Robert Bruton (1823-1865)

Robert Bruton’s American Dream

Jeanne Rollberg, USA

Robert Bruton, born in 1823 in Dunshaughlin, County Meath, Ireland, probably never would have believed he would sail across the world, transplant his family in North America, and later die trying to preserve the union of American states.

The Brutons emigrated to the Rochester, New York area in 1849. They were Potato Famine emigrants seeking greater economic security and religious freedom, too. Rochester boasted many Irish immigrants and it was a history-making community. It was the city where abolitionist publisher and freed slave Frederick Douglass launched an anti-slave newspaper. Susan B. Anthony, abolitionist and advocate for women’s suffrage, also campaigned at Rochester.

Within a few years, Robert had married an Irish maiden, Mary Smyth, in LeRoy, New York, and proudly baptized their first child, Margaret Mary (Maggie) Bruton, in 1853.

Robert and Mary Bruton moved to Bowne, Michigan, a farming suburb of Grand Rapids, in the mid-1850s, and baptized four more Catholic children between 1854 and 1860: John, Julia Ann, Ellen, and Patrick. Robert bought 80 acres of land and set up his farm in an area that was expected to thrive because of railroad expansion. There were many transplanted Irish Catholic families as well as Bruton cousins in the immediate area. The future that Robert aspired to looked within reach, given time.

In 1862, Mary Bruton, Robert’s wife, died unexpectedly, leaving him with five motherless children under 12. According to Robert’s letters written during his American Civil War service, he had initially thought that his five children’s welfare would preclude his serving in the historic war.

As has noted, “The Civil War was perhaps the first event in the history of the United States that can be considered truly national in the scale of citizen involvement. It was a war of volunteers, both military and civilian, that cost over a million casualties and claimed more than 620,000 lives.”

From information in his Civil War-era letters, Robert wrote that he had determined that though he had set up his land for farming, various factors (weather and other) were currently making that livelihood a challenge. Moreover, he learned, he would be called to the war if he did not volunteer. “It is hard and bad and horrid to think of leaving the children…There is one consolation, that the children are in a good place and I may say, all together.”

Thus, in August 1864, he enlisted in Michigan’s Third Regiment in Grand Rapids. He was 41 years old. His enlistment document says he was 5’10”,” and had blue eyes, a dark complexion, and brown hair. He missed his family right before he went into the war. “I wish I could see you all before I go. Tell my father I send him my love and best regards, and tell him to pray for me.”

Blue-eyed Robert Bruton was about to march into Hell, though the war itself would be over in about another year. Troops mustered in October 15, 1864, and their journey would take them south from western Michigan to Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. Robert wrote to family members back in New York about troop movements and about the family matters that were on his mind, his memories of his children, and of his wife. “It is two years since Mary died. The Lord have mercy on her soul.”

Soldiers appreciated letters from home. “My Dear Brother,” he wrote to Michael Bruton in New York by candlelight, “You can’t imagine how good it makes me feel that is far away from among friends, to hear from friends when they are well. You must excuse me for writing to you with a pencil, but it is very hard to carry ink around. I broke two bottles.”

In February, 1865, Robert wrote to his family: “Thanks be to God for all of his blessings. and I am still enjoying the best of health yet.” But within that same month, Robert was injured and had to be hospitalized – typhoid was a big problem in the Civil War. After several weeks in makeshift war hospitals, he died in March, 1865, within just months of the war’s end. He drew his last breath in New Market, Tennessee, according to the war records.

Now there were five parentless children under age 12. Robert’s brother Michael, back in New York, assumed co-guardianship of them with one of the Brutons’ friends in Michigan. It’s easy to imagine that even though the children were well-cared-for, according to legal documents, that they must have felt abandoned. Many orphaned children of immigrants ended up in the just-emerging orphanages in America, but Robert’s land was sold to help his children. The eldest female was even sent to finishing school.

From the vantage point of 2016, it seems that Robert’s death deprived him of his ultimate dreams. However, from his own perspective before he entered war service, he may have felt that he was at least heartily on the right track.

As his great-great-granddaughter who has finally learned more about Robert Bruton after several years of fruitless research, I’m very proud of how this immigrant and his wife seemed to live their lives. He was building a future for his family, and he was courageous and willing to fight for his country even thought he’d only been in the United States about 15 years when called to great sacrifice. Many of Ireland’s immigrants faced hard-hearted prejudice in America because of their religion and other social factors related to being part of the ever-growing American underclass.

Robert left a legacy of his and Mary’s children, the eldest of whom had nine of her own, mostly in Kansas. One of Robert’s grandchildren, Alice Woolverton, served as a Red Cross nurse in France in World War I, traveling back across the world to heal soldiers at Base Camp 28 at Limoges, France. The medical treatment she could provide was somewhat primitive, but scholars say World War I medicine was certainly far better than that provided to her own grandfather in a less sophisticated hospital about 50 years earlier.

Others of Robert’s grandchildren attended West Point, served their communities as officeholders, served in the military, became professors in various scholarly areas, and made other contributions to America. The country was built by the hard work and sacrifice of immigrants like Robert Bruton and millions of others, and it’s critically important to appreciate how easy our own lives have been by comparison. The Irish immigrants to America were risk takers and adventurers. Unlike today’s travelers, they couldn’t see videos online about where they were going. They read, put their faith in Providence, expected hardship, and weathered it stoically in pursuit of a brighter future.

Robert’s immigrant experience reminds us that it’s America’s fervent optimism and entrepreneurial spirit that has sustained it even during periods of great turmoil such as the Civil War.

His Dunshaughlin-Rochester-Bowne story makes me reflect upon present immigrant conditions even though he died 131 years ago. The world now grapples with legitimate immigration issues that require solutions. Just like the great waves of migration to America, the current one involves large numbers moving quickly.

In this era, though, some propose a wall to separate America from her immigrants , or punishing laws for foreigners who have contributed to Robert’s adopted country by undertaking work that many Americans avoid. Europe, too, wonders if assimilation may be fruitful and what “walls” – physical, economic or cultural- may be necessary.

Current immigrants, like Robert’s family, seek shelter in Europe and America as devastating economic and religious turmoil force them out of home countries. We must remember the words of another son of European immigrant families, Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down!”

The setting up of border walls for protection, immigration control, the walling off of cultures one from another thankfully did not impede Irish Robert Bruton’s quest to become an American. He lived in a less dangerous era, unless you count the disease and the war that took his life prematurely.

Like most Irish immigrants to America, Robert Bruton’s letters show that he answered his country’s call to sacrifice, strove for economic betterment, and cherished his family. Though he died in the war, in embracing his duty, striving for stability and nurturing his family, it appears that he won the battle of living life well.


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