Major William Robertson

Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infanty

It is nice to know that the home of one of the Fifth Iowa's senior officers resides in the loving care of people who appreciate its heritage. The picture above reveals the fine state of this historic home in Muscatine, Iowa. In this house, Major Robertson would entertain a good friend of his--General Ullyses Grant--when the commander of the Union armies, and future president of the United States. The two officers and gentlemen would sit together in the parlor, smoking cigars and sipping brandy.

Major Robertson's military service was all too brief, and the reasons behind this are rather complicated. A native of Pennsylvania, he resided in Columbus City when he was appointed major in the newly formed Fifth Iowa Infantry regiment on July 15, 1861. He was respected by his peers… as would be evident when the regiment found itself in need of a new commander ten months later.

Colonel William Worthington, the regiment's initial colonel was tragically shot by a Federal picket while acting as general officer of the day on May 22, 1862, near Corinth, Mississippi. What transpired next is not recorded in the official roster. The roster simply records that the following events occurred:

July 15, 1861 - Colonel William Worthington is killed
May 23, 1862 - Lieutenant Colonel Charles Matthies is promoted to Colonel
July 13, 1862 - Major William Robertson resigns his commission

An interesting sequence of events, one which the brief regimental history in the official rosters glosses over. However, the following passage from an 1889 Muscatine County, Iowa publication, Portrait and Biographical Album, reveals a more complex series of events:

On the 22d of May… the brave Commander of the regiment, Col. W.H. Worthington, was killed, and at a meeting of the officers of the regiment called to nominate his successor, an informal ballot gave Maj. Robertson every vote for the vacancy, and he was accordingly nominated by acclamation. Duly appreciating this expression of confidence from his fellow officers, he resolved to accept the position to which he had been so flatteringly nominated, and desiring to arrange his affairs at home, applied for a thirty-days leave of absence, which he was refused, however, in consequence of orders issued from department headquarters, detaining all officers able for duty in the field. Having some important business imperatively demanding his presence at home, by the advice of Gen. Halleck, and with the district understanding that he would rejoin his command on receipt of his commission as Colonel, his resignation as Major was tendered, and accepted July 23, 1862. Notwithstanding the fact that the officers of the regiment were asked by the Governor why they did not recommend promotion in their regiment according to seniority of rank, they reiterated their demand for this appointment by a unanimous vote, giving good and sufficient reasons for the same.

Now, the passage above in no way impugns the character of Colonel Matthies, a Prussian immigrant, who eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General. The simple truth is that the military seldom appreciates courses of action which do not conform to the norm. Thus, when presented with two able officers, those in authority cared less for the (unanimous) preference of the officers of the regiment, than they did for "standard operating procedures." The end result was that Major Robertson's service during the War Between the States ended all too soon. Nevertheless, he continued to serve his Nation, and ended his life as Professor of Theory and Practice of Medicine and Chemical Medicine at Iowa State University. The following outlines some of the highlights of his military service:

At the outbreak of the Rebellion in 1861, he raised the first company of volunteers that was recruited in the State, and tendered them to the Governor; but for some reason, which has never been made public, they were not accepted. On the 13th of June, 1861, he was mustered into the army as Major of the 5th I.V.I., being present at and participating in every march and siege, skirmish and battle of that gallant regiment, till the 23d of July, 1862; in a night attack in front of New Madrid, on the 4th of March, 1862, and in an afternoon skirmish on the 6th of March, he was made the special target of the enemy's sharpshooters, and had five minie balls through his coat, his horse shot down, and the hair shaved off both sides of his head at once by bullets; near Rienzi, Miss., on the 10th of March, in the same year, in company with his servant and six cavalrymen, he was cut off from camp while out on a tour of inspection as a picket officer, and hewed his way with his saber through two line of rebel infantry, reaching his camp in safety, with the loss of two men; he had also the honor of commanding the left skirmish line of the army of the Mississippi, in front of Corinth, at the time that stronghold was evacuated by Beauregard.

The Fifth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry regimental site is grateful to Rick and Becky Peters, current owners of Major Robertson's home, and preservers of his legacy.

Return to the Fifth Iowa Infantry Personnel
Return to the History of the Fifth Iowa Infantry