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J.B. Robertson: The Man From Independence

by Diana Loski
General J.B. Robertson  (U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA)
General J.B. Robertson 
(U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA)

In the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, the heat of the day exacerbated the condition of the men of Longstreet’s Corps.The men had endured strenuous marching over the mountains; and, in addition to scant rest, they had received no rations and little water. With many unshod as well, the men marched resolutely toward Gettysburg.

In the ranks was the veteran Texas Brigade, filled with men who were used to privation.They were considered by most to be the best troops in the Army of Northern Virginia.They were led by their commander, a man from Kentucky who had made Texas his home.Even his name personified his martial spirit.He was General Jerome Bonaparte Robertson.1

J.B. Robertson was born in Woodford County, near Lexington, Kentucky in 1815; the fourth and youngest son of five children.His father, Cornelius (Neil) Robertson was a Scottish immigrant and was 45 years old when Jerome was born.His mother, Mary, was a native of Maryland.Like Abraham Lincoln’s family who had lived not far away, the Robertsons lost their property in a land dispute in 1819.Shortly thereafter, Cornelius died, leaving the family homeless and penniless.Jerome was just four years old at the time. Because of their destitute state, the boys were apprenticed to make money for the family’s sustenance.Jerome became the indentured servant and apprentice to a hatter in Union County, Kentucky when he was twelve years old.Three years later, the hatter died, and J.B. was sent to St. Louis, Missouri to be indentured and apprenticed to another.2

A doctor in St. Louis, also a Kentucky native, noticed the boy’s industry and was impressed.When J.B. through his frugality was able to purchase his release three years early at age 17, the doctor invited him to return to Kentucky as his assistant.The pair settled near Owensboro, and J.B. studied medicine under the physician’s tutelage.Robertson also attended Transylvania College to study medicine.3

He did not stay long in Owensboro.When news reached him about The Alamo and Texas’s quest for independence, he left with a group of riflemen for the Texas frontier.By the time they reached Texas, the Battle of San Jacinto had already decided victory for the new republic.Jerome stayed anyway, joining the army until it disbanded in 1837.He became a close friend of Sam Houston.  

Robertson married Mary Cummins, moved with his wife to the town of Independence in Washington County, Texas, and set up his shingle as a doctor.Three children were born to the couple:Felix, Julia, and Henry.Felix, who shared his father’s love of the military, wanted to go to West Point. His father’s friend, Sam Houston, procured his appointment in 1857.4

Dr. Robertson participated in two campaigns in Texas, fighting Indian uprisings.He also worked as the county coroner and was elected to the Texas state legislature, including state senator.

When the issue of secession was raised after South Carolina left the Union in December 1860; Jerome B. Robertson was part of the convention to decide if Texas should secede.In early 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia left the Union.Sam Houston advised against it. “ The North is determined to preserve this Union ,” he warned. He predicted great sacrifice and eventual loss of the fight.But the Texans didn’t listen to him.Always eager for independence, Robertson voted for secession.Texas joined the rest of the deep South.5

Robertson offered his services to the newly formed Confederacy, and was one of the first to raise a company to join the war effort.He became Captain of Company I of the 5th Texas Infantry.

Since Texas was still a frontier state, the men of the 5th were mostly in their early 20’s, still young but older than many who would fight for the Confederacy.They were fiercely independent, and used to unabridged freedom.They easily disliked their superiors if they felt they didn’t match up.Such was the case for the early 5th Texas commander, Maryland born James J. Archer.Thinking that Archer’s native state was too close to Yankeedom, the men refused to trust him.He was later sent to command a Tennessee brigade, and Robertson was put in command of the 5th at Archer’s parting, in the spring of 1862. 6

In the Peninsula Campaign, Robertson was wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Gaines Mill.He was wounded more severely, in the groin, at 2nd Manassas later that summer, where his men were again in the thick of the fight.Due to the serious nature of his wound and subsequent exhaustion, he missed the Battle of Antietam, where Hood’s Texans suffered great losses in the Cornfield against George Meade’s Pennsylvanians.He was back for the Battle of Fredericksburg, where his men were deployed in Lee’s center. The center was one spot on Marye’s Heights where the Union did not attack, and so casualties for the Texas boys were light that December.

