A Naval Biographical Dictionary/Cockburn, George

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COCKBURN, P.C, G.C.B., F.R.S., M.P. (Admiral of the Red, 1837. f-p., 33; h-p., 32.)

The Right Honourable Sir George Cockburn, born in London, is second son of the late Sir Jas. Cockburn, Bart., M.P. for Peebles, by his second wife, Augusta Anne, daughter of the Rev. Fras. Ayscough, D.D., Dean of Bristol, and Preceptor to King George III. He is brother of Major-General the present Sir Jas. Cockburn, Bart., G.C.H., who formerly held in succession the appointments of Under-Secretary of State, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Curaçoa, Governor of the Bermudas, and Paymaster of the Royal Marines – also, of the Rev. Wm. Cockburn, Dean of York, who married Elizabeth, sister of the Right Hon. Sir Robt. Peel, Bart., M.P. – and of his Excellency Alex. Cockburn, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at Columbia. Sir George is grand-nephew of the first Lord Lyttleton, and cousin of the present Rear-Admiral John Ayscough.

This officer entered the Navy, 12 March, 1781, as Captain’s Servant (under the auspices of Admirals Sir Joshua Rowley and Lord Hood), on board a frigate, then commanded by Capt. Bartholomew Sam. Rowley. His name was afterwards borne on the books of the William and Mary yacht, but he did not go to sea until 1786; in the course of which and of the following year we find him cruizing on the Home station in the Termagant 18, Capt. Rowley Bulteel. In Jan. 1788 he joined the Ariel 14, Capt. Robt. Moorsom, with whom he sailed for the East Indies, where for several months he was very profitably employed in surveying. Returning home, in 1791, with the same officer, in the Princess Royal Indiaman, Mr. Cockburn next served, in the Channel and Mediterranean, as Midshipman, and Master’s Mate of the Hebe 38, Capt. Alex. Hood, and Romney 50, flag-ship of Rear-Admiral Sam. Cranston Goodall. Having passed his examination 3 June, 1791, he was appointed, in 1792, Acting-Lieutenant of the Pearl 32, Capt. Geo. Wm. Augustus Courtenay, and, on 27 Jan. 1793, was confirmed in the Orestes 18, Capt. Lord Augustus Fitzroy. On 28 April following he became ninth Lieutenant of the Britannia 100, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Wm. Hotham, but removed in June, as tenth, to the Victory 100, flagship off Toulon of his patron Lord Hood, from which, on attaining, in quick rotation, the post of First-Lieutenant, he was promoted to the command, 11 Oct. in the same year, of the Speedy sloop. As a reward for his skill and perseverance in maintaining the blockade of Genoa during a gale, which dispersed every other ship of a squadron stationed off that port, Capt. Cockburn was appointed, 20 Jan. 1794, Acting-Captain of the Inconstant 36, and on 20 of the following month was officially posted into the Meleager 32, which latter frigate he commanded in the hostilities against Corsica, and as one of Hotham’s repeaters in the actions of 14 March and 13 July, 1795. He was afterwards employed for 12 months in vigorous co-operation with the Austrian troops in Piedmont, and during that period obtained the hearty acknowledgments of the immortal Nelson for his conspicuous zeal, ability, and courage on various occasions, but more especially for the great support and assistance he afforded that hero in running in under the batteries of Larma on 31 May, 1796, and capturing six of the enemy’s armed vessels.[1] Being transferred, 19 Aug. following, to the command of the Minerve, of 42 guns and 286 men, Capt. Cockburn, who remained in that ship until paid off in Feb. 1802, continued to pursue his gallant career with intense ardour, either conducting in person, or assuming a prominent part in, a train of the most important achievements. He was first employed in blockading Leghorn; and, on next hoisting the broad pendant of Commodore Nelson, again acquired the admiration of the latter for his conduct at the capture and defeat, while proceeding from Gibraltar to Elba, and in presence of the Spanish fleet, of the Sabina of 40, and Matilda of 34 guns, 20 Dec. 1796.[2] The former ship struck her colours, after a combat of three hours, and a loss, out of 286 men, of 14 killed and 44 wounded; the other was compelled to wear and haul off at the close of a sharp action of half an hour; the collective loss of the Minerve on both occasions amounting to 7 men killed and 44 wounded.