William Cocke at the Battle of Long Island Flats, 1776


May 7, 2013
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


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William CockeThroughout time men have cringed at the notion of being thought a coward.  A reputation for lack of courage can be and always has been devastating to a young man.  This was never more true than on the American frontier in the 18th century when a man’s ability to defend his family and his value as a member of the community were measured by physical fighting ability.

In early July of 1776 the Cherokee War broke out all across the southern backcountry.  War parties brought death and destruction across the outer settlements of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia as well as areas now in Tennessee.  The Overmountain Men of Watauga [now TN] got hit the hardest.  Three columns of Cherokee under Old Abrams, Dragging Canoe, and the Raven marched into the region looking to chase the settlers completely out.  Old Abrams besieged John Sevier and a large group of settlers holed up at Fort Watauga while Dragging Canoe led moved up the Holston River toward Long Island and Eaton’s Station.  The third party was smaller and marched into the Carter’s Valley settlements further to the west.

Dragging Canoe led about 200 warriors up the Holston to Long Island which made a convenient crossing place to the north side of the river where they might menace the fort at Eaton’s Station.  The island is about three miles long and stands just above the point where the north fork meets the main branch of the Holston.  There was a large flat area on the north side  “with a few bushes and saplings, but otherwise open, lying between the two rivers.”[i]

Built on the advice of Captain William Cocke, Eaton’s fort was little more than a crude stockade located out in front of the settlement.  When news came that Dragging Canoe was marching toward the settlement and could arrive within a day or two, the militia units were called up.  Five companies (about 170 men) turned out to face the oncoming Cherokee warriors.  The captains held a council to decide whether to move forward and meet the war party or hole up in the fort for defense.  Captain Cocke spoke against remaining in the fort.  He feared the Indians would “pass by them and fall upon the settlements in small parties; and that, for want of protection, the greater part of the women and children in the settlements would be massacred.”[ii]    Captain Cocke carried the argument and the men marched out of the station toward Long Island.

The captains (Captain Thompson was senior) sent a scouting party of about 12 men ahead of the main body.  As the scouts entered the flats across the river from Long Island, they spotted a small body of warriors moving toward them.  The Indians were easily chased off and the officers decided that, warned of their presence, the Cherokee would not likely reappear until the next day.  They were quickly proved wrong.  Just when the column prepared to return, shouts came from the rear “that the Indians were advancing.”[iii]

At about 300 yards distance the Cherokee “suddenly raised the war whoop ” and rose up from their ambush positions.  “They were in the form of a cone-the apex towards the centre of our line.  The whites were marching along in the usual way, and when the war whoop was raised orders were given to form the line.  In doing this some disorder took place, but order was soon restored, the Indians running, in the mean time, at full speed upon our lines.”  The Indians at the apex of the cone contacted the settlers line on the right side of Captain Christian’s company and to the “left of Cockes and from the line of Cockes company being too much extended were near breaking thro at this point.”  Fortunately, “James Shelby’s company stood side by side, in front of the line and by their firmness rendered great service.”[iv]

There was something interesting about that extension by Cocke’s company.  “It seems Captain Cocke, at the head of his company, aiming as he said to prevent being surrounded, extended his line until when he turned to see what had become of his men, behold they were not to be seen, he having run a little too fast for his men, or, what was though more likely, ran farther than his own men chose to go, who had taken to trees and fought the battle out manfully; in which , however, their captain did not participate; he made for the fort . . . He was ever afterwards considered a coward.”[v]

Naturally Cocke told the story a bit differently.  “Capt Cocke’s own account was that these Indian got between him and his company in the confusion of the first onset and that he could not get back to the line.”[vi]  Cocke also told he killed an Indian while cut – off and moving back to the fort.  Unfortunately, a young man named Carmack admitted that Cocke was only one of four men who “ingloriously fled from the field of battle.”  Apparently Carmack knew this because he was one of the other three.[vii]

