John Cleveland Robinson
Medal of Honor citation:
Rank and Organization: Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers.
Place and date: At Laurel Hill, Va., May 8, 1864.
Entered service at: Binghamton, N.Y.
Birth: Binghamton, N.Y.
Date of issue: March 28, 1894.
Placed himself at the head of the leading brigade in a charge upon the enemy's breastworks; was severely wounded.
John Cleveland Robinson, "the hairiest general ... in a much-bearded army," was born April 10, 1817, in Binghamton, New York. He also became known during the Civil War as a "salty old regular" and as one of the Army of the Potomac's bravest and most distinguished division commanders. Robinson matriculated at the Military Academy in 1835, but in his second class year was dismissed for a violation of regulations. On October 27, 1839, however, he was commissioned directly into the army as a second lieutenant of the 5th Infantry. During the Mexican War he served as a quartermaster and took part in the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and the capture of Mexico City. He became captain in 1850 and in the next decade saw duty in Florida, Texas, and Utah. The outbreak of the Civil War found him in command of storied Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, where he bluffed the local pro-Southern authorities into leaving the fort alone during the riots of April 19, 1861, which attended the passage of loyal regiments through the city. Later he engaged in recruiting volunteers in Ohio and Michigan and on September 1, 1861, was commissioned colonel of the 1st Michigan Infantry. The following spring he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers to rank from April 28 and fought throughout George B. McClellan's Peninsular campaign in command of a brigade in Kearny's division of the III Corps. He directed the same command at Second Manassas and at Fredericksburg, whereupon he was elevated to division commander in Reynolds' I Corps. His troops were only lightly engaged during the campaign of Chancellorsville, but on the first day at Gettysburg they formed the extension of the Union right on Oak Knoll. After Howard's XI Corps was swept from the field, the division fought savagely for hours, sustaining 1,685 casualties out of 2,500 men brought into action. Robinson retired the survivors in good order, and upon the reorganization which saw the I Corps's remnants consolidated with other units, he was given a division of Warren's V Corps. As the first Federal infantry to come upon the field of Spotsylvania early in the morning of May 8, 1864, he was ordered to assault the Confederate position without waiting to even mass his men. Putting himself at the head of his leading brigade, he made the attack but failed; Robinson himself received a ball in the left knee which necessitated the amputation of his leg and his removal from field duty. He commanded various military districts in New York until the close of hostilities, when he directed the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina for a time. In 1867 and 1868 he successively commanded the departments of the South and the Lakes, after receiving the brevet of major general in both the regular and volunteer forces. On May 6, 1869, he was placed as a major general on the retired list because of disabilities arising from wounds received in battle while in divisional command. General Robinson was lieutenant governor of New York from 1872 to 1874 and thereafter devoted much time to veterans' activities, serving at various times as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic and president of the Society of the Army of the Potomac. For his "most distinguished gallantry while at the head of his leading brigade" in the attack at Spotsylvania, he received the Congressional medal on March 28, 1894. The last years of his life, totally blind, he lived in Binghamton, where he died on February 18, 1897, and was buried in Spring Forest Cemetery.
Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.