Edmund R. Cocke

Edmund R. Cocke (1841–1922)

Edmund R. Cocke was a veteran of the American Civil War (1861–1865) who, after the war, became a Populist Party leader, running unsuccessful campaigns for Virginia governor (1893) and lieutenant governor (1897). After being wounded at Gettysburg (1863) and captured at Sailor's Creek (1865), Cocke, a staunch Democrat and white-supremacist, chaired Cumberland County's electoral board beginning in 1884. He told a friend that Republicans "putrefy every thing they touch," but he never was accused of being unfairly partisan in his position. Around the same time, Captain Cocke, as he was known, became involved in populist politics through the Farmers' Assembly of the State of Virginia, which he cofounded, and his disagreement with Democrats over the gold standard led to his defection to the People's Party in 1892. Although intellectually gifted, he was considered by his peers to be an uninspiring speaker, and he was soundly defeated in his run for governor in 1893 and, four years later, for lieutenant governor. This latter defeat effectively ended Populism in Virginia. In 1898, Cocke's wife died, in 1900 his plantation burned, and in his last few years he experimented with making gold through alchemy and lashed out at Prohibition Democrats. He died of kidney failure in 1922. MORE...

 

Early Years and Civil War

Edmund Randolph Cocke was born at Oakland, one of two Cumberland County plantations owned by his parents, William Armistead Cocke and Elizabeth Randolph Preston Cocke, on March 25, 1841. In 1856 he matriculated at Washington College (later Washington and Lee University). Intellectually gifted but shy and sometimes indolent, Cocke ranked near the bottom of his class during the first of his two years at that institution. Nevertheless, in 1858 the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) accepted him as a transfer student with sophomore standing.

During the secession crisis Cocke abandoned his studies, returned to Virginia, and on April 23, 1861, enlisted in the Black Eagle Rifles, a Cumberland County militia unit that mustered into Confederate service as Company E of the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Elected second lieutenant in June 1861, he became first lieutenant in mid-1862 and captain in January 1863. The Black Eagle Rifles performed with distinction at the First Battle of Manassas (1861) and fought in most of the Army of Northern Virginia's early campaigns. During George E. Pickett's charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, Cocke suffered a superficial wound, but more than one-third of the men in his command were killed, including one of his brothers. The shattered company saw only limited action in the remaining years of the Civil War. Cocke served in 1865 as major of the 18th Virginia, without formal promotion to that rank. On April 6, 1865, he was captured during the Battles of Sailor's Creek. Briefly confined in Washington, D.C., he spent two months in the prisoner-of-war camp at Johnson's Island, Ohio. On June 9 he swore allegiance to the United States and was paroled.

Post-War Politics

Emancipation and the accompanying collapse of land values severely reduced the Cocke family's wealth. The makeshift sharecropping and day-labor arrangements that replaced slavery arguably generated more frustration than income, and the Cockes' dark tobacco cash crop began to encounter serious competition from the newly popular bright leaf of Pittsylvania County and North Carolina. By 1880 his brothers had abandoned plantation life for other pursuits, but Captain Cocke, as he was customarily known, remained at Oakland for almost six decades after the Civil War, initially as the estate's heir and farm manager and then, after his mother's death in 1889, as its owner. On October 17, 1871, Cocke married his cousin Phoebe A. Preston, of Rockbridge County. They had two daughters before her death on August 5, 1873, following childbirth. On May 6, 1878, Cocke married another cousin, Lucia Cary Harrison, of Charles City County. Three of their four sons and three of their six daughters lived to adulthood.

After 1865 Cocke staunchly supported the Democratic Party and its low-tariff, white-supremacist creed. African American voters gave Republican candidates a decisive edge in Cumberland County, but in 1884, 1888, and 1890 the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly named Cocke chair of Cumberland's electoral board, a three-member panel that oversaw voting arrangements and appointed polling-place officials in county precincts. The local Readjusters' and GOP's continued victories during his seven-year tenure suggest that he fulfilled the obligations of the post without fraud or excessive partisanship. Even so, Cocke's private correspondence indicates that he harbored bitter antagonism toward the Republicans' policies, especially their support of black suffrage. He urged repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment and wrote that because of his intense hatred for Republicans, who "contaminate, debauch and putrefy every thing they touch," he could not "in sincerity pray for their Salvation."

