Cocke was born on April 17, 1809, in Surry County and was the son of John Hartwell Cocke (1780–1866), a planter and reformer, and his first wife, Ann Blaws Barraud Cocke, who died in December 1816. He attended the University of Virginia for the 1825, 1827, and 1827–1828 sessions before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on July 1, 1828. After graduating sixth in a class of forty-five in 1832, Cocke served as a second lieutenant of artillery in the United States Army and was stationed at Charleston, South Carolina, during the Nullification Crisis. On April 1, 1834, he resigned his commission, and on June 4 of that year in Surry County he married Sally Elizabeth Courtney Bowdoin. They had seven daughters and four sons.
Philip St. George Cocke’s Plantation and Farm Book
Cocke was enamored of Gothic architecture and sponsored the New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis, who worked in that style. Under Cocke’s patronage, Davis designed Belmead and Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Powhatan County, where Cocke and members of his family worshiped, as well as Gothic Revival structures for the Virginia Military Institute. Cocke also engaged Davis to prepare a Greek Revival design for the Powhatan County courthouse.
In response to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Cocke organized a Powhatan cavalry troop that drilled in 1860. In April of the following year he became a brigadier general of volunteers and was ordered to Alexandria, where he initially commanded the defenses in northern Virginia. He issued a call to arms to the men of central Virginia. A few weeks later, when the volunteers were folded into the Confederate army, Cocke was commissioned a colonel, a reduction in rank that deeply offended him. In a flurry of letters he complained bitterly about what he regarded as shameful treatment. Cocke commanded the 5th Brigade at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, but he felt insulted afterward when he believed that General Pierre G. T. Beauregard insufficiently praised his achievements.
Cocke possessed a strong impulse to public service and an equally strong sense of self-importance and high opinion of his own abilities as a military commander. Proud and temperamental, he was easily affronted and quick to perceive malice in others’ treatment of him. In October 1861 Cocke was promoted to brigadier general but too late to salve his wounded pride. His manner became distracted, and one colleague feared he was no longer of sound mind. On December 26, 1861, in a state of despondency and mental anguish over what he regarded as poor treatment by General Robert E. Lee and others, Philip St. George Cocke committed suicide at Belmead by shooting himself in the head with a pistol. He was buried on his estate, but in 1904 his remains were reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.