Chaplain Needham B. Cobb
Fourteenth North Carolina Volunteers
By Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg
“One of the most scholarly, faithful, and zealous of the Baptist preachers in the South was the Reverend Needham Bryan Cobb, D.D. His attainments and devotion to his faith have made him eminent among his brethren, and he has been enrolled in the great army of devoted Christians who have forsaken wealth and honor to accept poverty and hardship in the service of their master.” S.A. Ashe.
It was said of Chaplain Cobb“…every Confederate soldier—revered (him) for his purity, his bravery, and his patriotism.”
Before the War
Needham Bryan Cobb came into this world in Jones County, North Carolina on February 1, 1836. His parents were William Donnell Cobb and Anne Spicer Collier. N.B. Cobb’s grandfather was Jesse Cobb of New Bern, a man of considerable wealth who was a planter and surveyor. His financial interests included his own coopers, blacksmiths, shoe shops and a tannery. The grandfather owned land in North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Jesse Cobb had been a major in the militia on General Nathan B. Whitfield’s staff with the attributes of superior bravery and independence of thought and deed; a man of great industry and common sense. Through his parents N.B. Cobb descended from Colonel Nathan Bryan who was a member of Congress in 1795 from the New Bern District of North Carolina.
As an infant N.B. Cobb was moved to Wayne County, NC. William D. Cobb, his father, saw to it that his children were well educated and were taught the social amenities. Their care physically and mentally was the object of his utmost attention. The educational advantages afforded in North Carolina were given. Their education began at home. Their father was an engineer who was proficient in mathematics. He taught them to survey and calculate distances.
N.B. Cobb was a sickly boy with a frail body which was at times an impediment to his studies. In spite of this his childhood and youth were spent on the plantation pursuing the areas of interest of most Southern boys, for he hunted, fished, swam, rode and enjoyed the outdoor life which was afforded by an agricultural society. The physical weakness plagued him off and on through life. In spite of this he made progress and won accolades in his schooling. N.B. Cobb attended Wayne Lyceum near Everettsville and at Cedar Grove Academy in Orange County. At ten he was a good student of Greek and philosophy. He was advanced enough in knowledge to enter the sophomore class of the University of North Carolina in 1851 which preceded his sixteen birthday and he graduated from the university in 1854. While there he took post graduate work in law and received a Masters Degree in 1856. This was the first earned Master’s Degree granted by the University, and for a long period of time his picture and diploma hung in the University’s Graduate Office in Chapel Hill.
While preparing for the practice of law N.B. Cobb taught for several years. At first he taught in a preparatory school near Concord, NC and then was the teaching president of Wayne Institute and Normal College. In 1856 he taught Latin and Greek in the Female College at Goldsboro. Cobb was also the first teacher of shorthand in the state. “Twenty years after the invention of phonography and six years after its publication in America, the Rev. Dr. N.B. Cobb, then (in 1858-59) practicing law in Greenville, N. C, began the study of Ben Pitman’s system of phonography” [Report of the Superintendant of Public Instruction, by North Carolina Dept of Public Instruction on “The History of Shorthand Writing in North Carolina,” 516].
In 1857 he concluded his law studies as he had been reading law under Judge Pearson at Richmond Hill. He was admitted to the bar and practiced about a year in Goldsboro before moving to Greenville in Pitt County where he became General G.E.B. Singletary’s partner. The law held his attention and labors until 1860 when he obeyed a higher calling and was ordained to the Baptist ministry.
During his student days he had been converted, renouncing his sinfulness and embracing Christ as his Lord and Saviour. This occurred as a result of the Holy Spirits work of grace in him during a protracted meeting under a Methodist minister. In keeping with his family’s affiliations he became Episcopal. Then Cobb began a careful investigation of the Bible which led him to Baptist principles and congregational church polity. He presented himself for believer’s baptism and was immersed by Rev. Henry Petty of Greenville in the Tar River on October 30th, 1859 at twenty-three years of age. He was licensed to preach in 1859.
