Judge Robert P. Patterson was born in Glenn Falls, New York on February 12, 1891. He attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1912 and went on to Harvard University where he received his Bachelor of Law in 1915.
Judge Patterson enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1915 and was mustered into federal service for border patrol duty on 26 June 1916 as a private. He was commissioned as a 2LT, Infantry Section, Officers Training Camp, Pittsburgh Barracks, New York. This was the WWI equivalent of what is now known as Officer Candidate School.
Promoted to Captain in August 1917, he was transferred to the 306th Infantry in January of 1918. His unit left the US for service in France on 13 April 1918, where he served in the Baccarat, Vesle, and Foret-d' Argonne defensive sectors, and the Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne Offensives. For extraordinary heroism in action on 14 August 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with the following citation Captain Patterson, accompanied by two noncommissioned officers, made a daring daylight reconnaissance into the enemy lines. He surprised an enemy outpost of superior numbers and personally destroyed the outpost. Later he again had an encounter with another outpost, during which several of the enemy were killed or wounded and one member of his patrol wounded. The enemy ad-vaned their outposts, and Captain Patterson covered the retreat of his patrol, during which he dropped into a depression and feigned being killed in order to escape capture. Here he lay until he was able to escape to his lines under cover of darkness.. For Gallantry in action on 26 September 1918, he was again cited and awarded the Silver Star. He was also awarded the Purple Heart for bravery. Judge Pater-son was promoted to Major in March 1919 and assigned to command the 2nd Battalion, 306th Infantry.
Judge Paterson returned to the US on 27 May 1919 and was honorably discharged from military service. In 1920, he married Margaret T. Winchester and they had four children. He practiced Law in New York City and served as a Judge of the US District Court and the US Circuit of Appeals of the Second Circuit. He was appointed the first Under Secretary of War upon creation of the post on 12 December 1940. President Harry S. Truman appointed Patterson as Secretary of War in 1945. Patterson advocated unifying the armed services (army and navy) and having a single chief of staff. Steps to this effect were begun by the National Security Act of 1947 and revised several times, finally by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Patterson participated in the desegregation of the armed forces, specifically during late stages of World War II with regard to creating an African-American fighter group, known now as the Tuskeegee airmen.
Judge Patterson returned to his law practice in 1947. President Truman reportedly offered to reappoint Patterson to his former judgeship on the Second Circuit, but Patterson declined, opting to return to private practice. The firm, which continues as a preeminent law firm in New York City, still carries his name, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.
Judge Patterson later served as the president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and the president of the Council of Foreign Relations.
Judge Patterson died on January 22, 1952, returning from meeting a client, onboard American Airlines Flight 6780 which crashed on the approach to Newark Liberty International Airport in Elizabeth, New Jersey; he was age 60. Patterson's son, Robert P. Patterson, Jr., is himself a federal judge in the Southern District of New York.