Gen. William Ruffin Cox, CSA

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Jul 8, 2015
from NCPedia

Cox, William Ruffin

by Max R. Williams, 1979
11 Mar. 1832–26 Dec. 1919

Engraving of William Ruffin Cox, 1905. Image from

William Ruffin Cox, lawyer, agriculturalist, Confederate general, congressman, and civic leader, was born in Scotland Neck, Halifax County, of English ancestry.

His grandfather was John Cox, whose London baptism was recorded in St. Paul's Cathedral; John Cox served in the British navy and settled in North Carolina early in the nineteenth century in time to sail as an American merchantman during the War of 1812. William's father was Thomas Cox; his mother, Olivia Norfleet, was the daughter of a wealthy Halifax County planter, Marmaduke Norfleet. As a young man, Thomas Cox engaged in an extensive trade with the West Indies, holding partnerships in companies based in Plymouth, N.C., and Philadelphia, Pa. A leading advocate of railroad building and other progressive improvements, he represented Washington County in the state senate. In 1825 he removed to Halifax County to become a planter. At the time of his death in 1836, he had three daughters and four sons, of whom William was the youngest.

William Ruffin Cox began his education in the Vine Hill Academy of Scotland Neck. After the death of Thomas Cox, his widow moved the family to Nashville, Tenn., in order to be near her eldest daughter. There young Cox's education continued, as he prepared to enter Franklin College, an institution from which he was graduated with distinction in 1850. After reading law at Lebanon College, he was admitted to the bar and practiced law for five years in Nashville as the partner of John C. Ferguson.

In 1857, upon his marriage to Penelope Battle, daughter ofEdgecombe County planter James S. Battle, Cox returned to North Carolina and began to develop Penelo, the fine Edgecombe County plantation he retained all his life. He resettled in Raleigh in 1859 and opened a successful legal practice.

An ardent southern rights man, Cox became an enthusiastic secessionist. As preparation for military service he had studied military tactics; when war came, he organized and financed an artillery company. On 8 May 1861, Governor John W. Ellis appointed him to the rank of major in the Second North Carolina Regiment, launching him on a distinguished military career. Serving in the corps of Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson and Richard Stoddert Ewell, he was successively promoted to lieutenant colonel (September 1862), colonel (March 1863), and, when he assumed command of Stephen D. Ramseur's old brigade, brigadier general (May 1864). Cox commanded a reorganized brigade of North Carolina troops, consisting of the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fourteenth, and Thirtieth regiments.

He fought in numerous battles and campaigns, including Malvern Hill, Antietam, Chancellorsville (where his regiment was so heavily engaged that half his men were killed or wounded), the Valley Campaign of 1864, and the defense of Petersburg. In the retreat to Appomattox, he led the last organized attack of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was noted for his intrepid spirit, his valor under fire, and his ability to keep his depleted and dispirited troops intact. Twice he was officially commended by Robert E. Lee. After the war, GovernorZebulon B. Vance took pleasure in publicly recalling Lee's satisfaction with Cox in the discouraging retreat from Petersburg: upon observing a small brigade that was especially orderly, obviously prideful, and well organized, Lee asked an aide, "What troops are those?" The reply was, "Cox's North Carolina brigade," whereupon Lee removed his hat, bowed his head, and said with feeling, "God bless gallant old North Carolina." Wounded eleven times, five at Chancellorsville, Cox emerged from the Civil War a popular and well-loved North Carolina military hero.


William Ruffin Cox. Image from the Digital Collections at East Carolina University.

In 1865, Cox reopened his Raleigh law office. Soon thereafter he was elected president of the board of the Chatham Coal Fields Railway Company. His military reputation opened many possibilities, and he eventually turned to politics. He was considered at one time as a gubernatorial alternative to the Conservative candidate Jonathan Worth, but he did not accept nomination; instead, he sided with those who opposed congressional Reconstruction. In 1868 he stood for the temporarily important post of solicitor in the Raleigh district. He was elected by twenty-seven votes, although the Republican majority in the district was approximately four thousand. He was an able solicitor for the next six years—at times the only prominent Democrat holding state office. A delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention, he became increasingly active in party affairs. He succeeded Daniel M. Barringer as state Democratic chairman in 1874 and invigorated the party by emphasizing grassroots organization and rigid party discipline. He was instrumental in "redeeming" North Carolina in the exciting elections of 1874, 1875, and 1876. He was a viable candidate for governor in 1876 but cheerfully withdrew when he learned that Zeb Vance was available. Vance, after his victory, appointed Cox to the judgeship of the Sixth Judicial District of North Carolina, a position he filled with courage and ability until 1880.

Cox represented the Raleigh-Durham district in the Forty-seventh, Forty-eighth, and Forty-ninth Congresses (4 Mar. 1881–3 Mar. 1887). His most notable and controversial role came in the Forty-ninth Congress when, as chairman of the Committee on Civil Service, he championed reform. His views were generally unpopular among politicians who favored the old patronage system. In one speech to the House, Cox characterized a civil service system based on merit as "the genius and essence of democracy." This stand apparently caused his party to drop him from the ticket in 1886, although 197 convention ballots were required to nominate someone else. Cox declined President Grover Cleveland's offer of a post in the Land Office amid allegations, which he vigorously denied, that he was being rewarded for his defense of the civil service system. He was elected secretary to the U.S. Senate in 1893 and served in that capacity until his resignation in 1900, when he returned to North Carolina to stay. In his later years he resided at Penelo or Raleigh and engaged in agricultural pursuits.