Two months after being licensed to preach he married Martha Louisa Cobb, a distant relative of Falkland in Pitt County, NC. Martha was also a Baptist and became an inspiration to him during their years together. She bore him twelve children. Their earthly bond was broken when she went to be with the Lord in 1888. In 1891 he was remarried to Ellen Fennell of Sampson County and she was a devoted wife and the mother of three of his other children. Brother Cobb’s quiver was full with fifteen children.
After training for the law and having personal desires to be a lawyer the Lord had saved his soul and called him to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. As previously mentioned he was ordained to the ministry. This took place in Wilson, NC where the presbytery consisted of Revs. Levi Thorne of Mosely Hall, J.B. Solomon of Warrenton, H. Petty of Greenville, G.W. Kessee of Goldsboro, W.C. Lacy of Virginia and J.G. Barclay of Halifax. He gave up his now lucrative legal practice to become a preacher with chronic low pay. Yes, N.B. Cobb made a great change in profession and in religious affiliation when he left the law and the Episcopal Church to become a Baptist minister. He began his ministry by doing missionary work plus other duties among the Baptists. S.A. Ashe wrote that out of a promised salary of $400 he actually received $300 a year,
Out of this sum he paid $250 for horse and rockaway, for use in his missionary journeys, often furnishing lights and religious tracts at his own expense, and paying his own hotel bills when he preached in a court-house or in destitute regions where there were no Baptists able to entertain him. His first field as missionary Baptist preacher included all that part of North Carolina which lies east of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, bounded on the north by Roanoke River, on the south by the Neuse and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. During that first year, 1860, he gathered together a few Baptists in the court-house of Wilson and organized there a Baptist Church with eight members.
Rev. Cobb, like all other Southern people, was gravely impacted with the outbreak of Lincoln’s War. His beloved South in April 1861 was attacked and thereafter would never be the same again. One observed of his town,
I don’t think Goldsboro contained more than twelve or fifteen hundred inhabitants. And I think I knew nearly every one, certainly all of the men, and where they lived, and the business or work they were engaged in. Some time ago, thinking over them, I began to count them, writing down their names as they would occur to me, to enable me to do so more accurately. As stated above, I knew their residences. I took the town by streets and I am sure I have not missed the names of many white men who were twenty-one years and upwards in April, 1861. I made up a list of two hundred and twenty-five names, and there are in the list many names that I had not thought of in ten or twenty years [J.M. Hollowell, War-Time Reminiscences and Other Selections].
As a part of this number was N.B. Cobb. He would soon be off to the war. In 1861 the cruel onslaught of war came to interrupt N.B. Cobb’s service for the Lord in remote areas and local churches. His family was brought into this conflict as the invaders came streaming down from the north. His father gave four sons to the defense of the South. They were some of the first to volunteer when Governor Ellis called for volunteers to defend the Old North State. John P. Cobb volunteered in the 2nd Regiment of North Carolina Troops and so did Bryan W. Cobb, Dr. William H.H. Cobb joined the 2nd Regiment but later transferred to the 4th Regiment as Assistant Surgeon and the fourth brother to join was Rev. Needham B. Cobb, who became Chaplain of the 4th North Carolina Regiment. They were all sent to Fort Steel for a few days and then to Virginia to fight under General Robert E. Lee [Harriet Cobb Lane, For My Children, Harriet was their sister]. For a while Rev. Cobb was the chaplain of the Fourth Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers and preached to the companies. He was acting chaplain of the Second Regiment at Gettysburg and throughout the Pennsylvania Campaign. From 1863 he was also General Superintendent of army colportage. Rev. N.B. Cobb was a chaplain and colporteur. Although physically challenged N.B. Cobb was off to war with his brothers though in the capacity of ministering to the eternal souls of men for Christ’s sake.
The Confederate Government allowed one chaplain to a regiment of ten companies. At the formation of the Fourteenth Regiment, N.B. Cobb was appointed by the State authorities chaplain. This gave the Anson Guards a chaplain of its own… [William Alexander Smith, The Anson Guards: Company C: Fourteenth Regiment, North Carolina Volunteers, 319-320].
