil War historian Stephen W. Sears wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1997. “Myths are exploded, anecdotes crumbled. What remains as fact is highly distilled.”
James Irvin Robertson Jr. was born on July 18, 1930, in Danville, Virginia, to James and Mae (Kympton) Robertson. His father was a banker. Robertson said his fascination with the Civil War was kindled when his grandmother told him tales about his great-grandfather, who had fought for the Confederacy.
After graduating from George Washington High School in Danville, Robertson began studying history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, interrupting his education to serve in the Air Force during the Korean War. After completing his bachelor’s degree at Randolph-Macon, he earned a master’s and a doctorate in history from Emory University in Atlanta in the late 1950s.
In 1961, Robertson was appointed executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission, which oversaw commemorations of the war.
He taught at the University of Iowa, George Washington University and the University of Montana before moving to Virginia Tech, where he founded a center for civil war studies. He also worked as a football referee for the Atlantic Coast Conference for 16 years (before Virginia Tech joined the conference in 2004).
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 2010 and with whom he lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia, he is survived by two sons, Howard and James III; a daughter, Beth Brown; a stepson, William Lee Jr.; a stepdaughter, Elizabeth Anderson Lee; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His first wife, Elizabeth Green, died in 2008.
Robertson lectured about the Civil War and acted as a historical adviser for the 2003 Civil War film “Gods and Generals.” He retired from Virginia Tech in 2011 and afterward wrote and edited several more books, most recently “Robert E. Lee: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works” (2018).