GEORGE MAXWELL ROBESON was a lawyer by trade. He served as a Union general during the Civil War, and then as Secretary of the Navy during the Grant administration.

George M. Robeson was born in Oxford Furnace in Warren County NJ on March 16, 1829. He pursued an academic course and was graduated from Princeton College in 1847; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1850 and practiced in Newark and subsequently in Camden; appointed prosecuting attorney for Camden County in 1858; was active in organizing the State troops for service in the Civil War and was commissioned brigadier general by New Jersey Governor Parker.

After the war, he was appointed New Jersey state attorney general, serving from 1867 to his resignation June 22, 1869, when, on June 25, 1869 he was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Ulysses S. Grant, replacing Adolph E. Borie who served only a few months. He held the position until the end of Grant's second term, serving from June 26, 1869 until March 4, 1877. After leaving the Cabinet, George M. Robeson ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senator from New Jersey in 1877. In 1879 he was elected U.S. Representative from New Jersey's 1st Congressional District, serving until 1883. While a member of the House of Representatives he made another attempt, in 1881 at a Senate seat, this too was unsuccessful. During the 47th Congress, (1881-1883), he was chairman of Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Navy.

Defeated in his bid for re-election in 1883, George M. Robeson Robeson returned to his law practice and worked there until his death in Trenton, Mercer County, NJ, on September 27, 1897. He is buried at Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, N.J.

George M. Robeson lived at 214 North Third Street. After his passing, his home was bought by Elizaberth Carlin, who lived there until 1940.

Camden Democrat
June 12, 1858


Trenton Historical Society


First among the societies of this character to be formed in Trenton was apparently the New Jersey Society, Sons of the Revolution. Although this is a State society of a national organization, it was formed by Trenton men, descendants of Revolutionary ancestors. From that time to this Trentonians have been conspicuous in the New Jersey Society of the Sons, many of them holding high office in that organization.

Judge Garret D. W. Vroom, a distinguished jurist of this city, always greatly interested in America's early history, Colonel S. Meredith Dickinson, descendant of one of the most gallant officers of the Revolution, and former Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson were three of those who signed the call for the meeting January 6, 1891, at which the New Jersey Society was formed.

It was at a meeting March 3, 1891, that the formal organization took place, and Colonel Dickinson was elected to the presidency. Clement H. Sinnickson, of Salem, was elected as vice-president; John A. Campbell, secretary; General Thomas S. Chambers, treasurer; Foster C. Griffith, registrar; Morris H. Stratton, of Salem, historian; and General George M. Robeson, Judge Vroom, General S. Duncan Oliphant, H. H. Hamill and Dr. William Elmer, all of this city, Bayard Stockton, of Princeton, C. A. Bergen, Peter L. Voorhees and William John Potts of Camden, members of the board of managers.

HARPERS WEEKLY - June 20, 1885

“Preserved Lumber”
by Thomas Nast

“Preserved Lumber”

The board of investigation was forced to the following conclusion: "That the art of preserving timber has no practical value whatever."

This cartoon is part of a series by Thomas Nast that criticizes the feeble state of the United States Navy.  Here, he blames former Navy Secretaries George Robeson (left; 1869-1877) and William Chandler (right; 1882-1885), who appear encased in glass as "preserved lumber" on the "Navy Department shelf."

For decades following the conclusion of the Civil War, America's tiny navy was not only far smaller than the navies of European powers but even lagged behind countries such as Turkey and Chile.  It was also increasingly outdated, lacking steel ships and other competitive advantages.  The modernization and expansion of the U.S. Navy was impeded by several factors:  a traditional American aversion to a large peacetime military, debates over what strategy should be pursued (defensive, offensive, or balanced) and thus what type of vessels should be built, budget-conscious congressional appropriations that left the Navy under-funded, and charges of corruption in shipbuilding contracts and other areas of Navy Department operations.

The Navy was already in disrepair when Robeson became secretary in 1869.  He had difficulty getting Congress to allocate sufficient monies for upkeep, thereby forcing him to cut costs. In the election year of 1876, House Democrats initiated numerous investigations of the Grant administration, including possible corrupt practices by Secretary Robeson.  The main charge stemmed from the activities of Alexander Cattell & Co., a firm that gained profitable contracts from Robeson's Navy Department and offered itself as an influence broker for other companies doing business with the Navy.  The Cattells had clearly furnished Robeson with favors, including substantial loans, repayment of large debts, and real estate.  Still, no direct evidence linked Robeson or his subordinates to influence peddling or to any questionable Navy contracts.

William Hunt, who was briefly Navy secretary in 1881 under President James Garfield, established a Naval Advisory Board headed by Rear Admiral John Rodgers.  The Rodgers Board proposed a Naval program that emphasized rebuilding, including using steel rather than iron or wood.  In March 1882, the House Naval Affairs Committee recommended that Congress fund 15 ships.  Many congressmen and journalists, however, attacked the alleged corruption and wastefulness of the Navy Department, so the full Congress only approved the construction of two ships.