Cocke's stint on Cumberland's electoral board coincided with his emergence as a noted figure in the state's farm organizations—and also with his first significant deviations from the Democratic Party's laissez-faire economic principles. Service on the Virginia State Agricultural Society's executive committee from 1883 to 1885 enhanced his contacts with Robert Beverley (1822–1901), Mann Page (1835–1904), and other independent-minded patricians who shared his concerns about deflationary trends in crop prices and land values. In 1884 and 1885 Cocke joined these activists in establishing the Farmers' Assembly of the State of Virginia, a broadly based group that soon demonstrated marked willingness to challenge the status quo. Signaling his support for a reform agenda that ranged from state railroad regulation to federal aid for public schools, Cocke between 1885 and 1889 represented the Cumberland farm club in at least three of the assembly's conferences.

In 1889 the Farmers' Assembly was absorbed into the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, a more radical group that had expanded into Virginia from the cotton states. An enthusiastic convert, Cocke was particularly attracted by the Alliance's demand for the free coinage of silver, a price-raising initiative that he viewed as tailor-made to alleviate the Southside's difficulties. He was also receptive to the organization's controversial subtreasury scheme, which would have allowed farmers to use tobacco and other nonperishable crops as collateral for low-interest, government-funded loans.

As a Populist

To Cocke's chagrin, his fellow Democrats did not share his view that the deflationary gold standard would inexorably reduce rural landowners to serfdom. Vexed by the state legislature's passage of a watered-down railroad regulatory bill early in 1892, and appalled by the party's nomination of Grover Cleveland, an avowed proponent of the gold standard, as its presidential candidate in June of that year, Cocke joined the front ranks of agrarian political insurgency and attended the first state convention of the Alliance-sponsored People's Party of Virginia (also known as the Populists). In the summer of 1892 he traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, as a delegate to the national convention of the People's Party. It soon became apparent, however, that Populism commanded little popular support in the Old Dominion. In November 1892 only about 12,000 Virginians voted for the presidential ticket that Cocke had helped nominate—a total dwarfed by the turnout for the victorious Democrats and even by that for the badly beaten Republicans. Meanwhile, the state Alliance's membership began to plummet, undercut by the collapse of many of the group's cooperative agribusiness ventures and by rank-and-file resistance to third-party activism. Cocke chaired the troubled organization's executive committee in 1892 and 1893, but his conscientious performance failed to halt the decline.

At the Populist state convention in August 1893 Cocke drafted much of the party platform, which championed free silver and called for radical reforms in Virginia's fraud-stained election procedures. After endorsing the platform committee's handiwork, the delegates put aside concerns about Cocke's staid, lackluster oratorical style and unanimously selected him as the party's gubernatorial nominee. Help from an unexpected quarter gave Cocke at least some chance for an upset victory. Demoralized by a ten-year succession of defeats, Virginia's GOP leaders decided not to field candidates for statewide office in 1893—a choice that, in effect, encouraged Republican voters to cast their ballots for the People's Party ticket. Unfortunately for Cocke, the emergence of this de facto coalition prompted an aggressive and vitriolic response from the Democrats, who lambasted the Populists as ne'er-do-well purveyors of communistic doctrines and, worse yet, as Republicans in all but name. Democratic newspapers assailed Cocke as an inexperienced political nonentity; as a rich, silver-spoon aristocrat who had never done a day's work in his life; and as a turncoat hypocrite whose allegations about vote fraud were belied by his own extended (and presumably honorable) tenure as a Democratic election official in Cumberland County. Backed by only 37.6 percent of the electorate, Cocke lost to congressman Charles Triplett O'Ferrall by a margin of 46,701 votes of 216,154 cast. The bulk of Cocke's support came from Republicans, black and white, who had cared little for him, his platform, or his party.

On August 23, 1894, Cocke served as temporary chair of the Populist state convention and, according to press reports, proclaimed that anyone who denied the need for reform in Virginia belonged in a lunatic asylum. That same day a Tenth District caucus nominated him for the United States House of Representatives. The November election brought yet another landslide defeat, this time at the hands of the incumbent Democratic congressman, Cocke's cousin Henry St. George Tucker (1853–1932).

