Cobb’s Ordeal: The Diaries of a Virginia Farmer, 1842-1872. – Review

Cobb’s Ordeal: The Diaries of a Virginia Farmer, 1842-1872. – Review – book reviews

James Tice Moore

Cobb’s Ordeal: The Diaries of a Virginia Farmer, 1842-1872. Edited by Daniel W. Crofts. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Pp. xxv, 365. $55.00.)

Born in 1811 in rural Southampton County, Virginia, Daniel W. Cobb labored on his father’s farm and received a sporadic, hit-and-miss education before heading West in 1834. Venturing as far as Texas, he taught school for several years in Tennessee before moving back to his native Southampton in 1838. Still employed as a teacher, in 1841 he married the daughter of a local plantation owner. With assistance (albeit of a grudging sort) from his father-in-law, Cobb then settled down to life as a cotton farmer, orchardist, and distiller of apple cider and peach brandy. Ownership by 1859 of eleven slaves valued at $12,000 and of other property worth almost $8,000 signalled his ascension to the fringes of the local elite, but the Civil War would exact a heavy toll on his fortunes. Losing his slaves to emancipation and his oldest son to Yankee bullets during the Appomattox campaign, Cobb struggled to adjust to the new free-labor system during the Reconstruction era. Death in 1872 brought an end to what historian Daniel W. Crofts characterizes–with a touch of melodrama–as Cobb’s “ordeal.”

A farmer by vocation, an evangelical Methodist in religion and a states-rights Democrat in politics–Cobb was thus, to some degree, a representative figure of his region and his generation. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, he was also a remarkably systematic diarist who, from 1842 until a few months before his death, conscientiously–if ungrammatically–recorded his experiences and impressions in thirty-one journals, twenty-five of which still exist in the collections of the Virginia Historical Society. (The rest, according to Cobb’s descendants, were accidentally destroyed in a fire.) Professor Crofts extracted the contents of Cobb’s Ordeal from the surviving diaries after editorially paring away a great deal of material that, in his opinion, “Few readers would read and no publisher would print” (xxii). The result is a significantly abbreviated collection of excerpts, which gives relatively short shrift to the pre-1859 period and focuses instead on the tumultuous years that followed.

Although he lived during one of the most dramatic periods in American history, Cobb displayed an ongoing fascination with the prosaic details of the rural world that surrounded him. In his diaries he habitually commented about the weather; about illnesses (his own, his family’s and his slaves’); about crop prices; and about the seasonal routines of fencing, ditching, planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Many passages in his journals illuminate the character of life in mid-nineteenth-century Southampton: its political rivalries, popular amusements, religious revivals, educational practices, class relationships, and social problems (most notably alcoholism and intrafamilial violence). With the onset of war, Cobb described home-front mobilization efforts in considerable detail and, as late as the summer of 1864, still hoped for the ultimate triumph of the Confederate cause. During the Reconstruction years he intermingled matter-of-fact reports of new share-cropping arrangements with apocalyptic visions of racial holocaust.

Most interestingly, perhaps, Cobb also used his diaries to vent frustrations of a more personal, intimate nature. Again and again, in one journal after another, he lashed out at his haughty in-laws and the wife who, for more than three decades, made him miserable by refusing to “cooperate” with him in bed, frequently leaving home, and verbally assailing him for almost every failing imaginable–from alleged sexual dalliances with other women to being responsible (in some unexplained way) for the emancipation of the slaves. The Christian promise of peace and joy in the hereafter was very important for Cobb, who, it seems, found precious little of either in his own residence.

For the Southampton diarist, therefore, life presented an array of hardships. Analysis of this book suggests that Cobb’s writings also created an “ordeal” of sorts for their modern-day editor. As Dr. Crofts indicates in the preface, his desire to publish the Cobb manuscripts led him to make a series of pragmatic but nonetheless problematical choices: to devote a disproportionally small amount of text space to the 1842-58 entries, necessitating massive cuts; to delete most of the passages about weather conditions and agricultural procedures; to organize the early chapters around topical themes while employing a strictly chronological approach in the later ones; and to subdivide individual diaries, such as that for 1859, into as many as four separate chapters. Fortunately, Dr. Crofts made another decision as well–to publish Cobb’s eccentric, irregular prose with only the most minimal, unobtrusive changes in spelling, grammar, and syntax. As a consequence, although Cobb is long since “dead and gore” (as he would have put it), he can still speak to us about his marriage, his farm, his slaves, and his neighbors in the authentic accents and idioms of his class, locale, and era.


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