[3] Capt. Cockburn, who had previously assisted in destroying L’Etonnant national corvette, of 18 guns, next took the privateer Maria, of 6 guns and 68 men, and, after witnessing the evacuation of Porto Ferrajo, bore a very active part in the battle off Cape St. Vincent, 14 Feb. 1797. He also brought out from under the severe fire of two strong batteries on Grand Canary Island the Marseillais, a French letter-of-marque of 24 guns. On the night of 5 Nov. in the same year, while the Minerve was lying stripped in the mole of the dockyard of Gibraltar, we again find her intrepid Captain attracting the official notice of his superiors by a signal exploit he performed in putting off with only three gun-boats to the protection of a convoy, which had been observed to be baffled by light and contrary winds near the Spanish shore, whence it was threatened by a flotilla of 30 of the enemy’s gun-boats. By pulling directly between the in-shore part of the convoy and the position occupied by the Spaniards, he successfully checked their career, and by his spirited exertions kept them at bay during the whole night, and until the merchantmen had reached their anchorage. In April, 1798, the Minerve returned to England to refit, but towards the close of the year she again sailed for the Mediterranean, where Capt. Cockburn continued to be employed on various important services, frequently in command of a small squadron, until the conclusion of the war. Among other operations, he joined in the hostilities against Malta – was in company with the Emerald at the taking of La Caroline privateer, of 16 guns and 90 men – witnessed Lord Keith’s capture of three frigates and two brigs under Rear-Admiral Perrée, 19 June, 1799 – took, during the year 1800, the three privateers Le Furet, La Mouche, and La Vengeance, carrying altogether 49 guns and 357 men – made prize, 11 Feb. 1801, of a Danish man-of-war brig – and, on 2 Sept. following, captured and destroyed the Succès, of 32, and Bravoure, of 42 guns.[4] Assuming command, 12 July, 1803, of the Phaeton 38, the subject of this memoir, after serving for some time off Havre de Grace with a squadron of frigates under his orders, took out Mr. Merry, the British Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States, and thence proceeded to India with the first instalment of a sum of money, which it had been arranged should be paid by the government of the latter, as a compensation for the losses sustained by the loyalists in the first establishment of American independence. He was subsequently employed in blockading the Isle of France, where he frequently came into warm collision with the enemy’s batteries; and on eventually exchanging, 5 June, 1805, into the Howe, returned to England with the Marquis of Wellesley, then Governor-General of India. Capt. Cockburn, whose succeeding appointments were, 1 July, 1806, and 10 and 25 March, 1808, to the Captain, Aboukir, and Pompée 74’s, was next present, in the first-named ship, at the capture, by a squadron under Sir Thos. Louis, of Le Président French frigate of 44 guns, 27 Sept. 1806. On his passage to the West Indies in the Pompée, he captured Le Pilade corvette, of 16 guns and 109 men; and being intrusted by Sir Alex. Cochrane, on his arrival on that station, with the management of all the naval operations on shore in the attack on Martinique, he hoisted a broad pendant, and by his exertions, which were unremitting and beyond praise, greatly contributed to the reduction of the island.[5] The enemy offering to capitulate on 24 Feb. 1809, Commodore Cockburn, with Gens. Prevost and Maitland, was directed to meet the French commissioners to settle the terms, and under their signatures Martinique became a British colony. For his services on this occasion the Commodore was personally thanked by both Houses of Parliament, and appointed Captain of the Port of St. Pierre. Removing in March to the Belleisle 74, he returned to Europe in charge of the ships taken at Martinique, and of the surrendered governor and garrison, and soon after his arrival in England was ordered to accompany the expedition to the Scheldt. Thither proceeding, he took command, with his pendant in the Plover, of a division of the British flotilla, consisting of sloops of war, bomb-ships, brigs, and gun-boats; and, taking up a most judicious position near the south-east end of Flushing, continued to bombard that town until the French commandant signified his intention to surrender; when, with an officer from the army, he entered bhndfolded into the fortress, and finally arranged the terms of capitulation.