Thursday, August 3, 2017

Nathaniel Cogswell - A Warning Unheeded

The Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition of 1812-13 sought to liberate Spanish Texas and open a pathway of American aid to Mexican rebels fighting to free themselves from the crumbling Spanish Empire. Historians have generally glossed over the individuals who were involved, painting instead with broad brush-strokes to interpret the history of the expedition through the lens of diplomacy. But the history needs to be brought back to the men who fought it. This blog, and my research, seeks to do that.
– James Bernsen, August, 2017

Of all of the people associated with the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition, some of the more extraordinary ones, like American special agent William Shaler, never even set foot within the borders of Texas. One of these men was Nathaniel Cogswell. This is his story.

A Revolutionary Legacy

Nathaniel Cogswell was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on Jan 17, 1773, to Thomas Cogswell and Ruth Badger. At age two, he experienced his country going to war, and it would remain the most important event of his life. One could easily say that the American Revolution was in Nathaniel’s blood. His grandfather, also named Nathaniel Cogswell, was retired merchant and prominent citizen in Haverhill. He demonstrated his patriotism by loaning funds to the cause – which he never recouped – and donating various equipment for New England soldiers. Eight of his sons joined the cause, including Thomas Cogswell, who left his wife and young Nathaniel to join the troops surrounding Boston in 1775. He led a company at Bunker Hill and was promoted successively throughout the war, from captain to major to lieutenant colonel, ultimately becoming Wagonmaster General. The position was in authority over all wagons and baggage for the army, and as such. Thomas Cogswell became a frequent correspondent with George Washington. [1]
Letter from George Washington addressing
a dispute of rank between Thomas Cogswell
and William Hull during the Revolutionary War.
His younger brother, Amos Cogswell joined the army within the first month of the war, on May 10, 1775, and served well beyond its end – Dec. 31, 1783. Amos was made a captain and transferred to another regiment. He fought in the siege of Boston and in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, White Plains, Saratoga and Monmouth. He was present for many of the most dramatic episodes of the war. In an 1820 petition, he stated, “At Trenton, I waded across the river and took two Hessian prisoners under the Bridge; in doing which I got a bad cold, and have had the rheumatism more or less ever since.”
In the lean days after the war, the Cogswell brothers were with the army at its camp at Newburgh, New York, monitoring the last British troops in New York City. The privations of the camp sprouted the famous Newburgh Conspiracy, in which a number of officers penned a letter to congress demanding relief before they would disband. Tensions were high in a meeting of officers on March 10, 1783 when General George Washington stepped into the room and asked to address them. After a short speech in which he pledged to support their claims, Washington tried to read a letter from a congressman to make a point. Unable to read the words, he reached for a pair of spectacles. The sight was shocking to most officers, who had never seen their commander wear glasses. Washington, noting their looks, told them, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown grey in your service and now find myself growing blind.”[2]
Grave of Revolutionary War officer,
Thomas Cogswell, father of Nathaniel.
(Courtesy of
The moving incident, which the Cogswell brothers may have witnessed, caused many in the room to weep and ended the conspiracy. It also formed a tight bond between Washington and his officers which was sealed two months later on May 13, 1783 with the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati. In this case, we know that the Cogswell brothers were there, along with a Samuel Cogswell, probably a cousin. All three were charter members of the club, a sort of Revolutionary version of the American Legion.[3] Finally released from active duty, General Thomas Cogswell returned home later that year.
Nathaniel, now eight, therefore grew up amidst well-established and recognized Revolutionary War heroes, including his namesake grandfather, who lived on until 1810. Although the latter had lost some of his wealth, the family was by no means impoverished. Nathaniel’s father Thomas had returned from the war with a young black man named Prince, who served as his servant. New Hampshire had just that very year abolished slavery, so Prince was evidently free. He served the Cogswells faithfully for the rest of his life as a servant at their home in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. His age is unknown, but he was likely a few years older than young Nathaniel.[4]

  An Excellent Education

At age 11, Nathaniel was sent to the prestigious Phillips-Exeter Academy in nearby Exeter, New Hampshire.[5] The school was among the most exclusive of the early Republic, and would ultimately be the training ground of three Gutierrez-Magee participants, Cogswell, Augustus Magee and Horatio Bigelow (Nathaniel was by far the oldest, enrolling in the school 18 years prior to Magee).
It was an exclusive school and boasts some of the weightiest names in early American history. George Washington’s nephew Bushrod attended a few years before, as had future senator Daniel Webster. Among Magee’s own classmates was another boy his same age, George Pickering, whose father Timothy had been Secretary of State in the Washington and Adams administrations.[6] Future graduates included President Franklin Pierce and the sons of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant (and in the modern era, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg). Of Phillips Exeter, it would be said in 1859 that “Such a galaxy of names as appear upon the catalogue of this institution will not, perhaps, be found in connection with any other academy on this continent.”[7]

