Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cockburn, George (1772-1853)
COCKBURN, Sir GEORGE (1772–1853), admiral of the fleet, second son of Sir James Cockburn, bart., was at the age of nine entered as captain's servant on the books of the Resource frigate and afterwards of the William and Mary yacht; he did not really go to sea till 1786, and after serving in the East Indies, Channel, and Mediterranean, was confirmed in the rank of lieutenant on 2 Jan. 1793. In June he was appointed as one of the lieutenants of the Victory, Lord Hood's flagship off Toulon ; in October he was promoted to the command of the Speedy sloop ; and on 20 Feh. 1794 was posted to the Meleager frigate, which served as a repeating ship in Hotham's two actions off Toulon, 14 March and 13 July 1795. For the following twelve months the Meleager was employed in the Gulf of Genoa, under the immediate orders of Captain Nelson, whose friendship Cockburn won by his zeal during an irksome period of service. In August 1796 Cockburn was moved into the Minerve, a large frigate lately captured from the French, and on board which Nelson hoisted his broad pennant when, in December 1796, he was sent back from Gibraltar to relieve the garrison of Elba, and to obtain the latest news of the movements of the French and Spanish fleets. On the way up, off Cartagena, on 20 Dec. she captured the Spanish frigate Sabina, commanded by Don Jacobo Stuart, a descendant of the Duke of Berwick [see Nelson, Horatio, Viscount], and on her return, passing the Straits of Gibraltar, ran through the Spanish fleet and joined the fleet under Sir John Jervis the day before the battle of Cape St. Vincent (Drinkwater-Bethune, Narrative of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent), in which the Minerve was present, though without any active participation. With but a short interval the Minerve, under Cockburn's command, continued in the Mediterranean till the peace, and captured, or assisted in capturing, several of the enemy's privateers and smaller ships of war, and more especially the Succès and Bravoure frigates, which were driven ashore on the coast of Italy, 2 Sept. 1801 (James, Naval History, 1860, iii. 79). She returned to England and was paid off in February 1802.
In July 1803 Cockburn was appointed to the Phaeton, which he commanded for the next two years in the East Indies. In July 1806 he was appointed to the Captain, and in March 1808 to the Pompee, in which in September he went out to the West Indies, where in the following February he had an important share in the reduction of Martinique, flying a broad pennant with a captain under him, by the appointment of the commander-in-chief, Sir Alexander Cochrane [see Brenton, Edward Pelham]. He afterwards shifted his pennant to the Belle-Isle, and returned to Europe in charge of the prizes, carrying the captured garrison of Martinique, which he took in the first instance to Quiberon Bay, intending there to exchange them. The French authorities, however, would not give up an equal number, and after a vexatious correspondence Cockburn quitted the place in disgust and carried the prisoners to Portsmouth. He afterwards commanded the flotilla of gunboats and bomb-vessels which in July and August cooperated with the army in the reduction of Flushing, and in September covered its retreat as it withdrew from the Scheldt. In February 1810 Cockburn was appointed to the Indefatigable and ordered to Quiberon Bay, where on 7 March he landed two agents who had undertaken to effect the escape of the king of Spain, then imprisoned in the castle of Valencay. Cockburn's share in the business was merely to land the agents and wait for their return with the king ; but as these men were speedily arrested, Cockburn went back to England. The Indefatigable, with Sir Richard Keats's flag on board, next went to Cadiz, then besieged by the French, against whom Cockburn, in command of the boats of the fleet, rendered important assistance. He was afterwards sent to the Havana, in charge of two Spanish three-deckers, and on his return was, in November 1811, appointed to act as a commissioner in the attempted mediation between Spain and her South American colonies. The Cortes proved impracticable, and the commission returned to England in August 1812. A few days later (12 Aug.) he was advanced to be rear-admiral, and, hoisting his flag on board the Marlborough, was sent to command the squadron before Cadiz. In November, however, in consequence of the war with the United States, he was ordered to proceed to Bermuda, where he was joined by Sir J. B. Warren, the commander-in-chief, and by him was sent with a small squadron to attack the enemy in the Chesapeake. Here the war resolved itself into numerous desultory skirmishes between boats or small landing parties and the American militia. The expedition forced its way up the northern branch of the Chesapeake to the Head of Elk, burning or destroying government stores wherever they were found, and being in almost daily conflict with the enemy, more especially at Havre de Grace, Georgetown, and Frederickstown.
In the following year (1813), after the battle of Bladensburg, 24 Aug., in which Cockburn himself took part, in concert with, his friend Major-general Ross, the joint naval and military force entered the city of Washington, virtually without resistance, and retired unmolested, after having destroyed government stores of a value differently estimated at from half a million to three millions sterling. Cockburn was the guiding spirit throughout the campaign, and was actually engaged on most occasions. The
capture of Washington seems to have been entirely suggested and planned by him. and though, from the preponderance of the land forces engaged, the larger share of the credit publicly awarded fell to Ross 'of Bladensburg,' Ross himself, in reporting the success, properly wrote: 'To Rear-admiral Cockburn, who suggested the attack upon Washington, and who accompanied the army, I confess the greatest obligations for his cordial cooperation and advice.' Still co-operating with General Ross, Cockburn, at his special request, accompanied him on his advance against Baltimore, and was with him in the paltry skirmish in which Ross received his death-wound, 12 Sept. During the rest of the year he continued the operations in the Chesapeake in the same desultory but dashing manner, while Sir Alexander Cochrane, with the greater part of the force at his disposal, attempted to carry New Orleans. He was just arranging an expedition against Savannah when, on 25 Feb. 1815, he received intelligence that peace had been concluded. On 2 Jan. he had been nominated a K.C.B., and, being now recalled to England, anchored at Spithead on 4 May, in time to find that war with France had again broken out. He was therefore ordered to hold himself ready for immediate service. It came, but of a nature very different from what he could have expected. He was ordered to hoist his flag on board the Northumberland and convey General Bonaparte to St. Helena. He accordingly went round to Plymouth, whence, with the general on board, he sailed on 8 Aug. On 15 Oct. he arrived at St. Helena, and having landed his prisoner, remained in the twofold character of governor of the island and commander-in-chief of the station, the duties of which posts were rendered extremely irksome by the necessity of unceasing vigilance. In the summer of 1816, however, he was relieved by Sir Hudson Lowe and Sir Pulteney Malcolm, and arrived in England on 1 Aug. He was made G.C.B. on 20 Feb. 1818, and became vice-admiral on 12 Aug. 1819, but had no employment till December 1832, when he was appointed commander-in-chief on the North American and West India station. His return from that command in February 1836 was the end of his service afloat. He became admiral on 10 Jan. 1837, and admiral of the fleet on 1 July 1851. In 1820 he was elected F.R.S. In 1818 he was returned to parliament for Portsmouth, in 1820 for Weobley, in 1826 for Plymouth, and in 1841 for Ripon. He was repeatedly a junior lord of the admiralty, and first naval lord, 1841-6. In April 1827 he was nominated a privy councillor. On 26 Feb. 1852, by the death of his brother James without a son, he succeeded to the baronetcy, a dignity which he enjoyed for only a short time. He died on 19 Aug. 1853, also without a son, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by his brother William, dean of York. He married in 1809 his cousin Mary, daughter of Thomas Cockburn, and left issue one daughter, who married in 1856 Commander J. C. Hoseason.
[O'Byrne's Nav. Biog. Dict.; Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage.]