James H. Robinson (1844–1864)

James H. Robinson was a soldier in the Third Michigan Cavalry who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in Arkansas during the Civil War. However, his record of service proves a mystery, and it appears likely that he was awarded the Medal of Honor in a case of mistaken identity.

Little is known about the early life of James H. Robinson. The son of Cyrus Robinson, who was a farmer, and Deborah Robinson, he was eighteen years old when he enlisted in the Third Michigan Cavalry Regiment at Corunna, Michigan, on February 22, 1864, for a three-year term. The Third Michigan had completed its initial three-year term of service and reorganized as a veteran regiment on January 19, 1864. On furlough in Michigan when Robinson enlisted, the regiment served on provost duty in St. Louis, Missouri, until mid-May and then transferred to Arkansas. In November 1864, the Third Michigan was sent to Brownsville Station in Lonoke County on the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad to protect the railroad and operate against Confederate troops and guerrillas in the area, holding that position until February 1865.

Robinson received a Medal of Honor for actions on January 27, 1865, when, according to Major Gilbert H. Hudson of the Third Michigan, he was part of a four-man patrol sent toward Leggat’s Plantation on Bayou Meto, about four miles from Brownsville Station. While returning to base, “one of them, Private J. H. Robinson of Company B,” decided they were on the wrong road and returned to the bayou. Finding the correct road, he was on his way back to camp when attacked by “the rebel captain W. C. Stephenson and six of his men.” Robinson raced to Leggat’s house, where the Confederate captain ordered him to surrender: “Robinson replied that he was armed with a Spencer carbine and advised him not to come too near, after which several shots were exchanged which resulted in the killing of Captain Stephenson, one of his men and one horse—the remainder then fled.” Robinson remained at Leggat’s until morning and then returned to camp.

Robinson was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 4, 1865, with his citation reading that he “successfully defended himself, singlehanded against 7 guerrillas, killing the leader (Captain W. C. Stephenson) and driving off the remainder of the party.”

However, James H. Robinson’s service records show that he died of disease in Memphis on July 26, 1864, where he was buried in Grave No. 4131 at Memphis National Cemetery—seven months before the events for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Too, his mother, Deborah Robinson, filed for a mother’s pension in late 1864, with records confirming that James Robinson died of chronic diarrhea at Overton General Hospital in Memphis. His gravestone reflects both the 1864 death date and his receipt of the medal.

James Robinson apparently was awarded the Medal of Honor in a case of mistaken identity. There were two soldiers named Robinson in Company B of the Third Michigan Cavalry. Elias S. Robinson, age thirty-one, also enlisted in the regiment, signing up for a three-year term at Pontiac on February 23, 1864. Private Robinson was promoted to corporal on February 8, 1865—twelve days after the fatal altercation with Stephenson’s guerrilla band. Company B had been led by Captain Frederick C. Adamson since its organization in 1861, but Adamson left the service after being badly wounded in a skirmish at DeValls Bluff (Prairie County) on November 8, 1864. The veteranized company was organized under William H. Huston, who had enlisted at nineteen in Company C of the Third Michigan. Huston was promoted to second lieutenant in Company B on October 3, 1864, then first lieutenant on December 7; he was made captain of the company on July 4, 1865. Given the change in leadership in Company B and the fact that the new recruits would have been less familiar to their officers, it is conceivable that Major Hudson was simply provided with the name of the wrong Robinson when he wrote of the heroic actions of January 27, 1865.

Regardless, James H. Robinson was the recipient of record of the Medal of Honor. Elias Robinson mustered out with the regiment at San Antonio of February 12, 1866. The stone mason returned to Michigan. The father of a daughter and three sons, he died on January 2, 1872, at Birmingham, Michigan.

For additional information:
Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion Compiled and Arranged from Official Records of the Federal and Confederate Armies. Des Moines, IA: Dyer Publishing Co., 1908.

Medal of Honor Recipients 1863–1978, Prepared for the Committee on Veterans Affairs United States Senate, February 14, 1979. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1979.

Millbrook, Minnie Dubbs. A Study in Valor: Michigan Medal of Honor Winners in the Civil War. Lansing: Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission, 1966.

Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861–1865, Vol. 33. Kalamazoo, MI: Ihling + Everard, 1903.

Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas


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