Forty-eight-year-old Jerome Bonaparte Robertson was called "Aunt Polly" by his men for his devotion to their well-being. He was described as a man of strong sense, kindly, with warm impulses and genial manners, but "not much cultivated or polished." He had lived a full life before his Civil War career began. Born in Kentucky in 1815, his father died when Jerome was twelve, and in order to earn a living, Jerome was apprenticed to a hatter. When his first master died, he was transferred to another in St. Louis, where at the age of eighteen he bought his release from the last three years of his contract. Though he was practically without any education, he was taken under the wing of a St. Louis doctor who instructed him and made him an office assistant. The doctor's tutoring enabled Jerome to enter Transylvania University as a medical student. His course of study at the University was only three months, however--at the age of twenty, inspired by Texas's war for independence from Mexico, he raised a company of like-minded Kentuckians, went south, and joined Sam Houston's Texan army. When he arrived in Texas in 1836, the battle of San Jacinto had already been fought and independence was assured, but Robertson and his company remained with the Texan army until 1837, when they were mustered out. Robertson then put down roots in Washington on the Brazos, Texas, where he married and settled down to practice medicine. He took time out each year between 1838 and 1844 to participate in at least one campaign against the Indians, and became a renowned Indian fighter. His fighting fame and social standing resulted in his being elected to both houses of the Texas state legislature, and in 1861 he was a secessionist delegate to the state secession convention.
When the South seceded, Robertson was in middle age, but he left his medical practice and, in the same spirit as a quarter-century before when Texas had "seceded" from Mexico, he raised a company of volunteers and headed for the capital of the new revolution. Arriving in Richmond, his company was made part of the 5th Texas volunteer regiment, and Robertson once more found himself captain in a rebel army. The 5th was brigaded with other Texas regiments in Richmond. This lone brigade of Texans in the Virginia army would soon win fame as "Hood's Texas Brigade." In early June 1862, J.J. Archer, the first colonel of the 5th Texas, was given his own brigade, and Robertson was promoted to take his place at the head of the regiment in time for the Seven Days.
There, in the brigade's first full-scale battle, the Texans won glory in their triumphant assault at Gaines' Mill, where Robertson was slightly wounded in the shoulder. He was back in command of the 5th Texas two months later at Second Manassas, where the Texas Brigade added to its reputation by spearheading another sledgehammer Confederate attack. At one point in the action, finding that the right of his regiment had gone ahead unsupported, Robertson did not recall the overenthusiastic companies, but instead sent the rest of the regiment to follow them. A few minutes later, Robertson was shot in the groin at the head of his regiment, which was then out in front of the whole Rebel army.
Robertson tried to stay with the army during the subsequent Maryland Campaign, but at South Mountain he had to be taken off the field after collapsing from exhaustion and the effects of his recent wound. He was too weak to fight at the climactic Battle of Sharpsburg three days later. Nevertheless, he was promoted to brigadier general on November 1, 1862, and given command of the vaunted Texas Brigade, taking the place of that other Kentuckian-turned-Texan, Maj. Gen. John B. Hood.
Robertson wouldn't have a chance to prove what he could do with a full brigade until the next summer at Gettysburg, however. At Fredericksburg, the division was unthreatened, and the Texas Brigade lost only six men. At Chancellorsville, Robertson's men were with the rest of Hood's division at Suffolk, out of harm's way during the battle of Chancellorsville.
| On July 1, Robertson and his brigade marched with the rest of Hood's
division moving east on the Chambersburg Pike from Greenwood to Marsh
On July 2, the Texans shared the day's frustrating stops, starts, marches and countermarches from Marsh Creek to the jump-off point for the division's attack against the Union left. They finally reached the Emmitsburg where it passed through Biesecker's Woods about 4:00 in the afternoon. Robertson's Texas Brigade was deployed, as always, in the first line for Hood's attack, to the left of Law's brigade in a two-brigade front.
