A native of Massachusetts, David Cobb (1748-1830) served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington from the summer of 1781 till the end of the War for American Independence. Described by a contemporary as “an ingenious young gentleman,”1 Cobb was a physician before the conflict, but spent the great majority of his life as a developer and state official in the District of Maine.
Born in Bristol County, Massachusetts on September 14, 1748, David Cobb was the youngest son of Thomas and Lydia (née Leonard) Cobb’s five children.2 His father had served as an officer in the colony’s provincial forces during the French & Indian War, and moved his family to Taunton, Massachusetts in 1760 to further make his way in the manufacture of bar iron.3 Young David was sent to Braintree, Massachusetts for a primary education and afterwards entered Harvard College as a freshman in 1762.4 After his graduation in 1766, he apprenticed in the field of medicine and set up a practice in Taunton the following year.5 However, the politics of the day soon garnered much of his attention. An intellectual advocate in the cause of civil liberty, David Cobb chaired the principal town and county committees of opposition to the royal government.6 He was elected, with his brother-in-law, Robert Treat Paine, to the First Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774, but the military Governor “thought fit to excuse them” before either could take their seats.7
David Cobb plied his medical skills for both the military and civil population of Massachusetts in the first years of the War for American Independence. With gunpowder deficient, he was also active in the search for the natural ingredients necessary to produce it.8 In January of 1777, Dr. Cobb accepted the position of second-in-command of one of the “Additional” infantry regiments of the Continental Army, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.9 For the next four years, he divided his time between medical duties in Massachusetts and as a military officer in the field.
On June 15, 1781, Lieutenant Colonel David Cobb was appointed an aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief after the exodus of several members of General George Washington’s “military family.”10 He served in this capacity during the crucial Siege of Yorktown, noting in his diary on October 19, 1781: “This morning at twelve the articles [of capitulation] were signed. At one o’clock our troops took possession of some of the enemy’s works, and they marched out [at] two o’clock - most happy sight!”11 Afterwards, Cobb returned to the Hudson Highlands with the main army to keep watch on the enemy garrison in New York City, remaining on Washington’s staff until the end of the war.
Washington had undoubtedly formed a good opinion of David Cobb before inviting him to his staff, which was solidified by Cobb’s acumen and industriousness during his tenure as an aide. While President of the United States, Washington considered Cobb for a couple of cabinet posts throughout his time in office.12 When selecting general officers for the Provisional Army in 1798, General Washington informed the Secretary of War, “I know no character in the New England States (since the declination of Genls Knox and Brooks) that have fairer pretensions to be appointed a Brigadier, or even Majr General, than Genl [David] Cobb.”13 Cobb likewise respected Washington. Although not in camp during the Newburgh Conspiracy, David Cobb learned of it on his return and, after mature reflection many years later, concluded “that the United States are indebted, for their Republican form of Government, solely, to the firm and determined Republicanism of Genl. Washington at that time.”14
After the War for Independence, David Cobb returned to his home in Taunton to find it with too many physicians. He would again change his career path, with an appointment as Judge in the Court of Common Pleas for Bristol County in 1784.15 The following year brought an additional government commission as a Major General of state militia. In these two offices, he countered and quelled the initial rumblings of Shays’ Rebellion in Bristol County, Massachusetts.16 He was further advanced to the Court of General Sessions in 1787. Less than two years later, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he was chosen as Speaker. In 1792, he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives coinciding with the beginning of George Washington’s second term as President.17
Failing reelection, David Cobb accepted an offer in 1795 to be the resident agent for the development of almost two million acres of land in the territory of Maine, known as the Bingham Purchase.18 He was a principal director for the planning and growth of the region for over twenty-five years, serving also as a judge, military officer, and an elected official to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After Maine was granted statehood in 1821, he gradually retired to his native state and there he died in Boston on April 17, 1830.19
Samuel K. Fore
Harlan Crow Library
Allis, Frederick S., Jr., ed. William Bingham’s Maine Lands, 1790-1820. Boston: The Society, 1954.
Kennedy, Edward F., Jr. David Cobb: An American Patriot. (Taunton, Mass.: Old Colony Historical Society, 1982).
Lefkowitz, Arthur S. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2003.