Cox was actively involved in the civic affairs of his state. In the 1870s he was chairman of the North Carolina Education Association and was instrumental in founding the North Carolina Journal of Education, a monthly publication devoted to promoting the common schools. Long a member of the executive committee of the North Carolina Agriculture Society, he became president in 1900. He was grand master of North Carolina Masons in 1878 and 1879 and a dedicated layman in the Protestant Episcopal church, frequently attending diocesan conventions and serving as trustee of the University of the South. His many public addresses, although without real distinction, were well received because of their source; most memorable of these was his 1891 address on the life and character of Major General Stephen D. Ramseur.

In 1857, Cox married Penelope Battle; their only child, Pierre B., died in early manhood. In 1883 Cox was married to Frances Augusta Lyman; their union produced two sons, Albert L. and Francis. In 1905, Cox married Mrs. Herbert A. Claiborne of Richmond, Va. He died at Richmond and was buried in Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery, attended by Confederate veterans and by numerous Masons.


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Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Jul 8, 2015
My family ancestor, Lt. George W. Ward, served in Cox's Brigade.

Lt. Ward was granted leave in late February 1865 so he was back home in North Carolina when Cox's Brigade surrendered at Appomattox.


Brigadier General
Forum Host
Nov 20, 2012
Here's a portrait of Cox I had saved. IIRC, it's from the Confederate Veteran.


After the war, GovernorZebulon B. Vance took pleasure in publicly recalling Lee's satisfaction with Cox in the discouraging retreat from Petersburg: upon observing a small brigade that was especially orderly, obviously prideful, and well organized, Lee asked an aide, "What troops are those?" The reply was, "Cox's North Carolina brigade," whereupon Lee removed his hat, bowed his head, and said with feeling, "God bless gallant old North Carolina."
It's my opinion that G.B. Anderson's/Ramseur's/Cox's North Carolina Brigade was definitely up there with the best in the ANV. From the Sunken Road at Antietam, Fairview Heights at Chancellorsville, Oak Ridge at Gettysburg, the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania and a number of other places, they always fought well and accomplished a lot on the battlefield.

After their performance at Chancellorsville, Gen. Lee sent a letter to Gov. Zebulon Vance, in which he stated that "I consider its brigade and regimental commanders as among the best of their respective grades in the army...." Ramsuer, Cox, Grimes and others in the brigade, no doubt. Why it isn't as well known as the Stonewall or Texas Brigade is beyond me.
Nov 8, 2018
William Ruffin Cox was born on March 11th (either in 1831 or '32; it seems there are discrepancies in this regard) in Scotland Neck in Halifax County, North Carolina. His aristocratic family had been tied with the state since the colonial days. His father died when William was only 4. His mother moved her family to Nashville to give her kids a good education. He graduated from Franklin College and went into law, working as a partner to a prominent Nashville attorney. The venture flourished.
In 1857, after ceasing the practice, Cox got married and moved back home to North Carolina, buying a plantation in Edgecombe County. He went into politics in Raleigh, running in 1859 as a state legislator for the Democrats. He lost by only 13 votes.

(Cox in the War Years)
When North Carolina joined the secession, Cox first raised a company of artillery (the "Ellis Artillery Company"), then an infantry company, joining Colonel Charles Tew's 2nd North Carolina Regiment and immediately made Major. Cox and the 2nd North Carolina would serve in the brigade of G. B. Anderson and Stephen Ramseur, which soon would become one of the best brigades in the AoNV under the latter brigadier.
When Colonel Tew was killed at Antietam, Cox was promoted first to Lt. Colonel, and then Full Colonel in March of '63 when the previous Lt. Colonel (promoted to Colonel after Tew) resigned. 2 months later, at Chancellorsville, Cox was wounded 3 times. He remained in command until exhaustion forced him to head back to the field hospital for treatment. Because of his wounds, he would miss out on the Gettysburg Campaign.
He would return to field duty in the fall of '63. He'd serve temporarily as the brigade commander while Ramseur was on leave to get married. On 7th November, 1863, in a skirmish at Kelly's Ford, Cox would recieve wounds to the face and right shoulder, resulting in his needing a 40-day furlough to recuporate. When he returned, he took part in the Overland Campaign, first at Wilderness and conspicuously at Spotsylvania, where his actions resulted in Lee personally commending the Colonel.
Despite him being junior in rank to the other colonels in the brigade (namely Bryan Grimes of the 4th North Carolina, himself promote BG but transferred to command Daniel's Brigade; and Risden Tyler Bennett of the 14th North Carolina; both had been Colonels at and prior to Antietam, when Cox was only a major), Cox was promoted to Brigadier General and would command Ramseur's old Brigade for the rest of the war.
He led the brigade at COld Harbor, and then during Jubal Early's Valley Campaign, most prominently taking part in the Battle of Monocacy. It was during this campaign that his division commander, Robert Rodes, and his former Brigadier, Ramseur were killed.
His men took part in Gordon's attack on Fort Stedman. He would surrender with the remnant of his brigade at Appomattox. During the war, he would receive a total of 11 wounds.
He returned home to Edgecombe after the war, taking up law again and later president of a railroad company. He would become the Chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party from 1874 to 1877. He'd then surve as a judge, and then as a Representative in the U.S. Congress, serving for 6 years, from 1880 to 1886. He pushed heavily for civil service reform, a stance which alienated him from prominent Democrats, and would result in him losing the nomination for reelection.
His wife died in 1880. After his time in Congress, he remarried and was retired in Edgecombe County, until in 1893 he was appointed Secretary of the U.S. Senate to replace former Union General Anson McCook. He served until the turn of the century, when he retired back to his plantation, this time for good.
He died 26th December 1919. He was the last surviving general of the Army of Northern Virginia.

(Cox, later in life)

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