Royal Naval Biography/Cockburn, George


One of the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral; Vice-Admiral of the Blue; Major-General of the Royal Marines; Knight Grand Cross of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath; a Commissioner of the Board of Longitude; and Member of Parliament for Weobly, in Herefordshire.

Different families of the name of Cockburn anciently held very extensive possessions, and enjoyed the highest offices and prerogatives in Scotland. The first of the family of Langton, we learn from authentic records, was Alexander de Cockburn, who obtained the baronies of Bolton, Carriden, and Langtoun, from King David II. and in 1370 was nominated Usher to the Scottish monarch.

The subject of this memoir is the second son of the late Sir James Cockburn, Baronet, (a descendant of the said Alexander) by Miss Ayscough, daughter of the late Dean of Bristol, and niece to Lord Littleton[1]. At the commencement of the war with the French republic, we find him proceeding to the Mediterranean with Vice-Admiral Hotham, in the Britannia, of 100 guns; from which ship he removed into the Victory, another first rate, bearing the flag of Viscount Hood, by whom he was promoted to the command of the Speedy sloop. Early in 1794 he was nominated acting Captain of the Inconstant frigate; and subsequently of the Meleager, of 32 guns. His latter appointment was confirmed by a post commission, bearing date Feb. 24, 1794.

With the exception of his being present at the capture of the Ca Ira and Censeur, two French line-of-battle ships, off Gourjon bay[2], we find no particular mention of Captain Cockburn until the summer of 1795, at which time he joined the squadron commanded by Commodore Nelson, employed in co-operation with the Austrian and Piedmontese armies, under General de Vins; and in checking the trade between Genoa, France, and the places occupied by the republican troops.

The various and important services which that lamented hero performed with his small squadron, during the Vado campaign, formed a striking contrast with the slow and unprofitable movements of the Imperialists; and on one occasion he actually impeded the progress of the Conqueror of Italy. Six vessels, laden with cannon and ordnance-stores for the siege of Mantua, sailed from Toulon for St. Pier d’Arena. Assisted by Captain Cockburn, he drove them under a battery, the fire of which he silenced, and captured the whole. Military books, plans, and maps of Italy, with the different points marked upon them, where former battles had been fought, sent by the Directory for Buonaparte’s use, were found in the convoy. The loss of this artillery was one of the chief causes which compelled the French to raise the siege of Mantua; but there was too much treachery, and too much imbecility, both in the councils and armies of the allied powers, for Austria to improve this momentary success.

We make the following extract from Commodore Nelson’s letter to Sir John Jervis, giving an account of the above capture:

“I directed Captain Cockburn of the Meleager to lead in, which he did in the most officer-like manner; and at 3 o’clock the Meleager and Agamemnon brought up in less than four fathoms water, as did soon afterwards the Peterell and Speedy. After a short resistance from the battery and vessels, we took possession of them. It is impossible I can do justice to the alacrity and gallantry ever conspicuous in my little squadron. Our boats boarded the national ketch la Genie, the Commodore of the convoy, notwithstanding the fire of three 18-pounders, and one of similar calibre, in a gun-boat. The Blanche and Diadem being to leeward, the former could not anchor until the vessels had struck; but the boats of all the ships were active in getting the prizes off the shore, the enemy having cut their cables when they surrendered. A smart fire of musketry was kept up from the shore during the whole of this service.

“Much as I feel indebted to every officer in the squadron, yet I cannot omit to mention the great support and assistance I have ever received from Captain Cockburn, who has been nearly a year under my command on this station; and I should feel myself guilty of neglect of duty, were I not to represent his zeal, ability, and courage, which are conspicuous on every occasion that offers[3].”

Amidst the excesses and cruelty which the French at this time committed, it was their custom to sell the Imperialists who fell into their hands, to the Spaniards, by whom some were transported to the mines in South America, and others selected for recruits. In the above convoy were found 152 Austrian grenadiers, who had been taken prisoners of war, and were thus happily delivered from the horrible fate that awaited them.