During the next two years Cocke's public activities mirrored the erratic course of the third-party movement. In August 1895 he attended the Honest Election Conference in Petersburg at which he helped devise plans for a coordinated campaign by Populists and Republicans in the autumn legislative races. By contrast, the next year he served on a committee orchestrating a cooperative campaign of Virginia Populists and Democrats, and as a delegate to the People's Party convention in Saint Louis, Missouri, he endorsed the candidacy of the Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, an outspoken champion of the free-silver cause.

In July 1897 the Populists nominated Cocke for lieutenant governor and, fielding no candidates for the other statewide offices, urged the Democrats to give him the second spot on their ticket and thus produce a fusion slate acceptable to both parties. Southside Democrats were receptive to this plan, but at their party's state convention in August, only one-fifth of all the delegates voted for Cocke. The Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor went instead to Edward Echols, a conservative machine politician from Staunton. Stung by this perceived insult, Populist leaders encouraged Cocke to continue his futile third-party candidacy, even though they lacked the resources to mount anything more than a token campaign on his behalf. The 7,429 votes that he polled in November constituted only 4.6 percent of the 162,770 votes cast and signaled the demise of Populism as even a minor influence in Virginia.

Later Years

Private misfortunes accompanied public defeats. On March 31, 1898, Cocke's wife died of childbirth complications that also claimed the life of her newborn infant. In August 1900 fire destroyed his cherished ancestral home at Oakland. Indicative of Cocke's reduced circumstances, a remodeled outbuilding that had once served as the plantation's business office became the family residence. Beset by cash shortages, he began selling off parts of Oakland in the 1880s, sold another 792 acres in 1900, and later attempted to alleviate concerns about his children's financial prospects by designating the former state Alliance president Mann Page as trustee of the Cocke estate. A less rational response to accumulating adversities emerged as well. Family tradition records that Cocke began to practice the pseudoscience of alchemy. No stranger to lost causes, he devoted countless hours to gold-making experiments that ruined an array of kettles and tubs but failed to transform Oakland into El Dorado.

Preoccupied with this eccentric pursuit, the erstwhile champion of free silver displayed little interest in the reform crusades of the Progressive era. Cocke had no sympathy with the Prohibition movement and in 1919 lashed out against the state's machine Democrats and their newfound enthusiasm for "dry" principles. "There are a few gentlemen in Virginia still," he archly observed, "and they are not dominated by Methodist preachers." Cocke died at Oakland of kidney failure on February 19, 1922, and was buried in the family graveyard a short distance from his home.