During the War of Northern Aggression Cobb served as Chaplain in Lee’s Army and was in charge of colportage work among Carolina Troops until he had to leave the war. The following extracts from Chaplain Betts’ journal recorded for 1863 and 1864 show Chaplain Cobb’s activity in relation to his fellow chaplains and the work of serving the Lord,
May 21, 1863 – Rev. N.B. Cobb and Rev. J.A. Stradly, of North Carolina, come to Second Regiment.
May 22 – Bro. Stradly preaches for 2nd and 30th in a.m., Bro. Cobb in p.m. Prayer meeting in each at night…..
May 24 – I preach twice. Baptize J.A. Underwood. Several converts. Bro. Cobb baptizes one of the 30th and four of 14th Regiments at 5 p.m.
June 1, – We continue our meeting Bros. Cobb and Stradly helping.
June 2 – Meet chaplains (this refers to the Chaplains Association). At night we see 15 penitents and several converts.
June 3 – Bro. Stradly preaches in a.m. Thirteen join the church, and two or three are converted during the meeting – 15 or 18 penitents. Army receives marching orders!
June 4 – Pass Spotsylvania Court House.
June 5 – Move on. Dr. Deems and Bros. Cobb and Stradly with us. Seven penitents at evening prayers.
June 7 – Sunday, Pass Culpepper Court House. At evening worship, 29 penitents. Yesterday p.m. Bro. Cobb examined 7 candidates for his church, and I, 8 for mine.
June 21 – Very unwell. Bro. Cobb preaches for our Brigade. Several are immersed in p.m.
Jan. 23, 1864 – Ride with Bro. N.B. Cobb to see Johnston’s Brigade and also see Bro. Gwaltney in First North Carolina Regiment. Bro. Robbins, (J. H.) 12th Regiment, arrives and preaches for me.
Jan. 26 – Meet Chaplains at Bro. Booker’s chapel in Jones’ Brigade. Bro. Cobb preaches. About fifteen Chaplains present. Near twenty chapels being built in this army. Bro. Robbins moves to his Regiment.
June 9 – Rev. N.B. Cobb preaches for me. Division moves and he and I go to Richmond at midnight. [Rev. A.D. Betts, Experience of a Confederate Chaplain:1861-1865]
Betts reveals how often Bro. Cobb assisted him or some other chaplain with the ministry of the Word of God. A Colporter wrote to Superintendent N.B. Cobb in North Carolina:
We had a very interesting young man in our hospital, who made a profession of faith after he entered the army. He told me that soon after he enlisted in the army he began to study about the horrors of war, and was led to feel his need of a Saviour, and felt under deep conviction. There were in his company three pious, praying men. He requested them to accompany him to the woods every day to pray for him, which they did. They had some very happy meetings, at one of which he found Jesus precious to his soul. I think he is the most devoted young man I ever saw. He is badly wounded, but spends every day in prayer and praise to God for the great mercy shown him [J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp, 204-205].
Jones also recorded a letter from A.E. Dickinson on May 30, 1863 in which is found, “Last Sabbath, Rev. N.B. Cobb, of North Carolina, baptized five in Ransom’s Brigade, Rev. Mr. Betts two…” [Jones, 309]. This also shows the activity of Cobb in his work for the Lord.
Rev. Cobb in his position as Colporter attended the Tar River Baptist Association from August 20th to 23rd, 1863 at Red Bud Baptist Church in Franklin County, NC. The associational sermon text was John 9:4, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” The associational minutes recorded, “Elder N.B. Cobb, General Superintendent of Army Colportage, was present in the interest of his great work. He drew such a picture of the needs of the soldiers that the people wept freely, and contributed liberally to the Army Colportage fund.”
Chaplain N.B. Cobb gave an account of a convert whom he met in camp,
One of the most wicked and desperate men in camp had been melted down into the gentleness of a little child. Before the Spirit of the Lord touched his heart, his name had been incorporated into a proverb for wickedness. He seemed to be beyond human control. Whenever he got out of camp he would get drunk, and come back or be brought back perfectly furious. When the guard would arrest him he would draw out his bowie knife and endeavor to cut his way through them; and even after he was overpowered and taken to the guard-house he had to be tied down, to keep him from rushing out over the sentinels. But the grace of God had taken hold of him, and entirely changed his nature. The roaring lion had been subdued into the gentle lamb; and it was remarkable that every man in the regiment had perfect confidence in his conversion [Jones, 343].
