John Cleveland Robinson was born in Binghamton, NY, April 10, 1817. At the age of eighteen he entered the military academy at West Point, where he remained three years, and then left with the intention of studying law.
After a year of civil life he joined the regular army, in which he received a commission as second lieutenant in the Fifth Infantry. He was promoted to a first lieutenancy in 1846, the rank which he held during the Mexican War, in which he fought with distinction at Monterey, and was present, also, at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. He was commissioned captain in 1850. He served in 1856, in the Florida War against the Seminole Indians, a campaign in which he made a further record for bravery and efficient services. At the close of the Seminole War he was ordered to Utah, where he was assigned to the command of Fort Bridger.
Returning East he was placed in command of Fort McHenry, at Baltimore, where he was stationed at the outbreak of the Civil War. The Confederate conspirators contemplated a seizure of this important point, the capture of which would have inflicted a serious blow on the Union cause at that critical period. As the fort was garrisoned by only sixty men, Robinson felt apprehensive as to the result, but succeeded, through a clever ruse, in making the Confederates believe that reinforcements had arrived, and so their plans were abandoned.
With the progress of the war, promotion was rapid in the regular army. Robinson, who had been ordered on duty at Detroit as a mustering officer, was made colonel of the First Michigan Volunteers, in September, 1861; and, soon after, he received a commission as major of the Second United States Infantry. On April 28, 1862, he was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers, having already been placed in command of a brigade at Newport News, VA. He was transferred soon after to the Army of the Potomac, where he was assigned to a brigade in Kearny's Division of the Third Corps, with which he participated in most of the battles before Richmond. General Kearny in his official report of the Seven Days' battle says:
"I have reserved General Robinson for the last. To him this day is due, above all others in this division, the honors of this battle. The attack was on his wing. Everywhere present, be personal supervision and noble example he secured for us the honor of victory."
On the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac from in front of Richmond Robinson's Brigade moved with the rest of McClellan's army to reinforce General Pope, and was actively engaged in the battles around Manassas. With his brigade, he next fought at Fredericksburg, after which, on December 29, 1862, he was assigned to the command of the Second Division of the First Army Corps. He was present at Chancellorsville with his division, but was not in action, the First Corps receiving no orders from General Hooker to advance.
At Gettysburg his division took a prominent part in the hard fighting of the First Corps during the battle on the first day, his trooops holdiing the right of the corps line. Robinson manoeuvered his trooops rapidly and skilfully, holding a superior force in check for hours, and capturing, in an open field fight, a large part of Iverson's North Carolina Brigade. He was brevetted lieutenant colonel of the regular army for meritorious service at Gettysburg, and colonel, for services at Mine Run and the battle of the Wilderness.
On the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac in 1864, the First Corps was transferred to the Fifth, and, with it, Robinson's Division. After the battle of the Wilderness, General Grant ordered the army to Spotsylvania, with the intention of seizing that point before General Lee could occupy it. Robinson's Division moved first, and arriving there found the advance of the Confederate army already on the ground. Realizing the importance of securing that strategical point, Robinson, wihtout waiting for supports, attacked promptly and vigorously. In this engagement, known as the battle of Alsop's Farm, May 8, 1864, Robinson, while leading his men in the fight, was shot through the left knee, and was borne from the field. The wound necessitated the amputation of his leg, and the gallant general, thus permanently disabled, retired from active service in the field. For his conspicuous bravery in this action, where he rode at the head of his troops in their assault on an intrenched position, he received from the War Department the decoration of the Medal of Honor, and was brevetted major general in the United States Army.
As soon as his wound would permit he returned to duty, having been placed in command of the Military Department of the State of New York. After the war, in 1866, he served as military commander and commissioner of the Freedman's Bureau in North Carolina. In 1867, he was at the head of the Military Department of the South, and, in 1868, of the Department of the Lakes. On May 6, 1869, General Robinson was placed on the retired list of the United States Army with the full rank of major general, and his long military career with its honorable and brilliant record was brought to a close.
But further honors were awaiting him as a civilian, and in 1872, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York on the same ticket with Governor John A. Dix.
He was chosen commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1877, and in 1887, was elected president of the Society of the Army of the Potomac. For several years before his death he was blind, and members of the Loyal Legion will long remember the pathetic scene at one of their banquets at Delmonico's, when the white-haired veteran, standing with sightless eyes in that brilliant scene, bid his old companions-in-arms a final farewell. With hearts softened by emotion the 600 officers present at the banquet arose and gave three cheers for their departing comrade. He died a few months later, on February 18, 1897, at his home in Binghamton, at the age of seventy-nine years.