Time Line

  • March 25, 1841 - Edmund Randolph Cocke is born at Oakland, one of his family's plantations in Cumberland County, to William Armistead Cocke and Elizabeth Randolph Preston Cocke.
  • 1856 - Edmund R. Cocke attends Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), staying for two years.
  • 1858 - Edmund R. Cocke transfers to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), where he remains until the start of the American Civil War.
  • April 23, 1861 - Edmund R. Cocke enlists in the Confederate army as a member of the Black Eagle rifles, a Cumberland County militia unit.
  • June 1861 - Edmund R. Cocke is elected to the rank of second lieutenant in the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
  • 1862 - Sometime in the middle of the year Edmund R. Cocke is promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
  • January 1863 - Edmund R. Cocke is promoted to the rank of captain in the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
  • July 3, 1863 - At Pickett's Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg, Captain Edmund R. Cocke suffers a superficial wound while serving with the 18the Virginia Infantry Regiment. More than a third of the men in his command, including one of his brothers, are killed.
  • 1865 - Edmund R. Cocke is informally advanced to the rank of major of the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
  • April 6, 1865 - Confederate officer Edmund R. Cocke is captured at the Battles of Sailor's Creek. After briefly being confined in Washington, D.C., he spends two months as a prisoner-of-war at Johnson’s Island, Ohio.
  • June 9, 1865 - After the surrender of Confederate armies, prisoner-of-war Edmund R. Cocke swears allegiance to the United States and is released on parole. He moves back to Oakland, his family’s plantation, where he lives for the next sixty years.
  • October 17, 1871 - Edmund R. Cocke marries his cousin Phoebe A. Preston, from Rockbridge County. They will have two daughters.
  • August 5, 1873 - Edmund R. Cocke’s wife and cousin, Phoebe Preston, dies after giving birth.
  • May 6, 1878 - Edmund R. Cocke marries his second wife and cousin, Lucia Cary Harrison, of Charles City County.
  • 1880s - To help offset his financial woes, Edmund R. Cocke begins to sell some of his land at Oakland.
  • 1883–1885 - Edmund R. Cocke serves on the executive committee of the Virginia State Agricultural Society.
  • 1884 - The overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly names Edmund R. Cocke chair of Cumberland County’s three-member electoral board. He will be reappointed in 1888 and 1890.
  • 1884–1885 - Edmund R. Cocke helps found the Farmers’ Assembly of the State of Virginia, a broadly based group that soon demonstrates marked willingness to challenge the status quo.
  • 1885–1889 - Edmund R. Cocke represents the Cumberland County farm club in at least three conferences of the Farmers' Assembly of the State of Virginia.
  • Summer 1892 - Edmund R. Cocke travels to Omaha, Nebraska, as a Virginia delegate to the national convention of the People's Party. In November, the party's presidential ticket will garner a mere 12,000 votes in Virginia.
  • 1892–1893 - Edmund R. Cocke chairs the executive committee of the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, a radical populist group whose membership is plummeting due to the collapse of many of its cooperative agribusiness ventures and its members' resistance to third-party activism.
  • August 1893 - At the state convention of Virginia's Populist Party, Edmund R. Cocke drafts much of the party platform, which champions free silver and calls for radical reforms in Virginia's fraud-stained election procedures. The convention nominates him for governor.
  • November 1893 - Congressman Charles Triplett O'Ferrall, a Democrat, wins election as governor, defeating the People's Party candidate Edmund R. Cocke by a margin of 46,701 votes of 216,154 cast.
  • August 23, 1894 - Edmund R. Cocke serves as temporary chair of the People's Party state convention and, according to press reports, proclaims that anyone who denies the need for reform belongs in a lunatic asylum. He is nominated to run for the U.S. House in the Tenth District.
  • November 1894 - In the Tenth District, the Democratic incumbent congressman, Henry St. George Tucker, wins reelection in a landslide over his cousin, Edmund R. Cocke, the People's Party candidate.
  • August 1895 - Edmund R. Cocke attends the Honest Election Conference in Petersburg at which he helps devise plans for a coordinated campaign between Populists and Republicans in the autumn legislative races.
  • 1896 - Edmund R. Cocke serves on a committee orchestrating a cooperative campaign of Virginia Populists and Democrats, and as a delegate to the People's Party convention in Saint Louis, Missouri, he endorses the candidacy of the Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan.
  • July 1897 - The Virginia People's Party nominates Edmund R. Cocke for lieutenant governor. Fielding no other candidates for statewide office, party officials urge the Democrats to give him the second spot on their ticket, but the Democrats nominate Edward Echols instead.
  • November 1897 - Edmund R. Cocke loses election as the People's Party candidate for lieutenant governor, garnering just 4.6 percent of the vote. His loss signals the demise of Populism as even a minor influence in Virginia.
  • March 31, 1898 - Lucia Cary Harrison, Edmund R. Cocke’s second wife, dies of childbirth complications that also claim the life of her newborn infant.
  • August 1900 - Fire destroys Oakland, the cherished ancestral home of Edmund R. Cocke. Beset by cash shortages for twenty years, during which time he has sold parts of the property, Cocke sells another 792 acres sometime during the year.
  • 1919 - Edmund R. Cocke speaks out against the Prohibition movement and its Democratic allies.
  • February 19, 1922 - After suffering from kidney failure, Edmund R. Cocke dies at Oakland and is buried in the family graveyard.

References

Further Reading
Moore, James Tice, "Cocke, Edmund Randolph." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, 326–328. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Moore, J. T., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edmund R. Cocke (1841–1922). (2013, September 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Cocke_Edmund_R_1841-1922.

  • MLA Citation:

    Moore, James Tice and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Edmund R. Cocke (1841–1922)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Sep. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 12, 2010 | Last modified: September 5, 2013