Book Review: From Broomsticks To Battlefields: After the Battle, The Story of Henry Clay Robinett


by Bill Speer

Atlanta: Deeds Publishing, 2010. Pp. vii, 163. Illus., maps, notes, biblio.. $21.95 paper. ISBN: 0982618018

Henry Clay Robinett was commissioned in the Regular Army in August of 1861, and served through the Civil War, emerging as a captain with two brevets. While honorable, and even somewhat distinguished, Robinett's service seems little different from that of any other young man, North or South, who went off to war in 1861. At a glance, Robinett, who emerged from the war as a captain, would hardly seem a likely subject for a biography. Yet here we have just that, From Broomsticks to Battlefields:After the Battle , The Story of Henry Clay Robinett, by Bill Speer, an historian who has worked for the Office of Signal Corps History. 

In From Broomsticks to Battlefields, Speer has done something interesting.  He has used Robinett's life to throw some light upon several aspects of the American experience and society in the mid-nineteenth century that have not yet been fully explored.

To begin with, of course, there's the biography of one of those many young men who went off to war, served honorably and well, with occasional moments of notable glory -- in this case the defense of "Battery Robinett" during the Battle of Corinth (October 3-4, 1862) -- and then, for those who survived, mostly went home and resumed their lives.  

In Robinett's case, that meant a career in the Regular Army. That career, however, was marred by increasingly erratic behavior that ended in his suicide just three years after the war - the result of complex psychological problems that are carefully discussed in the book. So From Broomsticks to Battlefields gives us a little more insight into the extent to which the horrors of war affect the personality and reminds us that historians and psychologists have barely begun to study the question of post-traumatic stress disorder among Civil War veterans.

From Broomsticks to Battlefields also opens a window on some of the social complexities of mid-nineteenth century America .  Speer highlights what many historians, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists neglect: the importance of what the British used to call "interest" - the powerful effect that social, familial, and even religious ties could have on a person's pursuit of a successful career in business, politics, or even military service in this period.

Finally, while much has been written about military education as a characteristic of Southern society, very little has been said about the subject of military training in the North.  From Broomsticks to Battlefields reminds us that military education was not unknown in the North, as evidenced not only by such military institutions as Norwich Academy, the Peekskill Military Academy, or Delaware Military Academy, which became Pennsylvania Military Academy, Robinett's alma mater, but also by many academic institutions that had cadet companies, such as Bowdoin (where Franklin Pierce once captained the corps of cadets, in which his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne served), Notre Dame, and others, as well as some military secondary schools, and several maritime academies, public and private, in the New England and Middle Atlantic states, that functioned along military lines

While giving us a look at the life of Henry Clay Robinett, Speer has also used that life to explore some important questions about American society in the mid-nineteenth century, no mean feat. 


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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