Charles H. Robbins
(1844 - 1934)
(Note: Usually I reserve acknowledgements for the end of the page; however, I wanted to make sure that everyone who reads this AnceStory of Charles H. Robbins will be aware of how much I am indebted to Dennis W. Brandt for his generosity in sharing the information he so painstakingly researched on the Robbins, Peck, and Crapsey families while writing his yet-to-be-published biography of Angelo M. Crapsey. Many thanks, Dennis, and best wishes in publishing your book!)
Charles H. Robbins was born 19 April 1844 in either Liberty Township, McKean County, Pennsylvania, or New York State. Most evidence points to Liberty Township; however, many times during his adult life, he stated New York was his birthplace. It is known that his two sisters were born in New York, so it is likely that his parents moved back and forth between New York and Pennsylvania several times, a common occurrence in those pioneer days. Charles was the eldest of seven children born to Joseph Josiah Robbins and Marinda Robbins. His siblings were: Emeline C. Robbins (1846 - 1917); Joseph Uzza Benson Robbins (1847 - 1931); Benjamin Leander "Lee" Robbins (1850 - 1929); Evaline L. Robbins (c. 1853 - bef. 1899); Benjamin Franklin "Frank" Robbins (1858 - 1916); and William Wallace Robbins (1867 - 1882).
Charles gave a newspaper interview around 1930 to relate the story of his youth and his Civil War adventures. Much of what he said has to taken with a grain of salt, as many of the incidents he shared could not possibly have happened to him. Dennis Brandt has researched Charles' military records thoroughly, as well as the records of Company I, and has been able to prove or disprove certain events Charles related. Charles may have had a knack for telling tall tales, and/or listened enough to his veteran buddies at the Grand Army of the Republic gatherings, that their stories became blended with his own memories. I've made every attempt to ensure the accuracy of the following information, which varies greatly from his original interview. Because this AnceStory is unusually long, I have divided it into the following chapters:
Charles' father, Joseph, was a stern and strict man. He objected to Charles reading any books except the Bible. Charles decided to run away from home at the age of 13. He secured employment as a cabin boy on a canal packet boat where he earned $5 a month regular salary. Tips from the gamblers on the boat amounted to much more than the wages, and in short time he had saved $100, which he gave to Joseph on condition that he could be allowed to choose a guardian more to his liking. However, one may note that he was enumerated with his parents at the age of 16 on the 1860 Federal Census.
The following year, the Civil War began. Charles' father, Joseph, a Mexican War veteran, enlisted in September 1861 with the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry, which was consolidated with the 58th Pennsylvania Infantry. He served as a private in Co. E of the 58th, and was, for a time, detached with the 7th Massachusetts Battery. Charles' brother Benson also enlisted, and served with Company G, 211th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Charles first enlisted in April 1861 in Smethport, McKean County shortly after Fort Sumter was fired upon. Initially known as the McKean Rifles, his unit was loaded on a log raft and floated down the Susquehanna River. They completed the trip to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania by train. Charles came down with the measles, so he did not muster into the First Pennsylvania Rifles (a.k.a. "Bucktails) with the rest of his unit. He went home to recuperate, rejoining the regiment in August in (what is now West) Virginia, when he was mustered into Company I. His good friend and neighbor, Angelo M. Crapsey, was also in the same company. The Bucktails were a regiment of sharpshooters. Charles carried his old squirrel rifle which he had learned to shoot straight while roving through the woods at home, but when his company re-enlisted for the duration of the war, they were armed with breech loaders which were more convenient and speedy.
The Bucktails, unlike other regiments, were constantly being thrown between the lines as skirmishers and were always on the move. Besides being in several major engagements, they took part in many brush fights with Confederate guerrillas. Charles later told in his newspaper interview about a time when a Confederate horseman rode at him to take a prisoner. Charles raised his rifle to fire, but hit the horse instead. The rider picked himself up and made no further trouble. Charles also claimed that in an earlier skirmish, a bullet clipped the top of his left ear.
