Jacob Cox was born in Montreal, Canada, on January 8, 1866. Although his family lived in New York, Cox’s father was a construction contractor and had taken his family to Montreal while he oversaw a construction project. When the project ended, the family returned to New York, where Cox received most of his early education through private tutoring. At fourteen years of age, Cox accepted a clerkship with a New York law office. Two years later, he learned bookkeeping while working at a New York brokerage firm.
While Cox was a teenager, his family joined the Congregational Church, and he met the reverends Samuel D. Cochran and Charles Grandison Finney, who had ties with Oberlin College in Ohio. Cox chose to pursue a career in the ministry and moved to Ohio to enroll at Oberlin.
While in college, Cox met and subsequently married Finney’s daughter in 1849. The couple lived in Finney’s home, while Cox finished his studies, graduating in 1850. One year later, Cox and his father-in-law became estranged over religious differences, prompting Cox to move to Warren, Ohio, where he served as superintendent of schools.
Lawyer and State Senator
While living at Warren, Cox studied law and joined the Ohio bar in 1853. He also became active in local politics, and he helped to organize the Ohio Republican Party. In 1859, Trumbull County voters elected Cox to the Ohio Senate.
While serving in the Ohio Senate, Cox privately undertook the study of military science and joined the Ohio Militia. In 1860, Ohio Governor William Dennison commissioned Cox as a brigadier general in the state’s militia. When the American Civil War began, Cox joined the volunteer army as a brigadier general. Army officials placed him in command of Camp Jackson, a recruiting depot in Columbus, Ohio. Soon thereafter, Cox received a field command with the Department of the Ohio.
As commander of the Kanawha Brigade, Cox took part in the Kanawha Valley Campaign in western Virginia in early 1862, serving under Major General George B. McClellan. By June 1862, Cox’s brigade had grown to division size and officials transferred it to the Eastern Theater. Two months later, Cox and his division played a minor role in the Second Battle of Bull Run. After the Union defeat at Bull Run, officials assigned Cox and the Kanawha Division to the Washington Defenses. During the Maryland Campaign, Cox commanded the Kanawha Division, attached to the 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862) and at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln nominated Cox for promotion to major general, but Congress rejected the nomination because the Union Army had too many officers holding that rank. Cox returned to the West for most of 1863, serving as commander of the District of Ohio and, later, the District of Michigan, in the Department of the Ohio, under Major General Ambrose Burnside.
Army of the Ohio
In 1864 and 1865, Cox took part in the Atlanta, Franklin-Nashville, and Carolinas Campaigns, as commander of the 3rd Division of the 23rd Corps of the Army of the Ohio. His performance was noteworthy at the Battle of Franklin (November 30, 1864), where his troops held back a Confederate assault on the center of the Union line. After that battle, Cox received his promotion to major general of volunteers on December 7, 1864. The following November, voters elected Cox as governor of Ohio while he was still serving in the army. He mustered out of volunteer service on January 1, 1866, to serve as governor.
Governor of Ohio
Cox was inaugurated as the twenty-eighth governor of Ohio on January 8, 1866, and he served until January 13, 1868. During his term, he fell out of favor with Republican supporters because of his views on Reconstruction. Cox supported Andrew Johnson during the President’s impeachment proceedings and generally favored Johnson’s conservative approach in the South. Cox also opposed giving African Americans the right to vote and suggested that the government should place freed slaves on reservations. With his views so far out of alignment with the mainstream of his party, Cox chose not to seek re-election in 1867.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior
After his term as governor, Cox moved to Cincinnati and practiced law, but he did not stay out of politics for long. In March 1869, President Grant appointed Cox as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Cox served until November 1870, when differences with Grant over the President’s patronage practices prompted Cox to resign.
Cox returned to Cincinnati and joined the Liberal Republican Party in 1872. Liberal Republicans opposed the re-election of President Grant and supported the end of Reconstruction. In 1873, Cox accepted a position as president of the Toledo and Wabash Railroad and moved to Toledo. While living there, Toledo voters elected him as a reform Republican to the United States House of Representatives in 1876. Cox served one term in Congress from 1877 to 1879. Afterward, he declined to run again.
In 1881, Cox accepted an appointment as the dean of the Cincinnati Law School. He held that position for sixteen years and simultaneously served as president of the University of Cincinnati from 1885 to 1889. When Cox retired as the dean of the Cincinnati Law School in 1897, President William McKinley offered him an appointment as U.S. minister to Spain, but Cox declined. Instead, Cox devoted his remaining years to writing about his experiences in the Civil War.
Cox died while on summer vacation at Gloucester, Massachusetts on August 4, 1900. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.