Phillips-Exeter Academy in 1810. Cogswell, along with later
students and Gutierrez-Magee participants Augustus Magee
and Horatio Bigelow, attended in this building.
Graduating from Phillips-Exeter, Cogswell continued on to Dartmouth College, where he earned his Master’s Degree in 1794.[8] Cogswell chose to enter the legal profession and read law under Ebenezer Smith. Like his father, Smith had served the entire duration of the Revolutionary War, in his case, in the Massachusetts militia.[9]  After several years under Smith, Cogswell was admitted to the bar and began his own practice as a lawyer in 1805 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.
At age 32, Cogswell was among the most highly-educated young men of his generation, well-connected and comfortable enough financially to take a tour of Europe, which he did sometime in the next two years. As a family history relates, “He had letters of introduction to persons of distinction in London. His fine person, genial nature, and attractive manners made him a favorite in society.” [10]
It was an unusual – and adventurous – time to travel abroad. The Napoleonic Wars were still raging, although the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had at least made England safe from invasion. Fighting continued on the continent, though actual warfare was sporadic, with many months between battles. The actual dates of Cogswell’s trip are unknown, but it was likely in 1807 during Napoleon’s East Prussian campaign of that year (East Prussia corresponds to modern East Germany and Poland). He returned in 1808 to found a new legal practice in Newburyport, Massachusetts.[11] He was 35, good looking (if the family history is to be believed) and single. He was also a man eager after attention and distinction, and ready to make a name for himself in his new home when he returned.
Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1807. This battle, in present-day
Poland, was fought during the period in which Nathaniel Cogswell
visited Western Europe.
The first decade of the 1800s was among the most partisan of times in American history. The Revolution of 1800, which had seem Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party triumph over the Federalist John Adams had exposed a divide in American society.[12] The root of the split was the old debate from 1783 about how much power to vest in the federal government (more if you’re a Federalist) or how much to retain in the states (the Republican position). The Cogswell family by social status should have been Federalist, but despite their background, drifted into the Republican Camp. The Society of the Cincinnati, of which Thomas Cogswell had been a founding member, was mistrusted by Republicans, often seen as a conspiratorial, monarchist institution. Nonetheless, on March 19, 1801, Thomas Cogswell penned an effusive letter of congratulations to Jefferson on his winning of the presidency.[13] Nathaniel, like his father, had embraced the Republican Party. His enthusiasm – probably freshly invigorated in a reaction to his recent trip to Europe – impelled him to bring his passion for the cause into the public arena.

Fourth of July Oration

In the early 1800s, with the Revolution Fresh and the veterans everywhere, the Fourth of July was akin to a holy day of the Republic. It was the most important public event in every community across the small, but rapidly-growing nation. As such, Fourth of July orations were sober, important affairs, and to be chosen to give one was an honor – and a weighty responsibility. The addition of partisanship – so much stronger in divided New England – made them more than an opportunity for distinction. They were competitive events which each side of the ideological divide used for propaganda purposes, wrapping themselves in the revolution and claiming to be the true inheritors of the Spirit of ’76, while their enemies were not.
Nathaniel Cogswell's July 4, 1808 speech. Copy in the Historical Society of
Pennsylvania library. (Author photo).
Nathaniel Cogswell was chosen to be the keynote speaker in the Republican celebration of Independence on July 4, 1808 in the Reverend Giles’ meeting house in Newburyport. But the audience was much larger than merely the local citizens in the room, because Cogswell’s oration – and others across the country that day – would be ultimately reprinted in pamphlet form and distributed across the country.
Cogswell began with a tribute to revolutionary soldiers who, like his father and uncles, had endured “with undaunted fortitude and patience, the numerous privations and hardships which they were doomed to suffer.”[14] Their model, however, should not be forgotten by his generation. Turning to the crowd before him, he noted that many veterans were still there who had become “old and grey in the cause of freedom.” Others, he told his fellows of his generation “are just entering upon the theater of action.” Cogswell led his listeners through a detailed history of republics, contrasting them with the persecutions and bondage of monarchies. He followed with a spirited lauding of Washington and “the great and good” Jefferson. He praised the “enlightened, independent, and virtuous yeomanry,” who were the heart of the nation, and added that, “so long as they retain and own the soil which they cultivate, so long are our liberties on a sure, a certain, and immovable foundation.”[15] These were popular Republican themes from a young lawyer not only seeking to win a debate, but probably also to ingratiate himself and further his career among the older, richer men in the audience. Wrapping up, Cogswell proclaimed that America was “The first and only independent nation on the fourth quarter of the globe.” [16] At the time, he could not have possibly imagined what lay in store for himself personally when the fourth quarter of the globe began to add new nations alongside America.