[6] On the retreat of the British down the Scheldt, he subsequently took the post of honour, and formed the rear-guard; on which occasion the Plover was the last vessel to leave the river, checking by her fire the pursuit of the enemy. The Belleisle, of which ship Capt. Cockburn had resumed command, being paid off in Oct. 1809, he next, in Feb. 1810, joined the Implacable 74, and was invested with the conduct of the naval part of an expedition having for its object the liberation of Ferdinand VII. of Spain from his confinement at Valançay. He afterwards proceeded to Cadiz with the flag of Sir Rich. Keats, and effectually co-operated in the defence of that place, particularly by the able and cheerful assistance he afforded with two brigs and some armed boats to an attempt made to dislodge a French force at Moguer, to the northward of the town.[7] Towards the close of 1810 he safely escorted two Spanish line-of-battle ships, of 120 guns each, to the Havana; after which he proceeded to Vera Cruz, and thence returned to Cadiz with 2,000,000 dollars. Arriving in England early in 1811, on board the Druid 32, Capt. Cockburn was, by the Admiralty, again appointed a Commodore on 26 Nov., and directed to hoist his broad pendant on board the Grampus 50. About the same period he was selected to act as joint commissioner with Mr. T. Sydenham and Mr. J. P. Morier, for the purpose of effecting a reconciliation between Spain and her transatlantic colonies. The scheme, however, in consequence of the narrow-minded policy pursued by the Spanish Cortes, proving abortive, the Commodore, after proceeding as far as Cadiz, returned home, and on 12 Aug. 1812 was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral – previously to which he had been appointed, 1 Aug. 1811, a Colonel of Marines. He soon, with his flag in the Marlborough 74, again sailed for Cadiz, in order to assume command of the British squadron employed in its defence; but the siege having been raised prior to his arrival, he was ordered to North America, where hostilities had been recently declared against Great Britain. We have now arrived at an era in the history of the distinguished subject of our memoir which, for brilliancy of achievement, has rarely been equalled. The dashing exploits, indeed, which have perpetuated the name of Cockburn crowd on our attention in such rapid succession, that, anxious as we are to chronicle every occurrence at all invested with interest, we fear that in what we yet have to recount we must content ourselves with a statement of the chief of those gallant performances which, by enforcing on the enemy a proper respect for the British flag, in the end induced them to long for peace. Arriving in the Chesapeake on 3 March, 1813, the Rear-Admiral commenced a desultory mode of warfare, by clearing the river James of its vessels, and carrying consternation into the heart of Virginia. He next penetrated to the upper part of Elk River, at the very head of the Chesapeake waters; landed and partially destroyed the town of Havre de Grace, together with a battery and cannon-foundry, near the entrance of the Susquehanna; and, proceeding up the Sassafras river with all the boats of his squadron on 6 May, succeeded, after routing a body of about 400 men, who had opened on them a fire from an entrenched position on the two opposite banks of the river, in demolishing the settlements of Georgetown and Frederickstown.[8] On 26 June he further co-operated with Sir Sidney Beckwith in the attack upon Hampton; and, shifting his flag on 1 July to the Sceptre 74, assisted, in the course, of that month, at the capture of Ocrakoke and Portsmouth Islands, on the coast of North Carolina, possessing himself at the same time of the Anaconda of 20, and Atlas of 12 guns.[9] He next, on the morning of 5 July, with a mere handful of men, made himself master of Kent Island, in the Chesapeake; to which bay, after visiting Bermuda, he ultimately returned in 1814, on board the Albion 74. In July of the latter year Rear-Admiral Cockburn entered the Potomac, and, ascending that river, frequently landed at the head of about 500 seamen and marines, sometimes in Maryland on the one side, and sometimes in Virginia on the other; and, overrunning both provinces to the distance of 10 miles from the water’s edge, destroyed all the military posts and stores to be met with in the whole of that extensive range of country, and captured and shipped off several guns, stores of tobacco, flour, and other articles, but not, however, without frequently coming into severe contact with the enemy.