David Gerleman’s Research on Abraham Lincoln and Joe Biden’s Great Great Grandfather Goes Viral

David Gerleman’s Research on Abraham Lincoln and Joe Biden’s Great Great Grandfather Goes Viral

On February 19, 2024, David J. Gerleman, a long-time adjunct professor of American History at George Mason University and Abraham Lincoln scholar, published a story in the Washington Post about President Joe Biden. But this was no ordinary story of the latest developments in Washington, and it went globally viral. The story told of Gerleman’s discovery that Moses J. Robinette, a Union army civilian employee during the Civil War, turns out to be a great-great-grandfather of the current President, Joseph R. (Robinette) Biden, Jr. The file might have attracted no notice except for the fact that Abraham Lincoln had endorsed the case with a presidential pardon in 1864.

In his Post story, Gerleman describes how on March 21, 1864 at the army’s camp near Beverly Ford, Virginia, Robinette got into a brawl with John J. Alexander, a wagon master. During the fight, Robinette pulled a pocketknife and wounded Alexander with several cuts. Watchmen soon arrived, and Robinette was arrested. At trial, he was sentenced to two years of incarceration at hard labor and sent to the Dry Tortugas islands off the coast of Florida. In the meantime, three Union officers who knew Robinette wrote to President Lincoln to plead for his release, arguing that the sentence was too harsh for what they argued was an act of self-defense. Lincoln acquiesced and granted pardon for “unexecuted part of punishment,” and Robinette was freed from the island and returned home to his family in Maryland.

Gerleman discovered the story of Robinette while leading a comprehensive search of the National Archives for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project. Going through Civil War court martial case files, Gerleman was struck by the name Robinette, which he recognized as Biden’s middle name. Using internet genealogical tools, he was soon able to confirm that Moses J. Robinette was indeed Biden’s great-great-grandfather.

Gerleman’s story, filled with presidents, brawls, and trial reports, has gone around the world. It was picked up by American papers like the Smithsonian Magazine and USA Today and gossip magazines like People and TMZ, as well as news outlets such as CBS and FOX. Some reports were sober, others amped up the drama. TMZ’s headline, for example, blared “ABRAHAM LINCOLN Pardoned Joe's Ancestor. GREAT-GREAT-GRANDPA KNIFED GUY.” The story also appeared in the Times of London, The Guardian, the Times of India, Le Figaro, the Cairns Post in Australia and in the Hungarian paper Magyar Nemzet. Nationally known broadcaster Keith Olbermann too gave the story a shout-out on his Countdown podcast, calling Gerleman the “hero of the day.” Indeed, it was the most read story of the Post for February 19, and within a week had garnered 810,093 views.  

In the weeks following Gerleman’s story took on a life of its own. In a glaring example of how history can be warped or misused, prominent Washington commentator Jonathan Turley published his own rather inflammatory take on Gerleman’s discovery in The Hill on February 24th, which then ignited a storm on X. As of March 15, 2024, Turley’s X post has received 7.5 million views, 10,000 comments and been re-posted 4300 times.

This is not Gerleman’s first foray into the intersections of archival research with a celebrity connection as he also has revealed the Civil War unionism of entertainment icon Dolly Parton’s family in an article which won the Journal of East Tennessee History’s McClung Award in 2019. “Attuned to the Past: Reconstructing the Civil War Legacies of the Parton Brothers of Sevier County, Tennessee,” used Civil War pension and military records to reconstruct the lives of Parton’s great-grandfather and his three brothers, all of whom fought in the Union Army. A consummate teacher, Gerleman takes his students along these exciting paths of research too. At Mason, he has developed an Honors course called “Reading the Past: Abraham Lincoln in American History and Memory” which used his own original research on Lincoln to train students in how to read and analyze historical documents. His teaching and research have been recognized internationally: he has just been selected as a Fulbright Scholar for 2024-2025 and will be in Hungary this fall, teaching in his field of specialty: Abraham Lincoln.

Gerleman modestly describes all the media hullabollo as a “fascinating experience”; but his ability to connect history to the contemporary imagination is clearly brilliant. Stay tuned for more, as Gerleman has a follow-up article that will be appearing in USA today in the coming weeks and has recently been named a reoccurring columnist for The Civil War Monitor magazine.