In every war, there are the necessary leaders, the necessary foot soldiers. Some are forever preserved in the history texts across the country, and some are largely forgotten, except to that small group of avid historians, academics, and researchers. Major General Robert Patterson was a man of influence – good and bad – during three United States conflicts: the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, and the Civil War. His story, along with thousands of others, deserves to be told.
Robert Patterson was born on 12 January 1792 in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His family was forced to leave due to his father’s acts as a insurrectionist, and he immigrated to America in 1799. Enlisting as a young man, he served in the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia during the War of 1812, rising from captain to colonel. Before the end of the war, he would join the United States Army, and was ultimately discharged in 1815 as a Captain of the Quartermaster General Department.
After the battles came to an end, Captain Patterson returned home to Pennsylvania, where he engaged in manufacturing and established several mills. He was involved in both local and national politics, being one of the five Col. Patterson’s in the Pennsylvania Convention that nominated Andrew Jackson for the Presidency in 1836.
At the start of the Mexican American War, Patterson again stepped forward to fight. Leading a volunteer unit, he eventually would see action at both the Siege of Veracruz and the Battle of Cerro Gordo, where he was wounded. His enlistment time expired when in Jalapa, and so he returned to Philadelphia, and grew his business to become one of the largest mill-owners in the United States.
His Civil War term was not so glorious. As Major General of Pennsylvania volunteers, he received vague orders to retake Harper’s Ferry. He failed to act quickly on these orders, however, and was ultimately held responsible for the Confederate Army’s reinforcement troops unopposed march to the First Battle of Bull Run. He was mustered out in 1861, less than a year after rejoining.
At least two of his sons also had military careers; Brigadier General Frances E. Patterson and Union Brevet Brigadier General Robert E. Patterson. Major General Patterson died on August 17, 1881, and is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Although Robert Patterson’s military career may not be one filled with heroic’s and glamour, it is one that tells of a man that saw history being made, three times over. His place in history should be remembered, as well as all of the men and women that wear the uniform of the United States military. Thanks to the historic preservation effort being undertaken today, many more stories are being saved, as we digitize the War of 1812 Pension files.