Self-promotion and Criticism

The address was apparently well-received by the crowd, but then, Cogswell was preaching to the Republican choir. Still, he was a young man basking in the limelight and he wanted to make sure he got his due credit. A week after the oration, on July 11, 1808, Cogswell wrote two identical letters to President Thomas Jefferson and Sec. of State James Madison, the two leading Republicans, crowing of his success. The letter read:
Cogswell's letter to James Madison, July 11, 1808.

The fourth of July was celebrated in this Town, with considerable éclat, both by the Republican & federal Parties.
There were two Orations, a federal, & a Republican one. I have taken the liberty of enclosing them both for Your perusal.
There are some hopes, that, the majority of the Citizens of this Town, which was the cradle of the Essex Junto, and which has been emphatically called the political Algiers of America, will eventually support those Characters, who, from principle are attached to republican forms of Government, in [. . . .] to those who are the open and avowed advocates of [. . . .] Monarchy.
I am, Sir, with the highest respect & consideration, Your Most Obt. & very Hube. St.
Nathel: Cogswell [17]
Although the crowd in Giles’ Meeting House was enthusiastic, the response was far less pleasant once the Federalist writers weighed in. The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review was brutal in its review. Before quoting extracts from the speech, the writers warned their readers,
“Gentle Reader, for mercy’s sake, and as you dread the twitching torturing pains of a side-ache – hold your sides – for here comes – here comes Nathaniel Cogswell, Esq. plenum sed, with his silk gown, satin breeches, open clock’d stockings and all, with his oration in one hand and with the other hand extended, and brandishing in fierce gesticulation…here he comes and hark! He begins.”

The Monthly Anthology compares Republicans like
Cogswell to "idolators," a biting attack in a religious age.
To mockery was added savage critique:
“The oration is remarkable for its language; which, being unnaturally compounded and jumbled wildly together from the two most abhorrent things in nature, rumbling bombast and the tamest and most drowsy strain of narration, we decidedly think…the worst and the flattest – the very flattest that ever was, or ever will, may, can, shall, would, might, could or should be spoken or written by any man, woman, child, monkey, baboon, magpie, parrot, flounder, porpoise and so downwards, or upward, if you please…”

We have no indication what Cogswell thought of his roasting in the press, but for a young lawyer with such ambition, a new calling began stirring in his breast. To an heir of Republican war heroes in the Napoleonic Age, the idea of a world being dramatically reshaped on behalf of liberty must have seemed too good for him to sit on the sidelines. He had a “passion for military life” according to his family history and joined the Massachusetts militia, serving on the staff of Major General James Brickett.[18]

Embracing Revolution

But Massachusetts didn’t hold him for long. Sometime in the next three years, Cogswell, still unmarried and rootless, moved to Pennsylvania. It was there that he found a cosmopolitan city in Philadelphia literally teeming with revolutionary exiles from all over the world. Cogswell was already an enthusiast for Republicanism, and he certainly still followed events in Europe closely. After all, soon after his return from his European Tour, in May, 1808, the Dos de Mayo uprising in Spain against Napoleon had occurred. Now he was in Philadelphia, among exiles from that war, but also a new community of Latin American Republicans created by the chaos in the Spanish Empire. After Napoleon had suppressed the insurrection in Spain, he had installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, leading to an outbreak of revolutions in the empire’s New World territories in 1809 and 1810.
Sometime in 1812, Cogswell became friends with a Cuban revolutionary, José Álvarez de Toledo y Dubois, who was then working to support the efforts of revolution in the Mexican Province of Texas. Toledo was working alongside a fellow revolutionary, José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, who had departed for Louisiana to raise an army of American volunteers for the cause. Gutiérrez and Toledo had agreed that the latter should stay in Philadelphia to create propaganda, raise funds, and send volunteers to Gutiérrez at his base of operations in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Cogswell enthusiastically joined the effort, and Toledo made him an officer of the thus-far nominal Republican Army of the North.[19]