1 John Winthrop to James Bowdoin, February 27, 1769 in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 6th Ser., Vol. IX (Boston: The Society, 897) pp. 127-128.
2 Sources list either Attleborough and Taunton in Bristol County as the site of Cobb’s birth. Scott, Henry Edwards, ed. Vital Records of Taunton, Massachusetts to the Year 1850. Vol. I: Births. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1928), p. 93 & Baylies, Francis. Some Remarks on the Life and Character of General David Cobb… ((Albany: J. Munsell, 1864).
3 Baylies, Francis. Some Remarks on the Life and Character of General David Cobb, Delivered at the Taunton Lyceum, July 2d, 1830… (Albany: J. Munsell, 1864), p. 4 & Emery, Samuel Hopkins. History of Taunton, Massachusetts, From its Settlement to the Present Time… (Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., 1893), pp. 632-3, 642 & 645.
4 “A list of those Freshmen who have rec’d Hebrew Grammars Sept. 1762…” Harvard College. Early Faculty Minutes, March 6, 1752-September 12, 1766. Vol. II, p. 172. Harvard Mirador Viewer, Harvard University Archives. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:46690122$198i.
5 “Illustrissimo ac Sublimi Virtute,…” . Commencement These, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises, 1642-1818… Harvard Mirador Viewer. Harvard University Archives. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:425954524$1i
6 “Minutes of the Bristol Convention of 1774” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Vol. I: Transactions, 1892-1894. (Boston: Published by the Society, 1895), pp. 176-181 & Emery, Samuel Hopkins. History of Taunton, Massachusetts, From its Settlement to the Present Time… (Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., 1893), pp. 473-477.
7 David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine, February 11 & 24, 1776. Hanson, Edward W., ed. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. Vol. III: 1774-1779. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005), pp. 156-159.
8 See for example, Salley Cobb Paine to Robert Treat Paine, February 11 & May 27, 1776, and David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine, August 26, 1776. Hanson, Edward W., ed. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. Vol. III: 1774-1779. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005), pp. 156-159, 214, 247-249 & 274-276.
9 “To George Washington from Colonel Henry Jackson, 1 February 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0225 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 8, 6 January 1777?–?27 March 1777, ed. Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 211–212.] & Samuel Huntington Commission of David Cobb of David Cobb to be “Lieutenant Colonel of the Regiment commanded by Coll. [Henry] Jackson” with a date of rank of February 7, 1777. Society of the Cincinnati Library, Washington, D. C.
10 “General Orders, 15 June 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-06062
11 1781 Diary, David Cobb papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
12 For example, see George Washington’s solicitation to Benjamin Lincoln, 14 August 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0295 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791?–?22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 423–424.]
13 “From George Washington to James McHenry, 14 December 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-03-02-0181 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 3, 16 September 1798?–?19 April 1799, ed. W. W. Abbot and Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 267–268.]
14 David Cobb to Timothy Pickering, 9 November 1825. Timothy Pickering Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society
15 Dean, John Ward., ed. New England Historical & Genealogical Register Vol. XLV (July 1891), pp. 241-242.
16 “Richard Cranch to Abigail Adams, 13 April 1786,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-07-02-0046 [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 7, January 1786?–?February 1787, ed. C. James Taylor, Margaret A. Hogan, Celeste Walker, Anne Decker Cecere, Gregg L. Lint, Hobson Woodward, and Mary T. Claffey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, pp. 138–140.] & “To George Washington from David Humphreys, 24 September 1786,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-04-02-0245 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 4, 2 April 1786?–?31 January 1787, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 264–267.]
17 “Abigail Adams to Abigail Adams Smith, 3 November 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-09-02-0181 [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 9, January 1790?–?December 1793, ed. C. James Taylor, Margaret A. Hogan, Karen N. Barzilay, Gregg L. Lint, Hobson Woodward, Mary T. Claffey, Robert F. Karachuk, and Sara B. Sikes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 323–324.], fn. 4.
18 Articles of Agreement Between William Bingham and David Cobb, 7 March 1795, in Allis, Frederick S., Jr., ed. “William Bingham’s Maine Lands, 1790-1820” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Vol. XXXVI: Collections (Boston: Published by the Society, 1954), pp. 501-503.
19 Fall River Monitor (Fall River, Mass.) Saturday, April 24, 1830, p. 3.