Captain Cockburn’s next appointment was to la Minerve, of 42 guns and 281 men; in which ship his friend Nelson hoisted his broad pendant on the 10th Dec. 1796, and proceeded, with the Blanche frigate under his orders, to superintend the evacuation of Porto Ferrajo. On his way, he fell in with two Spanish frigates, the Sabina and Ceres, each mounting 40 guns. La Minerve engaged the former, which was commanded by Don Jacobo Stuart, a descendant of the Duke of Berwick, son of James II. After an action of three hours, during which the enemy, according to Commodore Nelson’s letter, had 164 men killed and wounded, the Sabina struck[4]. The Spanish Captain had hardly been conveyed on board la Minerve, when the Matilda, of 34 guns, came up, compelled her to cast off the prize, and brought her to action. After half an hour’s trial of strength, the British frigate compelled this her second antagonist to wear and haul off, and would most probably have captured her, had not a 3-decker and two other ships hove in sight. The Blanche, from which the Ceres had got off[5], was far to windward, and la Minerve escaped only by the anxiety of the enemy to recover their own ship, in which they succeeded, but not until the whole of her masts had fallen[6]. From the Commodore’s official letter to the Commander-in-Chief relative to these actions, in which la Minerve had a Midshipman and 6 men killed, 1 Lieutenant, the gunner, boatswain, and 41 wounded, we extract the following passage relative to her Captain and Officers:–

“You are, Sir, so thoroughly acquainted with the merits of Captain Cockhurn, that it is needless for me to express them; hut the discipline of la Minerve does the highest credit to her Captain and Lieutenants, and I wish fully to declare the sense I entertain of their judgment and gallantry. Lieutenant Culverhouse is an old officer of distinguished merit[7]. Lieutetants Hardy, Gage, and Noble, deserve every praise which gallantry and zeal justly entitled them to, as does every other officer and man in the ship. You will observe, Sir, I am sure with regret, amongst the wounded, Lieutenant James Noble, who quitted the Captain to serve with me, and whose merit and repeated wounds received in fighting the enemies of our country, entitle him to every reward which a grateful nation can bestow[8].”

The Commodore arrived at Porto Ferrajo Dec. 27, and la Minerve was there repaired. On the 29th Jan. 1797, the whole of the naval establishment having been withdrawn from that station; the necessary arrangements made for the removal of the troops under General de Burgh; and the late Viceroy of Corsica[9] with his suite embarked on board that ship, the squadron and transports sailed for Gibraltar, where they arrived in safety on the 10th of the following month. Nelson remained but one day at that place, and then proceeded in search of his Admiral. Off the mouth of the Straits he fell in with the Spanish fleet under Don Josef de Cordova, by two of whose ships he had been chased in the Gut; and on the 13th reaching the rendezvous off Cape St. Vincent, communicated intelligence of the force and situation of the enemy to Sir John Jervis, by whom he was immediately ordered to remove into his former ship, the Captain of 74 guns.

Towards the close of the memorable battle of Feb. 14, 1797[10], la Minerve again received the broad pendant of Commodore Nelson, who directed Captain Cockburn to proceed to the van of the British fleet, it being his intention to go on board any of the line-of-battle ships then engaged. Before this could be effected, however, the signal was made to discontinue the action; and in the evening the Commodore took up his residence on board the Irresistible.

From this period until the suspension of hostilities, la Minerve continued on the Mediterranean station, and cruized with very considerable success, capturing several privateers and valuable merchantmen. In the summer of 1801, she formed part of a squadron of frigates under the orders of Captain (now Sir Lawrence W.) Halsted, employed off Elba, to prevent supplies being conveyed to the French troops on that island. Whilst employed on this service, Captain Cockburn assisted at the capture of the Success, formerly a British frigate, and destruction of la Bravoure, of 46 guns and 283 men, near Leghorn. Her commander, with several of his officers, were made prisoners by la Minerve’s boats.

Towards the latter end of the same year, la Minerve returned to England with the flag of Sir John B. Warren; and in the summer of 1803, Captain Cockburn obtained the command of the Phaeton, another large frigate, in which he conveyed Mr. Merry, Ambassador to the United States, his Lady, and suite, to New York.

