Early Years and Civil War
Edmund Randolph Cocke was born at Oakland, one of two Cumberland County plantations owned by his parents, William Armistead Cocke and Elizabeth Randolph Preston Cocke, on March 25, 1841. In 1856 he matriculated at(later Washington and Lee University). Intellectually gifted but shy and sometimes indolent, Cocke ranked near the bottom of his class during the first of his two years at that institution. Nevertheless, in 1858 the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) accepted him as a transfer student with sophomore standing.
During theCocke abandoned his studies, returned to Virginia, and on April 23, 1861, enlisted in the Black Eagle Rifles, a Cumberland County militia unit that mustered into Confederate service as Company E of the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Elected in June 1861, he became first lieutenant in mid-1862 and captain in January 1863. The Black Eagle Rifles performed with distinction at the (1861) and fought in most of the ‘s early campaigns. During ‘s at the Battle of Gettysburg, Cocke suffered a , but more than one-third of the men in his command were killed, including one of his brothers. The shattered company saw only limited action in the remaining years of the Civil War. Cocke served in 1865 as major of the 18th Virginia, without formal promotion to that rank. On April 6, 1865, he was captured during the Battles of Sailor’s Creek. Briefly confined in Washington, D.C., he spent two months in the prisoner-of-war camp at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. On June 9 he swore allegiance to the United States and was paroled.
Emancipation and the accompanying collapse of land values severely reduced the Cocke family’s wealth. The makeshift sharecropping and day-labor arrangements that replacedarguably generated more frustration than income, and the Cockes’ dark cash crop began to encounter serious competition from the newly popular bright leaf of Pittsylvania County and North Carolina. By 1880 his brothers had abandoned plantation life for other pursuits, but Captain Cocke, as he was customarily known, remained at Oakland for almost six decades after the Civil War, initially as the estate’s heir and farm manager and then, after his mother’s death in 1889, as its owner. On October 17, 1871, Cocke married his cousin Phoebe A. Preston, of Rockbridge County. They had two daughters before her death on August 5, 1873, following childbirth. On May 6, 1878, Cocke married another cousin, Lucia Cary Harrison, of Charles City County. Three of their four sons and three of their six daughters lived to adulthood.
After 1865 Cocke staunchly supported the Democratic Party and its low-tariff, white-supremacist creed. African American voters gave Republican candidates a decisive edge in Cumberland County, but in 1884, 1888, and 1890 the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly named Cocke chair of Cumberland’s electoral board, a three-member panel that oversaw voting arrangements and appointed polling-place officials in county precincts. The localand GOP’s continued victories during his seven-year tenure suggest that he fulfilled the obligations of the post without fraud or excessive partisanship. Even so, Cocke’s private correspondence indicates that he harbored bitter antagonism toward the Republicans’ policies, especially their support of black suffrage. He urged repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment and wrote that because of his intense hatred for Republicans, who “contaminate, debauch and putrefy every thing they touch,” he could not “in sincerity pray for their Salvation.”
Cocke’s stint on Cumberland’s electoral board coincided with his emergence as a noted figure in the state’s farm organizations—and also with his first significant deviations from the Democratic Party’s laissez-faire economic principles. Service on the Virginia State Agricultural Society’s executive committee from 1883 to 1885 enhanced his contacts with Robert Beverley (1822–1901), Mann Page (1835–1904), and other independent-minded patricians who shared his concerns about deflationary trends in crop prices and land values. In 1884 and 1885 Cocke joined these activists in establishing the Farmers’ Assembly of the State of Virginia, a broadly based group that soon demonstrated marked willingness to challenge the status quo. Signaling his support for a reform agenda that ranged from state railroad regulation to federal aid for public schools, Cocke between 1885 and 1889 represented the Cumberland farm club in at least three of the assembly’s conferences.
In 1889 the Farmers’ Assembly was absorbed into the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, a more radical group that had expanded into Virginia from the cotton states. An enthusiastic convert, Cocke was particularly attracted by the Alliance’s demand for the free coinage of silver, a price-raising initiative that he viewed as tailor-made to alleviate the Southside’s difficulties. He was also receptive to the organization’s controversial subtreasury scheme, which would have allowed farmers to use tobacco and other nonperishable crops as collateral for low-interest, government-funded loans.