The pace and conditions under which chaplains labored was not unlike that of the common soldier. The constant care for the sick, wounded, dying, burying the dead, preaching, writing letters to families that had lost loved ones, and one could go with the tasks laid upon these servants of the Lord. This of course had an attrition rate. Those with poor health or feeble bodies soon were crushed with the wear and tear. Chaplain Cobb’s sister said of him, “My brother Needham’s health failed the latter part of the war, and he moved with his family to Raleigh” [Lane]. Another source said, “Late summer found the Guards in the area of the Isle of Wight, Virginia at Camp Bee, later Fort Bee. While at Fort Bee, N.B. Cobb, who had served as chaplain, resigned, and W.C. Power was appointed to replace him” [Mary L. Medley, A History of Anson County, North Carolina: 1750-1976, 109].
Even after having to give up the chaplaincy and colportage work among the soldiers Rev. N.B. Cobb did not forget the wounded and needy Confederates. At this time Cobb was living in Raleigh after he had been a Chaplain in the Confederate service though he was still General Superintendent of Army Colportage for the North Carolina troops. His sister described a situation after Cobb’s removal to Raleigh and his continued labors for the cause,
In 1864 my sister and I were day scholars at St. Mary’s, Raleigh, but after Richmond fell we quit school and went in the hospitals as nurses. All the wounded from Richmond and Petersburg were brought to Raleigh, and later from Bentonville. Every available place was filled with wounded soldiers: school buildings, fair grounds and private houses. The ladies of Louisburg had sent a car load of cooked provisions to my brother Rev. N.B. Cobb, to be distributed to the retreating army of General Johnson [Lane].
One thing must be said for Rev. Cobb in spite of his difficulties he was not a man just quit. As soon as enough strength and opportunity would arise he seemed to do all he could for his beloved country the Confederate States of America and her soldiers.
After the War
After the war in 1865 Rev. Cobb and Doctor J.D. Hufham published The Daily Record, which was the first daily paper printed in Raleigh after the war, with the permission of the Northern officer in charge of the city. He became a contributor to the Biblical Recorder as well. Rev. N.B. Cobb became known as a historian of his state as well as his denomination. He was author of a book of verse, A Poetical Geography of North Carolina published by “The Riverside Press” in 1887. This book contained a tribute to President Jefferson Davis at the time of his death and “A Reply To Gray’s Elegy,” which was also published in the Sunday Magazine. Cobb also wrote two historical essays: the “Colonial Period of North Carolina Baptist History,” which was published in the North Carolina Baptist Historical Papers, and “Baptists and Quakers at the Battle of Alamance.” These essays were evidence of a deep study of the literature on the subjects and an ability to convey the information in a scholarly fashion.
From the Report of the Superintendant of Public Instruction, by North Carolina Dept of Public Instruction on “The History of Shorthand Writing in North Carolina” we have a report essentially on Rev. Dr. N.B. Cobb. The following is taken from that report.
In 1866 he (N.B. Cobb) moved to Elizabeth City, taking charge of the Baptist Church there, and while in that city he reported the speeches of several campaign orators on the adoption of the new State Constitution; but these speeches were never published, because neither the speaker nor the newspapers on the Southern side had any money to pay for the transcription.