[10] He next proceeded with his boats up the Patuxent in quest of a powerful flotilla under the orders of Commodore Barney, and at length, on 22 Aug., discovered the object of his search near Pig Point; but such terror did his very presence excite, that the Americans instantly set fire to their vessels, all of which, except one, blew up. In pursuance of a bold plan which he had formed, the Rear-Admiral, joining an army of 4000 men under Major-General Ross at Marlborough, now advanced upon Washington, the capital of the United States, itself, which he hoped to take by a coup de main. Reaching Bladensburg on 24 of the same month, the British encountered the enemy’s army, of about 8000 strong, which, although firmly posted, was attacked and completely routed. Thus encouraged, the Victorious troops pushed forward without loss of time, and on the same evening entered Washington. The whole of that night and of the following day were devoted to the work of destruction; and by the evening of the 25th, when the British commenced their retreat, public property, to the value of between two and three millions sterling, had been demolished. Throughout every detail of this splendid achievement Rear-Admiral Cockburn displayed his wonted ability and judgment, and, it is needless to add, obtained the high eulogiums of Sir Alex. Cochrane and Major-Gen. Ross.[11] Landing again on 12 Sept. near the mouth of the Petapsco, he joined next in a descent on Baltimore, during their profitless advance on which place the British lost their General and defeated a strong body of the enemy.[12] After conducting many other operations on the southern coast of the United States, where he kept the inhabitants in a constant state of alarm, and occupied the town of St. Mary, the Rear-Admiral, who had been created a K.C.B. 2 Jan. 1815, ultimately, on being informed of the cessation of hostilities, returned to Spithead, where he arrived on 4 May. Hoisting his flag subsequently in the Northumberland 74, as Commander-in-Chief at St. Helena, and being selected to convey Napoleon Buonaparte, who had recently surrendered himself, to that island, Sir Geo. Cockburn on 8 Aug. sailed from Plymouth, and on 16 Oct. landed his important charge at the place of his destination. He was superseded, however, in June, 1816, by Sir Pulteney Malcolm; and, returning home, struck his flag in the following Aug. Becoming a Vice-Admiral 12 Aug. 1819, he afterwards, with his flag in the Vernon 60, and President 52, commanded in chief on the North America and West India station from 6 Dec. 1832 until Feb. 1836. Since the latter date he has not been afloat. His advancement to the rank of full Admiral took place 10 Jan. 1837.

Sir Geo. Cockburn, who was nominated a G.C.B., with additional armorial bearings indicative of his important services, 20 Feb. 1818, and was elected a F.R.S. 21 Dec. 1820, first obtained a seat in Parliament for Portsmouth in 1818. He was next elected, in March, 1820, for the borough of Weobley; was returned for Plymouth in 1826; and, since Oct. 1841, has held a seat for Ripon. On 25 March, 1818, he became a Lord of the Admiralty, to which office he was re-appointed 17 Sept. 1828. He obtained a seat at the board, as First Naval Lord, in Oct. 1841, but retired on the dissolution of Sir Robt. Peel’s Government, in the summer of 1846. On 5 April, 1821, he was also appointed Major-General of Marines, and, on 30 April, 1827, a Privy Councillor. In the latter capacity Sir George attended the funeral of King William IV. He married his cousin, Miss Mary Cockburn.


  1. Vide Gaz. 1798, p. 682.
  2. Vide Gaz. 1797, p. 200.
  3. In testimony of the opinion he entertained of Capt. Cockburn’s gallant conduct on the occasion of the capture of the Sabina, Nelson subsequently presented him witli a gold-hilted sword.
  4. Vide Gaz. 1801, p. 1355.
  5. Vide Gaz. 1809, pp. 399, 482.
  6. Vide Gaz. 1809, p. 1321.
  7. Vide Gaz. 1810, p. 1445.
  8. Vide Gaz. 1813, pp. 1331-34.
  9. Vide Gaz. 1813, pp. 1577, 1746.
  10. Vide Gaz. 1814, pp. 1965-7.
  11. Vide Gaz. 1814, pp. 1937-42.
  12. Vide Gaz. 1814, pp. 2075-7.