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Civil War Initiative aided by family research

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Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 12:04 am

MEDINA — Mary Zimmerman Robinson has walked in the Virginia field where her great-great-grandfather, Capt. Erwin Bowen of the 28th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was captured during the Union’s initial charge through the Confederacy.

Robinson has read the letter that gave Bowen his freedom from a Confederate prison thanks to the support of a Union-held city he oversaw with compassion; gazed upon family photos and the words he sent back to Medina and his wife Anna during his time of service.

“The more I read, the more I’m taken in,” Robinson said. “I feel like I know Erwin with fond memories ... I don’t think I would have known him better than if I met him.”

Revealing the contributions of Bowen and his Civil War-era neighbors is a major piece of the second annual Genesee Community College’s Civil War Initiative, which is being held April 27 and 28 at GCC Medina.

The encampment will feature a pair of mock skirmishes between the 28th New York and the 34th North Carolina re-enactment groups, a cotillion ball and concert, historic displays and lectures at the Maple Ridge Road campus.

“The encampment will show how deep our roots go here in Medina, there are residents here today whose families have been here for many generations and they’ve played a part in the history of not only the village, but the nation,” said the encampment’s honorary chairman, Adam Tabelski.

Robinson lives in the village where her ancestors, including Revolutionary War soldiers, settled and became prominent residents. She did not dig deep into her family’s history until recently, but has journeyed to Washington and the battlefields of the old Confederacy to trace her great-great-grandfather’s steps.

Erwin Bowen was born in 1834, the same year that his family settled near Medina. After enlisting in the state militia at 18, he joined his uncle Hezekiah and other family members in the Medina regiments of both the 28th, which departed for combat in 1861, and the 151st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which followed in 1862.

As a captain in the 28th, Bowen participated in the Union’s march through the Shenandoah Valley and was appointed as the provost marshal of Harrisonburg, Va. Robinson grew up hearing that her ancestor had won the hearts of Harrisonburg’s residents because he saved a horse stuck in a well.

She never knew the whole story, which she found through her own research and assistance from local Civil War re-enactors. It was one that only deepened Robinson’s pride.

“He re-opened the post offices and churches, and closed the saloons,” Robinson said. “They saw this company had no ill will towards them. He was a personable, good man.”

Those traits may have saved Bowen’s life. After being captured at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Bowen was sent to the Libby Prison in Richmond, where Union officers were treated as felons in retaliation for the aggressive actions taken by the Union.

In her research, Robinson found that Harrisonburg’s residents beseeched Confederate President Jefferson Davis to pardon Bowen, a wish that was accommodated as part of a prisoner exchange. After a short return to Medina, Bowen served as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 151st through the end of the war.

For Robinson, the encampment provides a chance to see the echo of her great-great grandfather’s service, a living example what the life described in his letters looked like. She’s also share the artifacts that have come down from Erwin, survived a fire, and are now being preserved for future generations.

“I’m excited to see the 28th in action,” Robinson said. “I feel such a personal connection — the 28th was his family, the 151st his source of pride.”

A parade kicking off the Civil War Encampment, scheduled for 10 a.m. April 27, starts two days of interactive events tying local history to the college’s ongoing initiative. Robinson will participate in the handing off a sword to re-enactor Simon Taylor in the same way the ladies of Medina did when the Medina regiment departed by rail to combat via Albany in 1861.

Taylor, the military coordinator for the 28th New York Infantry Regiment Re-enactment Unit, will portray Bowen during the parade of Union and Confederate re-enactors through Medina’s downtown and is the Union field commander for the event.

He has been in contact with Robinson for several years, but finally met her during a presentation last month at the Medina Historical Society and looked over photos the unit discovered for sale online and delivered to Robinson.

For the re-enactment unit, the documents and artifacts preserved by Robinson’s self-proclaimed “pack rat” family has helped improve the accuracy of their work.

Taylor said the unit was never certain which field manual for rifle and infantry tactics was used by the 28th — the original Hardee manual that was written before the war, or the updated Casey manual that overtook it during the war. A yellowed manual bearing the badge of the Medina regiment confirmed it was the former.

“It was great to see the actual manual they were using,” said Taylor, who noted that Robinson’s research into the characteristics of her forbearer will help deepen their portrayals of the 28th.

“The more information we have about who they were, allows us to interpret them in a much better way,” Taylor said. “We do a lot of genealogical work to patch that side together. What Mary had gave us the real family view of who this person was.”

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