Our officer was afterwards appointed successively to the Howe, Captain, Aboukir, and Pompée, ships of the line, but does not appear to have had any opportunity of particularly distinguishing himself, until early in the year 1809, when we find him serving with the temporary rank of Commodore, under Sir Alexander Cochrane, at the reduction of Martinique[11]. The Commander-in-Chief, in his official despatches to the Admiralty relative to that important conquest, says,– “I have already informed their lordships, that I entrusted the whole of the naval arrangements on shore to Commodore Cockburn; his exertions have been unremitting, and his merit beyond my praise.

In the following summer, Captain Cockburn commanded the Belleisle, a third rate, in the expedition to the Scheldt; and after the army had been landed, took the command of a division of bombs and gun-vessels, which, under his directions, were most judiciously placed against the south-east end of the town of Flushing, and bombarded that place until the French Commandant signified his intentions to surrender[12]. Captain Cockburn was then selected, together with the Adjutant-General of the army, to settle the terms of capitulation, which were finally concluded in the evening of the 15th July. The loss sustained by that part of the flotilla under his orders, at the attack of Flushing, amounted to 7 men killed and 22 wounded; among the former was Lieutenant Rennie, of the Marlborough, and in the latter list Lieutenant Russel, of the San Josef.

Early in 1810, Captain Cockburn was appointed to the Implacable, another 74-gun-ship; and in the ensuing autumn we find him serving under Sir Richard Keats at Cadiz, in the defence of which city he exhibited his usual zeal and ability on every occasion that presented itself. He was subsequently sent to South America, to mediate between Spain and her transatlantic colonies, and on this occasion, we believe, was established in the rank of Commodore.

At the general promotion, Aug. 1st. 1811, our officer was nominated to one of the vacant Colonelcies of Royal Marines; and on the 12th Aug. in the following year, advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral; he soon after proceeded to the coast of North America, with his flag in the Marlborough, of 74 guns.

In the month of April, 1813, the Rear-Admiral commenced a desultory warfare in the southern part of the United States, by proceeding with a light squadron up the rivers at the head of Chesapeake Bay, and attacking the different towns and repositories of stores on their banks. These operations, though successful, were of no other moment than as they tended to impress the minds of the people in those parts with a desire for the termination of hostilities, to which they were in danger of becoming victims. A more important entcrprize was undertaken against a post at Hampton, in Virginia, defended by a considerable body of troops, and commanding the communication between the upper part of the country and Norfolk. On the 26th June, Sir Sidney Beck with, at the head of the flying corps attached to the fleet under Sir John B. Warren, who had embarked his troops on board Rear-Admiral Cockburn’s squadron, landed to the westward of Hampton, and, whilst the enemy’s attention was engaged by a fire from the vessels upon the batteries, he turned their flank unperceived. A brisk action ensued, which terminated in his gaining possession of their camp and fortified works. The total loss sustained by the British on this occasion was 5 men slain, 33 wounded, and 10 missing. In the following month, Rear-Admiral Cockburn took possession of Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands, on the coast of North Carolina, by which an end was put to the commerce carried on from the port of the former by means of the inland navigation. A brig of war mounting 18, and a schooner of 10 guns, were also captured there.

