The Long Blue Line: Howell Cobb
Posted by PA2 Diana Honings, Thursday, April 20, 2017
This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
To identify one of the most interesting, and many would say infamous, men who have been associated with the history of the United States Coast Guard, one need look no further than Thomas Howell Cobb, known as Howell Cobb. A powerful American political leader before the Civil War, Cobb would help lead the Southern states into secession and the Confederacy. The Coast Guard’s legacy services would find his name adorning more than one of their ships.
Cobb was born into Georgia’s plantation elite in 1815 and grew-up near Athens, Georgia. A quick learner, he attended Franklin College, later the University of Georgia, graduated cum laude and then pursued the law. A year later, he married and his wife would bear him 11 children over the course of the next 25 years. In the 1840s, he began his rise in national politics. In 1843, he was elected from Georgia to the U.S. House of Representatives and, from 1849-1851, he served as the Speaker of the House. In 1851, he returned to his home state and, for the next two years, served as the 40th governor of Georgia.
The 1850s brought greater challenges for southern democrats like Cobb faced with growing polarity between north and south political factions. He was an ardent supporter of slavery, but he also believed in preserving the Union. In 1854, Cobb returned to Washington to serve once again as a U.S. representative from Georgia. Two years later, he published “A Scriptural Examination of the Institution of Slavery,” invoking the Bible in support of the institution of slavery. In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Cobb the 22nd secretary of the treasury making him one of the only treasury secretaries appointed from the deep south.
In the 1800s, revenue cutters typically received the names of treasury secretaries. During his tenure as head of treasury, Cobb held the distinction as the namesake for not only a revenue cutter but also for a federal lighthouse tender. The revenue cutter Howell Cobb and lighthouse tender Howell Cobb were both built in 1857. The Revenue Cutter Service built the cutter in Ohio to serve the station located at Oswego, New York. It was a 65-foot wooden schooner-rigged sailing vessel that displaced nearly 60 tons. The U.S. Lighthouse Service built a slightly larger wooden schooner-rigged sailing vessel in New York that displaced 90 tons. U.S. Lighthouse Tender Howell Cobb was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, and serviced lighthouses and aids to navigation along the southeast coast.
The presidential election of 1860 changed Cobb’s life forever. Buchanan had groomed him as his successor, but Cobb failed to run in the democratic primaries. After serving for over three years, Cobb resigned his post as treasury secretary after Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860. He then became chairman of the Secessionist Convention and, later, speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress. For two weeks he served as the provisional head of the Confederacy before the election of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in February 1865.
The Civil War necessitated a significant increase in the size of the Union revenue cutter fleet not only to replace cutters confiscated by the Confederacy, but also to maintain traditional cutter missions under wartime pressure. In late 1861, six cutters sailed from the Great Lakes to bolster the East Coast fleet for wartime duty. One of them, the cutter Howell Cobb went ashore in a gale during its transfer to the Boston station. The crew was rescued, but the cutter was a total loss. In 1857, the year it was built, Lighthouse Tender Howell Cobb had also gone ashore. However, the tender was salvaged and, in 1861, the Confederacy confiscated it for wartime purposes.
After helping establish the Confederacy, Cobb became an active military leader in the Confederate States Army. He received the rank of brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia and later served as commander of the District of Georgia and Florida. During the war, Cobb’s suggestion of a prisoner-of-war camp in southern Georgia led to the creation of the infamous Andersonville Prison where many Union POWs lost their lives. In his famous “March to the Sea” through Georgia, Gen. William Sherman learned the location of Cobb’s plantation and ordered it burned except for the slave quarters. In the spring of 1865, then Maj. Gen. Cobb argued against an 11th-hour proposal to enlist slaves to fight with the Confederate Army supported by Gen. Robert E. Lee. Finally, on April 20, 1865, Cobb surrendered his command to Union military forces at Macon, Georgia.
Years in the field leading troops and fighting a lost cause had aged Cobb well beyond his years. After the war, he remained in Macon to practice law. He bitterly opposed postwar Federal Reconstruction policies in the south; however, he refrained from denouncing them until he received a presidential pardon in 1868. That same year he died of a heart attack while visiting New York City. He was 53 years old when he passed away and was buried near his former home in Athens, Georgia. Reminders of Cobb would surface decades later when distant relation, Ty Cobb, rose to fame as one of baseball’s early star players. And, in World War II, the Coast Guard received yet another vessel named “Cobb.” This time it was the former passenger vessel Governor Cobb, cut-down and armed for the war, and used by the Coast Guard as the first platform for testing shipboard helicopter landings.
While not a member of the service, Cobb’s life reminds us of the divisions in American life, culture and politics in the early 1800s that resulted in the Civil War. And also how a once popular political leader and service vessel namesake, would later be resented and reviled by many of his countrymen.