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Down the Rabbit Hole, Once Again

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

A sad tale from my my great-grandfather's Civil War letters

In researching family history, often you will find discrepancies. The spelling of the name of one of your ancestors can vary from census to census, as can their ages and birthplaces. That’s because historic records are only as reliable as the human beings who compiled them; and, especially in the case of the U.S. census, it is only as reliable as the knowledge of the person who happened to be home when the census taker knocked on the door.

I've always been intrigued by this story. It’s only one five-line paragraph, but this is what Private Josiah Peter Hackett told his family:

Two views of a map of Casco Bay drawn in 1862 by Josiah Hackett, Co. A, U.S. 17th Infantry, Civil War.

“There was a bad accident among our boys the other day. One went out for a boat ride with his wife and 5 children. The boat tipped over in a squall and the the man, wife and 4 children drowned. The other boy 11 years old laid in the side of the boat and was saved although filled with water. They was 3 or 4 days finding the bodies. The company turned out to their funeral.”

This view is simply rotated to help read his notes. "East" and "West" appear to be reversed.

It occurred to me the other day that I could search databases of digitized newspapers and, perhaps, find out more information regarding this tragic accident. Lo and behold, I did! It was published in the Oct. 22, 1862, issue of the Portland Daily Press.

When I sat down to write this, I noticed the date of Josiah’s letter is actually five days before the accident occurred. I should probably go back and check the actually letter, because I may have been the one who made that mistake. Or, perhaps Josiah started writing the letter on that date, but didn’t send it until several days later. It’s more likely that he put down the wrong date himself, because in other letters that start on one date and are finished at a later date, he indicates to his readers that he has come back to finish writing his letter.

Regardless, the story of the boating accident is tragic, indeed.

Following is the article from the Oct. 22, 1862, issue of the Portland (ME) Daily Press, page 3, column 1 (note that I have fixed some punctuation to make the information more clear):

Sad Accident—Five Lives Lost—Yesterday forenoon, Charles H. Preston, a private in the U.S. 17th Infantry stationed at Fort Preble, belonging in Benton; Francis L. Preston, his wife; Joseph Cobb of Cape Elizabeth, aged ten years; Barbara B. Cobb, aged twelve years; Benjamin L. Preston, aged about twelve years; and Julia A. Derald, aged about twelve years, started from Cape Elizabeth in a lapstrake boat with one sail, to go to Hog Island. As the wind blew very fresh, the boat shipped water, and when between Half-Way Rock and Hog Island, no one seeming to understand how the boat should be managed, she went under.

Mr. Preston and his wife, Barbara Cobb and Julia Derald were drowned. The last that was seen of Preston he was making for his wife, whose clothing buoyed her out of the water. The Preston and Cobb boys went down with the boat, but as she righted and floated. The Preston boy got on board and pulled the Cobb boy into the boat. He then commenced bailing the boat, and had succeeded in getting part of the water out, when he sank down insensible.

The schooner Mountain Fawn, Capt. Sylvanus Gammage (a fisherman,1820-1903), of Bristol, was informed of the accident by a boat which had seen the disaster, but which was unable to afford any assistance. Capt. Gammage immediately run down and took the boat in tow. He found the Preston and Cobb boys on board insensible. Measures were taken for their recovery, which proved successful in Preston’s case, but which were unavailing as to Cobb.

Young Preston says that just before he fainted, he saw Cobb sitting up in the boat. Coroner Hall will hold an inquest this morning at Cape Elizabeth upon the body of young Cobb. The other bodies have not been recovered.

Mrs. Preston, Joseph Cobb and Barbara E. Cobb were children of Morris R. Cobb of Cape Elizabeth, and Julia Derald was a granddaughter. This is a sad blow—three children, a granddaughter and a son-in-law taken thus suddenly away.

It is just about a year since that a like melancholy circumstance occurred, by which six of our Portland citizens lost their lives.”


The most striking part of this story is that Frances Preston was apparently an older sister of Barbara and Joseph; all three were the children of Morris B. Cobb and his wife, Mary Ann Budd Cobb, who raised their family at Cape Elizabeth. Julia Alice Derald was their granddaughter. Benjamin is, apparently, a younger brother of Charles.

All of the Cobbs who perished in the accident appear to be interred in Plot G-88 of Mount Pleasant Cemetery in South Portland. There is little more information about them, and from what I can tell there may not be a stone for little Julia. While sites like FindAGrave are a tremendous resource, this is one case in which, as a researcher, it might be useful to visit the cemetery in person to see what’s there and maybe check the records, if they still exist.

At this point, I cannot determine who Julia’s parents were. Searching the surname Derald, so far, hasn’t been fruitful. Statistically, marriages often fail after the loss of a child, so perhaps the parents divorced and the mother, who was probably one of Morris and Mary’s daughters, may have remarried. Or, perhaps they moved away. There are a lot of possibilities. It’s frustrating when I can’t answer a question like that right away, but again, that’s what makes this work so interesting … and addictive.

At the risk of reading too much into all of this, as sometimes happens on some ghost-hunting or genealogy TV shows, it does seem that this family saw a lot of tragedy. Two other Cobbs are listed as buried in the family plot: Thomas Barberry Cobb, whose date of death is listed at FindAGrave as 1851, and William H. Cobb, 1830-1857. Given that Morris and Mary were born in 1807 and 1814, respectively, they could easily be William’s parents.

While I’ve also found some evidence that 1851 may have been when Thomas died, I’e found other evidence that Thomas may have been born that year, too. The 1860 census lists an eight-year-old male named Barberry in the Morris Cobb.

Then again, the Thomas in the family plot may also have been another relative, perhaps a brother, nephew or cousin, of Morris’s and not his son. I did find a birth record for a Thomas B. Cobb dated September 14, 1821; but his parents were Chipmab and Abigail Cobb.

(Chipmab, really? Could it be very hard to find something about him, with such an unusual first name? One would think, but then one has been fooled before.)

The lack of information at FindAGrave is compounded by the fact that one, apparently, couldn’t throw a rock in any direction in Maine during that time period without hitting someone named Cobb. This may be a case of “Same Name Shenanigans” on steroids.

One last scenario also crossed my mind: Perhaps the newspaper had confused the identity and gender of one of the children: Was Barbara actually Barberry? I have a little experience in newspaper reporting, so I know that could have been entirely possible. But, it appears that wasn’t the case, as both Barbara and Thomas are buried in the family plot, and Barbara’s death date lines up with the date of the boat accident.

So, dear readers, you can see that this work is something I do for a living and as a hobby. All of this work that I’ve done so far has cost me about 10 hours of unpaid time. But, it’s worth it to know the whole story behind something my great-grandfather told to me, through his letters, a century before I was even born.

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