George M. Robeson

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12+12 feet (3.8 m) long, weighed 480 pounds (220 kg), carried 70–90 pounds (32–41 kg) of guncotton explosives, and had a range of 300–400 yards (270–370 m). Compressed air drove the 1-foot (0.30 m) diameter, four-bladed propeller. The initial testing of the torpedo worked, although there were leakage problems and the azimith control had difficulty. [26] The depth mechanism worked well. [26]

In the summer of 1872, inventor-entrepreneur John L. Lay's self-propelled remote control torpedo test proved a success for the Bureau of Ordnance. The torpedo testing during the 1870s was the foundation for modern American underwater warfare. [24]

In 1873 and 1874 respectively, USS Alarm and USS Intrepid were launched, respectively equipped with spar and projectile torpedoes. By 1875 all U.S. naval cruisers were outfitted with spar and towing torpedoes, and naval officers were trained in their deployment. USS Intrepid was the first U.S. steam-powered projectile torpedo ship, built seven years before the British HMS Polyphemus, which was roughly of similar design and purpose. [27]

Dedicated Centennial Exposition land (1873)

On July 4, 1873 Robeson dedicated 450 acres (1.8 km2) of West Fairmount Park land set aside by the Fairmount Park Commission for the 1876 Centennial Exposition. [28] President Grant could not attend the event due to the death of his father. Grant chose Robeson to go in his place. Grant's Secretary of War William W. Belknap and Grant's Attorney General George H. Williams were scheduled to attend the dedication ceremony. Robeson later met Grant at Long Branch. [29] The Centennial Exposition opened on May 10, 1876.

Virginius incident and war crisis (1873)

The Spanish Butchery: illustrations of the U.S. naval response over the Virginius incident (Harper's Weekly, 1873) Virginius Incident 1873 Harper's Weekly.jpg
The Spanish Butchery: illustrations of the U.S. naval response over the Virginius incident (Harper's Weekly, 1873)

On October 31, 1873 a Spanish warship, Toronado, ran down and captured Virginius , a U.S. merchant ship that was smuggling in weapons and soldiers to aid Cuba's revolt from the mother country Spain. [30] The American public demanded war with Spain, as shocking news poured into the country that 53 British and American citizens who had joined up to aid the Cuban Insurrection were captured on Virginius and shot to death by Spanish Naval authority. In addition to this incident, a state-of-the-art Spanish warship was in port in New York Harbor, which excelled in lethal military technology compared to American warships. On November 14, 1873, Grant ordered the Navy to be put on war footing. [31] Robeson sent a flotilla of U.S. warships, part of the North Atlantic Squadron, to Key West, Florida, 90 miles from Cuba. However, the response time was slow, as the U.S. fleet finally assembled off Key West in late January 1874. [31] The U.S. Navy, was no match for the modern Spanish warships and navy. [31] One U.S. officer stated that two Spanish warships could have decimated the American flotilla, the best ships the U.S. Navy could offer at the time. [32]

During the Virginius crisis, Sec. Robeson decided that the primary goal for the Navy was a naval resurgence program to make monitor warships that could compete with foreign navies. Congress, however, refused to make new ships, believing that the technologically revolutionary ironclads made ten years ago somehow remained modern and were good enough for the U.S. Navy. [30] In a compromise, Robeson and Congress chose to "rebuild" five of the biggest U.S. warships, including an unfinished USS Puritan and four USS Miantonomahs. The ships were contracted out, torn down and scrapped, to be "rebuilt" as new warships by various contractors approved by Sec. Robeson. Work began in 1874, but Congress refused to give Robeson 2.3 million dollars to complete the ships. The almost complete USS Miantonomah was launched on December 6, 1876. Robeson was criticized for scrapping other monitors to pay for the new ones. [33] Secretary of State Hamilton Fish in December 1874 coolly negotiated a peaceful settlement with Spain, and the State Department successfully arbitrated Spanish reparations to the families of the Americans who had been executed. [34] The Virginius incident brought home the realities of having a weak navy and the need for a naval resurgence.

