Grand Haven Tribune: Guard who let Lincoln’s killer get away drowns in Grand Haven

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Guard who let Lincoln’s killer get away drowns in Grand Haven

Kevin S. Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 3:11 PM

Small articles concerning the tragedy made the national newspapers.

Dead were James H. Marcy and his young child of Portland in Ionia County. His wife, Sarah (Williston) Marcy, survived.

Also dead were two residents of Holliston, Mass.: Silas T. Cobb and Edgar L. Fletcher.

While focus of news briefs was the number of those who drowned, one of the deceased gained significance with historians who study the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — Silas T. Cobb. He was the man who unwittingly allowed John Wilkes Booth to escape Washington, D.C., moments after he fatally wounded the president at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.

On the evening of April 14, Sgt. Cobb was stationed guarding the Navy Yard Bridge, which crossed over the Potomac River from D.C. to Maryland. Sometime after 10:30 p.m., Booth, on horseback, approached the bridge to cross and was met by Cobb. The bridge had a curfew of 9 p.m., forbidding anyone to pass until sunrise.

Upon inquiry, Booth identified himself by using his actual name, and pleaded ignorance regarding the bridge curfew. He informed Cobb he was headed home to Beantown (now Waldorf) in Charles County, Md. According to investigation testimony later regarding the incident, Cobb stated Booth acted proper enough and answered questions satisfactorily.

Cobb allowed Booth to cross.

Not long after, another man, identifying himself as “Smith,” approached Cobb to cross the bridge. Smith was unaware of the curfew and stated he had stopped to see a woman on Capitol Hill, couldn’t depart before 9 p.m., and was headed to White Plains, Md.

Cobb allowed him to pass, too. That man was David Edgar Herold — one of the Lincoln conspirators who was hanged on July 7 for his involvement in the attempted murder of Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Silas Tower Cobb was born to Silas G. and Sophia Cobb in Holliston, Middlesex County, Mass., on Oct. 13, 1838. In his youth, he worked with his father as a boot maker. At age 19, he became a novice crewman aboard the whaling ship Chandler Price in 1857, sailing the Arctic. He married Sophia Hilton Treen in Medway, Mass., on May 1, 1863.

Two months later, Cobb enlisted in the Union Army as a member of Company F, 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. After a period of garrison duty in his home state, his regiment was transferred to Washington, D.C., where members of his company served standing guard on passages in and out of the city.

While Cobb came under criticism for allowing two of the Lincoln conspirators to escape D.C., he did not face court martial. Immediately after Lincoln was shot, telegrams were transmitted to guards to inform them the president “had been shot” and to look out for the killer. Cobb had not received the telegram until after he allowed Booth and Herold to cross the bridge he stood guard on.

After serving his state and country, Cobb was honorably discharged from volunteer service on Sept. 18, 1865. Sadly, that same year, a daughter, Ada, was born to Silas and Sophia, but died in infancy on Aug. 8. 

News reports of the drowning death of Cobb made no mention of why he and a friend, Edgar L. Fletcher, were in Grand Haven at the time. But it was likely on business peddling footwear. It’s possible Cobb returned to the family boot-making business after leaving the military, and Fletcher is shown (in an 1865 Census) boarding with Sewall Littlefield, a Holliston shoe and boot maker.

An article published in the Lowell Daily Citizen on Nov. 11, 1867, reported “a dispatch from Mayor Parks of Grand Haven to Mayor Norcross of Boston announces Mr. Silas T. Cobb and Edgar Fletcher of Holliston, Mass., drowned at Grand Haven on Saturday (Nov. 9) morning.”

The reported communication between George Parks — who had been elected Grand Haven’s first mayor that year — and the mayor of Boston arranged transport of the bodies back to Holliston, Mass. Cobb’s body was laid to rest in Center Cemetery in Holliston.

Ironically, Cobb, the man who guarded a river crossing (the Potomac), died crossing a river (the Grand.)

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