Colonel George A. Cobham,
Commander of the Second Brigade of John White Geary's "White Star" Division at Culp's Hill

by Douglas R. Cubbison

Col. George A. Cobham, Jr
author's collection

Having perused Issue Number Nine (July, 1993) of Gettysburg Magazine, I was particularly interested in the article by Mr. John D. Imhof, "Two Roads to Gettysburg: Thomas Leiper Kane and the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves". Mr. Imhof has done a fine job researching and presenting the contributions of Brigadier General Kane and the regiment that he raised to the defense of the Union. However, he has perpetuated a common fallacy, which I feel deserves to be corrected. Although General Kane was present on the field at Gettysburg, the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the Twelfth Army Corps (Brigadier General John White Geary's "White Star" Division) was not commanded by Brigadier General Thomas L. Kane at Gettysburg. Rather, this Brigade was commanded by the Brigade's senior regimental commander, Colonel George A. Cobham, Jr. of the 111th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, throughout the entire Gettysburg campaign and battle.

As Mr. Imhof has articulately described, following the rigors of the Chancellorsville campaign Brigadier General Kane was taken ill with pneumonia, and forced to leave the Army on an indefinite leave of absence. Colonel Cobham, as the senior regimental commander in the Brigade, assumed command as Kane's replacement on May 9, 1863. Colonel Cobham commanded the Brigade throughout the remainder of May, all of June, and into July, until 6:00 a.m. on July 2, 1863. Captain James M. Wells of the 111th Pennsylvania recorded General Kane's return to the Brigade:

At that hour, just as the head of the brigade column was turning to the right from the Baltimore Pike to take the position assigned to it on Culp's Hill, Brigadier General Kane rode into our midst in an ambulance of the 2d Army Corps and took command of the brigade. Colonel Cobham immediately assumed command of his own regiment...within a few minutes thereafter, while the brigade was still in motion towards the position assigned to it, Lieut. Thomas J. Leiper, of General Kane's staff, came to Colonel Cobham and, in my presence, delivered an order from General Kane for him, Colonel Cobham, to resume command of the 2d Brigade, as he, General Kane, was too unwell to continue in command. Colonel Cobham went to General Kane for further explanation and received from him in my presence, a second order to resume command of the brigade. Thus ordered, Colonel Cobham turned over the command of his regiment...and resumed command of his brigade....Every order issued to the regimental commanders of the brigade during the battle was given by him. Every change in the line of battle of the brigade was made by his order and under his personal supervision. The fighting of the brigade was done under his eye, under his leadership, in his presence....General Kane remained with his brigade during the battle, sitting near Colonel Cobham most of the time. He did not command the brigade, he did not issue an order during the battle, he took no part in the movement of the troops, he in no way influenced the fighting of the brigade, he was simply an on-looker.1
Colonel Cobham's own letters provide some further insight into this matter. First, all of his letters from the period in question are dated as "Head Quarters, 2nd Brigade" (letters dated July 1, July 4, July 5, July 10). Cobham was a meticulous and precise man, and the headings of his letters throughout 1862, 1863, and 1864 are always carefully delineated between "Head Quarters, 2nd Brigade", Head Quarters 3rd Brigade", and "Head Quarters, 111th Pennsylvania.Penn'a Vols" In fact, in a letter of July 22, 1863, he specifically directs his mother:
"When you write, if you will direct your letters thus, Col Cobham, Comd.,--2nd Brigade--2nd Division--12th A.C.--Washington, D.C. they will come in the head Quarter Mail, and I shall be much more likely to get them than in the Regimental mail, as I am not with the Regt--and of course have nothing more to do with the 111th whilst in command of the Brigade, than with any other Regiment in it."
Cobham's letter of July 5, 1863, dated "Head Quarters 2nd Brigade, Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pa." states: "Gen Kane returned in his ambulance to his command on the second day of the fight, but requested me to retain command of the brigade.--I had command all through the fight--and I think you will learn from other sources--that I at least did my duty. Gen Kane leaves again in a few days" Cobham's letter of July 10, 1863, states: "I suppose you have seen accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg...My Brigade held the center of the line of the 12th Corps. I stationed my men so as to be partially under cover of a ledge of Rocks, and the sharp shooters behind the trees...General Kane has resigned and gone home-he is still sick." On July 28, 1863 Cobham again wrote home: "Gen. Kane did not remain with the Brigade, he came on the second day of the battle, and returned immediately after." 2