The hostile operations on the southern coast of the United States, had hitherto been rather of a harassing and predatory kind, than directed to any important purpose; but it was now resolved to strike a blow in this quarter that might exert an influence upon the fate of the war. A large naval force under the command of Sir Alexander Cochrane, having on board a strong body of troops, commanded by Major-General Ross, assembled in the Chesapeake in the beginning of Aug. 1814, waiting the arrival of a reinforcement from Bermuda. Their junction took place on the 11th, when the Commander-in-Chief was informed by Rear-Admiral Cockburn, that the American Commodore Barney, with the Baltimore flotilla, had taken shelter at the head of the Patuxent; of this circumstance advantage was taken as a pretext for ascending that river, with the avowed purpose of an attack upon Barney; but the real and ultimate object was the American capital, not far distant from a port on the Patuxent. A detachment being sent to bombard Fort Washington, situated about ten or twelve miles below the city, and several vessels sent up the Chesapeake, above Baltimore, by way of diversion; the main body of the army, with the marine battalion, a detachment of seamen, and the rocket corps, were landed at Benedict on the 19th and 20th Aug. On the 21st, Major-General Ross marched to Nottingham, higher up the Patuxent, on the same (right) bank; the armed boats and tenders of the fleet, under Rear-Admiral Cockburn, making a corresponding movement in communication with the troops on shore, and in pursuit of Commodore Barney, who, with his flotilla, consisting of one armed sloop and sixteen vessels, retired before them. On the 22nd the army moved to Marlborough, while the boats pursued the flotilla; and on their near approach, it was observed that the enemy, instead of waiting an attack, had set fire to his vessels, all of which blew up in succession, except the last gun-boat, which, with thirteen merchant schooners, and a considerable, quantity of tobacco, were captured, and such as were worth transporting, brought away. In consequence of this success, the right flank of the army was secured; and the force of the Americans being ascertained to be such only as would justify an attempt to take the capital by a coup de main, Major-General Ross in concert with Rear-Admiral Cockburn, determined on making it.

In the course of the 23d, all necessary preparations were made for the advance; and in the afternoon, the troops, and an additional number of seamen and marines being landed from the squadron, proceeded about five miles nearer Washington, where they bivouacqued for that night.

On the morning of the 24th, the whole, with the MajorGeneral and the Rear-Admiral, accompanied by Captains Wainwright, Palmer, and Money, of the navy, advanced upon Bladensburgh, a village and strong position about five miles from Washington. Here the enemy’s army was discovered on the opposite side of the river, estimated at upwards of 8,000 men, with Commodore Barney and the crew of his flotilla, strongly posted on two commanding heights, his advance occupying a fortified house, which, with the artillery, covered the bridge that the British had to pass over. Notwithstanding the great fatigue which the state of the weather and their previous march and labours had occasioned, his Majesty’s forces evinced the greatest alacrity, and while a part only of the army was come up, the Commander of the troops seeing a favourable opportunity of attack, resolved not to defer it; a column of about 1,500 men advanced upon the enemy, stormed his position, and totally routed him, taking 10 pieces of cannon, killing great numbers, and making several prisoners; among the latter was Commodore Barney, who was also wounded.

President Madison, the Secretary at war, and the Secretaries of state and of the navy, are said to have been present at the beginning of the action. The loss sustained by the British in this decisive affair, was 63 men killed and 185 wounded. Immediately after the action, the remains of the American army retreated through Washington, and across the Potowmac into Virginia. Having halted a short time, the British troops advanced; and, notwithstanding the resistance made by the enemy, took possession of Washington.

All that evening and night, the invaders were employed in destroying the public buildings, stores, and property to a great amount. The enemy in his retreat had set fire to the dockyard and arsenal; a frigate of the largest class ready for launching, and a sloop of war already afloat, were also burnt. The destruction was completed by the British seamen next morning; but private property was respected, and strict discipline observed.

In addition to the dock-yard, &c, already mentioned, the States’ rope-walk, and an immense and costly assemblage of naval stores of all kinds, together with the vast and splendid public edifices that had so lately adorned that maiden capital, the Palace of the President, the Senate House, the House of Representatives, the Treasury, the War Office, and the Great Bridge across the Potowmac, were devoured by the flames, blown up from their foundations, or otherwise destroyed!

The object of the expedition being effected, a retreat was commenced on the night of the 25th; the army reached Benedict on the 29th, and re-embarked on the following day, having met with no molestation on its return.

The following is an extract from the despatches of Sir Alexander Cochrane, relative to the above enterprise:– “I have before had occasion to speak of the unremitting zeal and exertions of Rear-Admiral Cockburn during the time he commanded in the Chesapeake under my orders; the interest and ability which he has manifested throughout this late arduous service, justly entitle him to my best thanks, and to the acknowledgements of my Lords Commisioners of the Admiralty.