Regardless of Cocke’s conduct, the battle went well for the men of East Tennessee.  The official report appeared in the Virginia Gazette soon after the battle.  It said, “Our men sustained the attack with great bravery and intrepidity, immediately forming a line.  The Indians endeavored to surround us, but were prevented by the uncommon fortitude and vigilance of Captain James Shelby, who took possession of an eminence that prevented their design.  Our line of battle extended about a quarter of a mile.  We killed about thirteen on the spot, whom we found, and we have the greatest reason to believe that we could have found a great many more had we time to search for them.  There were streams of blood every way, and it was generally thought there was never so much execution done in so short a time on the frontiers.  Never did troops fight with greater calmness than ours did.  The Indians attacked with the greatest fury imaginable, and made the most vigorous effort to surround us. “[viii]

William Cocke was mortified by the official accusations of cowardice brought against him.   In December of 1776, a hearing was held by the Privy Council of Virginia concerning the charges.  Cocke gave a rambling defense that pumped up his bravery and claimed that the “Indians themselves declare my valour, and lament the loss that they received by my hands.”  He never actually addressed the reasons why he left the battle.[ix]  Unfortunately for Cocke, the Privy Council didn’t really accept his explanations and suspended him from serving as an officer in the militia until a Court of Inquiry could be held on his conduct.

While the hearings of the Privy Council were being held, William Cocke was receiving a boost from his friends and neighbors.  Apparently they understood and forgave Cooke for his conduct at the battle.  He was elected to represent the county in the 1777 Virginia legislature.  Other than a brief appearance at the non-battle of Thicketty Fort, Cocke’s military career in the American Revolution came to a quick end.  However, Cocke did not let the setback ruin his life.  The accusations of cowardice followed him throughout his days but the people continued to look past the embarrassing episode and kept Cocke around as a respected member of the community.  He joined John Sevier in the attempt to separate East Tennessee from North Carolina in the State of Franklin episode and also served as a judge and legislator in early Tennessee.  Cocke once tried a run at the governor’s office but John Sevier stood for election and carried the day easily.  Poor Cocke did manage to get elected as a circuit court judge but that also ended badly as he became the first judge ever impeached in Tennessee.  The reasons for his dismissal appear to be an insistence on strict adherence to legal procedure instead of simply deciding cases fairly.[x]

Throughout his career, Cocke’s opponents used the accusations of cowardice to constantly harass and embarrass him.  At one point, the Kentucky Gazette quoted Cherokee Chief Redbird describing Cocke as, “the man who lives among the mulberry trees talks very strong and runs very fast.”[xi]  After the impeachment episode, William Cocke had had enough.  In order to regain his reputation, even at the advanced age of 65 years, William Cocke joined the army of Andrew Jackson as a private and went to help fight the Creeks in Alabama.  At the end of his service, Jackson wrote:

“Sir, The patriotism that you brought into the field at your advanced age which promted you on with me to face the enemy in the late excursion to the Tallapoosie river, the example of order, your strict admonition throughout the lines; and, lastly, the bravery you displayed in the battle of Enotochopco by recrossing the creek, entering the pursuit and exposing your person and thereby saving the life of Lieutenant Moss, and killing the Indian, entitle you to the thanks of your general and the approbation of your country.”[xii]  He must have truly cherished those words as vindication for his years of being tainted by that worst of all backcountry accusations; Cowardice.

[i] Haywood, W.H., The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee,  1823, reprint Nashville, Barbee & Smith,1891, page 62.

[ii] Ibid. p. 63.

[iii] Ramsey, J.G.M., The Annals of Tennessee, Charleston, SC, Walker and Jones, 1853, reprint, Johnson City, TN, The Overmountain Press, 1999, p. 152.

[iv] Draper Manuscript Collection, Volume 3ZZ, p. 27, David Campbell to Lyman Draper, 13 Feb 1843, quoted here from a transcription by Craig L. Heath, Westminster, MD, Heritage Books, 2011.

[v] Williams, Samuel Cole, Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, Tennessee Historical Commission, 1944, George Christian to Lyman Draper, 1842, p. 40.

