The following article was written for the Bethany Republic-Clipper, by Phil Stewart, with whose permission it is used.
A FORGOTTEN HERO: THE STORY OF WILLIAM ROBINSON
A noted historian once said that "When history is lost it becomes legend, and when legends are lost they are lost forever." Such is the case with many of our founding fathers and much of our local history. People, places and events fade from our memories with the passage of time and through the so-called "progress" of our modern society.
One such figure is William Perrine Robinson, who quite possibly did as much as any man in the formation and development of Harrison County during the last half of the nineteenth century. He was a farmer, a soldier in two wars, an elected county official, the first editor of the Bethany Republican newspaper and, through the passage of time, an almost forgotten man.
As was the case with most early residents of Harrison County, William Robinson was not born in Missouri. The lands of western Missouri, including what is now Harrison County, were wild and predominantly unsettled at the time of his birth in 1826, but the area would soon witness a flood of immigration and growth as settlers came west in search of land and opportunities. Among these pioneers was William Robinson, who came to Harrison county with his new bride in 1854 and purchased a farm in Colfax township near the Iowa state line. Although he was just 26 years old, Robinson quickly established himself as an honest, capable and likable young man who was college educated and had served as an Orderly Sergeant in the Mexican War under General Winfield Scott.
The peace and prosperity of the 1850s would soon give way to the horrors of the Civil War. Although he had been born in Kentucky of southern parentage, William Robinson was a strong and outspoken supporter of the Union and was among the first of Harrison County’s young men to join the federal forces. Company D of the 23rd Missouri Volunteer Infantry was being formed in Harrison County in the summer of 1861 and, as was the practice at the time, Robinson was elected Captain by the men of the company. The unit was formally mustered into the 23rd MO on September 22, 1861.
The unit’s first battle came on April 6, 1862 near a crossing on the Tennessee River called Pittsburg Landing. History would refer to it as the Battle of Shiloh. The 23rd, along with Company D of Harrison County, was assigned to a Division under the command of General Benjamin Prentiss. Prentiss would become known as "The Hero of the Hornets Nest" for his actions during the battle and would later become a distinguished resident of Bethany. But on April 6, 1862, being a hero was the last thing on the minds of General Prentiss and the men of Company D. For these men, the main goal was survival, and many would lose their lives. Cut off from the main army and surrounded by their enemy, the entire regiment of the 23rd Missouri was forced to surrender to Confederate forces. Although wounded in the battle, Capt. Robinson survived, and along with his men, was transported to a Confederate prison near Atlanta until they were formally exchanged a few months later. Upon his return to duty, Robinson was promoted to Colonel and given command of the entire regiment, replacing Colonel Tindall who had been killed during the battle. Colonel Robinson continued to serve as commander of the 23rd until the unit was mustered out of the service on September 22, 1864.
William Robinson returned to Harrison County nothing less than a hero to its residents. Most of the local men who had served during the war had been under his command. He had been their leader in battle and their friend in peace. Few ties are stronger among men, and Robinson was quickly elevated to a position of prominence within the community.
In 1867, Robinson and a small group of investors founded the Harrison County Press and began publishing the Bethany Republican newspaper, the grandfather of today’s Republican-Clipper. After six months as its editor, Robinson sold his interests and entered politics. He served as the deputy county clerk from 1867 to 1872 when he was elected Probate Judge, a position he held until 1878. After resigning from the legal bench, Colonel Robinson served as County Clerk until resigning from political life in 1892. Two years later, at the request of the editor, Robinson returned to the Bethany Republican newspaper as a writer and associate editor. His failing health forced him to leave the paper in 1899.
Colonel William P. Robinson died at Manhatten, Kansas, in June, 1904. His body was returned to his old home at Bethany where he was laid to rest in Miriam Cemetery with full military honors. His old newspaper stated that "All business was suspended in the city from 2 o’clock until the conclusion of the service..." Such high regard was given to the fallen colonel that the Post Office Department in Washington DC was contacted and gave permission to close the local facility and to fly the flag at half-staff. This act was "an act of courtesy on the part of the government, recognizing the worth of Colonel Robinson, both as an officer and a man." The paper reported that permission to close the post office was "the first instance in our city."
Colonel Robinson now lies near a small grove of trees along the ridge in Miriam Cemetery. There are no glowing tributes engraved on his stone. No accounts of the many battles or the years of public service. He simply lies beneath a modest stone, next to his beloved wife. A short distance to the south rests General Benjamin Prentiss, "Hero of the Hornets Nest", complete with epitaph and military service stone. One is forever enshrined in the history books of the Civil War, while one has been all but forgotten. Almost.