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Digital Diaries: Wandering Off Course

April 23, 2019

Most of the time I try to stay focused on my assigned topics for digitization projects, but I know when to follow an unexpected and interesting story when it presents itself. Recently, I was researching the Brant and Helen McKay Steele Collection for a project on women’s history and came across a folder of photographs labeled “Images to accompany When the Tide Turned in the Civil War,” that belonged to Martha Nicholson McKay. The folder held photographs of Milton Robinson, an African American veteran of the well-known 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment organized during the Civil War, an early regiment of African American troops, then known as Colored Troops. Mr. Robinson was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans, and wore that uniform in both of the collection photographs. Along with Mr. Robinson’s photos were photos of his regiment leader Colonel Robert Gould Shaw – yes, the same one featured in the 1989 movie Glory! Shaw was the son of an abolitionist family in Boston and was killed while leading the 54th Massachusetts into the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. My first thoughts were, “Who is Mr. Robinson? Is he from Indiana, and why have I not heard about him before?” That’s when I took a deep dive into the life of Milton Robinson.

Milton Robinson in GAR Uniform, Circa 1900

Milton Robinson in GAR Uniform, circa 1900

Robert Gould Shaw, Circa 1863

Robert Gould Shaw, circa 1863

My first course of action was to see if we had anything in the IHS collections about Milton Robinson. We do have Mrs. McKay’s book When the Tide Turned in the Civil War, which tells the story of Col. Shaw and his troops. Mrs. McKay was from a Quaker family and had been educated at Ohio Female College. Her husband, M. Horace McKay, served as the captain of the 15th U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. She was progressive in her thinking and involved in the Indianapolis Woman’s Club and women’s suffrage in Indiana. She started researching and writing When the Tide Turned in the Civil War in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t published until 1929. I made a note to retrieve the book from the stacks later because it was too tempting to search all the online resources at my fingertips.

First, I checked to see if Mr. Robinson was an Indianapolis resident. From census information, I learned he was born in Kentucky and lived most of his life after the Civil War in Indianapolis with a brief period at the Indiana State Soldiers Home. From his death certificate, I learned that he died in Indianapolis in 1930 at the age of 90. My second step was to see how well-known he was. I did a quick Google search of his name and regiment which retrieved no images, biographies or Wikipedia articles. But it did retrieve a 1921 book titled The State House: Boston Massachusetts by Ellen M. Burrill. The book mentioned that Milton Robinson was a 54th Massachusetts Regiment member and an escaped slave who had made a trip to Boston in 1910 (presumably to honor Col. Shaw) where he presented the Massachusetts governor with a hand-carved hickory cane. Next, I checked the National Archives Catalog for Mr. Robinson’s military papers. I found that he had enlisted in Company F of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on May 13, 1863, in Readville, Massachusetts, and mustered out in 1865 at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Wrapping up my online research, turned up Milton Robinson’s obituary printed in the Indianapolis Star on July 18, 1930.

When I finally retrieved and read When the Tide Turned in the Civil War, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to come together. Mrs. McKay shared that she became acquainted with Mr. Robinson because he was a gardener and laborer in her Indianapolis neighborhood. She also reported that he made his journey, “fleeing from a Kentucky master, attaching himself to an officer of Indiana troops, and going from Camp Morton to Boston.” Mr. Robinson entrusted Mrs. McKay with his story and his photographs. She kept them safe but did not use them in her book. Mrs. McKay also corresponded with Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s mother, who likely sent his photos, which were also in the folder.

Martha Nicholson McKay, author of When the Tide Turned in the Civil War, Circa 1880

Martha Nicholson McKay, author of When the Tide Turned in the Civil War, circa 1880

So through this research, a few of my initial questions have been answered – but now I have more. I want to know more about Milton Robinson’s journey from Kentucky to Indiana to Massachusetts, then back to Indianapolis. I want to know about his involvement with the Grand Army of the Republic and his time living in the Indiana State Soldiers Home. And finally, I wonder about the conversations between Mr. Robinson and Mrs. McKay while she was researching her book. I know there are more leads to follow to find out the details of this story, but for now, I’m just happy to connect a face with a name and share Robinson’s brave story once again. Now, back to my women’s history research!

Kathy Mulder works in Digital Collections at IHS. She first became interested in history while tagging along with her grandmother who was a docent in historic Madison, Indiana.

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