Geneseo now has a collection of a Union soldier’s letters available for student research.
By Kris Dreessen
Union soldier Elisha Randolph (E.R.) Robinson was present at the Appomattox battlefield when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered, and wrote about it the day before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
When it came to recounting and reflecting on his Civil War experiences, Robinson was a prolific writer to his family back home near Perry, NY. He sent 167 letters to his parents and siblings during his enlistment.
“The family kept them all,” says Paul Kelly.
Paul and Lynn Kelly, of Portland, OR, recently donated the entire collection of letters to SUNY Geneseo for their preservation—with an educational purpose.
The letters will provide Geneseo students with a personal perspective of a pivotal time in United States history from a man who was raised close to campus. They are cared for in the Genesee Valley Historical Collection, available for class study and research. Such unique pieces can be showcased in Geneseo’s in the renovated Special Collections room when the new Milne Library opens.
“The letters, amazingly, survived three generations,” says Lynn Kelly, who is Robinson’s great-granddaughter. “We always knew we wanted to donate them to a college or university. They bring history to life.”
The letters were passed down to Lynn Kelly from her father and grandfather and have been stored in a high-quality wooden box, nearly untouched, for all these years.
The Kellys chose Geneseo to receive the letters because of Robinson’s local connection and the opportunities students will have to work directly with them.
“We did a lot of research about Geneseo and became very comfortable with what a quality institution it is,” says Paul Kelly. “With these letters, professors can personalize history for students. We can see what it was like to live through this history.”
Last spring, the College recognized the Kellys’ gift with a ceremony that included current students and campus leaders. The Kellys met with students from a history methods class and toured the library. The Kellys worked with Distinguished Professor of History Michael Oberg and Special Collections librarian Liz Argentieri for several years to donate the collection.
The letters are among other unique materials professors have arranged for hands-on learning. Nicholas Warner, associate professor of geological sciences, secured samples of meteorites, Moon rocks, and lava from Mars, on loan from NASA for use by his Planetary Geology class during Fall 2023. And in Fall 2021, associate professor of history Yvonne Seale used a collection of medieval books loaned from Les Enluminures Gallery to supplement two courses on the history of books in medieval Europe.
“These letters give us a primary source,” says Collin Capurso ’23, a history and adolescence education major. “Robinson’s perspective shows us what was happening in the moment. People were more formal back then and didn’t pour their hearts out, but reading them shows how culturally the war affected people and kept them from their families.”
Nearly 39,000 men from New York State died in the Civil War, but Robinson’s story had a happy ending. After the war, he returned to upstate New York and went on to marry, raise a family, and run a general store near Fairhaven. The Kellys visited the site where Robinson’s building still stands and the monument in Letchworth State Park erected in honor of Robinson’s regiment.
“E.R. Robinson is coming home being at Geneseo,” says Paul Kelly.
Read about some interesting pieces in the college’s archives.
Read E.R.’s personal account of when the Civil War ended:
New York cavalry soldier E.R. Robinson was at Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Here is his first-hand account of receiving the historic news:
‘Then on the 9th came the grand finale. We were then at Appotomox Court House. Not five minutes before Gen. Lee’s surrender, the prospect of a fight and a severe one never looked more certain. We were going upon a good gallop, carbines in hand, to the right. While our infantry were moving down upon the front and Gen. Custer was then charging the left.
As we came into line, a Staff Officer came running up with the news that Gen. Lee had surrendered. Then began the shouting, “yelling,” “hooting,” and “hollering,” throwing up of hats, clapping of hands and the manifestation of pleasure in some way. The Rebel army, too, I assure you, were not at all behind hand indicating their satisfaction. We stopped where we were, lay down by our horses, took a rest and a nap without being disturbed.”
— E.R. Robinson
April 14, 1965