[vi] Draper Manuscript Collection, Volume 3ZZ, p. 27, David Campbell to Lyman Draper, 13 Feb 1843, quoted here from a transcription by Craig L. Heath, Westminster, MD, Heritage Books, 2011.

[vii] Draper Manuscript Collection, Volume 3ZZ, p. 27, David Campbell to Lyman Draper, 6 May  1845, quoted here from a transcription by Craig L. Heath, Westminster, MD, Heritage Books, 2011.

[viii] Williams, Samuel Cole, Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, Tennessee Historical Commission, 1944.  Official Report of the Battle of Long Island Flats by James Thompson, James Shelby, William Buchanan, John Campbell, William Cock, and Thomas Madison, p. 39.  The Official Report does not mention Cocke’s conduct in any way.  Notably, he is among the signers.

[ix] Draper Manuscript Collection, Vol. 3ZZ, page 40-41, Colo Wm Cocke’s Defense  relative to his conduct at the Island Flat Battle.

[x] Williams, Samuel Cole, History of the Lost State of Franklin, Johnson City, TN, The Watauga Press, 1924, reprint, Johnson City, TN, The Overmountain Press, 1993, page 296.

[xi] Williams, Samuel Cole, Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, Tennessee Historical Commission, 1944, p. 254, cites, Nicolay, Helen, Our Nation in the Building, New York, The Century Company, 1916, as the source of Redbird’s quote, footnote 15, p. 40.

[xii] Williams, Samuel Cole, History of the Lost State of Franklin, Johnson City, TN, The Watauga Press, 1924, reprint, Johnson City, TN, The Overmountain Press, 1993. Andrew Jackson to William Cocke, 28 January 1814.  Page 297.


  • Dear Mr. Lynch , I read with interest your article on William Cocke and The Battle of Long Island . I commend you on your effort to ” show both sides ” of this event . But , The brevity of your article leaves out many pertinent details of U.S.Senator / Militia General Cocke’s life that bear witness to his bravery, patriotism, and his interest in ” a good fight”. Specifically:

    1). His earlier commendation for bravery by Daniel Boone for volunteering to ride 140 miles through Indian Territory ,alone, to deliver a message to Boone , that relief was on the way to his new settlement of Boonsboro , KY. . For this accomplishment he was rewarded by an election to The Territorial Council and 5,000 acres of land ( which never materialized ) -See all of LIFE OF DANIEL BOONE BOOKS……Cocke’s other heroic actions during The Revolutionary war, including the Battle of Kings Mountain…. His debate over his actions( See Kings Mountain by Draper )against the pro- British ,Indian tribes is well documented.) The account you mentioned was actually written by a Chief of a hostile tribe. ( that’s Democracy in action) . There are MANY PRO COCKE ACCOUNTS AND SUPSEQUENT PRAISES,TO BE FOUND,ALSO!….They were at WAR with other! ( See Genealogy Library- University of Tennessee)

    2.) Cocke’s election to be the first General of Militia of The State of Franklin, his appointment to be one of the main spokesman on behave of The State of Franklin to The U. S. Government for inclusion into the Union.( see Cocke’s correspondences with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin) Cocke’ election to be one of The first 2- US . Senators from the new State of Tennessee….. After losing to Andrew Jackson ( who became a life time friend) , he was subsequently elected back to The Senate for 2 terms . …..see History of The State of Franklin )

    3.) Cocke first proposed , in The Tenn. State legislature, the establishment of Blount College , later to become THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESEE.

    4.) Cocke’s supporters overwhelming electing him to represent them in The Tennessee Legislature to answer his opponents who had him impeached as a U. S. Judge.( Politics was tough ,potentially dangerous and physical, then)

    5.) Cocke’s appointment by President Madison to be Indian Commissioner to the Chickasaws in Mississippi. his subsequent , leadership of the Tennessee Settlers to be pioneers of the State of Mississippi and to found the town of Columbus Mississippi . His Monument and Epitaph is easily found on line under Odd Fellows Cemetery in Columbus, Miss. and stands as a much better testament to his courageous life than I could write.