Robertson and John Bell Hood (known as Sam to those close to him) were friends as well as compatriots.Hood had led the 4th Texas until receiving his brigadier star in March 1862.Both men were Kentucky born, and had made Texas their home.Moreover, Hood’s father was a doctor, another parallel point in their lives.With his physician’s background, Robertson tended to worry about the state of his men; and at times conferred with General Hood about his concerns.At one point Hood told Robertson that “ he reminded him of his Aunt Pollie .”One Texas soldier remembered that Robertson demonstrated “ a certain fussiness over trifles ” as well.For the rest of the war, and even afterward, the men called Robertson “ Old Polly”.7

Although he had earned his promotion to brigade command in late 1862, Robertson’s true test in leading a brigade in battle came at Gettysburg.

The Texas Brigade enjoyed a considerable reputation in Lee’s army.General Dorsey Pender, a division commander of Carolina troops in Hill’s Corps, said that his own division was “ second only to the Texas boys.”8

Robertson’s men were the only Lone Star soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. His brigade consisted of three Texas regiments:the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas Infantries and the 3rd Arkansas.

The brigade crossed the Potomac and marched into Pennsylvania, arriving after a long march in Greencastle.The next day, they marched to Chambersburg, and on July 1, they began their trek toward Gettysburg, where the battle had already commenced.9

On July 2, a Union general, dissatisfied with his position that included a swale between Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops, decided to reposition his corps toward the Emmitsburg Road.General Dan Sickles, without considering his orders, moved his men from the main Union line to various outlying places: Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard.In addition to this redeployment, Sickles, not a professional soldier, left big gaps between his troops – and General Longstreet took notice.

Robertson’s Brigade, part of Hood’s Division, arrived at Warfield Ridge south of Gettysburg after a long day’s march about 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 2.General Longstreet issued orders to immediately engage.At the time of their arrival, Little Round Top was empty of fighting Union troops, and Longstreet wanted the hill.

As soon as we arrived,” one Texan remembered, “our regiment was ordered into the thick of the fray.”10

Hood’s Division began the assault with the attack on the Federal left flank. General Hood, with Robertson near, spoke briefly to the troops and told them that the “ mountain ” (Little Round Top) was their objective. Artillery boomed from Devil’s Den – and smoke from Smith’s Battery rose above the trees.Pointing to the regimental flag, Col. Work of the 1st Texas shouted, “Follow the Lone Star Flag to the mountain!11

Robertson ordered his men to keep together, with their right flank touching Evander Law’s left.The Alabamians under Law marched to the far right, in an attempt to take Little Round Top from the side and back.Two of Robertson’s regiments, the 4th and 5th Texas, went with them. The move divided his brigade, leaving the 1st Texas and the 3rd Arkansas apart, with a large gap between them and the two regiments connected to General Law.

When General Robertson noticed, in the chaos of battle, that his troops were separated, he attempted to bring back his two errant regiments.He was informed that they were with Law, and they “ could not be spared.” 12

General Hood was severely wounded by a shell fragment, likely from Smith’s Battery, early in the fight.Robertson stayed with his two remaining regiments, and pressed on toward Devil’s Den and Little Round Top beyond it.

“We were under a severe fire from Federal cannon,” remembered a 1st Texas survivor, “at every report of which some went down.” 13

We were compelled to jump over the dead bodies of our brave brothers who had fallen ahead of us ,” recalled one of the 5th Texas who fought with Law’s men.“ So thick were the bodies in places that it was absolutely necessary for us to trample upon men who were probably only injured in order to charge ahead at the ‘double quick’.” 14

The 3rd Arkansas and the 1st Texas, with Robertson leading, headed for Devil’s Den.They pressed through the woods near the Rose Farm.The Arkansans took on DeTrobriand’s men and the Texans headed for the Triangular Field behind the den. 

General Robertson’s men were split and meeting threats from all angles, including the artillery from Smith’s Battery in Devil’s Den, and the strafing of bullets fromthe 20th Indiana, the 86th New York, and the 99th Pennsylvania.Though Robertson’s men gave as good as they got, they took heavy casualties.