But Hunt's successor as Navy secretary, William Chandler, argued against building one of the approved ships, which were large and expensive, and instead recommended construction of medium-sized vessels.  Besides being conscious of Congressional resistance to Naval expenditures, Chandler favored the traditional Naval strategy that balanced defensive and offensive military capabilities.  Many in Congress, especially among the majority House Democrats, preferred a wait-and-see approach, stressing that funding would be wasted if advances in naval technology outpaced construction.

Chandler appointed a second Naval Advisory Board, chaired by Commander Robert Shufeldt, which reflected the secretary's preference for strategic balance over innovation.  In January 1883, debates on the Shufeldt Board's recommendations revealed an important attitudinal shift in which some congressmen assailed the Board and Chandler for failing to advance a larger, modernized Navy.  In March 1883, Congress appropriated funds for construction of the ABCD ships:  Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin.  Those favoring an expanded Navy saw it as a starting place, while those opposed viewed it as a proper limit.

In order to be large, fast, and inexpensive, the ships were unarmored and lightly armed.  At the time this cartoon appeared, the tests for the Dolphin were proving to be disastrous, and the press was having a field day.  During its first trial, the ship's shaft broke; the second trial was officially deemed satisfactory, although rumors questioned the report's veracity; and in the third trial, the crank pin overheated, so that the engines had to be stopped.  A fourth trial was scheduled.  When finally put into service, the Dolphin served not as a warship, but as an excursion boat for government officials and journalists whom the Navy needed to court.

Despite their limitations and problems, the ABCD ships can be identified as the beginning of the new Navy. By the end of 1885, Navy Secretary William Whitney and Congressional supporters had adopted a new strategy for the Navy:  that the best defense is a good offense. In 1886, Congress approved construction of the battleships Texas and Maine, and the expansion and modernization of the U.S. Navy was underway.  It would not be until five years later that Alfred Mahan, president of the Naval War College, published his book, The Influence of Sea-Power on History, which is often credited with inspiring the modern American Navy.

Robert C. Kennedy

From Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872 


GEORGE MAXWELL ROBESON was, until his appointment to the Secretaryship of the Navy, a resident of Camden, New Jersey, where as a lawyer, he had attained eminence, both in professional and social life. He is a son of William P. Robeson, a native of Philadelphia, who was an Associate judge of the Philadelphia county court. He comes from a family that have been long distinguished in both law and politics. His maternal uncle, J. P. Maxwell, and his grandfather, George C. Maxwell, were members of Congress from New Jersey.

Mr. Robeson was born in the town of Belvidere, Warren County, New Jersey, in the year 1829. At an early age be matriculated at Princeton College, and, when under eighteen years of age, graduated with distinguished honors. Subsequently he began the study of law, at Newark, New Jersey, in the office of Chief Justice Hornblower, and although his learning and abilities fitted him to discharge the duties of his profession before he arrived at a legal age, he was obliged to wait that period under the rules of the court, before being admitted to 

Commencing his professional duties at Newark, he subsequently removed to Jersey City, were the larger commercial and manufacturing interests and population afforded a wider field for his abilities.

In 1855 Governor Newell appointed Mr. Robeson Prosecutor of the Pleas of Camden county, and he became a resident of Camden, holding his office of public prosecutor until 1860.

Retiring from that office he became a law partner of Alden C. Scovel, Esq., but in the year 1865, when Mr. Theodore F. Frelinghuysen, then Attorney General of New Jersey, was elected Senator, he recommended Mr. Robeson to the vacant Attorney. Generalship, to which position Governor Ward appointed him.

Mr. Robeson has always taken an active part in polities, and was one of the most ardent and able supporters of the war policy of the Government through all our late troubles.

He was a member of the Sanitary Commission, and was from the first associated with the Union League of Philadelphia. In 1862 he was appointed by Governor Olden a Brigadier-General, and commanded a camp of volunteers at Woodbury, New Jersey for the organization of troops. Mr. Robeson is in the prime of life, and is universally esteemed for his abilities and his agreeable social character.

His nomination as Secretary of the Navy, June 25th, 1869, though somewhat surprising, since he had not been known in political circles outside of his own State, was not, on the whole, injudicious. He had had no special training in naval matters, nor any particular acquaintance with marine affairs, but in these matters he was probably as well informed as many of his predecessors, better, perhaps, than some of them; and having spent most of his life in the vicinity of large seaports, he would naturally have been attracted to the interests of both our commercial and national marine.

His administration of the Department has been, in general, very creditable to him. Charges were brought against him by a New York editor of corruption, fraud and malfeasance in office; but on a careful and thorough investigation by a committee of the House of Representatives, they were proved to have been unfounded, and the only instance in which there was ground for any semblance of blame was in his payment of the Secor (Jersey City) claim, after it had been once decided adversely by Congress and by an official Board of Examination. The claim was not, perhaps, unjust, and it was reasonable that the contractors, if wronged, should have some means of redress; but it was a somewhat dangerous stretch of official authority for the head of a department to order a large payment made to them on his own motion, after it had been adjudicated by the only competent authority that they had been paid in full. It is due to him to say, however, that in this case there was no just imputation in regard to his honesty and integrity, but that his action was only an error of judgment in regard to the scope of his official powers.

Mr. Robeson unquestionably possesses a high order of talent, and may be regarded as one of the ablest administrative officers of the Government.

His genial temper, graceful address and fascinating manners, render him deservedly popular in private life. .