    6. We appreciate you mentioning his service and citation for Bravery in The War of 1812 at the age of 65 ,including his saving the life of his young Lieutenant.. Omitted was his choice of volunteering to serve under Major Gen. Andrew Jackson as a Private , instead of his own 1st son, Major Gen. John Cocke .( later Speaker of The House of Tennessee and Congressman)

    7. He and his family nursed back to health and supplied many wounded soldiers trying to reach home after the Battle of New Orleans . A hilarious Account of who was going to reimburse for this, is mentioned in The Life of Jackson , when Jackson, himself stopped to visit his old friend, William Cocke in his Tavern at Columbus . ……I don’t think either men were reimbursed for their patriotism.

    We are but a small pocket of William Cocke’s huge number of descendants living in Atlanta for the last 100 years . Most of his descendants still live in Tennessee, Virginia and Texas . We can be found under the Pin – Private James Moore 11th Mississippi Infantry Co. I in Pinterest. …See entry for Wm. Cocke’s Great grandson, Captain and Company Commander of Co. I ,11th Miss . Stephen Cocke Moore , Pickett’s Charge -Gettysburg ( named for his great Uncle Stephen Cocke, William Cocke’s 2nd son, Who was Chancellor of the University of Miss .) and Howard Allen Williams, 3x Great Grandson of William Cocke , who was an All American Shot-putter at FSU and was cited for Bravery for his C.I.A. Service in Viet Nam .

    I would be happy to be contacted at mf******@gs*.edu……Thank You For your time and attention to William Cocke. The word “coward” is never used by his hundreds of descendants……We Salute a Brave Patriot , Soldier and Pioneer of 5 States as his Epitaph reads.

    McRae Fulton Williams Sr 3x Great Grandson of William Cocke
    Accounting Officer Georgia State University-retired
    GSU Athletic Hall of Fame member
    Senator John Tower Award Winner- Kappa Sigma Fraternity National

    1. Mr. McRae,
      I am delighted to see someone pull up and comment on my article concerning William Cocke’s incident at Long Island Flats. The article is meant to emphasize the impact accusations of cowardice had on William and provide an example of how these things happened during the Revolution. And, having gone over it this morning along with your response, it appears the accusations continue to sting William (and his descendants) to this very day. I would say that is quite an impact.

      Since you went to the trouble to write such an enthusiastic (even if a bit overly generous) defense of William Cocke, I will limit my response to only the item concerning Cocke’s efforts in the Revolution, being that I don’t think William Cocke participated at King’s Mountain. At least the Tennessee historian Samuel Cole Williams seems to think that Cocke did not participate at King’s Mountain. I would be very curious to hear the story of his actions in that campaign.

      Your ancestor is a very colorful individual about whom you can tell many wonderful stories. In my own experience with ancestors, I find it all the more enjoyable and rewarding to view them as human beings capable of the same frailties we sometimes see in ourselves today. The story of the State of Franklin is one of those wonderful stories but I don’t find it a tale of courage and patriotism. More one of questionable motivations and frontier folk bumbling toward statehood in the early republic. Delightful stuff actually and full of life and humor. My own ancestors were also major players in the dramatic comedy that unfolded in 1786 – 1787. You have undoubtedly read about them also, John Tipton and his sons. 

  • Hurrah for descendants of William Cocke, the hero of Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin (1924, revised 1933, reprinted 1933)! My step GGGG Grandfather, Cocke was very kind to my GGGG Grandmother Sims, the widow of a Sims Intruder, and also very paternal and loving to her grown children, including my GGG Grandfather Absalom Sims. The site of his two story cross hall log house above the Tumbigbee is now occupied by the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center in Columbus, Mississippi. Is there any mention of Cocke there? Is he honored in his last home town?

  • Step-Cousin McRae, please see here in Journal of the American Revolution my article on “Fanning’s Bloody Sabbath,” endnote 5: “In 1827-1828 Alexander Gray was a commissioner for the United States to the Cherokees along with George Lee Davidson and my GGG Grandfather Absalom Sims’s step-brother John Cocke.”