Ordered double turreted warships (1874)

In response to the Virginius Incident, Sec. Robeson ordered five warships on June 23, 1874, to implement U.S. naval resurgence; all participated in the Spanish–American War, which started in 1898. [35] The "rebuilding" of USS Puritan and four Miantonomohs were under the direction of Sec. Robeson. Each ship was redesigned, scrapped, and rebuilt from almost all new iron works material. [36] The five ships included the USS Puritan, the USS Amphitrite, the USS Monadnock, the USS Terror. and the USS Miantonomoh

At the beginning of the Spanish–American War, from April 22 through 24, 1898, USS Terror captured three Spanish warships: Almansas, Ambrosia Bolivar and Guido. USS Puritan shelled Matanzas on April 27, 1898. From May 5, 1898 to August 4, 1898 USS Miantonomoh served in a squadron of ships that blockaded the northern coast of Cuba. On May 12, 1898 USS Amphitrite hurled 17 10-inch (250 mm) shells shoreward, as well as 30 4-inch (100 mm) shells, 30 3-pounders and 22 6-pounders on San Juan, Puerto Rico. On February 10, 1899, USS Monadnock participated in the Battle of Caloocan, a few miles north of Manila.

Inflation bill (1874)

When the nation fell into a depression after the Panic of 1873, Congress responded by passing Bill S.617, dubbed the "inflation bill," that would add $400 million greenbacks (paper currency) into circulation. The bill also advanced an equivalent amount of specie-backed money. Both houses overwhelming approved the bill, believing it would bring relief, to a cash-depleted nation, expecting Grant, to quickly sign it. [37]

Grant, however, contemplated that matter and discussed it with his cabinet, having received the bill on April 14, 1874. He told his cabinet he would not sign the bill, believing it would be "a departure from true principles of finance." Grant's cabinet was both divided and speechless. Robeson spoke up and said he wished "the President had reached a different conclusion." Secretary of War William Belknap said a veto "would array the entire West in opposition." Secretary of State Hamilton Fish approved of Grant's veto. Grant vetoed the bill, while an attempt to override Grant's veto failed in the Senate. [37]

Feud with Bristow (1874)

When Benjamin Bristow was appointed Secretary of Treasury by Grant in June 1874, a feud developed between Bristow and Robeson within a few months. The controversy centered around Robeson wanting to have Senator A.G. Cattell appointed financial agent in London to negotiate a bond issue. Cattell had performed a similar service in 1873 under previous Secretary Richardson. Bristow refused to make the appointment and believed a Treasury appointee could do the job. Bristow lobbied Grant to appoint John Bigelow, head of the Treasury Department's Loan Division. Grant accepted Bristow's choice of Bigelow, but he warned Bristow that Bigelow had a previous episode of drunkness. [38] Bristow went further to undercut Robeson's influence in the Grant cabinet. Bristow told Grant that Robeson's Navy Department was financially mismanaged, and was under the control of former treasury secretary Hugh McCulloch's banking house. [38] Bristow's advisers warned Bristow to cool things off and take a less confrontational approach. [39]

Report on U.S. Navy (1875)

USS Intrepid, the United States' first propelled torpedo warship, was commissioned by Secretary Robeson and built-in 1874. Uss Intrepid 1874.jpg
USS Intrepid, the United States' first propelled torpedo warship, was commissioned by Secretary Robeson and built-in 1874.

On December 6, 1875, Secretary Robeson released his report on the condition of the U.S. Navy. The New York Times stated that the U.S. Navy was "stronger than at any time" since the Civil War. [40] Robeson stated in his report that by 1875 the U.S. Navy was the strongest it had been during Grant's presidential term starting in 1869. The U.S. Navy consisted of 147 ships of every class and description, and twenty-six ships were sailing vessels without any steam power. [40] Robeson stated that of the 147 ships in the U.S. Navy, 80 were available for war, including sixteen ironclads and two torpedo ships, USS Alarm and USS Intrepid. Intrepid was the second U.S. propelled torpedo warship, built-in 1874. The British Royal Navy would not have a propelled torpedo warship until 10 years later. There was a total of 1,195 guns on all the ships combined. Robeson commented that the U.S. Navy was introducing and experimenting with breech-loading howitzers in the naval system, that Gatling guns were on every ship in the U.S. Navy, and that the Torpedo School at Newport was developing efficient torpedoes that could cause great destruction. Concerning the five double-turreted monitors that Robeson had designed and ordered over a year ago in June 1874, he pressed Congress for funding to complete the ships. [40]

House investigation and corruption (1876)

