This much is
indisputable: On Dec. 13, 1862, Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb bled
out after he was wounded while leading his men along Fredericksburg’s Sunken
|Cobb's and Kershaw's troops at the stone wall (Library of Congress)|
“I am only
wounded boys,” said the 39-year-old Georgia officer as he was rushed to a field
hospital. “Hold your ground like brave men.” Hit within sight of where his mother was born, Cobb was dead shortly after he received medical care.
What is debated
is how he was wounded and by whom. Most historians – including staffers at
Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia -- attribute
the ghastly wound to shrapnel from a Federal artillery shell. Brig. Gen. Joseph
Kershaw and Col. E.P. Alexander, however, reported that Cobb was felled by a
years would pass before a zinger of a claim came to light. In 1901, a veteran
of the war told the Marietta (Ga.) Journal that a member of Phillips Legion,
commanded during the battle by Cobb, killed the general in retribution for an
incident that occurred weeks before the battle.
|T.R.R. Cobb (NPS photo)|
whom contemporaries said had a promising military career ahead, was fragged by
one of his men?
John Hennessy, chief historian and chief of interpretation
at Fredericksburg, isn’t buying it. He and Eric Mink, also with the park, cite sources of information,
including from J.H.
Lumpkin, Cobb’s father-in-law, to show he died from shrapnel.
“I think the evidence is clear that he was not wounded by
his own men,” Hennessy said this week.
Thomas, curator at the home, wrote of all three theories, and left the debate a
little open. So he and home’s staff decided to throw the whodunit to a group
that would have no bias or prejudice – a class of eighth-graders.
watching an episode of ‘Law and Order’ one night,” Thomas told the Picket. “This
is kind of like the death of Tom Cobb. You have several men claim they saw him
killed but there is nothing definitive. What if we do an investigation into his
Killed Tom Cobb?” project was on.
From politician to military officer
Reade Rootes Cobb came from a prominent slaveholding family. Cobb was an ardent
secessionist and he and his brother, Howell, were well-known on the political stage in the years leading up to Fort Sumter.
Within months of secession, he turned toward military service and
formed Cobb’s Legion. He led the regiment in Virginia and Maryland, but felt Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen.
Robert E. Lee were not treating him fairly.
“Cobb was keen for
promotion and equally paranoid of people seeking to undermine him. He felt that
General Lee condescended to him and his political enemies were withholding his
promotion,” the National Park Service says. “Unknown to Cobb, Lee personally
recommended him for promotion, and on November 1, 1862, Cobb rose to the rank
of Brigadier General within James Longstreet's Corps.
|T.R.R. Cobb's home in Athens, Ga., is open to the public.|
'Glorious light went out forever'
Just over a
month later, Cobb was at the center of the maelstrom at Fredericksburg – the
Sunken Road, which was bordered by a stone wall and just below Marye’s Heights.
“His men successfully repulsed repeated Union assaults on their position
throughout the day on December 13, the park says on its website. “Between the
first and second major wave of attacks against the Confederate position, Cobb
was hit with shrapnel and mortally wounded. He had been standing behind the
Stephens House when an artillery shell exploded through the house.”
“However it was sustained, the general’s wound was severe. The
projectile had ripped his left thigh, shattering bone and slicing the femoral
artery,” Smith writes. A chaplain accompanied the semiconscious Cobb to the
rear and said, “He could not be aroused, and soon the glorious light went out
Old soldier details incident at the creek
In their Mercer
University Press book about Phillips Legion, Richard Coffman and Kurt Graham
include details of the 1901 Marietta Journal article entitled, “Who Killed General
veteran of Phillips Legion told the paper that Cobb had confronted him and a
soldier named Sam during a march. They had dropped out to fill canteens at a
creek and Cobb ordered them to empty them, the article.
article says: “This Confederate soldier noted for his courage, told General
Cobb he wouldn’t do it. General Cobb drew his sword and told him he would use
it on him if he didn’t obey. The Confederate soldier replied to ‘use it.’
General Cobb put up the sword, drew his pistol and rode up to the defying
soldier and said, ‘If you don’t pour that water out of that canteen at once, I
will shoot your head off.’
madly replied, ‘Sir you can kill me, but you can’t scare me. I will not pour
out the water. Now shoot me.’ … General Cobb put up his pistol and rode off.
The Confederate soldier called out to him, ‘I will kill you the first
opportunity I get.’”
(In his 2017 article,
Thomas, of the Cobb House, said the general wrote to his wife in late October
1862 that he had had problems with stragglers.)
article continued: “At the battle of Fredericksburg, this gentleman tells us
that he and another Confederate soldier were sent back to the rear to get some
ammunition.” They saw Cobb ride up, a shot rang out near where Phillip’s Legion
was in line, and Cobb fell from his horse, according to the account.
Confederate soldier, on returning to the ranks, accosted the soldier who had
threatened General Cobb’s life and asked, ‘Sam, did you shoot General Cobb?’ ‘Well,
I got him.’ Shortly after that Sam was shot by a Federal through the breast and
was placed in the hospital. This old Confederate soldier went to see him and
said, ‘Sam, you are going to die and I want you to tell me did you kill General
Cobb?’ He replied, “I did. I always do what I say I will.’ The man died, and in
the ‘great beyond’ the private and general met face to face, the avenger and
Graham identified Sam as Pvt. Samuel Drake of Company M, Phillips Legion. The
soldier died on Dec. 24, 1862, and is buried in Richmond.
