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Cobb gives his life for the Confederacy

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

Part 21 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. See previous stories.

AMONG THOSE who fought for the Confederacy, few were more brilliant--or more querulous--than Gen. Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb. Few also would have a more important role in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Cobb was born in 1823 at Cherry Hill, his family's east-central Georgia plantation, where he weighed in at a whopping 21 pounds! After graduating first in his class at the University of Georgia, Cobb embarked on a legal career. Over the next 18 years, he produced a number of important treatises on Georgia law, including several monographs defending slavery. Not surprisingly, Cobb later played a leading role in the secessionist movement. He was a delegate to the convention that took Georgia out of the Union, and when Georgia banded together with other seceding states to form the Southern Confederacy, Cobb became a member of the new nation's Provisional Congress.

Cobb was not content with simply being a legislator, however, and, in 1861, he raised a heterogeneous unit comprised of infantry, artillery and cavalry, which came to be known as Cobb's Legion. Despite the fact that he had no military experience, the politician-turned-warrior took to the field as the Legion's colonel.

Cobb's older brother, Howell, had followed a similar path and in 1862 commanded a brigade in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. When Howell transferred to a different military theater in November of that year, Lee promoted Tom Cobb to brigadier general and assigned him command of his brother's old brigade.

Thomas Cobb achieved brigade command despite a contentious personality and a mercurial temper. He found fault with just about everybody and everything, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. He accused Davis of "malignant persecution" for trying to break up his legion (which was, in fact, a very sensible measure from a military standpoint) and criticized Lee as being "haughty and boorish and supercilious in his bearingparticularly so to me."

Cobb's self-righteous petulance gained him few friends and many enemies. His troops considered him strict and overbearing, so much so that one man later claimed to have purposely fired the shot that killed Cobb at Fredericksburg. Although the story is patently false, it demonstrates the strong dislike many men had toward their newly minted general.

The Confederate army reached Fredericksburg in late November 1862. Cobb's brigade initially took a position near Howison Hill (now adjacent to the park tour road, Lee Drive, one-half mile south of Lafayette Boulevard). Cobb recognized the strength of the position and hoped ardently that the Federals would be foolish enough to attack it.

"I think my Brigade can whip ten thousand of them attacking us in front," he wrote prophetically. "We have a magnificent position, the best perhaps on the line."

Cobb's only regret was that a Union crossing near Fredericksburg would inevitably lead to the destruction of the town.

"If they attempt it," he wrote his wife, "poor old Fredericksburg is a doomed city and will be reduced to ashes as we shall be forced to destroy it before leaving it in their hands."

Cobb had a strong affection for Fredericksburg, for his mother, Sarah Rootes, had grown up at Federal Hill, a house on the outskirts of the town. The thought that Yankees might despoil or destroy his mother's home so infuriated Cobb that he advised Lee "to raise the black flag and give no quarter to any scoundrel that crosses the river."

As days passed without any movement on the part of the Union army, Cobb began to lose hope that the enemy would cross the river before spring. As late as Dec. 10, he told his wife that he did not anticipate a battle at Fredericksburg, at least not in the near future. Instead, he thought the Federals would spend the winter gathering their strength for a major effort in the spring.

Regardless of what happened, the impetuous general promised his wife, he would take care of himself.

"Do not be uneasy about my being 'rash,'" he told her. "The bubble of reputation cannot drag me into folly. God helping me, I hope to do my duty when called upon, trusting the consequences to Him."

The day after Cobb wrote this letter, the Union army began laying pontoon bridges opposite Fredericksburg. The following day, Dec. 12, thousands of Union soldiers poured across the river and occupied the town. The battle that Cobb had yearned for had finally arrived.

At the orders of his superior, Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Cobb moved his brigade up to Marye's Heights, occupying a sunken road that ran along the foot of the ridge. A 4-foot-tall stone wall that bordered the lane provided Cobb's Georgians with a stout, ready-made trench.

Shortly before noon, Dec. 13, the Union army deployed in front of Marye's Heights with the evident intention of attacking Cobb's line. The general wanted to thrash the Yankee hordes to prove that he deserved his recent promotion. It was with disdain, therefore, that he received a note from McLaws ordering him to fall back should the troops on his left be unable to hold their position.

"Well!" Cobb remarked, "if they wait for me to fall back, they will wait a long time."

The Georgian was there to stay.

The Union attacks began around noon. As the first blue line started forward, Cobb waved his hat in the air and shouted, "Get ready, boys, here they come!" When the Federals reached a point 200 yards from the wall, the Georgians let loose a wicked volley. When the smoke cleared, the Union line had virtually disappeared, annihilated by the fire of Cobb's men. Other attacks would follow. In between, the Union army pounded Marye's Heights with artillery.

Cobb was standing in the road, adjacent to his headquarters at the Stephens House, when a Union shell came crashing through the building. As it exited the building the shell exploded, wounding Cobb and killing two others. A piece of shrapnel sliced through the general's left thigh, smashing the bone and severing the femoral artery. Blood spilled onto the dirt road.

Members of Cobb's staff hastily fashioned a tourniquet in an effort to stanch the flow, then carried him down the Telegraph Road (modern Lafayette Boulevard) to a field hospital in the rear. As he left the field, the dying officer cried out, "I am only wounded, boys, hold our ground like brave men."

Cobb was treated at the Wiet house, located near the site of the modern Virginians movie theater. Doctors struggled to save the general's life, but his injury was too severe. At 2 p.m., wrote Cobb's friend, Chaplain R.K. Porter, "the glorious light went out forever."

NEXT: The Irish Brigade

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of ìAbraham Lincoln at City Pointî and ìRichard S. Ewell: A Soldierís Life.î