In 1869, when Robeson was appointed Secretary of Navy by Grant, he had a total net worth of $20,000 and had "a slender law-practice". [41] A July 1876 Congressional investigation run by the Democratic House, revealed that Robeson deposited $320,000 in his bank account, well above his $8,000 yearly salary, from 1872 to 1876. [41] Robeson had cooperated with the investigating committee giving his testimony and bank deposit information. [41] The investigation revealed that Secretary Robeson gave a Philadelphia feed and grain firm, A. G. Cattell & Co., a $30,000 naval contract. [41] Cattell was soon earning brokerage commissions from other suppliers in order to gain federal naval contracts. [41] In addition to receiving kickbacks, Cattell bought Robeson a vacation home at Long Branch, New York. [41] Cattell's books upon investigation were found to be in disorder, and there was no direct evidence linking Robeson to kickbacks or the purchase of the Long Branch cottage. [41]

The Naval Committee's all-Democratic majority negative report stated that Sec. Robeson had run a "system of corruption" and recommended that he either be impeached by the House Judiciary Committee or that reform laws be made by Congress. [41] [42] No articles of impeachment, however, were drawn up for Robeson. [41] Grant did not ask Robeson to resign and supported the Naval Committee's minority-Republican report that exonerated Robeson. [41] Additionally, Robeson was accused by Admiral Porter of squandering $15,000,000 of missing naval construction funds, and of committing 30 misdemeanors. [43] Porter called Robeson the "cuttlefish" (a cephalopod known for camouflage) of the Navy because he believed Robeson was good at hiding his financial tracks and was supported by Grant's boyhood friend Daniel Ammen. [43] [44] Historians believe Robeson was exceedingly careless and partisan in his role as Secretary of Navy. [45]

Defended by Grant (1876)

Robeson seated second right of Grant in Grant's Cabinet 1876-1877 President Grant's Cabinet.tiff
Robeson seated second right of Grant in Grant's Cabinet 1876–1877

On December 5, 1876, President Grant defended Robeson in his 8th annual State of the Union Address:

"The fact that our Navy is not more modern and powerful than it is has been made a cause of complaint against the Secretary of the Navy by persons who at the same time criticize and complain of his endeavors to bring the Navy that we have to its best and most efficient condition; but the good sense of the country will understand that it is really due to his practical action that we have at this time any effective naval force at command." [46]

Additionally, Grant requested that Congress give more funding for the completion of the five modernized warships that Robeson had ordered in 1874. Grant stated that the high cost of building new ships was caused by the use of steam power machinery. [46] Grant commented on Robeson's annual report on the condition of the U.S. Navy:

"The report of the Secretary of the Navy shows that branch of the service to be in condition as effective as it is possible to keep it with the means and authority given the Department. It is, of course, not possible to rival the costly and progressive establishments of great European powers with the old material of our Navy, to which no increase has been authorized since the war, except the eight small cruisers built to supply the place of others which had gone to decay. Yet the most has been done that was possible with the means at command; and by substantially rebuilding some of our old ships with durable material and completely repairing and refitting our monitor fleet the Navy has been gradually so brought up that, though it does not maintain its relative position among the progressive navies of the world, it is now in a condition more powerful and effective than it ever has been in time of peace." [46]

Farewell speech (1877)

On March 14, 1877, two days after his term of office ended, Robeson gave a farewell speech to his former subordinate chiefs and clerks at the Naval Department at his luxurious K Street house in Washington D.C. He thanked them for showing up and said that he was leaving office with relief and regret. He said that workers in his Naval Department had served faithfully and that he himself had faithfully and steadily advanced the Naval Department. Robeson admitted he had made mistakes during his long tenure as Secretary of the Navy. He said he had the courage not to deny the rights of any man due to his class. [47]

After leaving the Navy Department in 1877, Robeson returned to his law practice in Camden County. [48]

