Jacob Dolson Cox

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved

As Eugene Schmiel concludes in his biography of Jacob Dolson Cox, he was a Renaissance Man in the Gilded Age. Schmiel recounts his many pursuits as a Citizen-General. These include his life as a lawyer, politician, corporate executive, educator, author, and Civil War general.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Cox entered Oberlin College in 1847 and married the daughter of its president two years later. He then dropped out of its Theological Seminary to first become superintendent of Warren’s public schools and then a lawyer. He became a founder of Ohio’s Republican party. In his life he would interact with many of those notable Ohioans prominent in the Civil War – among them Chase, Garfield, Grant, Hayes, McClellan, Rosecrans, Sherman, and Stanton and Ohio’s wartime governors. In 1859 he was elected to the Ohio legislature.

Jacob Dolson Cox

With the outbreak of the Civil War George McClellan put Cox in charge of training volunteers at Camp Dennison. Cox soon followed McClellan to West Virginia in the successful campaign to secure its secession from Confederate Virginia. Cox enjoyed his first military successes there. In September, 1862. he would rise to Union military prominence when at South Mountain he succeeded a mortally wounded Jessie Reno as commander of the Ninth Corps of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. He then played an important role at Antietam commanding that corps at the battle for Burnside Bridge and the failed attempt to destroy Lee’s army. After the battle, he became the target of criticism by General Hugh Ewing of the prominent Ohio Republican Ewing clan for his actions at Antietam.

He then was sent back to West Virginia and then to Ohio with Burnside after the latter’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg. He briefly was made commander of the 23rd Corps, only to be replaced by John Schofield under whom he would serve as a division commander in Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Cox distinguished himself by taking the Macon railroad, forcing John Bell Hood to abandon the city.

He then fought his most well-known battle as Schofield’s appointed defender of Franklin against Hood’s unexpected assault on November 30, 1864. While successful, he became embroiled in a long lasting dispute with fellow Ohioan Emerson Opdycke over the primary credit for repelling the bloody attack. Following the Battle of Nashville, Cox was sent to North Carolina to join Sherman’s war-ending Carolina Campaign.

Cox’s postwar life included several different phases. In 1865 he was elected governor of Ohio after publishing his controversial Oberlin letter advocating internal colonization of the freed slaves but opposing their being granted suffrage. After a short stint as a lawyer in Cincinnati, Grant appointed Cox Secretary of the Interior but Cox soon resigned, largely because of his conflict over civil service reform with Grant’s administration. His return to Cincinnati was short lived as he moved to Toledo to become head of a railroad. In 1877, he left that post for a seat in Congress after Hayes’ disputed election as President. Again disillusioned with Republican opposition to civil service reform, he served only one term. He returned to Cincinnati to become dean of the University of Cincinnati’s Law School (and to later also serve as its President). He left the university in 1897 and he and his wife returned to Oberlin to retire.

Over this post-political period Cox became a prolific historian, writing several books, his version of the Battle of Franklin, articles and reviews of many of the memoirs of other Civil War generals. He finished his own wartime memoir but died in 1900 before it was published.

Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era
by Eugene D. Schmiel
Ohio University Press, 2014, 352 pages

From the publisher: The wrenching events of the Civil War transformed not only the United States but also the men unexpectedly called on to lead their fellow citizens in this first modern example of total war. Jacob Dolson Cox, a former divinity student with no formal military training, was among those who rose to the challenge. In a conflict in which “political generals” often proved less than competent, Cox, the consummate citizen general, emerged as one of the best commanders in the Union army.

During his school days at Oberlin College, no one could have predicted that the intellectual, reserved, and bookish Cox possessed what he called in his writings the “military aptitude” to lead men effectively in war. His military career included helping secure West Virginia for the Union; jointly commanding the left wing of the Union army at the critical Battle of Antietam; breaking the Confederate supply line and thereby precipitating the fall of Atlanta; and holding the defensive line at the Battle of Franklin, a Union victory that effectively ended the Confederate threat in the West.

At a time when there were few professional schools other than West Point, the self-made man was the standard for success; true to that mode, Cox fashioned himself into a Renaissance man. In each of his vocations and avocations—general, governor, cabinet secretary, university president, law school dean, railroad president, historian, and scientist—he was recognized as a leader. Cox’s greatest fame, however, came to him as the foremost participant historian of the Civil War. His accounts of the conflict are to this day cited by serious scholars and serve as a foundation for the interpretation of many aspects of the war.

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