Throughout 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.
[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.