Taking on the determined 124th New York Regiment, the Texans experienced “ Roaring cannon, crashing rifles, screeching shots, bursting shells, hissing bullets, cheers, shouts, shrieks and groans.” 15

Pushing past the dead and wounded in blue and gray, the 1st Texas reached Devil’s Den, taking control of three of Smith’s four artillery pieces – a great accomplishment.As the afternoon turned to evening and the shadows fell across the Plum Run Valley between Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, Texans from the 4th and 5th Regiments, who had followed close to the Alabamians marching toward Little Round Top, pressed on toward the Slaughter Pen.Here part of the brigade clashed with the 40th New York and the 6th New Jersey, who rushed at them “ fighting like tigers .”The Texans “were bitterly engaged in the struggle.” 16

Because of the Texans' excellent marksmanship in Devil's Den, many Union officers fell on Little Round Top, including both brigade commanders, one regimental commander, and the head of the battery – all killed or mortally wounded.Even General Warren, George Meade’s Chief Engineer, who worked to get Union forces on the hill, was shot in the neck, though he survived.From 500 yards, and without scopes on their rifles, the aim of the Texans was remarkable.

As night closed around the battlefield, General Robertson, too, was wounded near Devil’s Den.“ I was struck above the knee ,” he wrote in his report, “ which deprived me of the use of my leg and prevented me from getting about the field .” He turned over command to Colonel Work of the 1st Texas, and went to the rear, where wounded and dying men flooded the field hospitals.17

Ranks were decimated ,” wrote one Texas survivor.“ Order and discipline were gone and every fellow was his own general.Private soldiers gave commands as loud as the officers.Nobody paid attention to either.” 18

At about two a.m. on July 3, the Union forces remained on the Round Tops.The 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas were ordered to join their brothers-in-arms of the 4th and 5th Texas at the base of Big Round Top, behind the stone fences marking the Slyder Farm property.“ The Brigade remained there during the third ,” General Robertson recalled, “ keeping up a continuous skirmishing with the enemy’s sharpshooters, in which we had a number of our men severely wounded.” 19

Colonel Work remembered the experience in greater detail for the Lone Star and Arkansas boys: “ A terrific fire of artillery was concentrated against the hill occupied by this (the First) regiment, and many were killed and wounded, some losing their heads, and others so horribly mutilated and mangled that their identity could scarcely be established.20

While the Texas men dug in at the base of Big Round Top, and were involved in repelling Farnsworth’s Charge the next day, General Robertson’s fight at Gettysburg had ended.

 In the coming months, his vocalized opinions would bring him trouble.

With the fall of Vicksburg the day after Lee’s loss at Gettysburg, the Confederacy was concerned with Union control over the western theatre.General Longstreet and his corps, which included Robertson and his brigade, were dispatched to aid General Braxton Bragg’s army in Tennessee and northern Georgia.They arrived in time to fight the Battle of Chickamauga that September in northern Georgia, against the Union army commanded by William Rosecrans.

General Robertson was to be seen on all occasions at the front of his brigade at the Battle of Chickamauga,” remembered one of his men. The sanguinary battle was a Confederate victory – though the Texas Brigade again suffered substantial losses.Robertson was incensed at what he considered Bragg’s inept leadership, and also complained publicly about General Longstreet.21

Longstreet retaliated and threatened Old Polly with a court martial.Instead, Robertson received a reprimand and was dispatched back to Texas; where he commanded a reserve corps. In 1865, Robertson was transferred to the Trans-Mississippi region, to command a brigade of Arkansas troops.He was far from Appomattox where Lee and the residue of his old Texas brigade, who were by then few in number, surrendered at last.22  

In all, J.B. Robertson, who was 45 when he entered the war, participated in 40 engagements, and was wounded three times.At war’s end, he was already close to home, and returned to Independence and his medical practice.  