While Dr. Cobb was pastor of the Baptist Church at Shelby in 1870-71, Mr. Wm. A. Hearne, who was just starting the Daily Dispatch at Charlotte, desired to get for his first issue a report of a speech Gov. Vance was to make at Statesville Court, which was to be used as a campaign document in the northwest. Gov. Vance was then a citizen of Charlotte, laboring under political disabilities which had not been removed. He was the Idol of the people of North Carolina, and as his first political speech after the surrender would be widely read, this would add eclat (prestige or success) to the newspaper that first published it. Mr. Hearne wrote to Dr. Cobb, urging him to go to Statesville and report this speech, Dr. Cobb being the only stenographer living in the State who could make a stenographic report of it. This letter reached Dr. Cobb on Saturday, and he asked the deacons of his church what he must do. To reach Statesville in time, he would have to leave Shelby on Sunday afternoon by private conveyance. The deacons advised Dr. Cobb to go, and one of them. Dr. Williams, proposed to send him as far as Lincolnton in his own buggy. The trip was made and the speech reported. Gov. Vance spoke at 2 p.m., and the copy was written up and in the post-office by 5 a.m. next day. Dr. Cobb had up to this time been teaching phonography, and had not had enough practice to acquire speed. Besides this, while he was living in Elizabeth City, he had adopted the Munson System instead of the Pitman, and in rapid writing he got the two systems mixed, so that he had to resort to Gov. Vance’s room to get the report filled in where the notes were illegible. Notwithstanding all this, the people received the speech as a verbatim report. “It was Vance over again. They knew it was exactly what Vance had said, as nobody else could talk just like old Zeb.”
The week after Dr. Cobb’s return to Shelby his mail was unaccountably large. Marked copies of Democratic or Conservative (as they were then called) papers were pouring into his box from all parts of the State. They all contained editorials defending Dr. Cobb from the charge of being a ku-klux preacher.
The day after Dr. Cobb left Shelby for Statesville, the Republican postmaster at Shelby, who was a member of Dr. Cobb’s church, sent a note to the Raleigh Signal, stating as an item of news: “Rev. N.B. Cobb left this place on Sunday afternoon to report a political speech of Hon. Z.B. Vance. I am sorry to see preachers meddling with politics.”
The editor of the Signal made it the occasion of an attack upon what he termed ku-klux preachers, and scored Dr. Cobb heavily as he fulminated against the Conservative party that Vance, an unpardoned rebel, was trying to organize. The Wilmington Journal, then edited by two of Dr. Cobb’s class-mates at the University of North Carolina, Col. Wm. L. Saunders and Major Englehard, took up the matter of Dr. Cobb’s defense, and the other Conservative papers followed suit. It was a good way to make political capital. They extolled Dr. Cobb’s virtues as a man, as a minister, and as a patriot; spoke of his fearlessness on the battlefield and in the hospitals where he had braved the bullets, the shells, and the pestilence, in ministering to the wounded, the sick, and the dying, and told their readers how mean, contemptible, and villainous it was for the leaders of the other party to try to throw mud at the character of one whom everybody—every Confederate soldier—revered for his purity, his bravery, and his patriotism. The result of all this free advertising for political purposes was that, when the Conservative-Democratic Convention met in Greensboro to nominate a State ticket, Dr. Cobb had an engagement at ten dollars a day and all expenses, to report the great speeches that were made on that occasion for several newspapers, and the delegates from his own native county (Wayne) put him in nomination for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. About twenty-three counties voted for him on the first ballot, but Judge John A. Gilmer, of Guilford, proxy for Cleveland and several other counties, used his great influence for Dr. Mendenhall, his countyman, who was nominated. The whole ticket was defeated, but the party was organized.
When Hon. A.S. Merrimon, the nominee for Governor, came to Shelby, Dr. Cobb reported his speech for the Shelby paper, the first newspaper printed in that place. It took the paper six weeks to complete its publication, the sheet being small and the speech very long. This he regarded as the most difficult verbatim reporting he had ever undertaken, as Judge Merrimon never told an anecdote that caused a laugh and seldom gave time for applause, thus depriving the reporter of the opportunity to catch up with his notes and his continuous, if not rapid, utterance required one oftentimes to carry in his memory several long sentences at a time.
In 1880 when Dr. Cobb was pastor of the Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, he was lecturer on Stenography at the University of North Carolina (see catalogue of the University of North Carolina, 1880-81). Dr. Cobb’s last work as stenographer [Report, 517-519].