A Warning Unheeded

But Cogswell in time began to suspect that Toledo was far from the ardent and pure revolutionary. In August, 1812 – shortly after Gutiérrez’ army had entered Texas – word arrived in Philadelphia that Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco Miranda had signed an armistice with royalists in that country. The event shocked the Spanish revolutionary community in Philadelphia. They, like fellow Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, saw it as a cynical betrayal of the cause of liberty. But Toledo’s response was different, restrained, perhaps even complimentary of Miranda.
It shook Cogswell, who had a falling out with Toledo and his growing staff of highly-ranked civilians-turned-armchair officers in the Revolutionary Army of Mexico, none of whom – even Toledo – had even been to Mexico. Over the next few months, Cogswell tossed out accusations of betrayal against Toledo, whom he began to suspect of being a double agent of Spain. Cogswell, in turn, was accused by Toledo and his acolytes, including “Colonel” Henry Adams Bullard, as having committed theft or some other petty crime, and was presumably stripped of his position.
In fact, Toledo had been considering betrayal, and soon he acted on it. On October 5, 1812, the
José Álvarez de Toledo y Dubois
revolutionary visited the house of the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Luis de Onís, and admitted he was part of a conspiracy to invade Texas. Toledo, so Onís claimed, was conspiring not just with private citizens, but with the United States government to foment rebellion. In a surprising offer, Toledo – who was running short of cash – offered to turn over his army to the Spanish in exchange for a pardon and cash.[20] Ultimately, Onís had no money, and Toledo left him with only a promise to cease fighting against Spain. Toledo would break this promise and by all appearances return to the revolutionary fold, but he was fickle, and several years later, after the expedition and subsequent attempts to liberate Texas failed, he would indeed switch sides and win a pardon from Spain.
But Toledo’s flirtation with betrayal was suspected by no one else in the band of Philadelphia revolutionaries, and Cogswell was left on an island of dissent. But the young lawyer, now committed to the cause of Mexican independence, wouldn’t let it go. After Toledo and his band of revolutionaries had departed to join with Gutiérrez, Cogswell decided he had to take action into his own hands. Cogswell wrote to Gutiérrez on Dec. 12, 1812, informing him of his suspicions. If Gutiérrez allowed Toledo to come to Texas, Cogswell wrote, he would “rue it in tears of blood.”[21] He continued by explaining how the Spanish had many agents in Philadelphia posing as Republicans, but actually spies. “Such a man is Mr. Toledo. I pledge my life on the issue, for I know it to be the fact.”[22] Cogswell felt so passionately about the danger from Toledo that he traveled to Natchitoches and lay out the case against Toledo before the American agent and behind-the-scenes sponsor of the expedition William Shaler.
The confrontation came in the Neutral Ground between Spanish Texas and Louisiana in early July, 1813. Cogswell and a small party met Shaler and Toledo and Cogswell laid out his suspicions. Had he any proof of Toledo’s meeting with Onís, it would have devastated the Cuban. But Cogswell had little more than vague information and intuition. He repeated the charges, by now familiar to Shaler, who acted as judge in the inquiry. By now, the latter had committed to intervene in the revolution in Texas by replacing the authoritarian and incompetent Gutiérrez with Toledo. Convinced Toledo was the only hope for the revolution, Shaler dismissed the idea in a letter to Sec. of State James Monroe.[23]
The Sad End of Nathaniel Cogswell
Cogswell was defeated and broken. He was probably already sick, having no immunity to the tropical diseases that were rampant in swamp-filled Louisiana. He was apparently trying to make his way downriver from Natchitoches to New Orleans, when his party stopped in Rapides, present day Alexandria, 30 miles downstream. He lingered there until around August 1, 1813, when he died.
Cogswell, of course, was vindicated by events. Three days after his death, Toledo arrived in San Antonio and took command of the Republican Army of the North. Although there is no evidence he actively attempted to betray the revolution, he instituted a number of changes that weakened the army and alienated many of the local Tejano supporters, who distrusted the Gauchupin from Cuba. On August 18, 1813, Toledo led the army that he and Gutiérrez had built up over 2 years into a trap. At the disastrous Battle of Medina, the Republican forces, including hundreds of Tejanos, Indians and American volunteers were routed and nearly annihilated.
Nathaniel Cogswell, lying in a new-dug grave, had tried his best, but failed.

[1] E.O. Jameson The Cogswells in America (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1884), 47 and 152.
[2] Newburgh Address George Washington’s Mount Vernon website: (Accessed August 2, 2017)
[3] Jameson, 99.
[4] Ibid, 152
[5] Phillips Exeter Academy, Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, N.H.: J&B Williams, 1838), 56.
[6] Phillips Exeter Academy,14. Despite the title, there was no military training curriculum at the academy at the time.
[7] