Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006
Esteemed Citizen of Suffolk (Part 4)
By Fred D. Taylor
Battle-scarred and weary, Robert Samuel Elam made the trek from Charleston back to his native Charlotte County. Soon after and not too far away, the war in Virginia ended with Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
With the war and its aftermath now behind him, the thirty-three year old Robert Elam decided to start his life anew in the midst of Reconstruction. Within months of his return, Robert married Martha A. Robertson, who according to secondary sources had been widowed during the war. Robert also returned to farming, in as much as his injuries allowed him to work.
In time, the Elam family began to grow. In January of 1866, Robert and Martha’s first child was born. They named the baby boy Hilary Edward Elam, named after Robert’s brother who had been killed during the battle of Malvern Hill in 1862. Two years later, a second son was born, William Gordon Elam, named after Robert’s father and his younger brother. Their first daughter was born in 1870, and named Etta Lee Elam. These additions to the family brought much cause for celebration around the Elam household, but Robert felt his family needed a change of scenery from Charlotte County.
While the farming life had been good for him, Robert’s physical condition did not allow him to properly manage the scale of farm it would take to support his family. So Robert sold his farm, and packed up his family to begin a new adventure. Several years before, Robert’s brother Thomas Gordon Elam had done the same, moving to Suffolk. Though not a local, Thomas’s charisma and friendliness earned him the respect of the town citizens. Thomas married a Suffolk girl, Emily S. Arnold, in 1870, and worked as the railroad agent. In 1872, Thomas was elected Mayor of Suffolk, and a year late became the second owner and editor of the Suffolk Herald (the predecessor to the News-Herald). With the success of his brother in mind, Robert Elam and family made Suffolk their new home. While in Suffolk, the last child of Robert and Martha’s was born in 1876, and they named her Alma M. Elam.
Robert Elam purchased the Washington Hotel, which he promoted as having “excellent rooms” and being “pleasantly situated” in the business center of town. The Washington hotel also included a restaurant, where Robert served as the overall proprietor and manager. According to the 1880 Census, the hotel was shown to have twenty-four occupants. This included the six members of the Elam family, two clerks, four dining room servants, one cook, two family servants, a young child of one of the servants, and eight boarders. Though the dates are not certain, it is believed that Robert operated the hotel for approximately ten years.
Unfortunately, Robert’s war injuries and exposure in prison wore on him as time passed, and eventually he was forced to give up operating the hotel. Even while he was running it, his ability to get around was severely limited, managing to move about only with the use of crutches, or a crutch and walking stick. In the mid-1870s, Robert was given an artificial leg through a state medical program, but it was of little use. Several years later in the 1880s, Robert again applied for assistance from the state, and it was explained in his request that “he was only able to wear [the artificial leg] a day or two at a time on account of it giving him pains, and which, with slight wear soon wore out, it being poorly made.” From this request, Robert received a small pension in order to support his family.
By the 1890s, Robert’s condition only continued to worsen. Just shy of his sixtieth birthday, Robert took ill, and on the morning of October 1st, 1891, passed away after a three week struggle. His funeral was conducted at the First Baptist Church of Suffolk, and the local newspapers noted that flowers in “every design” were sent by his friends. The pallbearers were all former Confederate soldiers, and they escorted his body for burial in Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Robert was survived by his wife Martha, and all four of his children. Martha spent her remaining days living with family, and passed away in 1902. She is buried beside Robert in Cedar Hill. The oldest son, Hilary Edward Elam, married Lillian Lee Kilby, daughter of Dr. John T. Kilby and Mary Benn. Hilary worked as a shipping clerk for Planter’s Peanuts until his death in 1925. The next oldest, William Gordon Elam, married Mary Woodward, daughter of William J. Woodward and Augusta V. Minter. William worked as an insurance agent in Suffolk, and he and Mary had one daughter, Martha Virginia Elam. William died in 1938. Of the Elam daughters, Etta Lee Elam was the only one to marry. Etta married Charles Meigs Boswell of Charlotte County in 1895. Census records indicate that they spent the remainder of their lives in Chase City, Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where Charles worked as a bank president. Etta and Charles had two children, their oldest Robert named after his grandfather, and Charles, Jr., named after his father. The youngest of the Elam family, Alma M. Elam, never married and passed away in 1947. She is buried in Cedar Hill in the lot with her mother and father.
Though taken from his family at a young age due to his wartime exposures, the life of Robert Samuel Elam is not one of regret or sadness. Rather, for those who read his story, it is one of fighting the odds and making the most out of one’s circumstances. In looking back on his life, Robert Elam undoubtedly went through a great deal. On the battlefields of Gettysburg where a wound permanently disabled him, Robert watched the men of his command go into Pickett’s Charge, where he likely would have been killed had he been leading them that day. From there he suffered through a Union prison camp which nearly took his life, and survived a journey as a member of the Immortal 600. Sadly, many of his comrades would suffer a much worse fate. Finally, he obtained his freedom and parole after a year and a half spent in hospitals and prisons, only to see Lee surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, just four months later. In the final count, only thirteen soldiers from the entire 22nd Battalion remained to the end. Yet, Robert picked up the pieces of his life and fought on during both war and peace. In his obituary it was remarked that Captain Robert Elam was a “much esteemed citizen” of Suffolk, but the truth is, he was much more. He was a leader and a patriot who fought for his country, he was a devoted husband and father, and he was a loyal friend. In the highest of honors that could ever be bestowed upon him, he was a Christian, Southern Gentleman.