In 1861, Charles was in the fight at Dranesville, Virginia where he was stationed as a sharpshooter in the house of his mother's uncle which was on the battlefield.
After this, the Bucktails went into camp at Camp Pierpont across the Potomac from the chain bridge at Washington, D.C. This location is Langley, Virginia, the modern-day home of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the summer of 1862, the regiment was divided; part of it went in the Peninsular Campaign, but Company I was sent up the Shenandoah Valley into Virginia under General Fremont.
During this campaign, Charles was wounded twice. The first time was during the battle at Harrisonburg, when he was shot in the upper left arm. Dennis Brandt told me that "the bullet broke the bone, but it must have been a clean break because the surgeons did not amputate. He claimed in his pension that he could never lift his arm above shoulder height."
At Catlett's Station, a short but hard battle, the Confederates in overwhelming numbers crashed the Union lines after dark and surprised the camp. Charles came out of his tent in time to encounter a raiding horseman who slashed him in the hand with a saber and knocked him down near the bank of a creek. Rolling into this, he waited until morning and found that the invaders had retreated, with the Union soldiers in possession of the battlefield. At the hospital, the doctors took a piece of broken bone from his hand which healed quickly in a few days.
His next engagement was at Turner's Gap where the Bucktails prevented the Confederates from flanking the northern troops defending the pass to Harper's Ferry, Maryland. A few days later came the Battle of Antietam, September 16, 1862. That evening, Company I fought on the approach to a wooded area known as the East Woods. The following morning, they fought in the woods proper. Charles survived the battle uninjured. In the newspaper interview, he claims that a few days later he got smallpox and was sent to the hospital for 30 days. However, his military records reveal that he was treated for syphilis; in the days prior to antibiotics and the practice of safe sex, this disease was not uncommon among troops. It is known that many women accompanied their husbands and lovers from camp to camp, staying behind the battle lines and acting as nurses, cooks and seamstresses for the troops. As well, there were women of "ill repute" who also served in the same capacity, but offered "other" services as well. At any rate, Charles recovered soon and acted as an orderly, for which he received a dollar a day in extra wages.
Charles' military records also tell us that he was given a court-martial, because two days after Antietam, he asked to be relieved of duty, due to illness (probably the syphilis). The regimental surgeon refused. In turn, Charles refused to go when the troops were ordered to move, making a claim that he was too sick. He was charged with "misbehavior before the enemy", making him eligible for the death penalty, if found guilty. All of us descendants reading this today owe our lives to whomever was generous enough to give him a light sentence of a fine.
After rejoining his company, Charles was sent to Fredericksburg, Maryland. In that battle, he was cut off from the rest of his company. He made a break for the opposite side of the valley, but fell into a walled-up canal which was a little too wide to jump across. It was empty, however, and with several dozen other men and some Confederate deserters, they waited for a chance to escape. The Union artillery across the river prevented the enemy from capturing them, and eventually they got back safely.
The biggest battle of his career was at Gettysburg. The Bucktails arrived on the second day of the battle and were stationed behind the stone wall at Little Round Top. There by a deadly fire, they repulsed Hood's drive up the hill and chased their attackers down through the corpse-strewn death valley and to the Devil's Den. In the fighting among the rocks, he was struck by a spent bullet which pierced his diary and a tintype and lodged against one rib (oh, if the family only had that diary today, what tales it could tell us!). Unharmed, Charles crouched down behind a pile of rubbish and there a shell must have exploded, for he woke up in a hospital five miles away with his left leg broken above the ankle.
He was at the hospital seven months and went to school. He did not get back until the spring of 1864, when the army was moving south to Petersburg. He saw the siege of the place, but did little more strenuous than guarding prisoners because he could not walk well. He was transferred to the 190th Pennsylvania Infantry June 1, 1864, when the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps ceased its existence. He mustered out August 12, 1864, after serving almost three years.
