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Grandson of Parliamentarian Visits American Camp

San Juan Island National Historical Park

National Park News

Park staff, volunteers and San Juan islanders accompanied Henry M. Robert, III on a Tuesday (August 28) visit to the earthwork constructed in 1859 by his author/parliamentarian grandfather at San Juan Island National Historical Park's American Camp unit. 

Robert, III began his association with Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised when he assisted his mother, Sarah Corbin Robert, in writing the 1970 edition of the originally published by Henry M. Robert, Sr., in 1876. He holds degrees in the Great Books Program of St. John's College in Annapolis and in physics (Laval University, Quebec). He has served as Parliamentarian of the National Association of Parliamentarians. 

Second Lieutenant Henry M. Robert, Sr.  of Company A, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was dispatched to San Juan Island by Brig. Gen. William S. Harney at the height of the Pig War crisis. Robert and his 10-man sapper was to report to Lt. Col. Silas Casey, by then in command U.S. troops on San Juan, who would place him in charge of creating a fortification for the naval guns, as per Harney’s instructions:  “...Have platforms made for your heavy guns, and cover your camp as much as possible by entrenchment, placing your heavy guns in battery on the most exposed approaches...select your position with the greatest care to avoid fire from the British ship(s).” 

Robert and his crew landed on August 21 and almost immediately went to work, supplemented by details from Casey’s infantry and artillery companies. According to the diary of William A. Peck, Jr., one of Robert’s soldiers, the fort was “laid out of an irregular form 425 feet long above the natural ground; ditch 20 feet wide, not less than 8 feet deep.” 

Peck wrote that the earthwork had been altered two days later, but gave no new dimensions. When the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft visited the site in 1887, he measured the work and jotted down essentially the same dimensions as today: 350 feet on the west side, 100 on the southeast and 150 on the northeast. Five gun platforms were completed, two of them at the corners, with the parapet seven feet above the interior, the exterior 25 to 40 feet, and ditch at the bottom from three to five feet across. Robert, an 1857 graduate of West Point, built the work based on knowledge gleaned during his studies at the academy under Professor Denis Hart Mahan. Mahan had first published a book on the subject in 1836 and had updated it over the years. The cadet curriculum also included hands-on construction of model and full-sized fortifications. 

For all this back-breaking labor, the redoubt never fired a shot in anger. In fact, only three guns were ever emplaced and these merely fired a salute to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott when he visited Griffin Bay on November 7, 1859. The general had ordered work on the fortress stopped after he and British Columbia Governor James Douglas agreed to reduce their forces on the island. 

In ensuing years, the work became known as “Robert’s Gopher Hole.” Nevertheless, as an instrument of policy -- however misguided that policy may have been -- the redoubt had done its work. It had served notice that the Americans intended to remain and spurred the British to time and again re-evaluate their options during the crisis. 

After leaving San Juan, Robert went on to serve a long career in the Corps of Engineers, eventually retiring as the corps commander and a brigadier general. Along the way he found time for pursuit of his hobby, parliamentary procedure, which was eventually parleyed into the book still in print today.

 



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