Rev. N.B. Cobb was a man with a pastor’s heart. Due to the low pay of ministers and the size of his family the Lord’s servant had to supplement his income by teaching school. A number of his students professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Rev. Cobb served as pastor of the following churches. They are in the order in which he served—namely: Goldsboro, Elizabeth City, Portsmouth, Kempsville, and North West, Virginia; Shelby, Lincolnton, Lilesville, Polkton, Rockingham, Dockery’s, Fayetteville, Chapel Hill, Waynesville, Morganton, Glen Alpine, Mount Gilead. Troy, Cary, Sharon, and Gardners in Warren, Middleburg in Vance, Dunn, Pittsboro, Hillsboro, Southern Pines, Manley, Moore’s Creek, and several country churches in the Eastern Association at a time when most of the town churches mentioned were mission ground, and at several of them—notably Shelby. Waynesville, Elizabeth City and Lilesville [Ashe].
Brother Cobb once reflected,
“Looking back over many years of experience, I am satisfied that no life is a failure that is lived for God and humanity. The man who lives for self only will soon perish from the memory of the world. “The good, more than the evil, that men do lives after them, and goodness is greater than gold, though men win their way to distinction where persons and places are sold” [Ashe].
The rural ministry though fulfilling is an arduous task especially for a man with physical impairment. Being a country parson is very demanding with very little time for anything but travel and the daily round. Pastoring more than one church at a time with the inclusion of travel was time consuming. Rev. Cobb relaxed with a good book for reading pleasured him. Good literature was a boon to him. His literary tastes “made him thoroughly conversant with Shakespeare and other great classics, he found cheerful companionship in hours of sickness in many of the publications of the day, including works of fiction” [Ashe].
As has been not already N.B. Cobb from his childhood forward had to deal with the debilitating effects of a poor physical condition. “Doctor Cobb was a strong advocate of physical culture, where the aim was a proper development of bodily strength for the service of God and humanity…” he believed it was one’s “duty to cultivate strength and soundness not only of the mind and morals, but of the body as the workshop of the brain and the tabernacle of the soul” [Ashe].
In 1881 He delivered a lecture to the University of North Carolina in the college chapel on “How shall we develop North Carolina.” In 1889 Judson College conferred on Needham Bryan Cobb a Doctorate of Divinity degree. He had done a great deal of missionary work throughout the state, had served as pastor for many Baptist churches and had been involved in education in various ways. He held positions of State Superintendant of the Baptist Sunday School Board and as Recording Secretary, Corresponding Secretary and President of the Baptist State Convention at times. He was the statistician of North Carolina.
Being a man of many abilities Dr. Cobb even held the office of Mayor of Lilesville for a while. This is a position into which he was elected without his consent. The reason he accepted the office was that leading men in the town advised him to do so along with the congregation which he pastored. The local government was in turmoil and the people wanted to save the government. However, Dr. Cobb found the work of such an office very distasteful and resigned before the term was over.
On October 5th, 1892, the Tar River Association met in Louisburg. Dr. N.B. Cobb, in speaking on “Woman’s Work in Missions,” used some expressions that provoked a lively and spirited discussion between Brethren Gwaltney and Cade on the Scripturalness of women speaking in mixed assemblies. This turned into a battle royal which lasted for about a half an hour and “oh, how the sparks did fly!” Finally, the battle was brought to a conclusion upon the request of Miss Fannie Heck that was delivered by Brother Vann asking the brethren to discontinue this discussion.
In 1904 Dr. N.B. Cobb attended the fiftieth anniversary reunion of his class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The surviving members of his class dined at the home of his son who was the Professor of Geology at the university.
Dr. Cobb’s last public ministry was in April 1905 when he returned for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Fourth Street Baptist Church of Portsmouth, Virginia to preach on this occasion. He had pastored this church many years before. There were a number of churches that Dr. Cobb also led in their founding.
With physical problems from childhood to death who would have imagined the immense amount of work accomplished by this servant of God. In his last days Doctor Cobb resided on his farm in Sampson County and preached to country churches in the vicinity during his last years as long as his health allowed. The Lord summonsed his faithful servant home on May 31st, 1905. His body was interred in the cemetery next to the old Baptist Church where he served as pastor at one time. Thus ended the service of a faithful pastor, a committed Confederate Chaplain and the life of a faithful North Carolinian.