Major-General Ross, in his official letter to Earl Bathurst, says,– “To Rear-Admiral Cockburn, who suggested the attack upon Washington, and who accompanied the army, I confess the greatest obligation, for his cordial co-operation and advice.

The next important event was the unsuccessful attack made upon Baltimore, in Sept. 1814; the army succeeded in defeating the Americans, and approached close to the city; but so efficient were the naval means of defence, that our ships of war could not co-operate, and all the brilliant achievements of our soldiers proved useless On this occasion that part of the naval service which was connected with the army, was again confided to Rear-Admiral Cockburn, who evinced his usual zeal and ability, and executed his important trust to the entire satisfaction of the Commander-in-Chief.

The heaviest loss sustained by the British in this expedition was that of the gallant Major-General Ross, who fell by the side of the Rear-Admiral, when reconnoitring the enemy previous to the action.

During the remainder of the war with America, the subject of this memoir was incessantly employed in scouring the enemy’s rivers, destroying their towns, batteries, shipping, and property to an immense amount.

In the month of July, 1815, when the late ruler of the French nation surrendered himself to the British, his present Majesty, then Prince Regent, depending on “the well known zeal and resolute character of Sir George Cockburn[13],” confided that personage to his care. The Rear Admiral was at the same time appointed Commander-in-Chief at the Cape of Good Hope and the island of St. Helena; to the latter of which places, as is well known, his turbulent prisoner was conveyed for the purpose of secure detention. On the 8th Aug. Sir George sailed from Plymouth with his flag on board the Northumberland, into which ship General Buonaparte had previously been removed from the Bellerophon; and on the 16th Oct. following, landed the latter at the place of his destination, where our officer continued until the arrival of Sir Hudson Lowe, to whom he transferred his charge; and being relieved in the command of the squadron by Sir Pulteney Malcolm, returned to England.

On the 20th Feb. 1818, Sir George Cockburn was created a G.C.B.; in the following month he obtained a seat at the Board of Admiralty; and at the general election in the same year, was chosen representative in Parliament for the Borough of Portsmouth. His promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral took place Aug. 12, 1819; and on the 5th April, 1821, he received the honorable appointment of Major-General of the Royal Marines.

Sir George represents Weobley, co. Hereford, in the present Parliament, having been elected for that borough in 1820.

Residence.– Admiralty.

  1. Our officer’s elder brother, James, the present Baronet, was, in 1806, appointed Under Secretary of State; in 1807, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Curaçoa; and in 1811, Governor, &c of the Bermudas. He now holds the office of Paymaster of the Royal Marines.
  2. See p. 340.
  3. The above-mentioned affair took place May 31, 1796; the loss sustained by the British was 1 man killed and 3 wounded. On the 25th of the preceding month, the boats of the Agamemnon, Diadem, Meleager, and Peterell, cut out four vessels laden with provisions, wine, arms, and ammunition, from under the batteries at Loano, on which occasion Lieutenant (now Captain) Noble of the former ship, and two seamen belonging to the Meleager, were wounded.
  4. The Spaniards in an account of the action published at Carthagena, stated their loss at 10 killed and 45 wounded, 2 of them mortally.
  5. See superannuated Rear-Admiral D’arcy Preston.
  6. See Captain Sir T. M. Hardy, in our next volume.
  7. Lieutenant Culverhouse was afterwards promoted; and drowned, together with his wife, by the upsetting of a boat in Table Bay, about the year 1809.
  8. Soon after Nelson’s return to England from his unsuccessful expedition against Teneriffe, an account of which will be found at p. 391, et seq., he sent a letter to Earl St. Vincent containing the following request: “After George Cockburn’s gallant action with the Sabina, I directed a gold-hilted sword to be made for him, which I had hoped to present to him myself in the most public and handsome manner; but as Providence has decreed otherwise, I must beg of you to present it for me. My good friend Grey will, I hope, enquire and get it out of the Argo. I feel confident of your goodness.”
  9. See Note at p. 255.
  10. See p. 23, et seq.
  11. See p. 264.
  12. See p. 290.
  13. The Rear-Admiral had been rewarded for his eminent services with the insignia of a K.C.B. Jan. 2, preceding.