There was nothing particularly remarkable about Alexander Cobean, certainly nothing to distinguish him from the thousands of other men that joined the cause of the Union in the spring of 1861. He was a school teacher from Ohio and at 44 older than most of the men and boys with whom he served. In Preble County in the summer of 1848 he had married Susannah Lyons, and nine years later they had a child together – a daughter they called Martha Elizabeth. When the war began and the 48th Ohio Volunteer Infantry went south to destroy the rebellion, Cobean left with them. Behind him remained a wife and daughter whose future without their husband and father would be very uncertain.
April 6th, 1862 found Pvt. Cobean and the 48th Ohio encamped in the largely wooded and undulating terrain of southern Tennessee, two miles from Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River and within sight of the Shiloh Meeting House. The battle that began that morning, as Confederates of the Army of Mississippi attacked the unsuspecting Union soldiers, was without rival in horror and brutality in the previous history of the United States.
At some point in the ensuing fight which surged through the wooded battlefield, Alexander Cobean was wounded. Taken prisoner by the initially victorious Confederates, he was one of roughly 23,000 men wounded, captured and killed during the two day battle of Shiloh. Sent to Camp Oglethorpe, deep in the interior of Georgia, Cobean would spend the next five months doing the only things a captive could do: wait, hope, and struggle to survive.
In 1863, Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee was about as far removed from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as any two places were likely to be, but in time they would be connected by similar scenes of horrific slaughter, rolls of the dead and tabulations of casualties. But in the first few months of 1863 Shiloh was just another distant battlefield, a place to be read about in the newspapers and imagined in illustrations.
Diligent readers of the Gettysburg Compiler were treated, on January 26th 1863, to an issue that featured articles on the destructive power of volcanoes, locally penned poetry, and advertisements for Natrona Coal Oil, Fancy Furs and Imperial Ointments. With the exception of the numerous articles focusing on the war, which was then nearing its third year, the newspaper was like that of any other northern town. Business was conducted, merchants sold their wares, couples got married, trains came and went from the Carlisle Street station, and life went on very much as it always had.
Gettysburg had felt the war more than other northern towns had. Like many communities it had lost sons in the war and was close enough to the theater of action that raids by enemy combatants were perceived to be a real threat. The previous fall Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart had come within eight miles of the community, and from time to time waves of fear spread by phantom rebel riders swept through the town, but they were almost always unfounded and life soon went back to normal.
On January 26, 1863 the Compiler published the obituary of Alexander Cobean. The paper was large and the type was small, and the notice of his death amounted to no more than 27 words spread across four lines. It would have been easy to miss.
He had survived in Camp Oglethorpe for five months. When on August 22, 1862 he died, the cause was attributed to dropsy, a severe swelling of fluid in the brain and vital organs. In Ohio, Susannah Cobean was left without a husband. With the primary wage earner in the family gone, care of Martha Elizabeth was entrusted to a guardian. Susannah would remarry in 1864 to Otho D. Rench, a teamster twelve years her senior. One suspects it was a marriage of convenience. At the least it was a way for Susanna to regain custody of her daughter.
The Compiler took notice of the death of Cobean because he had once been a resident of Adams County. He had been born outside Gettysburg in 1817 and spent much of his early life there. The Census of 1860 records the residence of Alexander and Susannah, along with Martha Elizabeth as being in the home of Samuel and Elizabeth Cobean in Cumberland Township. It would be the same Cobean residence that would witness the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, the same brick house where the leg of Major General Isaac Trimble would be amputated following his wound during Pickett’s Charge. Today that same building houses the administrative offices of Gettysburg National Military Park.
For the Cobean family of Gettysburg, the death of Alexander must have been a severe blow. For others, news of his demise in a southern prison was probably met with a quiet, short-lived sympathy, and a certain gratefulness that it was not someone in their own family. The war, at least in January of 1863, was still far removed from their corner of southern Pennsylvania. The nearest enemy army was in Virginia, winter camps still stood along the Rappahannock, and what the summer would bring no one could then know.
For better or for worse, the American Civil War changed everything it touched. In ways large and small, horrifying and redemptive, it altered the country and its people in a manner impossible to imagine at its outset. The first and last quote of hundreds stretching across the walls of the Museum of the Civil War inside the National Park Service Visitor Center is from an 1867 editorial in the New York Times. In trying to encapsulate the meaning of the war, the memories of which were still fresh in the country’s mind, the author concluded, “The contest touches everything and leaves nothing as it found it. Great rights, great interests, great systems of habit and thought disappear during its progress. It leaves us a different people in everything.”
For the 2,400 souls residing in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the world they knew after 1863 would be a dramatically different place from the world they knew before. The town, its residents and institutions would, in the course of those 365 days, witness the brutality of combat and its aftermath, the financial ruin that roving armies inflict on ordinary people, and the accumulated grief and mourning of the families and friends of 51,000 casualties. News of the death of Alexander Cobean on that otherwise ordinary day in January, 1863 was but a harbinger of what the town would have to confront before the year would be brought to a close.
Christopher Gwinn, Interpretive Park Ranger