Robert L. Bloom
A couple of brief lines from the files of the great Civil War historian Allan Nevins touch on one of Gettysburg College's "what ifs." They also shed some sideways light on the career Robert L. Bloom, one of Gettysburg's leading faculty members for more than three decades (1949-1981).
The words were penned by Roy F. Nichols, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian at the University of Pennsylvania, on March 31, 1948, responding to Nevins's letter recommending an appointment for Bloom in Penn's history department. "I wish we had a place for Bloom," Nichols told his old friend. "Unfortunately there is no vacancy. I shall be much interested in [Bloom's] book on [Morton] McMichael and the [Philadelphia] North American. We need more such studies."
Penn's loss proved to be Gettysburg College's gain. As Roy Nichols' letter went into the mail, Bob Bloom was completing his doctoral work at Columbia while teaching history at Monmouth College in New Jersey. A World War II veteran whose original career hopes of becoming a political journalist were blasted by the Great Depression, Bloom now sought employment teaching his specialty, the Civil War era. Penn was not to be Bloom's stomping ground as a teacher and scholar. But Gettysburg College, set on sacred ground, was an attractive alternative.
And Gettysburg was moving in Bloom's direction. Increasingly burdened by growing enrollments after the Second World War, History Department Chair Robert Fortenbaugh sought to expand offerings and hire a full-time scholar with Civil War expertise. With Allan Nevins' blessing and the sanction of Gettysburg President Henry W.A. Hanson, the match with Bloom was made.
Brandishing his trademark cigarette and a "wonderfully animated teaching style," as Laura Muha, '81 has put it, Bloom brought history alive in his classes. Like Muha, I can remember the electricity in the room when our Civil War and Reconstruction class reached a critical point: Professor Bloom began chalking his intricate maps on the blackboard. He then launched his masterful account of battles lost and won-of valor, foolishness, luck and sheer serendipity. It was a bravura performance--old fashioned guns and bugle history to be sure, it elicited no complaints from students who relished the experience and wanted more.
Not that we were deprived. Bloom devoted more than twenty percent of his Civil War syllabus to military history. But then, as he observed to us, "at how many colleges can you look out the window and imagine Robert E. Lee's troops walking past your window?"
Then there was the battlefield tour, a culmination late each Fall in History 345. Bob knew his material cold and he never lost his enthusiasm for recollecting the great and peculiar events of July 1-3, 1863 in Gettysburg. Inevitably, he'd share highlights of previous tours he had led. Describing a tour he gave to a visiting group of southern students in the early 1960s, for example, Bloom recalled standing at the Bloody Angle and saying, "Imagine yourself standing at this wall, pointing your rifle and readying to open fire at those men in gray heading your way." "Oh, no, professor, I could never do that!" replied a distraught female student. Our professor would offer a dramatic imitation of that dialogue and we'd all laugh.
Bob Bloom was a serious scholar as well as a teacher. It is true that the book that Roy Nichols referred to-focused on an important Philadelphia newspaper in the 19th century-was never published. Nor did Bob complete his large study of the British Press and the American Civil War. But over many years he published a creditable stream of well-researched and felicitously composed articles on journalism history and other Civil War era topics. He did this while carrying a heavy course load, chairing the department for a decade, running a Civil War study group for a number of years and rising to the presidency of the Pennsylvania Historical Association. In the Autumn of his career, he grew fascinated with Civil War fiction, and with Adams county history. In both subfields Bob Bloom produced significant scholarly work-including the now standard history of Adams County, which appeared in print months after his death in 1990.
During his busy retirement, Bob Bloom continued his longstanding practice of writing meaty and mordant letters-to-the editor. He memorized chunks of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, traveled the country with his soul mate Dottie, and compiled an enormous slide archive of the Battle of Gettysburg, which he deposited in the college special collections. He kept on giving battlefield tours almost to the end.
I can still visualize Bob today, whether on campus or on the battlefield, wearing one of his trademark fedoras, telling a humorous story-and then breaking out in his robust, throaty laugh. Bob Bloom was a Gettysburg character of the first rank.