Howell Cobb

The son of John Addison Cobb and Sarah Rootes Cobb, Howell Cobb (1815-1868) served as a congressman, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, governor of Georgia, and Secretary of the Treasury under James Buchanan. A late proponent of secession, Cobb served as the President of the Confederate Provisional Congress and rose to the rank of major general during the war. He surrendered to Union forces at Macon in April, 1865.

Howell Cobb was the oldest son of John Addison Cobb and Sarah Rootes Cobb.  Born on September 7, 1815 at his father’s Cherry Hill plantation in Jefferson County, his parents moved the family to Athens around 1819 so that Howell and their younger children might have better educational opportunities. Cobb entered the University of Georgia in 1829 and graduated in 1834 despite a year-long expulsion for leading a riot to protest punishment by the faculty for leaving the campus during study hours. Following his graduation, he began to read law in the office of General Edward Harden. He met and fell in love with heiress Mary Ann Lamar in 1834. The couple married married on May 26, 1835. The marriage produced twelve children, six of whom survived to adulthood.  Although the law served as Cobb’s vocation, his passionate interest in politics proved his avocation. He won election by the state legislature as solicitor general for the Western Judicial Circuit of Georgia in 1837. In 1842, he first won a seat in Congress.

The financial consequences of the Panic of 1837 nearly derailed Cobb’s political aspirations. Caught badly overextended by the costs of building and furnishing a palatial new home, and by his habit of co-signing loans for family and friends -- especially his father -- Cobb lost his new home and virtually his entire fortune. Thanks to a prenuptial agreement, however, Mary Ann retained her estate and the couple remained wealthy. Because his father also had suffered total financial ruin, Cobb hereafter assumed responsibility for the support of his parents and younger siblings.

Cobb embarked on his political career during a time of sectional tension over the issue of slavery in the western territories. A firm Jacksonian Democrat, he maintained a commitment to a policy of moderation. The young congressman believed slavery could be protected best through mutually respectful sectional compromise. He adhered to this view during the sectional crisis of 1850 when the fate of slavery in the territories taken from Mexico during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) threatened to sunder the Union. Serving as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives during this treacherous time, he successfully cooperated with Senator Stephen A. Douglas’ efforts to effect the Compromise of 1850. Having helped adopt the compromise, he then hurried home to insure that Georgia accepted the measure. Cooperating with Whig leaders, Alexander H. Stephens and Robert Toombs. This triumvirate convinced Georgians to embrace the compromise as the final resolution of the territorial question, but with deadly seriousness warned the North that Georgia would resist “to the point of secession” any further agitation on the issue. When radical elements within the state Democratic Party continued to maneuver for a stronger state rights response, Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs formed the Constitutional Union Party to combat the threat. Composed mainly of Whigs and the Democrats of Cobb’s congressional district, the new party proved sufficiently powerful to dominate the state’s politics from 1851 to 1853. Cobb won election to the governorship as the Constitutional Union candidate. Unfortunately, the national Democratic Party threw its support behind the State Rights Democrats and by late 1853 the Constitutional Union Party lay in ruins. With no viable alternative beyond retiring from politics, Cobb attempted to make peace with the State Rights Democrats. His former foes accepted him back into the ranks of the state Democratic party, but most never forgave him and worked assiduously to block his presidential ambitions in 1860 and his election as president of the Confederacy in 1861.

Despite the forces aligned against him, Cobb still commanded the loyalty of his congressional district. He reclaimed his former congressional seat in 1855. President James Buchanan selected Cobb to serve as his Secretary of Treasury. The continuing crisis over slavery in the territories had now turned bloody with a small-scale civil war raging in Kansas and the bounds of Union between South and North steadily fraying under the constant tension. The onset of the Panic of 1857 added to the stress. Cobb continued to serve as a voice of moderation and compromise. The relentless polarization of the country, however, reduced the possibility for compromise and pushed Cobb towards an increasingly rigid state rights position. Along with other Southern delegates, Cobb bolted the national Democratic convention in 1860 rather than accept the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas and a tepid platform plank regarding Southern rights in the territories. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, shattered Cobb’s faith in compromise. He urged Georgia to secede from the Union and united with his brother Thomas Cobb and Governor Joseph E. Brown to lead the secession movement.

 Following secession, Cobb served as president of the Provisional Confederate Congress. He received consideration for the Confederate presidency, but his old southern-rights opponents blocked his election. When the Provisional Congress adjourned, he entered the Confederate army. He began his service as colonel of the Sixteenth Georgia Infantry and commanded a brigade in Virginia during the Peninsula campaign and the Seven Days Battles. During the Antietam campaign, his brigade was shattered in fighting at Crampton’s Gap. In October, 1862, he assumed command of the district of middle Florida. Promoted to the rank of major general, in he took command of Georgia state troops in September,1863. He surrendered to Union forces in Macon on April 20, 1865.

Cobb declined to make any public remarks on Reconstruction policy pending receipt of a presidential pardon. He received that pardon in 1868 and promptly delivered a series of speeches bitterly denouncing Radical Republican plans for Reconstruction. He died of a heart attack while vacationing in New York on October 9, 1868.

< Return to Notables & Select Biographies page.