  • Dear Mister Lynch , Thank you for your response …….I’m not doubting your motives in writing your article , but I still disagree with how it read ….. We’d just prefer that you pick one of your own ancestors or someone else as an example when writing about the effect of fear, or cowardice on a reputation . We know Senator William Cocke was not perfect , but we also know his ENTIRE busy, life story is filled with many examples of courage, patriotism and willingness to fight for a cause ……Again, read his incredible life accomplishments on his Tombstone/ Monument at Columbus , Mississippi and read Columbus citizen Rufus Ward’s terrific article ,WILLIAM COCKE AND THE FOUNDING OF AMERICA , dated June 25th, 2011.Then and now, I think the great folks from Columbus, Mississippi , Aberdeen , Miss. , The McClune Genealogy Library at The Univ. of Tenn. And the people of Cocke County, Tenn. would agree with me.
    I’m familiar with the fact that Mr. Cole has a sentence in his history ,” That Cocke didn’t fight at Kings Mountain, but, Mr. Draper wrote that he did and includes a paragraph of praise for Cocke , who persuaded The enemy in a fort ,near Kings Mountain to surrender without a shot . Draper writes this as a prelude immediately before the Battle . When you call The Information Center at Kings Mountain Battlefield Park , they list William Cocke as a participant . There are several other sources that show him a participant. I don’t know who is quoting who. My own opinion is that 1812 may not be the first time Cocke fought as “a private soldier” with no rank . With every one of his friends and constitutes involved at Kings Mountain, I don’t see how anyone could have kept him out !

    As you probably have read, the fighting during the Indian Wars in the South was absolutely gruesome ! Indian massacres, rapes ,captures,burnings were retaliated for immediately with the same ferocity . Yes Cocke, had enemies among The Indians ( Cherokees and Red Sticks specifically)
    Chiefs and political enemies who were quick to discredit him , but he had many hundreds of friends and supporters who approved of his service as evidenced at the ballot box. Having served that long as a Captain of the Militia for the entirety of The Indian Wars and The Revolution ( 10 years ,plus ?) I think he could not have stood for election to Militia Captain, over and over again, or anything else without the support of his Men! I don’t think The Battle of Long Island slowed him down very much . In closing , I reason that Cocke’s defense of himself for Long Island was “vague” , because he could not make a proper argument , without condemning his own men !

    This is fun! let’s keep it going……….but, let’s find a better example of cowardice other than William Cocke.


    McRae F. Williams Sr.
    3X Great Grandson of Senator William Cocke

    1. Mr Williams,

      While I can’t help but admire your spirited defense of Mr. Cocke, I would simply point out that his later deeds have little to do with what transpired at Long Island Flats. As included in the original article, there was a contemporary hearing that did not go well for William Cocke, as he was removed from his position as an officer at that time.

      Like many other men who found it difficult to stand up to direct charge by a ferocious foe in their first battles, Cocke may well have discovered his spine in later times. As to Kings Mountain, the event at Thickkety Fort took place in July 1780 and isn’t really a part of the King’s Mountain campaign although I am sure you correctly point out that William had managed to regain his status as a community leader by that time. I am not aware of any fighting at Thickkety Fort as that event represented a well known act of battlefield cowardice also. Just not from William Cocke. It was time for Captain Patrick Moore to have his reputation stained.

      It would be easy to imagine why William Cocke may not have attended the Kings Mountain campaign. As you may already be aware, during the remainder of the war, the Overmountain Men wisely made it policy to leave part of their militia behind to guard against attacks from the Chicamaugans.

      I appreciate your not accusing me of bad intent in writing about William Cocke’s problems at Long Island Flats. In truth, what actually makes his tale such a good one for the telling is the slightly humorous vision of how Cocke kept extending the line until he was the only one left at which time he extended himself all the way back to the fort. 🙂 I really can’t emphasize enough the opportunity here for you and the other descendants to embrace the reality of William Cocke. His triumphs and his failures. His character and story are rich and complex. Surely we shouldn’t turn Cocke into a stock character to sit on the sidelines while our interest remains on those who overshadow him.

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