By Gene Schmiel
“The long lines of Hood’s army surged up out of the hollow in which they had formed and were seen coming forward in splendid array. The sight,” Union Major General Jacob D. Cox recalled, “was one to send a thrill through the heart, and those who saw it have never forgotten its martial magnificence.” Seven hours later, on 30 November 1864, the Union forces commanded by Cox successfully repelled the final large-scale frontal infantry attack of the Civil War at the Battle of Franklin. Cox’s leadership helped cut the heart out of Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, ensuring Union victory in the West days afterward at the Battle of Nashville.
Fifteen years earlier, Cox, then a divinity student at Oberlin College in Ohio, married Helen Finney, the daughter of college president Charles G. Finney, a leading evangelist and abolitionist. A career as a minister seemed preordained. Like hundreds of men who became “political generals” in the Union Army because of the requirements needed to fight a continental war, no one could have predicted that the intellectual, reserved, bookish Cox possessed the “military aptitude” to lead men successfully in war. Over time, however, Cox was recognized as one of the best volunteer military commanders, so talented that Major General William T. Sherman offered him a brigadier generalship in the Regular Army at war’s end. Furthermore, in his postwar writings, Cox made the case that because some volunteer generals performed as well as professionals, the United States needed a system that allowed pure merit, and not only attendance at military academies, to be the determinant factor in leadership positions. In the long term, as we now know, he proved prescient.
Jacob Dolson Cox, the first son of Jacob Dolson Cox I and Thedia Redelia Kenyon, was born on 27 October 1828, in Montreal, Canada. His father, a native New Yorker, was a master builder supervising the construction of the Church of St. Sulpice in Montreal. His mother, a descendant of William Brewster, the religious leader of the Mayflower, met his father in Albany, New York, where they married on 25 May 1821. The Puritan tradition and her Mayflower roots were integral to Thedia Cox’s approach to raising young Dolson, as he came to be called within the family. Her strong religious sentiment and hatred of slavery were important elements in developing his character.
Dolson hoped to go to college, but his plans were sidetracked because of the Panic of 1837. He then began to study law, and in his spare time he learned French, Greek, and Latin. Fate intervened while Dolson was attending a lecture in New York in 1845 by Reverend Charles Grandison Finney, one of the best-known American revivalists and a faculty member at Oberlin College. Finney called out to all present to give their hearts to God, and Dolson leaped forward. Soon afterward he was baptized and determined to attend Oberlin to train for the ministry. Founded in 1833, this school gained a “radical” reputation as it played a major role in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.
Cox’s studies were interrupted when, after a theological dispute with Finney, he left Oberlin and became a lawyer in Warren, Ohio. There he became one of the founders of the Ohio Republican Party. Elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859, he gained a reputation as a fervent anti-slavery radical. Believing war was possible, he and his close friend, future president James A. Garfield, engaged in an assiduous study of the history and theory of the military arts. Appointed a brigadier general of volunteers soon after the Civil War started in the spring of 1861 by Ohio Governor William Denison, Cox the citizen-general believed he was as intellectually qualified as any West Pointer to lead men in battle. The test would be whether he had what he himself called “a constitution of body and mind for which we can find no better name than ‘military aptitude.’”
In Cox’s and some historians’ views, one of the most critical mistakes by the Union was the decision by the Union Army’s Commanding General, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, to create two separate components with the Union Army, regular and volunteer. As Cox would write later, this decision violated an essential principle: “An army on which the nation depends for its salvation in a great crisis must be a unit, and a double organization into regulars and volunteers destroys the greatest efficiency of either.” Furthermore, Cox lamented the practice of creating new regiments, frequently for political reasons, rather than merging new volunteers into old ones where the new troops could learn from the experience of their comrades. This inevitably led to untrained and poorly led men in new regiments fighting alongside veteran regiments which were “skeletons” because of their depleted numbers. One historian opined that these factors offset Union advantages in materiel and manpower in the early years of the war. By contrast, the Confederate Army was organized as a single unit and largely avoided the discord between regulars and volunteers.
During the war, as he saw the differences between professional and volunteer military leaders diminish as the latter gained experience, Cox would conclude that the distinction between the two had to be ended. As he wrote in a letter in 1863 to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, “If the regular army organization is so narrow it can’t be expanded in time of emergency, what use is it? If a volunteer organization is fit to decide the great wars of the nation, is it not ridiculous to keep an expensive organization of regulars for the petty contests with Indians or for an ornamental appendage to the State in peace?” The obvious answer, he wrote, was to create a “system flexible enough to provide for the increase of the army to any size required, without losing any of the advantage of character or efficiency which, in any respect, pertained to it as a regular army.” The unspoken corollary, which he would state firmly in his memoirs, was that in the unified army, citizen-generals should have access to every command position. Throughout the war Cox fought actively in the “political-military wars,” struggling for rank and place, while seeking recognition for the contributions of “Citizen-Generals” like himself. His four years of wartime service would prove to be in many ways his most successful professional experience.
Despite Cox’s inexperience, then-commander of Ohio’s forces, Major General George B. McClellan, came to appreciate his talents, giving him an independent command in western Virginia shortly after the outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South. In 1861 and 1862, Cox played a central role in taking and holding for the Union what would become the new state of West Virginia. Cox’s forces took the new state’s future capital, Charleson, in mid-1861, helping ensure Union control of West Virginia for the remainder of the war.
