Robert B. Jefferds born on September 3, 1824, in East Rush, Monroe County, New York, the son of Nathan (b. 1786) and Polly (Green, b. 1793).
Robert’s father Nathan was born in New York and, according to one source, settled in East Rush “before there was a road marked out, and when his only guide was here and there a blazed tree. He was a man of great perseverance and industry, and in the course of a few years improved a farm from the wilderness, where he spent his last years in comfort, and where his death took place.” In any case New York natives Nathan and Polly were married, probably in New York, sometime before 1818 (when their son William was born) and Nathan was reported to be living in Rush in 1820.
Robert lived at home and attended the local district school in Rush Township until about 1835 when he left for the academy at Gates (presumably in New York). He later “attended the collegiate institutes at both Brockport an Rochester,” and in about 1842 “commenced the study of medicine under the instruction of Dr. Smith, of Rush. Subsequently he was in the office of Dr. Moore, of Rochester, and later attended medical lectures at Woodstock, Vt. From Woodstock he went to Pittsburgh, Pa., and was graduated from the Medical College of that city.”
On Christmas Eve, 1844 or 1845, Robert married Eliza Whitney (1826-1905), in Fairport, Monroe County, New York, and they had four children, two of whom died in infancy, a third, Bruce, died at the age of 15, and Molly (b. 1848?). After completing his medical education Robert returned to his home in East Rush where he practiced medicine until about 1853 when he moved to Michigan.
At first Robert settled on a farm in Calhoun County where he lived until about 1856 or 1857, when he moved to Lansing. He practiced medicine in Lansing and operated a drug-store until the war broke out. In 1860 he was working as a physician and surgeon and living with his wife and children and one domestic, Anna Rain (b. 1845 in New York) in Lansing’s First Ward.
Robert was 36 years old when he enlisted as First Lieutenant of Company G on May 10, 1861. (Company G, formerly the “Williams’ Rifles,” was made up predominantly of men from the Lansing area.) According to Frank Siverd of Company G, shortly after the Regiment arrived in Washington, DC, in mid-June of 1861, he was being treated for chronic diarrhea. On July 19 Siverd wrote that in the aftermath of the engagement at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia, on July 18, near Bull Run, “Of the Lansing company the following were disabled by heat and exhaustion, and are not in the ranks today: Mason, Stevenson, Broad, Croy, Dowell, J. E. Davis, Goodale, [Goodell] Hath, Ingersoll, C. B. Lewis, Lacy, Maury, Rose, Sutherland, Sickles, Stevens, Church, Price, and Lieut. Jefferds.” Siverd noted also that Captain John Price of Company G “was taken sick the first night and returned to Camp Blair.”
Charles Church of Company G, also wrote home to describe to his family the recent action at Blackburn’s Ford, near Bull Run. Church wrote that the company commander, Price was still absent and that their First Lieutenant (Jefferds) “is bushed.”
Due to illness, Captain John Price soon resigned his commission and Jefferds took his place, commissioned Captain of Company G on August 1, 1861. Frank Siverd wrote home on August 1 that “Captain Price resigned because he could not well do otherwise. He broke down and was really very sick on the first day’s march. It requires a much stronger constitution than he possesses to withstand the fatigue of a forced march, and we want officers who can always be with us. Price goes to the seashore to recruit. Full one-half the officers in the Regiment have changed since the Bull Run affair.”
Indeed, Second Lieutenant James Ten Eyck of Company G was already home in Lansing by the second week of August when he wrote to the editor of the Lansing State Republican requesting a correction in a recently published story on the events in Virginia and the Third Michigan.
I notice that in your announcement of my return, as published in your local column of last week, you give me the credit of having command of my company in the battles of both Thursday and Sunday at Bull Run. This is a mistake. Lieutenant Jefferds had the command in Thursday's battle [at Blackburn’s Ford], I only acting as second in command. Lieutenant Jefferds was taken sick that night, and I only took command from that time -- having command on Sunday. Justice to him demands this correction, as nothing but sickness and inability prevented him from staying with his company, and not cowardice, as some of his enemies would endeavor to make out. Lieutenant Jefferds, when able, ever did his duty.
The Cleveland Herald reported on September 5 that Captain Jefferds had left Virginia for Michigan on a visit home to see his family. As he was passing through Cleveland he told a reporter for a newspaper there that “the Third [Michigan is] in good condition, healthy and contented, their headquarters being Fort Albany. About half the regiment are building Fort Richardson, near Fort Albany, and the remainder are on picket duty at Bailey Crossroads.”
On September 8 Siverd wrote that “Captain Jefferds left for home on a furlough on account of the serious illness of his wife.” Indeed, Jefferds had already returned home by September 11 when the Lansing State Republican informed its readers that “Captain R. B. Jefferds, Company G, Third Michigan Regiment, who is in town on a brief visit to his family, furnished much cheering intelligence of the condition and doings of this company. The Captain is in excellent health, and seems thoroughly contented with camp life.”