Hunter murder trial

Although Robeson previously served as a state prosecutor, he served on the defense team of Benjamin F. Hunter, who was put on trial for the murder of John M. Armstrong. [49] Hunter had loaned Armstrong, a music publisher, $12,000, and had taken out an insurance policy on Armstrong for $26,000, as collateral. [49] Hunter hired Thomas Graham for $500 to kill Armstrong, so Hunter could collect the insurance policy. Armstrong had also owed money to Ford W. Davis, and Hunter plotted to frame Davis for the murder. While Hunter and Armstrong were approaching Davis' home, in Camden, Graham struck Hunter in the head with a hatchet marked "F.W.D." Graham dropped the hatched, ran away, while Hunter took the hatchet, and continued to strike Armstrong in the head. Armstrong later died in Philadelphia of head wounds. Davis was arrested and held in prison for a few weeks. Davis was released, after Graham confessed to the murder, and Hunter's involvement. [50] Hunter was indicted for murder and put on trial June 10, 1878. Robeson and Hunter's defense team argued that there was no evidence Hunter was in Camden at the time of the murder. [51] The jury, however, after 23 days of the trial, convicted Hunter. The case was appealed and rejected. Hunter was executed on July 10, 1879. [52]

Congressional career (1879–1883)

Robeson lampooned by Puck magazine for $150,000,000 surplus.
(Keppler 1882) "With thee to support me, I defy the whole world!" LCCN2012647226.jpg
Robeson lampooned by Puck magazine for $150,000,000 surplus.
(Keppler 1882)

In 1878, Robeson ran for and was elected to the U.S. Congress and served as a U.S. Congressman representing New Jersey's 1st congressional district from March 4, 1879, until March 3, 1881. [48] He was elected to a second term in 1880, serving from March 4, 1881, to March 3, 1883. [48] Although he was criticized in 1882 for allocating a large surplus to the Navy by the Democratic Puck magazine, historians today acknowledge that the U.S. Navy under President Chester A. Arthur, while Robeson was in office, made significant advancements by having all-steel ships. During the 1882 election, Robeson was defeated by Democrat Thomas M. Ferrell in a bitter campaign that left Robeson $60,000 in debt, and he was forced to sell his Washington D.C. property, including his luxurious mansion. [53] Robeson's political enemy, New Jersey U.S. Senator William J. Sewell, a Republican, was behind the Democrat Ferrell's successful campaign. As a result of the election loss, Robeson moved from Camden to Trenton and established a law practice, having been induced to represent the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. [53]

Sued by John Cambell

In 1885, Robeson was sued for $297 by John Cambell, a liveryman, who had aided Robeson during his 1882 First Congressional District election campaign. [54] Cambell had organized horses, the Sixth Regiment Band, and security for Robeson in support of the Republican ticket. Robeson at the time was Treasurer of the Camden County Republican Executive Committee, and Cambell claimed that Robeson did not pay him for his services. [54] Robeson stated that he had paid $75 to the leader of the band and that he paid $258 to 11 constables who were hired for security. Robeson said he did not believe that the hire of security and the band was necessary. Robeson also stated he had paid Cambell a check for $500 in addition to $300 for "political purposes". Robeson admitted he owed Cambell $42 for the hire of carriages. The jury returned a verdict that agreed with Robeson and Cambell was awarded $42 plus three years' interest. Justice Park on the Camden County Circuit Court presided over Robeson's lawsuit trial. [54]

In 1891, Robeson became interested in running for U.S. Congressman for the fourth time. However, the Trenton district was content with the Democratic ticket, and nothing became of Robeson's inquiry into public office. [53]


USS Puritan, two guns turreted, laid down in 1874 by Sec. Robeson, actively served during the Spanish-American War, bombarding Matanzas, Cuba on April 27, 1898. USS Puritan BM-1 Keystone View Company c1898.jpg
USS Puritan, two guns turreted, laid down in 1874 by Sec. Robeson, actively served during the Spanish–American War, bombarding Matanzas, Cuba on April 27, 1898.

Robeson continued practicing law until his death at the age of 68 on November 27, 1897. He is buried at Belvidere Cemetery in Belvidere, New Jersey. In less than one year after his death, the five requisitioned warships he ordered in September 1874 fought or served in active duty during the Spanish–American War, which started in April 1898.