Meanwhile, Charles' friend Angelo Crapsey had been captured during the Battle of Fredericksburg, and eventually sent to the infamous Libby Prison as a prisoner-of-war. The horrible conditions there, along with being shell-shocked from battle, caused him to become extremely ill, both physically and mentally. After his release, he was constantly under guard by his family and friends because of his suicidal tendencies. Sadly, only a week before Charles mustered out and came home, Angelo committed suicide in Roulette, Potter County, Pennsylvania.
When Charles returned to Liberty Township, he married Viola Gertrude Peck, the stepsister of Angelo. They were married on 23 October 1864 by her stepfather, John Crapsey (a self-ordained preacher) and a few months later came directly by boat through the Great Lakes to Western Michigan. They landed at Pentwater, Oceana County, where they apparently stayed for a few months; then traveled over land through Randall's Corners south of Hart to Hesperia, a village that lies on the Oceana - Newaygo County border. One of Charles' aunts was then living near Little Martin Lake in Newaygo County, and it is likely the Robbins moved to the area to be close to family, as well as to obtain land.
In 1865, the only other family living in Hesperia was the Hoskins family, which soon moved away. Charles helped to build the first log store in town, which was owned by Dr. Dayton and Mr. Champlin on the north side of the White River. Charles settled in Denver Township, Newaygo County, which included the eastern part of present-day Hesperia, not yet incorporated at that time; he worked as a carpenter. The same year, Charles' parents and siblings also moved to the area, and the entire family (with the exception of his sister Evaline) was enumerated in either Newaygo or Oceana Counties during the 1870 Federal Census.
Charles and Viola started a family, beginning with Willie, who was born in Greenwood Township, Oceana County in October 1865. At some point, they must have made a short stay or long visit to Minnesota, where Viola's parents had moved; for that is where their second child, Burton, was born in August 1867. Back to Michigan they went, where Edwin and Emma were born on 10 October 1869 and in February 1872, respectively. In the summer of 1872, they returned to Minnesota, in Southbrook Township, Cottonwood County, where Charles took out a squatter's claim neighboring his parents-in-law, John and Lura (Jackson) Crapsey. Here it is likely that their fifth child, Angelo Merrick Robbins, was born on 23 March 1874. By December 1880, Charles owned 80 acres in Section 30 of Southbrook Township, which he was farming. This land was on the shores of Talcott Lake. He served in the Minnesota Militia during this time. While working at haying one summer, he fell into a hay press. It almost tore off his right hand, which became crippled for the rest of his life.
Sometime between November 1882 and the summer of 1884, the Robbins family returned to Hesperia. It appears that Charles sold his land in Southbrook Township to his wife Viola's half-sister, Alice Crapsey, and her husband, Charles Handy. In Hesperia, Charles continued his trade as a house carpenter, despite his crippled right hand. His home was located on Cook Street in the 1910 Federal Census. In 1918, Viola passed away. For a while, Charles lived with his daughter and son-in-law, Emma and Lincoln Drake, in Hesperia. In 1921, Charles married Helena (Sweet) Robbins, the French-Canadian widow of his brother Ben Franklin Robbins, who had died five years previously. Charles spent his later years reliving his War days at GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) reunions. He served as one of the principal officers for General Dix Post No. 9, in Hesperia. His great-grandson, my grandfather Bob Robbins, sometimes accompanied Charles to these reunions as a boy. Charles also had an artistic side, and loved to paint. His grandson, William Bryan Robbins, had several winter scenes that Charles had painted, displayed in his home. In 1930, Charles was interviewed by a journalist for a local paper, and gave a vivid account of his War years, much of which has been related here. At the time, he was living in the Oceana County side of Hesperia, in his own home, which was worth about $2,500. In 1934, he passed away on January 20th. He was buried three days later in West Hesperia Cemetery, between the graves of his wife Viola and their eldest son Willie. His passing left only three Civil War veterans surviving in the Hesperia area. (obituary)
William W. "Willie" Robbins - He was born in October 1865 in Greenwood, Oceana County, Michigan, and with his parents and siblings lived in Denver Township, Newaygo County Michigan and Southbrook Township, Cottonwood County, Minnesota. In 1900, he was working as a barber while living on the Newaygo County side of Hesperia. He died at the age of 37 on 4 March 1903 in either Greenwood or Hesperia, Oceana County, and was buried two days later in Hesperia West Cemetery. He never married.