Robert returned to the company on Saturday, September 28, an event, wrote Siverd, that brought considerable joy to the boys of Company G. “He brought many little packages from friends at home for the boys. There was happiness depicted on a good many countenances as one nice little package was displayed after the other and the name thereon read.” Dr. D. W. Bliss, formerly Third Michigan regimental surgeon who had been promoted to head the medical staff for the brigade in September of 1861, noted some years later that since Jefferds had been a practicing physician before the war, he “was personally interested in his health and welfare” and that “during the month of December 1861 I treated him for lobular pneumonia incurred while on a reconnaissance form Camp Michigan (Brigade Camp) to Pohick Church, Va. which produced formidable organic lesion and rendered him unfit for duty until the command was ordered to the Peninsula” the following summer.
By early 1862, however, Jefferd’s image among some of the men in Company G had begun to deteriorate. Charles Church of Company G wrote home on February 1, 1862 that he thought Jefferds “a perfectly cowardly money seeking bitch,” but did not explain further. According to Siverd, on March 14 Jefferds was admitted to the hospital in Alexandria, and he wrote on March 17 that Jefferds’ “situation at this time must be exceedingly unpleasant. Responsible for the well-being and behavior of the company, and yet unable to be with it, is certainly not a desirable state of affairs.” Indeed he was admitted to Spring or Prince Street hospital in Alexandria on March 16 suffering form intermittent fever, where he remained two days and then was in private quarters, apparently at no. 65 Pitt Street for some four weeks.
Charles Church was even more blunt. On March 22, he observed that Jefferds “has shown the white feather and is in Alexandria playing up sick.”
Indeed, by mid-April Siverd, the company orderly Sergeant, had developed a strong disliking for his commanding officer. On April 14 he wrote the Republican that “We have but one commissioned officer with us. Captain Jefferds is in Alexandria sick and First Lieutenant Whitney is in Michigan on the recruiting service. Regiments in the field should have all their officers with them. If recruiting must be done it should be done by officers belonging to the Regiments still in the State or acting as home guards. Of course,” he added, “officers will get sick as well as privates, and of this no fault can be found, but if an officer is habitually sick, and can never be with his company only when they are in snug quarters, it certainly would be but an act of patriotism, and, indeed, evidence of courage (it often requires more courage to resign than to go into battle) for him to resign, and permit his place to be occupied, and his salary drawn, by some person who has constitution enough to stand a campaign in the field.”
According to Dr. D. W. Bliss, Jefferds had been left in the hospital at Alexandria when the regiment departed for the Peninsula, rejoining his unit at Yorktown in April of 1862. This was by no means gratifying to some of the men of the company. On May 2, Siverd wrote the editor of the Republican that “Captain Jefferds, Lieutenant Whitney and H. L. Thayer arrived in camp recently. The two latter . . . were most warmly welcomed.”
Shortly after Jefferds returned he was again examined by Dr. D. W. Bliss who “found him suffering from chronic lesion of the lungs. I continued to treat him until a short time prior to the battle of Fair Oaks, Va. [on May 31, 1862] when he was violently attacked with hematuria [blood in the urine], and in consideration of the apparent permanent lesion of the lungs, together with hemorrhage of the bladder, I urged his resignation.”
On May 21 the Republican published a curious tale involving Jefferds. “We have in our possession,” wrote the paper, “a ring sent home by Captain R. B. Jefferds, of this city, which, he says, was made from a Bull Run Yankee bone, and obtained by him from a contraband. Was anything as barbarous every heard of before? Only fiends could be guilty of such atrocities. Captain Jefferds also sends us some secesh poetry, written in a letter of one D. B. Strang, to his sweetheart, Miss Nancy. Here is the first stanza -- verbatim et literatum:
“I am happy so say,
The 25th Dec. was Christmas day
Broken bridge was our post,
And that's the day I think of miss Nancy
The remaining verses will not bear publication.”
On June 9, 1862, Jefferds formally resigned on account of disability, although according to Homer Thayer of Company G, by the first of the month it was rumored Jefferds was going home. Thayer wrote on June 3 that “Captain Jefferds has been obliged to forward his resignation on account of continuing ill health, and will probably soon be at home so that our many friends can hear more particularly from each.”
Robert did indeed return to Michigan and in January of 1865 settled in Coldwater, Branch County, although by 1870 he was working as a physician and living (alone) in Kalamo, Eaton County. By 1871 he had returned to Coldwater where he was working as a physician and living with his wife Eliza and one servant in 1880.
He was still living in Coldwater in 1883, suffering from consumption, and drawing $24.00 per month for “disease of the lungs” (pension no. 184,775, dated March of 1881). He was a member of the Masonic fraternity, the I.O.O.F. and the G.A.R.
Robert died, probably of consumption, on October 23, 1886, probably in Coldwater, and was buried on October 26 in Oak Grove cemetery, Coldwater.
His widow applied for and received a pension (no. 231848), drawing $20 per month by 1909.