William J. Cobb was born in 1838 in Ohio, the son of Josiah (b. 1807) and Charlotte (b. 1809-1881).
William’s parents were both born in New York and were married in Lysander, New York, on August 30, 1824. They resided in New York State until moving to Ohio sometime between 1834 and 1838, and Josiah may have been living in Detroit in 1840. If so, the family apparently returned to New York between 1841 and 1843, were back in Ohio by 1846 and by 1848 had settled in or returned to Michigan. In 1850 Josiah and his family were living in Essex, Clinton County where William attended school with his siblings. By 1860 William was still living with his family on a farm in Essex.
William was 23 years old and probably residing in Robinson, Ottawa County when he enlisted in Company I on May 13, 1861. (Company I was made up largely of men from Ottawa County, particularly from the eastern side of the County. It appears that William was good friends with the Austin family, originally from New York and Clinton County, Michigan, four of whom would also join Company I in 1861.) On November 6 William wrote home to his “Dear Mother” from Fort Lyon, Virginia.
I now take my pen in hand to let you know that [I am] pretty well at present and hope to find you the same. It is awful rainy and windy here this fall. Most all of the boys have got very bad colds a sleeping in these old tents. When it rains they leak like an old sieve if the wind blows much. I am most sick now with a bad cold. We have frosts and pretty cold nights now. Our summer tents don’t keep much of the cold out now but [we] get along pretty well. We are all in good spirits. We are a going to get out pay now in a few days and the next letter I send I will send home fifteen or twenty dollars. The next letter will have some war news in I think for I heard of a fight in South Carolina but we have not heard the particulars yet. I guess that we will winter in Alexandria, a city about two miles from us. It is in Virginia about 6 miles from Washington. It is the talk now that the war will not last a great while. They seem to think that we will go home about next spring but we can’t tell for there is so many yarns a going here in camp that I can’t believe any of them. I should like to come home and make a good visit but there is no chance until this war is settled. I want to know if my likeness has got home yet. I sent it about two weeks ago. I sent two, one to Olive and the other to father and I have not heard from them yet. I can’t think of any more to write so good-bye. I send my love to all of the children and tell them that I have not forgotten them [even] if I am a good a good ways from home. . . .
On November 16, still at Fort Lyon, William wrote to his “Dear father.”
I now take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well at present and hope these few lines will find you the same. You seem to think hard of me for not writing to you oftener but I write there letters home where I don’t get one in return. I don’t write them all to you to be sure but I send them to Lewis, Nancy, Mother and yourself so you can hear from me in every letter and then I don’t have time to write very often for one day I have to go on guard and stand 8 hours out of 24 and the other 16 I have to stay around the guard house. Then I come off of guard the next day at nine o’clock so I am tired and sleepy and the next day I am on police, that is I have to bring wood and water for the cook and the next day I have to go out in the woods and chop stockades for to build our fort that we are working on here so I don’t have much time to write. You see they keep us pretty busy here all of the time. We don’t have much time to write or to do anything else. We expect to get our pay this week so I will send you some money. I don’t see why you don’t get more letters from me for I have one to you, one to Lewis, one to Mother and one to Nancy about three weeks ago but I have not got any answer from any of them yet. Now when you write to me I get the letter in five days from the time it is mailed. Now I don’t see why you don’t get my letters inside of three weeks from the time it leaves here. I sent my likeness to Olive by [Albert] Sparks about three weeks ago. He got his discharge and went home. I thought that would be the best way for [me] to send it and then have Olive send it up to you. I got a letter from Olive two days ago but it seems she has not been over there to get it yet. I have not got any news to write this time so good bye. This from your son William to his parents Josiah and Charlotte Cobb.
William again wrote home on November 28, while the regiment was still camped at Fort Lyon.
Dear Father, I now take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well at present and hope these few lines will find you the same. I received a letter from Lewis last week and was glad to hear from home for his was the first letter that I have received from home in about two months but I suppose money is pretty hard to get hold of so I cannot blame you for not writing oftener so write as often as you can. I sent you ten dollars last week. It started from our office the 24[th] of Nov so I guess that you have got it by this time. I sent seven postage stamps with the money. I sent a letter to mother about three or four weeks ago but I never have heard whether she got it or not. I sent five or six postage stamps to her so you & mother could write to me. Lewis dud not writher whether she had got it or not. I am going to send you and Lewis some newspapers. I want you to keep them to remember me. We hear of a fight most every day but the news comes in the papers so when I get hold of one that has much news in I will send it home. Our officers seem to think that we have got to go to South Carolina but we can’t tell till we get started to go where we are going. We had a grand review the 21[st] of Nov. There was 70,000 troops to the review [and] they had 118 pieces of cannon & 1800 cavalry. I tell you it was quite a sight to see so many men together and then there was 25,000 spectators on the field too. We had to march about ten miles to get to the review ground but I tell you I did not begrudge the marching. Have you got my likeness yet? I have not heard whether Olive has got them or not. If you ain’t got it I will get it taken again and send it to you. I wrote two letters to you, one about two & the other about 5 weeks ago. Did you get them? No more at present only I still remain your affectionate son William J. Cobb to his parents Josiah & Charlotte Cobb, good-bye
On January 31, 1862, from the regiment’s winter quarters at Camp Michigan in Virginia, William wrote to his “Dear Father”.