Burton Wallace Robbins - He was born in August 1867 in Minnesota (possibly Southbrook Township, Cottonwood County). He was supposedly married in 1895 to Mary [unknown], but that person may actually have been Anna A. "Annie" Coy. She was the sister of his brother Edwin's wife, Emma L. Coy. They had a daughter, Anna, who was born 1 September 1896 in Newfield Township, Oceana County, Michigan. Anna Coy Robbins died that same day, probably from complications of childbirth. Little Anna died two months later on November 3rd in Denver Township, Newaygo County, and was buried in the same grave where her four-year-old uncle Arthur Robbins had been buried eleven years previously. On 7 May 1898, Burton married May B. McKeen (b. 1882). In 1900, he was working as a carpenter, and they were living in a rented house in the Newaygo County side of Hesperia. By 1920, Burton and May were living in St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida, along with their 8-year-old son. In the 1930 Federal Census, Burton was enumerated with a different wife, Eugenia (c. 1877 - 1954). Burton passed away in April 1960 in Pinellas County.
Edwin Warren Robbins - Edwin was born 10 October 1869 in Denver Township, Newaygo County, Michigan. In 1895, on his 26th birthday, he married Emma L. Coy. They had three known children: Lola Ellen Robbins (b. 1897); Lawrence Robbins (1899 - 1899); and Eva L. Robbins (b. c. 1902). At first, Edwin and Emma lived on the Oceana County side of Hesperia, but later they moved to the city of Grand Rapids in Kent County, and were living there as late as 1930. By 1934, however, they had moved to St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida, to be near his brother Burton. Edwin passed away on 15 April 1941 in neighboring Pasco County, Florida, and Emma Coy Robbins passed away on 17 December 1958 in nearby Polk County, Florida. Both were buried in the City of Zephyrhills' Oakside Cemetery, Pasco County.
Emma Robbins - Emma was born in February 1872 in Michigan, probably in Denver Township, Newaygo County. In 1900, she was employed as a music teacher and was living in the Newaygo County side of Hesperia. Around 1907, she married Lincoln Drake (1864 - 1943). They adopted a son, Arthur Drake (1917 - 1989), and lived for a while in the Oceana County side of Hesperia. By 1930, they had moved to Fremont, Newaygo County, where Lincoln worked as a real estate broker. Emma passed away in 1955, probably in Fremont, and is probably buried there in Maple Grove Cemetery next to her husband.
Angelo Merrick Robbins, Sr. - my great-great-grandfather
Arthur A. Robbins - Arthur was born 6 May 1880 in Minnesota (probably Southbrook Township, Cottonwood County). His life ended tragically at the age of four, when he died from accidental scalding on 28 April 1885 in Newfield Township, Oceana County, Michigan. He was buried six days later in Hesperia West Cemetery, in the same grave where, eleven years later, his infant niece Anna Robbins would be buried.
Thanks again to Dennis Brandt; and thanks to cousin Terry Wantz for publishing many of the biographies of the Civil War veterans of Newaygo County, Michigan online. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to Dad and Grandpa for passing the torch of family legends and stories on to me.
If you have any knowledge of the whereabouts of photos of Charles Robbins, Angelo Crapsey or Viola Peck, or have the original of the photo above, please contact me. Also, if you have any knowledge of the whereabouts of any of Charles' artwork or his diary, I would appreciate hearing from you!
page created: 4 May 2004
last edited: 23 Aug 2006
© Miriam Midkiff, 2004 - 2006
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