Marriage and family

On January 23, 1872, Robeson married Mary Isabella (Ogston) Aulick, a widow with a son, Richmond Aulick. [55] Robeson and Mary had a daughter named Ethel Maxwell, who married William Sterling, the son of British Maj. John Barton Sterling, on November 22, 1910, in Christ Church, Mayfair, England. [55] [56] Mary's son, Richmond, graduated from Princeton University in 1889. [55]

The embittered 1882 Congressional election loss caused contention in Robeson's family. His wife went abroad and the campaign left Robeson destitute. In New Jersey, Robeson was called derisively "Poor Roby". James L. Hayes selected a small house near the State House in Trenton where Robeson lived and practiced law. [53]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Chicago Daily Tribune (Sep 28, 1897), George M. Robeson Dies
  2. 1 2 3 4 Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Robeson, George Maxwell (1829–1897)
  3. The Biographical Dictionary of American Biography (1906), p. 38
  4. "Civil War General William P. Robeson, Albumen Photograph and Military Commission". Retrieved 2020-01-29.
  5. The Political Graveyard, Robeson, George Maxwell (1829–1897)
  6. 1 2 Biographical Dictionary of America, 138
  7. 1 2 3 New York Times (June 1, 1867), The Coriell Murder , Accessed on 02-22-2013
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Paullin (1913), Naval Institute proceedings, Volume 39, p. 751
  9. 1 2 3 Donald Chisholm (2001), Waiting for Dead Men's Shoes, Origins and Development of the U.S. Navy's Officer Personnel System p 337
  10. 1 2 3 Charles Oscar Paullin (2012) Paullin's History of Naval Administration 1775–1911, pg 1874
  11. 1 2 3 4 Paullin (1913), Naval Institute proceedings, Volume 39, pp. 748–749
  12. 1 2 3 4 Paullin (1913), Naval Institute proceedings, Volume 39, p. 750
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 New York Times (November 7, 1870), The Riot at Norfolk, Va.; Washington Chronicle (November 2, 1870)
  14. Tyson (1874), pp. 107, 108
  15. Tyson (1874), p. 108
  16. Tyson (1874), pp. 108–109
  17. 1 2 Parry (2001), p. 415
  18. Parry (2001), pp. 269, 285
  19. Parry (2001), p. 155
  20. Mowat (1967), p. 162
  21. Parry (2001), p. 265
  22. Berton (1988), p. 390
  23. Berton (1988), p. 392
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 Undersea Warfare (Summer 2008), Issue 38
  25. The Navy and Marine Living History Association, The story of the Alligator
  26. 1 2 3 4 The U.S. Navy Fish Torpedo
  27. Robeson (1875), Report of the Secretary of Navy
  28. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, p. 461
  29. New York Times (July 4, 1876), "The Centennial Celebration"
  30. 1 2 Friedman (1985), p. 406
  31. 1 2 3 Rentfrow 2014.
  32. O'Toole (1984), p. 44
  33. Friedman (1985), p. 405
  34. Schwartz (October 1998), 1873 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago
  35. Friedman (1985), pp. 405–406
  36. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, Puritan
  37. 1 2 White 2016, pp. 545–546.
  38. 1 2 Calhoun 2017, pp. 447–448.
  39. Calhoun 2017, p. 449.
  40. 1 2 3 New York Times (December 7, 1875), "Secretary Robeson's Report"
  41. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 McFeely 1974, p. 153.
  42. Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Forty-second congress. 1872. pp. 1–.
  43. 1 2 Grant, Ulysses S.; Simon, John Y. (2005). The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. 27. pp. 63–4. ISBN   9780809326310.
  44. McFeely (1974), p. 153
  45. United States Naval Institute (1913). Naval Institute proceedings. pp. 1230–2.
  46. 1 2 3 Eighth Annual Message (December 5, 1876), viewed on 03-09-2015
  47. New York Times (03-15-1877), "Ex-Secretary Robeson Interview of the Chiefs and Clerks of the Department-Farewell Remarks of Mr. Robeson", view on 10-11-2014, PDF
  48. 1 2 3 Dictionary of American Biography
  49. 1 2 Lawson 1921, p. 57.
  50. Lawson 1921, pp. 57–58.
  51. Lawson 1921, p. 129.
  52. Lawson 1921, pp. 58–59.
  53. 1 2 3 4 New York Times (November 29, 1891), Mr. Robeson's Ambition
  54. 1 2 3 New York Times (July 9, 1885), Ex-Secretary Robeson Sued , Accessed on February 21, 2013
  55. 1 2 3 The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans (1904), Robeson, George Maxwell
  56. An historical and genealogical account of Andrew Robeson (1916)



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George Robeson
George Robeson 1865 1880.jpg
Chairman of the House Republican Conference
In office
March 4, 1881 March 3, 1883
Legal offices
Preceded by Attorney General of New Jersey
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by United States Secretary of the Navy
Succeeded by
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New Jersey's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Chair of the House Republican Conference
Succeeded by