Monday, November 16, 2009

Abraham Robinson Johnston - Soldier, Scholar and Favorite Son

Abraham Robinson Johnston was born to John Johnston and Rachel Hoping Robinson Johnston May 23rd of 1815. Robinson - as the family called him - was the second son of 5 boys, and as such was close to his elder brother, Stephen, in spite of the fact that 12 years separated them. When Robinson was only 5 years old, Stephen left to join the Navy. In a way this made him another 'first' son.

Robinson, more than any of the other boys, reflected his father's personality and interests, and seems from existing letters to have been the closest to him. Signed most often 'your affectionate' son, his letters are almost always addressed to 'my dear father'.

If one takes the letters of John Johnston's family and tries to piece their lives together - there is precious little info about the children in what is available from 1800 to 1840 - one comes away with an impression of a very well-educated, intelligent and humorous family, not immensely wealthy, but comfortable. A shift in political fortunes changed this to some extent, costing John Johnston his federal job and altering Robinson's life forever. John Johnston lost his job as Indian Agent due to the election of Andrew Jackson, and at that point Robinson was pulled from Miami Oxford University in Ohio where he was studying, and sent to West Point. The education at the military academy was free and from what his father said, that was a matter of some importance.

Apparently Robinson's first months at West Point were not spectacular. In February of 1831 his father received a letter telling him that "Cadet A. R. Johnston of the 4th class consisting of 87 members is 74 in Mathematics, 82 (in) French, ..He has committed 40 offences during these months 98 in demerit." In response to this John wrote to Robinson saying: "I do not of course well understand the above but you will, and whatever may have been amiss on your part for the late 6 months, you will have it in your power in future to rectify your experience there and your own good sense will point out your future course. In the present situation and resources of the family, the main dependence for money matters being cut off, makes it a measure of no little advantage to get one of the Boys supported and educated at the publick (sic) expense..... May you, my son, prove to be everything that I wish you, and in your maturer years be ranked among the Publick men, the Patriots and Sages of your Country." Robinson must have heeded his father's advice. By the end of his time at the Academy he had risen in rank to 23rd in a class of 61 and the Engineering Dept. informed his father that Robinson's conduct was 'exceptional'. He graduated July 1st, 1835 and was promoted in the army to the rank of Bvt. Second Lieut., Ist Dragoons.

Robinson had a distinguished military career spanning a little over 10 years, cut short by his tragic death at San Pasqual, CA in 1846. During the course of that 10 years he served at most of the forts in the West including Forts Gibson, Washita, Wayne and Leavenworth. Trained as were all the young men at West Point, he was a skilled engineer and his talents were put to use mapping and exploring - as well as policing - the wide open ranges of the American West. At one time he served with Captain Nathan Boone, Daniel Boone's son.

In 1846 Robinson was promoted to captain and made aide de camp to General Stephen Watts Kearney, who was placed in charge of the Army of the West during the Mexican War. The soldiers under Kearney traveled over 2000 miles, many of them on foot, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to just outside of San Diego. CA. At the bottom of a ridge, at an Indian village called San Pasqual, they encountered a band of Californios, and by the time the fighting was over 18 officers and men lay dead - including Robinson Johnston. General Kearney had put him in charge of the first assault of 12 dragoons and he was felled within seconds with a bullet to the head.

Stephen Johnston to John Johnston, May 31st, 1847 Norfolk, VA, Naval hospital

The melancholy intelligence of my poor brother’s death has only been conferred to me since my arrival at this place. My brother, to whom I was so much attached, how deeply do I feel his loss. I have tried in looking over the various accounts of that unfortunate expedition, to find some balm to my feelings, and I am gratified to say I found it in the official report of General Kearney. (sic) He says that Brother, with twelve dragoons, made a furious charge upon the line of the Enemy and in that met his untimely death. There was no dodging danger, everything was high-toned, chivalrous and becoming a Soldier. All this was like himself and precisely what he told me he would do were he to ever engage in battle with men in ranks. That he went off like a gallant soldier should certain be a source of melancholy satisfaction to his relatives who mourn his fate.

Robinson was 31 years old. He had become engaged to a young woman from New York by the name of Kate Cotheal shortly before he left for California. From what records remain, Kate never married. Letters seem to indicate that Robinson suspected he would die in California. He told a half-dozen people at least that he did not expect to return.

John Johnston to Mary McLean July 26, 1852

The information which you related about poor Robinson has reached me from other sources that he had a presentiment strongly impressed upon his mind that he never was to return from that campaign. He told the same to Major Cummings, his wife and daughters, at Fort Leavenworth.

As a last note, the image above may well be Robinson Johnston. When a comparison is made to his sister, Elizabeth's, portrait, there is a striking resemblance. At the least, it is a drawing done by Robinson and, as such, representative of him. The image is courtesy of Kenneth Woodward of the Woodward Museum in Ramona, CA.