I now take this opportunity you inform you that I am well at present and hope these few lines will find you and all the rest of our folks enjoying the same pleasure. The boys are al well here that you are acquainted with. You did not say whether you got that 5 dollars that I sent you or not. I believe I sent it on the fifteenth but I am not sure and I sent my likeness the same time and you did not say whether you had got that yet or not. I got your letter tonight and was very glad to hear from you all but I am sorry to hear that you are not well but I hope you will soon get better and mother too for I live in hope of coming home sometime and I want to see you both again and all the rest of our folks too. I haven’t had a letter from Olive on over a month. I don’t see why she don’t write unless she has forgot she had a brother so far away from home & friends and I haven’t had but one letter from Lewis in about three months now. I don’t see why they don’t write to me. One of our regiments that is in our brigade had a fight with the rebels. They was out on picket and a nigger come in to their post and told them that about 30 rebels was quartered in an old mill some three miles from there so they give the nigger 5 dollars to show them the way there. The colonel took 50 men and went out there and surrounded the house and shot every one of them but one who gave himself up a prisoner. It was in the night and the rebels had a light in the house. Our men fired three volleys into the house and then closed up onto the house. Some of the rebels jumped out of the windows and our men captured them on their bayonets. The rebels killed one and wounded four of our men that had the fight was the 37 regt of N.Y. We have got to go out on picket in the morning. I have wrote this makes four letters to you this month & two to Nancy and I have got two from you & one from Nancy this month. No more at present so good-by. This from your affectionate son, Wm. J. Cobb to his dear parents Josiah and Charlotte Cobb. I send my love to all the children & yourselves likewise. Good-bye WJ Cobb.
And a week later he again wrote to his father in Michigan.
I now take this opportunity to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well at present & hope these few lines may find you & the rest of our folks well. I received your letter the 7th & was very glad to hear that you got that money that I sent you for I began to think that it was lost for it has been over 2 [or 3?] weeks since I sent it. We had a little brush with the secesh last Monday down the river to a village called Occoquan. Cornelius is writing to you so I won’t write the particulars for he is writing them. [vertically in the margin of this page:] do you think my profile looks natural that I sent to you[?] Here is some valentines that I sent to the children. Our troops has taken Fort Henry [and] Cornelius is writing the particulars. I have not much news this time. The boys are all well [and] they send their best respects to you. I got a letter from Olive [his sister] & Lewis; they are well. Lewis is chopping wood for Ed Ferry at five shillings a cord. John is lumbering this winter. He has got in 300 logs; he ain’t got but one team. I don’t hardly think we will get back home by next June but I hope we will. If we get back by next fall it will be sooner than I expect to get back. No more at present. Write soon. This letter from W. J. Cobb to his father Josiah Cobb. Good-bye. I send my love to all. WJC
In the spring of 1862 the Third Michigan along with the rest of the Army of the Potomac started out on the Spring campaign. On April 26, from a camp near Yorktown, Virginia, William (writing on the stationary of the Second New Hampshire Volunteers), wrote home to his father.
I now sit down to write you a few lines to let you know that I am yet in the land of the living & tuff as a buck & fat as a bear & in sight of the rebels & black as an Indian. I will bet the whiskey if we should come home this summer. You would not know me for we are all tanned up as black as Indiana. Well now for the news. The best news is we all got our pay yesterday & I have sent 30 dollars by express to St. Johns for you and Lewis [his brother-in-law?]. Don’t you think this is the best news? I do. Well now for something else. I see fourteen live secesh this morning. Our men charged on one of the rebel batteries about 9 o’clock this morning & took it. Our loss is 3 killed & 20 wounded. I don’t know what the rebel loss is. Our men have been shelling the rebels for 5 or 6 days. They throw a shell every 10 or 20 minutes so as to keep the rebels stirred up. The rebels had a barracks for about 4000 men about half a mile from our pickets. One of our batteries of artillery went out to the pickets & shelled the rebels out. I see some of the shell bursts right in their houses. It tore them all to pieces & killed [a] good many. . . . Our company is running a steam saw mill now, sawing plank to mount some big siege guns to siege out Yorktown. We have got 100 cannon here that carries a 92-pound ball & 5 that carries a 100-pound ball & one that carries a 200 pound shell. . . . Father I will send you a receipt to get that money I sent you. It needs one to get it. I don’t know when you get it I want you to write right back. When you get it you must tear it open at the end so as to preserve the wrapper & then if the money is in all right why then you can do what you are a mind to with it. You must tear it open at the office where you get it & then if the money ain’t in the package why show it to the express agent & I can get it back here for I got a receipt to show that I have sent it. I got a letter from Nancy & Eunice the other day but I ain’t got any stamps & can’t get any here. I wish you would send me some if you get that money. No more this time. Write back soon as you get that money. Wm. J. Cobb to Josiah Cobb, good-by to all.