The confusion over the command of the Second Brigade, Second Division, Twelfth Army Corps apparently stems from the report which General Kane wrote on July 6, 1863, and submitted as the Official Second Brigade report [3]. That Brigadier General Kane was not entitled to write the Official Second Brigade Report was recognized, and a circular order issued by Headquarters, Army of the Potomac on August 12th resulted in Colonel Cobham submitting his own Second Brigade Report on August 15th, 1863:

About 6 o'clock on the morning of July 2, Brigadier General Kane arrived on the field in an ambulance of the Second Army Corps, and assumed command of the brigade. I then took command of my own regiment, the 111th Pa. Vols., but in a few minutes General Kane sent me an order by one of his aides, Lieut. Leiper, to resume the command of the brigade. I reported to the General, when he repeated the order to me. I accordingly turned over the command of my regiment to Lieut. Col. Walker and resumed the command, General Kane being too much prostrated to continue it. However, he gallantly remained on the field, although too feeble to resume the arduous duties of his post. [4]
Further evidence can be derived from the Official Report of the 111th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, Colonel Cobham's own regiment. Had Cobham commanded the 111th Pennsylvania during the engagement on Culp's Hill, he would have submitted that regiment's report. Instead, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Walker prepared and submitted that report. In two separate and distinct locations in Walker's 111th Pennsylvania report, he clearly places Cobham in command of the Brigade. [5] The regimental history of the 111th Pennsylvania, Soldiers True, written by John R. Boyle, a First Lieutenant present with Company H of the regiment at Gettysburg, clearly places Cobham in command of the brigade, and Walker in command of the regiment, throughout the engagement. 6

Colonel Cobham was to be mortally wounded at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, near Atlanta, Georgia on July 20, 1864. His Divisional Commander, Brigadier General J.W. Geary, recorded in his Official Report of the Atlanta campaign that: "Col. George A. Cobham, a model gentleman and commander, fell mortally wounded. For one year previous to the organization of the Twentieth Corps...he commanded the Second Brigade of my division, and led it with great credit through the battles of Gettysburg, Wauhatchie, Lookout Mountain...." 7

There is no discredit on the part of General Kane in his actions at Gettysburg. He was seriously incapacitated by the effects of previous wounds, captivity, illness, and exhaustion. The weather conditions at Gettysburg were hot and humid, difficult and demanding even for those in perfect health, and combined with his physical circumstances crippled him. He was no coward, this had been well demonstrated on numerous other battlefields, and he remained in harm's way on the field of battle throughout the engagement. However, Kane correctly acted as a professional soldier who recognized that he could not effectively fulfill the responsibilities of his position, and he took the necessary measures to ensure that the soldiers of his brigade were adequately commanded by an officer in full possession of all his physical and mental skills.

I might add that this opinion has been independently verified by Mr. A. Wilson Greene in his essay "'A Step All-Important and Essential to Victory': Henry W. Slocum and the Twelfth Corps on July 1-2, 1863" printed in Kent State University's The Second Day at Gettysburg, Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership . 8

The Second Brigade of Geary's "White Star" Division defended their ground on Culp's Hill with courage, devotion and skill, and none contributed more than their Brigade Commander, Colonel George A. Cobham, Jr. of Warren, Pennsylvania, a man whose role at Gettysburg has been lost to history. I hope that I have been able to, in some small measure, reestablish Colonel Cobham in his rightful command position on the rock strewn slopes of Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 2nd and 3rd, 1863.


1 Captain James L. Wells, Truth Vindicated, A Just and True Statement in Correction of the Official Records (privately printed, 1888; reprinted in Henry Cobham, Extracts from Letters of Brig. Gen. Cobham, also a complete vindication by Capt. James M. Wells, 111th Pa. Vols., Warren, Pennsylvania: Mirror Print Co., n.d. located in the Archives collection of the Salvation Army, Alexandria, Virginia).

2 Colonel George A. Cobham, Jr., letters 1862-1864, Warren County Historical Society, Warren, Pennsylvania.

3 Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 27, Part 1, Report No. 302, pages 846 to 848.

4 O.R., Volume 27, Part 1, Report No. 303. pages 848 to 851.

5 O.R., Volume 27, Part 1, Report No. 306, pages 854 to 855.

6 John Richards Boyle, Soldiers True, The Story of the 111th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (Cincinnati, Ohio: Jennings & Pye, 1903 and New York: Eaton & Mains, 1903), pages 123, 125,126,and 128.

7O.R., Volume 38, Part 2, Report No. 204, page 141.

8 A. Wilson Greene, "'A Step All-Important and Essential to Victory': Henry W. Slocum and the Twelfth Corps on July 1-2, 1863" printed in Gary W. Gallagher, Editor, The Second Day at Gettysburg, Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993), pages 93, 101, 102, 109, 131, and 134.