In mid-1862, Cox transferred to the Army of the Potomac for the Maryland Campaign, and in a period of three weeks, he underwent a dizzying ascent to corps command. On 14 September, he initiated the successful first assault at the Battle of South Mountain, which was the Union’s first victory in many months. When IX Corps commander Major General Jesse Reno was killed at that battle, Cox succeeded him. Three days later, at the pivotal Battle of Antietam, Cox would be the tactical commander of the Union left wing, made up entirely of the IX Corps. There, his forces almost succeeded in sweeping General Robert E, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from the field. Only an unexpected assault on his left flank by Major General A.P. Hill’s division stopped Cox, though McClellan’s wrong-headed decision not to reinforce Cox at this critical moment sealed the Union’s fate that day.
After Antietam, Cox was sent back to western Virginia to stem a Confederate effort to re-take the incipient state. He succeeded, but while he was there in early 1863, his post-Antietam promotion to major general was reversed through no fault of his other than political priorities. Cox would spend an extensive period on military administrative duties in Ohio until late 1863, when he began service in eastern Tennessee in the Army of the Ohio under Major General John M. Schofield.
In early 1864, Cox marched with Sherman to Atlanta as second in command of the Army of the Ohio. He performed yeoman service during this period. In July, he led a flank attack which caused the Confederate Army of Tennessee to retreat from its strong position on Kennesaw Mountain. In August, Cox’s forces were the first to cross the Chattahoochee River, forcing the Confederates into the defenses of Atlanta. Later that month, Cox’s division cut the final supply line into Atlanta, forcing General Hood to abandon Atlanta and opening the way for Union control.
During the subsequent Franklin-Nashville Campaign, as commander of the defensive line at the Battle of Franklin, Cox played a vital role in breaking the spirit of the Army of Tennessee. His forces played a small but vital role in the final moments of the Battle of Nashville, breaking through the Rebel line and forcing the Confederates to retreat. This Federal victory effectively ended the war in the West. Cox was promoted once again afterward to major general. Cox re-joined Sherman in North Carolina in 1865 and rose again to corps command during the battles leading to the Confederate surrender. His victory over General Braxton Bragg at Wyse Forks, North Carolina, in March 1865 opened the way to the link-up of all Union forces for the final push against the Confederates. For several months after the Confederate surrender, Cox served as military governor of western North Carolina.
When the war ended, Cox’s political horizons seemed unlimited. However, while five other Ohioans with war records (Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley) rose to national prominence and the presidency, Cox was in political exile by 1873. This successful citizen-general with a proven military aptitude did not have the kind of “political aptitude” needed for national leadership in the postwar era. While in war he was comfortable with dutifully taking orders, his independent spirit led him on occasion to take an initiative without orders and to recommend alternative approaches to his commanders. That same internal demand for intellectual autonomy would not be constrained in postwar peace and politics. His independent bent, academically oriented and aloof personality, and tendency to approach issues in the tutelary manner of a preacher/professor caused him to take actions consciously which would truncate the possibility of his becoming a national political leader.
In 1865, during his successful campaign for governor of Ohio, Cox decided to address publicly the issue of the civil rights and citizenship of the Freedman. While fervently anti-slavery, Cox was dubious about the feasibility of racial equality, fearing it might lead to a race war. Instead, he proposed creating a de facto territory in the South to which, he suggested, blacks would voluntarily migrate because they would be protected by the federal government. This impractical plan divided him from the Radical Republicans as the latter’s power was on the rise. Furthermore, party leaders became worried that Cox’s independent streak and lack of party discipline might make him an unreliable candidate for future elections.
Cox’s second fatal political step came when he supported President Andrew Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction for a lengthy period while using his influence to try to find a compromise between the President and Congress on Reconstruction policy. Despite his eventual decision to disavow Johnson, Cox was seen by some as having “abandoned” the Republican Party. Caught in the middle of what he called a “family broil,” Cox decided not to run for re-election for governor in 1867, even though his re-election was likely.
As President Grant’s Secretary of the Interior, Cox implemented one of the most far-reaching attempts to reform Indian policy and instituted the federal government’s first extensive civil service reform program. Within eighteen months, however, his rigid and idealistic position against patronage led to his resignation. He broke with the Republicans and became a leader of the Liberal Republican movement trying to oust Grant in 1872. The failure of that party was the final nail in Cox’s national political coffin.
The biographer of one of Cox’s commanders, Major General Ambrose Burnside, called Cox “a veritable Renaissance man,” and in an era that celebrated the self-made man, Cox assumed a wide variety of careers, including general officer, state legislator and governor, federal cabinet member, railroad president, congressman, university president, law school dean, scientist, and historian. His most successful professional experience was as a general, and his most successful academic pursuit was as arguably the best Civil War historian of the nineteenth century. His writings remain his enduring legacy. His book on the Atlanta Campaign was the definitive study for over a hundred years; his book about the Battle of Franklin was the sole complete study of that engagement for many years. His in-depth articles on the Maryland Campaign for the Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series, and his expansion of them in his Reminiscences, are bases for memory about those events. His two-volume Military Reminiscences of the Civil War is still today cited by historians as a foundation for the memory of many aspects of the war.
While sailing near Rockland, Maine, on 25 July 1900 with his industrialist son and namesake, Jacob Cox III, Cox took ill; by 28 July, his condition took a rapid turn for the worse. He died on 4 August 1900, the victim of a weakened heart and an attack of angina pectoris. Four days later he was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, where his grave and those of most of his family lie under a stone obelisk on which is inscribed, “Jacob Dolson Cox, 1828-1900; Soldier, Statesman, Scholar, Patriot.”