This is the story of a soldier who wrote a best seller. Over the years, his book has outsold any one volume by Tom Clancy, Charles Dickens, Alex Hailey, James Michener and perhaps even Louis L'Amour. This soldier was born in Robertville, South Carolina, May 2, 1837, son of a distinguished educator and Baptist preacher in South Carolina and Georgia. Henry Martyn Robert was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1853 and graduated fourth in his class in 1857, brevetted a 2nd lieutenant and assigned to the Engineer Corps.
As an assistant professor of natural philosophy, astronomy and practical military engineering, he taught at the academy for a year and in 1859 was assigned to a wagon-road expedition under the command of Capt. Henry D. Wallen, 4th Infantry, with a mission to mark out and open an overland route to "the frontiers of the western states." Specifically, from Fort Dalles in Oregon Territory to Great Salt Lake City in Utah Territory, a distance of some 630 miles.
Lt. Robert was part of the engineer detachment. Other officers assigned were 1st Lt. Robert Johnston, Co. H, 1st Dragoons; 1st Lt. Nelson B. Switzer, Co. E, 1st Dragoons; 2nd Lt. David C. Houston, Co. A, sappers and miners; Assistant Surgeon John F. Randolph, medical staff; Bvt. 2nd Lt. Joseph Dixon, topographical engineers; 1st Lt. John C. Bonneycastle, 4th Infantry, acting assistant commissary of subsistence, and acting assistant quartermaster; 2nd Lt. Marcus A. Reno, 1st Dragoons, acting adjutant (who would spend the twilight of his military career defending his performance at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 under command of another West Pointer, Lt. Col. George A. Custer).
The expedition, nine officers and 184 enlisted men, armed with Sharpe's carbines, sabres and Colt's revolvers, presented an imposing picture as it marched out with 154 horses, 344 mules, 121 oxen, 30 wagons, one ambulance wagon (light-springed), one traveling forge, 132 Mexican pack-saddles (aperejo) and 75 old-pattern cross-tree pack-saddles. Wallen's command left Fort Dalles on June 4, 1859, and bent to its assignment. Several newly named landmarks were added to maps of the region, and Wallen (possibly recognizing the advantages of buttering up the Old Man) named a large saltwater lake, twenty miles long and nine miles wide, after Brig. General William S. Harney, commanding officer of the Department of Oregon.
This same Harney was the original commander of the Utah Expedition sent against the Mormons in 1857, who was called "Squaw-killer" Harney--but not to his face--for a punitive attack on the Sioux at Ash Hollow, Nebraska Territory, in 1855. He got the nickname because so many Indian women and children were slain in the fight.
After a difficult three months on the trail, Wallen's detachment finished its assignment when it reached Camp Floyd, west of Provo, Utah Territory, in mid-August, and reported to Brig. General Albert Sidney Johnston, post commander, who resupplied the expedition and offered the camp hospitality to Wallen's men for the four days needed to requisition provisions for the return march to The Dalles. That four days at Camp Floyd makes it possible for Utah to lay an honorary claim, at least, on Lt. Robert, though it wasn't until he returned to Fort Dalles and subsequently was reassigned to duty in charge of defenses at New Bedford, Massachusetts, during the Civil War period 1862-65, that he began the book.
It was in New Bedford, according to his grandson, Henry M. Robert III, that he started the writing that would make him famous. He had been transferred to New Bedford from more strenuous war duty after a flareup of tropical fever. Robert always had been active in church organizations and civic and educational work, no matter where he was stationed. But it was without warning in 1863 that he was asked to preside over a church business meeting--and didn't know how. But he could not refuse. "My embarrassment was supreme," he later wrote. "I plunged in, trusting to Providence that the assembly would behave itself--[But I resolved] never to attend another meeting until I knew something of parliamentary law."
That's when the odyssey began. From a small book on another subject, he copied four or five items dealing with "rules for deliberative assemblies" and carried them on a scrap of paper in his wallet for several years. By 1867, he had achieved the rank of major and was assigned to San Francisco. He was now active in a large number of organizations in the Bay area, and all had the same difficulty when it came to procedure. The major then decided to compile a working outline that would serve all. It was no simple task, and as each working draft was tried and tested, it seemed there would be new questions to answer.
Army duty transfers took him to Portland, Oregon, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and at times impaired his research. Finally, when he hit upon a format he believed would serve the purpose, he could find no publisher willing to take a chance. So the officer put up his own money to print 4,000 copies of what was to become Robert's Rules of Order. The two-year supply (he thought) sold in four months. That first edition, issued in 1876, was just the beginning.
Robert's Rules has never been out of print and is sold today. It is recognized as the bible of parliamentary procedure. For Henry Martyn Robert--he retired from the U.S. military in 1901 with the rank of brigadier general and died May 11, 1923. His small manual of procedural rules is now in its umpteenth printing in various editions. At last count, it had sold something more than 4,450,000 copies.