Other Confederate veterans fire back
The claim was
immediately disputed after it was published in the newspaper. (Drake was a
28-year-old farmer from Cobb County, which is home to Marietta.)
An article in
The Atlanta Journal, under the headline “General Cobb was a Gallant and
Magnanimous Soldier,” quoted veterans saying they didn’t believe the story and
that Cobb was kind to his troops and would not have ordered a soldier to empty
his canteen. .. “The shot which caused his death was fired from a cannon of a
Federal battery," the veterans said.
who wrote to reject the Drake story did say the canteen incident did occur, but
that Cobb stopped the soldiers from filling them because of possibly poisoned
or tainted water.
Graham wrote: “One question that troubled us is why the old legion veteran
would come forward in 1901 to relate such a story if it were not true. It is
hard to believe that he could have anticipated it would bring him any great
acclaim, as Cobb had, by then, become an icon of the Lost Cause."
8th graders weigh in on debate
|Bear Creek Middle School students at Cobb House|
year, and after a first session at their school, the Cobb House invited a class
of middle schoolers from Bear Creek MIddle School in Barrow County to come to Athens. They broke into teams
and examined the death theories. They worked from a map, personal accounts, a
painting, photographs and other papers.
“What we were
teaching kids was primary documents,” Thomas said. “A lot of what you get from
these generals' reports was second-hand.”
teacher, David Kendrick (right in photo), handed out certain bits of information as the students did their
research. “They weren’t given everything at one time. Sort of like a murder
investigation goes,” said the curator.
Was Cobb hit
by artillery from a Rhode Island unit? Was he hit by a bullet fired from a
member of the charging 116th Pennsylvania (Irish Brigade) or by an
Ohio sharpshooter? And what about Sam Drake?
Their findings? “Half of them wanted the fragging (scenario) and half
was sharpshooters," said Thomas.
presented to a local historian, an archivist with the University of Georgia and
Vince Dooley, the legendary Bulldogs football coach and a Civil War enthusiast.
The children asked questions of other groups and the discussion was spirited,
Evidence for an artillery round
|Gen. Cobb (Library of Congress)|
with the National Park Service, said he found two accounts supporting the
shrapnel theory to be believable.
written on Dec. 30, 1862, by J.H. Lumpkin, Cobb’s father-in-law, to a daughter.
“While he was not present at Fredericksburg, he writes with
some knowledge of the condition of the body,” the park historian said.
Lumpkin described the shell exploding outside the Stephens
house, the fragment hitting his son-in-law above the knee, the removal of the
general from the field, the cause of death and the funeral in Athens, Ga.
An 1897 article written by Confederate veterans H.D.D.
Twiggs, who was not present at the battle, provides a detailed description of
Cobb’s wounds. He cited Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ and others’ memory of that
“(Cobb) sustained a compound, comminuted fracture of the
thigh bone. The bone was completely shivered and the wound terrible. I was
informed by members of his staff that after he was struck, he sank into
collapse from the shock and that amputation was impracticable,” Twiggs wrote,
adding the wound could not have come from a musket ball.
Twiggs was in Richmond when the general’s body arrived on
its way to Georgia. He provided this graphic description:
“The broken leg could be moved in any direction, or even
doubled upon itself, so complete was the fracture, and I, myself, kept it
straight, by holding it in place. From the character of this terrible wound, I was
not at all surprised at the shock which so soon resulted in death. The members
of his staff told me at the time, that the fracture was produced by the large
fragment of a shrapnel shell, which struck the ground, ricocheted and exploded
immediately in front of the general, and I have no doubt from the nature of the
wound of the accuracy of this statement.”
|Fredericksburg battle map used by students (Courtesy of TRR Cobb House)|
Back in 1995,
David Preston, now a history professor at The Citadel on Charleston, S.C.,
wrote in the Civil War Regiments
journal that Cobb was hit by artillery shrapnel.
“It has been a while since I have examined the evidence, but I
definitely recall this story about the fratricide and dismissed it,” Preston
wrote to the Picket in May 2020.
“It all boils down to this: Do we trust a single letter
written in 1901, or do we trust the huge preponderance of evidence (including
eyewitnesses!) from December 1862? As I pointed out in my essay, no
contemporary source supports Cobb being wounded by another Confederate or being
wounded by a musket shot (with the sole exception of Kershaw's report -- but
Kershaw admitted that he was only reporting something he had heard second-hand).”
With these accounts, it seems, so much for the fragging
What does Thomas of the Cobb House think?
He agrees with the shrapnel theory. The 1901
newspaper article, he said, is the earliest reference to the homicide story. “It doesn’t hold up under a lot of scrutiny.”
“Sam Drake is
also the only one in the company who died in that battle. That seemed to be
Addendum: A reader of this post (see 2021 comment below) cited an historical society page about Charles Lyman of the 14th Connecticut. It contends Lyman claimed he hit Cobb with a rifle shot. In December 2022, I asked John Hennessy, now retired from the park service, about this. Here is Hennessy's response:
Whenever a general died on the field,
opponents rushed to claim credit. I do believe this is the first individual
claim to killing Cobb that I have seen. In the mayhem that was the Bloody Plain
-- the 14th CT attached at the climax of it all -- it's virtually impossible
that any US soldier could have known he killed Cobb. We have probably two dozen
such claims for wounding Jackson at Chancellorsville. I confess that absent
some corroboration, I reject or at least set aside claims like this. Is it
possible? Sure. Is it likely? Not at all.