Remembering Robert Walsh
On Sunday, March 27, 2011, I received sad news. A dear friend of mine, Robert Walsh, passed away in his sleep at his home here on Long Island at the age of 59. It isn’t likely that too many of you will recognize his name. Some of you who were in the Maryland Sons of the Confederacy or in some of the Maryland SCV camps might know him. A few from the Fireaters’ Camp in the Richmond area also knew him. Many in the Confederate reenacting community who participated in events between 1990 and 2005 might also remember him. 
Robert and I met some 14 years ago. Both of us worked in different locations of the same large state psychiatric facility here on Long Island. But our paths crossed one day when I was temporarily assigned to the clinic where he worked in order to help relieve a staff shortage. One day I was telling a staff member there about my interest in the WBTS and the South. She said, “Oh! You have to meet Robert! He’s a Confederate reenactor and he loves the South!”  So I went up to the floor that his office was located on and soon came to a door with a large card board cutout of a Confederate soldier on it. I figured, “well, this must be the place!” A strong friendship soon took root.
I had been reading history since I was 8 years old. One of my areas of interest was “the Civil War,” and I had always had this strong sense of sympathy with the South that neither I nor any one who knew me could fully explain, especially since I had grown up in Providence Rhode Island. Through several decades of adulthood though, I had lost some of that interest and, I have to admit, had been paying very little attention to what was happening in the news. It was Robert who opened my eyes to the fact that Southern heritage was slowly but surely having the life squeezed out of it. At first, I didn’t quite believe him, thinking that it could not be as bad as what he was describing. After a year or so of lecturing to me, and a year or so of bombarding me with issues of “The Confederate Veteran” and “Southern Partisan” magazines, I realized that he wasn’t over stating the situation. If anyone can be credited with lighting the fire in me and waking me up, it was my friend Robert.
Though born and raised on Long Island, Robert himself was the epitome of a Southron fireater. He was descended from Irish immigrants, two of whom were Confederate soldiers in North Carolina infantry regiments. Neither survived the war. Both died in prison camps, one in Elmira and one at Point Lookout. Remembering them was important to Robert. Not having any such family ties myself or any ties to the South, it was difficult at first for me to understand people who have such connections and why these people attach such importance to those connections. What is so important about remembering and honoring ancestors? Truly, it is something that one understands less with one’s head and more with one’s heart. It was Robert who helped me reach that understanding.
Robert was out defending Southern heritage long before most of America climbed onto the world wide web and started igniting “flame wars.” He did it by standing and talking in front of groups. He did it by confronting, face to face, those who would not honor the Southern soldier as the American that he was, he did it by standing in front of classes of school children and talking to them, and he did it by being a welcoming presence to visitors who came into our (reenacting) camp.
And yes, it was Bob who talked me into reenacting. He did it for about 15 years and was quite hard core about it. I did it for 5 years and barely survived it! While I did enjoy the thrill of firing a rifled musket at a “bluebelly,” I did not enjoy the heat, the dirt, the uncomfortable clothes, the drilling, the ticks, the incessant marching and all the other things that go along with that “hobby.” And boy, did Bob ever come down hard on me or anyone else for that matter who would dare refer to it as a “hobby!” To Bob, to refer to reenacting as a “hobby” was to demean what he felt was its true purpose. To him, we were doing it to honor the men who actually did the real deal! And as such, it was our duty to do it to the best of our ability. I am somewhat of a “dandy” I suppose. I like my air conditioning and I like my creature comforts. I confess that I perhaps did a lousy job of paying homage to our Confederate dead, at least via my reenacting skills. I can’t say that for Bob though. He always gave his best “for the men,” as he called them. And he always reminded the rest of us to do the same. We all tried, I suppose, but we could never really measure up to the way he did it.
Bob could be quite brash and unapologetic in his defense of the South. During one particular Remembrance Day celebration in Gettysburg about 10 years ago, Bob was dressed as his favorite historical personage, General William Barksdale of Mississippi. Not a few folks would say that when he dressed up that he looked like he could have been Barksdale’s brother. Well, when the actor/reenactor who played Abraham Lincoln mounted the podium to give the “Gettysburg Address,” General Barksdale, (my pal Bob), shouted out a command to “about face, forward march.” Oddly enough, quite a few of the Confederate reenactors in attendance paid heed to his command and did exactly that. Last anyone saw of them they were marching in line toward Seminary Ridge and away from “Father Abraham,” with my buddy General (Bob) Barksdale in the lead. To say that his actions caused a stir would be an understatement. The “Civil War News” blared something about people being disrespectful and the “Gettysburg Times” did what mainstream news organizations usually do, it whined. Having made the news didn’t affect Bob at all. He was quite matter of fact about it. “I was portraying General Barksdale. If Barksdale had been there, do you really think he would have stayed and listened to what Lincoln had to say?” To Bob, right was right, at least as he saw it, and he knew no other way to be true to himself than to follow that credo, regardless of what others thought. It isn’t often that you meet someone these days who actually stands for something. Bob was such a person.
In the last 5 or 6 years, things had not been going well for Bob. Beset by financial problems, facing the possible loss of his house, depressed by a painful divorce, trying to make ends meet and besieged by the types of physical maladies that haunt us more and more as we get older, he had no time and simply no strength left for a good strong fight. But while this saddened him, he would also say that he was so happy to see me have taken up the sword that he could no longer carry, and he was so happy that he had awoken “the fire” in me. I must admit, that my efforts to carry that “sword” pale in comparison to his. Few folks I think could “carry the sword” as well as he could.
Sometimes I think that he was born in the wrong time. Then again, my Mom used to say that “God doesn’t make mistakes,” so maybe it wasn’t “the wrong time” after all. I’m sure that God had a purpose for Robert being born when he was and if that purpose had something to do perhaps with defending those men who are no longer here to defend themselves, then Robert did one hell of a job of fulfilling that purpose.
I suppose this post qualifies as a type of eulogy, a eulogy to someone who wasn’t a household name in Southern heritage circles, but someone whose efforts merit remembrance nonetheless. All of us hope that when we leave this life, that those we leave behind will remember us, and that our actions will have hopefully left a better life for those who survive us and for those who will come after us. Remembrance – it is after all, one of the major purposes of this newsletter, to remember those who came before and to honor their sacrifice.
In his heyday, Bob was always in the forefront of the Southern heritage conflict. But he never sought recognition for himself. That simply wasn’t his way. He sought recognition of a cause. And he was good at it. When such a person passes, it is up to those who survive him to “remember,” and this I suppose is what I am doing here – to let folks know that on Sunday March 27, 2011, God called Robert Walsh, my friend and a true Southern warrior, home.
Bill Vallante
Commack NY
Associate Member, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Camps 3000, 1506, 1961, 2086