General Robertson enjoyed one interesting distinction with Robert E. Lee, shared by no other Confederate soldier. They were the only two Confederate generals who also had Confederate general sons.23  

Robertson lost his beloved wife, Mary, in 1868.Since his son, Felix, lived in Waco; the widowed doctor and his daughter, Julia, moved there to be near him and his family.The elder Robertson continued to practice medicine, and in 1879 he remarried.His second wife was the widow Harriet Hook.24

Due to the harshness of the Texas sun, Old Polly was stricken with skin cancer, notably on his face, shortly after his move to Waco.As the cancer spread, his health deteriorated.He often traveled throughout the state with his son Felix, and attended reunions of the old Texas brigade.Finally, with health too precarious to visit his old troops, Robertson instead sent letters of greeting.He died of cancer at his home in Waco, at age 76 on January 8, 1890.25

Old Polly’s son, Felix, lived to an advanced age.He died in 1928 at the age of 86, the last surviving Confederate general.26

Always zealous for independence, the Kentuckian-turned-Texan showed his mettle throughout his life, including the perilous fight at Gettysburg’s bloodiest day.He remembered Gettysburg as “ the hardest fought battle of the war in which I have been engaged .”Mingling his own life’s blood there with that of so many others, he simply did so because duty called – and that was enough.27

Sources: “Address” by Thomas McCarty, The 1st Texas File, Gettysburg National Military Park (hereafter GNMP).Ancestry.com: J.B. Robertson Family File.Brooks, Charles.“The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood’s Brigade.” Texas Troops General Info File, GNMP.Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command .Vol. III.New York:Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.“The Part Texans Took in the Battle of Gettysburg”, The Houston Post, 29 June, 1913.Longstreet, Gen. James, CSA. From Manassas to Appomattox .New York: William S. Konecky Associates, 1994 (reprint). Malone, Dumas, ed. The Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. XVI.New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948.Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg:The Second Day. Chapel Hill, NC:The University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Plummer, F.W.“One of the Oldest Survivors of the Battle of Gettysburg.”The Houston Post, June 26, 1913.J.B. Robertson Obituary, the Galveston Daily News, January 9, 1890.Accessed through Newspapers.com.Simpson, Colonel Harold B. Hood’s Texas Brigade: Lee’s Grenadier Guard. Waco: Texian Press, 1970.Smith, Miles.Houston Daily Express, 19 Sep. 1909.4th Texas File, GNMP.United States Census, Jerome B. Robertson, 1850, 1860. Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War: An Illustrated History .New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge, LA:Louisiana State University Press, 1959.Williams, Edward B. Hood’s Texas Brigade in the Civil War .Jefferson, NC:McFarland & Company, 2012. 

 

End Notes:  

1.Freeman, p. 751. 

2.Malone, p. 25.U.S. Census, 1850, 1860.Robertson’s mother lived to an old age, and is listed in the census as living with J.B. and his family.There is conflicting data that there was a son, James, younger than Jerome, but Ancestry files are often incorrect, or it is possible that he died in infancy.The author chooses to trust Dumas Malone’s version of Robertson’s early years.Most of the Ancestry files verify what Malone has written.  

3.Ibid.  

4.Warner, p. 260.Malone, p. 23.U.S. Census, 1850.  Henry, J.B.’s youngest, died at age 2.  

5.Ward, p. 27.J.B. Robertson Obituary, Galveston Daily News, Jan. 9, 1890.  

6. Brooks, p. 568.Warner, p. 11.  

7.Warner, p. 142, 261. Williams, p. 39.  

8.Brooks, p. 537.  

9.Smith, 4th Texas File, GNMP.  

10.Plummer, Houston Post, 26 June, 1913.  

11.Pfanz, p. 167.  

12.The Houston Post, 29 June, 1913, p. 44.  

13.McCarty, “Address”, p. 7.  

14.Plummer, Houston Post, 1913.  

15.Pfanz, p. 187.  

16.Ibid., p. 199.Simpson, p. 275. 

17.The Houston Post, 29 Jun. 1913, p. 44. 

18.Williams, p. 159.  

19. The Houston Post, 29 Jun, 1913, p. 44.  

20.Ibid.  

21.Longstreet, p. 415. Williams, p. 40.  

22.Warner, p. 261.Malone, p. 23.  

23.Robertson Obituary, Galveston Daily News, 9 Jan. 1890.Lee had two sons with the general’s rank: Custis and Rooney.  

24.Malone, p. 25.Julia later married, after her father’s death. 

25.Obituary, Galveston Daily News, 9 Jan, 1890.Some sources list tthat the general died     in 1891 or 1898.The obituary removes all doubt as to his death year.

26.Warner, p. 261.  

27.The Houston Post, 29 Jun, 1913, p. 44.

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