As a Populist
To Cocke’s chagrin, his fellow Democrats did not share his view that the deflationary gold standard would inexorably reduce rural landowners to serfdom. Vexed by the state legislature’s passage of a watered-down railroad regulatory bill early in 1892, and appalled by the party’s nomination of Grover Cleveland, an avowed proponent of the gold standard, as its presidential candidate in June of that year, Cocke joined the front ranks of agrarian political insurgency and attended the first state convention of the Alliance-sponsored People’s Party of Virginia (also known as the Populists). In the summer of 1892 he traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, as a delegate to the national convention of the People’s Party. It soon became apparent, however, that Populism commanded little popular support in theAt the Populist state convention in August 1893 Cocke drafted much of the party platform, which championed free silver and called for radical reforms in Virginia’s fraud-stained election procedures. After endorsing the platform committee’s handiwork, the delegates put aside concerns about Cocke’s staid, lackluster oratorical style and unanimously selected him as the party’s gubernatorial nominee. Help from an unexpected quarter gave Cocke at least some chance for an upset victory. Demoralized by a ten-year succession of defeats, Virginia’s GOP leaders decided not to field candidates for statewide office in 1893—a choice that, in effect, encouraged Republican voters to cast their ballots for the People’s Party ticket. Unfortunately for Cocke, the emergence of this de facto coalition prompted an aggressive and vitriolic response from the Democrats, who lambasted the Populists as ne’er-do-well purveyors of communistic doctrines and, worse yet, as Republicans in all but name. Democratic newspapers assailed Cocke as an inexperienced political nonentity; as a rich, silver-spoon aristocrat who had never done a day’s work in his life; and as a turncoat hypocrite whose allegations about vote fraud were belied by his own extended (and presumably honorable) tenure as a Democratic election official in Cumberland County. Backed by only 37.6 percent of the electorate, Cocke lost to congressman Charles Triplett O’Ferrall by a margin of 46,701 votes of 216,154 cast. The bulk of Cocke’s support came from Republicans, black and white, who had cared little for him, his platform, or his party. . In November 1892 only about 12,000 Virginians voted for the presidential ticket that Cocke had helped nominate—a total dwarfed by the turnout for the victorious Democrats and even by that for the badly beaten Republicans. Meanwhile, the state Alliance’s membership began to plummet, undercut by the collapse of many of the group’s cooperative agribusiness ventures and by rank-and-file resistance to third-party activism. Cocke chaired the troubled organization’s executive committee in 1892 and 1893, but his conscientious performance failed to halt the decline.
On August 23, 1894, Cocke served as temporary chair of the Populist state convention and, according to press reports, proclaimed that anyone who denied the need for reform in Virginia belonged in a lunatic asylum. That same day a Tenth District caucus nominated him for the United States House of Representatives. The November election brought yet another landslide defeat, this time at the hands of the incumbent Democratic congressman, Cocke’s cousin Henry St. George Tucker (1853–1932).
During the next two years Cocke’s public activities mirrored the erratic course of the third-party movement. In August 1895 he attended the Honest Election Conference in Petersburg at which he helped devise plans for a coordinated campaign by Populists and Republicans in the autumn legislative races. By contrast, the next year he served on a committee orchestrating a cooperative campaign of Virginia Populists and Democrats, and as a delegate to the People’s Party convention in Saint Louis, Missouri, he endorsed the candidacy of the Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, an outspoken champion of the free-silver cause.
In July 1897 the Populists nominated Cocke for lieutenant governor and, fielding no candidates for the other statewide offices, urged the Democrats to give him the second spot on their ticket and thus produce a fusion slate acceptable to both parties. Southside Democrats were receptive to this plan, but at their party’s state convention in August, only one-fifth of all the delegates voted for Cocke. The Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor went instead to, a conservative machine politician from Staunton. Stung by this perceived insult, Populist leaders encouraged Cocke to continue his futile third-party candidacy, even though they lacked the resources to mount anything more than a token campaign on his behalf. The 7,429 votes that he polled in November constituted only 4.6 percent of the 162,770 votes cast and signaled the demise of Populism as even a minor influence in Virginia.
Private misfortunes accompanied public defeats. On March 31, 1898, Cocke’s wife died of childbirth complications that also claimed the life of her newborn infant. In August 1900 fire destroyed his cherished ancestral home at Oakland. Indicative of Cocke’s reduced circumstances, a remodeled outbuilding that had once served as the plantation’s business office became the family residence. Beset by cash shortages, he began selling off parts of Oakland in the 1880s, sold another 792 acres in 1900, and later attempted to alleviate concerns about his children’s financial prospects by designating the former state Alliance president Mann Page as trustee of the Cocke estate. A less rational response to accumulating adversities emerged as well. Family tradition records that Cocke began to practice the pseudoscience of alchemy. No stranger to lost causes, he devoted countless hours to gold-making experiments that ruined an array of kettles and tubs but failed to transform Oakland into El Dorado.
Preoccupied with this eccentric pursuit, the erstwhile champion of free silver displayed little interest in the reform crusades of theera. Cocke had no sympathy with the Prohibition movement and in 1919 lashed out against the state’s machine Democrats and their newfound enthusiasm for “dry” principles. “There are a few gentlemen in Virginia still,” he archly observed, “and they are not dominated by Methodist preachers.” Cocke died at Oakland of kidney failure on February 19, 1922, and was buried in the family graveyard a short distance from his home.