About 4:30 P.M., Law's brigade advanced. Robertson and his men sprang forward immediately afterward. Robertson had been ordered to keep his right closed on Law and keep his left on the Emmitsburg Road, in conformity with Lee's wishes that the division attack generally northward. Law, however, had sent his brigade almost directly east against the Round Tops, and Robertson soon found that his brigade had to either abandon the road or disconnect himself from Law. Reasoning that McLaws was scheduled to strike soon on his left, he decided to break with the road rather than with Law, and he directed his own brigade eastward, directly at the Devil's Den. During the advance over hundreds of yards of broken terrain, "exposed to a destructive fire of canister, grape, and shell," the distance between the wings of his brigade lengthened, and Robertson lost contact with his two right regiments. He was informed that they had drifted into the middle of Law's brigade and could not be removed, so he sent a request to Law to look after them, and concentrated on his two left regiments at the base of Devil's Den and in Rose's Woods. Before long he became aware that McLaws's brigades were not appearing on his left as he expected, and he sent back for reinforcements. This was complicated by the fact that his superior, Hood, was at that moment being carried off the field with a shredded right arm, so Robertson sent his requests to corps commander Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet and to Brig. Gens. "Tige" Anderson and Henry Benning in his rear. The latter two brigades came up on either side of Robertson's two left regiments. Robertson thus, on his own initiative, effectively concentrated the attack of the bulk of Hood's division against Ward's and De Trobriand's Yankee brigades installed in Rose's Woods. As for his own brigade, however, it was all Robertson could do to hold his line that afternoon--breaking the Union line was never a possibility for Robertson's divided command. Late in the evening, Robertson was wounded above the right knee and couldn't walk. He left the brigade with his senior colonel and retired 200 yards to tend the wound. At the end of the day, Robertson's men slept in their positions around Devil's Den.
On July 3, Robertson was not engaged, and his brigade was ordered withdrawn late in the afternoon after the failure of Pickett's Charge.
Robertson was not among those commended by Longstreet after the battle. (Law, the acting division commander, never wrote a report.) Indeed, Robertson's career after Gettysburg was ruined by Longstreet's poor impression of him. Robertson, who appears stern and forbidding in his wartime photograph, was probably too humane, if anything. Perhaps his life's work in medicine unfitted him for the job of sending boys out to die in blind obedience to orders from superiors, for in the following months he was removed as brigadier of the Texas Brigade for incompetence--twice.
In September, Longstreet brought Hood's division to the aid of General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee in the West. There, Longstreet took official action to have Robertson removed from brigade command after the Battle of Wauhatchie, charging that "This officer has been complained of so frequently for want of conduct in time of battle that I apprehend that the abandonment by his brigade of its position of the night of the 28th may have been due to his want of hearty co-operation," and "He seemed to exercise an injurious influence over the troops. . . ." The army machinery moved slowly, however. Robertson was not immediately replaced, and the Knoxville Campaign commenced soon after with Robertson still in place. After the action at Bean's Station the next month, division commander Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins charged Robertson with "Conduct highly prejudicial to good order and military discipline." Evidently, at the height of that botched campaign, Robertson had been ordered to advance. Instead, he had assembled his regimental commanders and ranted, according to Jenkins, "That there are but three days' rations on hand, and God knows where more are to come from; that he . . . had no confidence in the campaign; that whether we whipped the enemy in the immediate battle or not we would be compelled to retreat . . . and that we were in danger of losing a considerable part of our army; that our men were in no condition for campaigning; that General Longstreet had promised shoes, but how could they be furnished; that we only had communication with Richmond, and could not even get a mail from there in less than three weeks; that he was opposed to the movement, and that he would require written orders, and would obey them under protest; and other language of similar character, all of which language was calculated to discourage the regimental commanders and weaken their confidence in the movement then in progress . . . , to create a distrust in regard to the safety of the troops, to prejudice them in regard to the management of the campaign, and tending to prevent that hearty and hopeful co-operation necessary to success."
The men of the brigade were entirely on the side of their dear "Aunt Polly." They appreciated Robertson for protesting orders to march through the snow to no purpose when many of them had no shoes. A staff officer with Longstreet's command, while feeling that Robertson had been "unjustly dealt with," admitted that Robertson was not "considered a good officer." The court-martial found Robertson not guilty of "ulterior motives," but guilty of "bad conduct." Robertson would never again serve with the First Corps. Good doctor Robertson, though not incompetent as alleged, was probably the wrong man to lead the Texas Brigade, the "shock troops" of Lee's army.
For further reading:
Laney, Daniel M. "Wasted Gallantry: Hood's Texas Brigade at Gettysburg," Gettysburg Magazine 16, Jan 1997
McMurry, Richard M. John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence, Lexington, KY, 1982
Piston, William G. Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History, Athens, GA, 1987
Simpson, Harold B. Hood's Texas Brigade: Lee's Grenadier Guard, Waco TX, 1970
Wright, Marcus J., comp., and Harold B. Simpson, ed., Texas in the War, 1861-1865, Hillsboro, TX, 1965