And some two weeks later, following the actions at Williamsburg, Virginia, William again wrote home to his family (and still writing on the stationary of the Second New Hampshire Volunteers). On May 12, he informed his family,
I now take this opportunity to write you a few lines to let you know that I am alive and well. We had a pretty hard fight at Williamsburg but we whipped the rebels. We lost on our side about 1300 in killed and about 2000 wounded. The rebels lost in killed about 2000 & 3000 wounded. Our men buried 700 of the rebels in one day. I traveled over the battlefield the next day after the battle. I could walk on the dead bodies for half a mile without stepping on the ground. The 2nd Mich lost about 160 in killed & wounded, the 5th lost 200 killed & wounded, the 37th NY lost 200 in killed & wounded, the 3rd Mich lost only one man. Our regt supported a battery of artillery so we was not in the thickest of the fight. Our regt is lucky I think all the men we’ve lost in battle is two killed & 4 or 5 wounded. The battle was fought in an old slashing. The rebels were all through the slashing behind logs, stumps and brush & everything, but our men drove them out but many a poor fellow lost his life doing it. They had 5 forts besides but our men charged on them & drove them out of two of them & by that time it was dark so we laid on our arms all night ready to commence the next morning but the rebels left in the night. They left lots of muskets, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, cannon & everything you could think of. We followed them two days & then we was so tired with marching our general let us rest one day. I expect we will start again today for Richmond where we expect they will make another stand. We are 40 miles from Richmond now. The rebels say we will have a big fight there. I don’t know as you can read this but I can’t get any ink. Father, have you got the money that I sent you? I sent 30 dollars to St. Johns by express for you & sent you a letter to let you know that it was there. I sent it the 26 of April. I haven’t had a letter from home in some time. I wrote for you to send me some stamps but I have got some now so you need not send any. No more this time. Write often & I will write as often as I can for we are marching most all the time. It is so damned hot here we can’t carry anything but our guns and accoutrements & a few other things. W. J. Cobb to his parents, good bye.
William was captured on May 31, 1862, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, held prisoner and returned to the Regiment on December 8, 1862. On April 21, 1863, he wrote home to his father from Camp Curtin, Virginia.
I now sit down to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well at present & hope these few lines will find you the same. Father I sent you 20 dollars the 16th of this month. Have you got it yet? I sent it in a letter. Well now for the news which ain’t much. We are under marching orders & have been for 6 days but it rained the same night we hot the order so we are waiting for the roads to dry up a little before we start on our campaign. Well that is all the news I can think of just now. For something else Ben Austin has got his discharge, Ira [Austin] is at Chestnut Hill hospital ten miles from Philadelphia. Sam Taylor is here in the hospital. The rest of the boys are all well. I don’t know whether you know any of them or not., I guess you know Thomas Somersett, Isaac Duvernay & Gilbert Cooley. Well I can’t of anything more so Good night. I send my best respects to all, from W. J. Cobb to his father Josiah Cobb.
In September of 1863 William was seriously injured in a railroad accident somewhere between New York and Philadelphia. According to one of the Third Michigan’s Hospital Stewards, Warren Wilkinson, “Our journey back to the army was very pleasant with the exception of an accident, which happened – three men being hurt by a bridge while riding on top of a car. We were obliged to leave them in the hospital at Philadelphia. Their names were Wm. J. Cobb, Third Michigan, John Linsea and John Lakle, Fifth Michigan [it is unclear who these tatter men were]. I have been informed that Cobb and Linsea have since died. They were good soldiers and had passed through all the different battles with their regiments."
Indeed, William was admitted to the Broad and Pine Streets hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where, according to his “Record of Death” he died on September 16 from a “compression of the brain caused by his head coming into contact with a bridge while passing under it.” He was originally buried in Glenwood cemetery but reinterred in the Philadelphia National Cemetery: section B, grave no. 489.
His parents were living in Maple Rapids, Essex Township, Clinton County in 1870. In 1884 his father, a widower was living in Grand Haven, Ottawa County, when he applied for a pension (application no. 317,467).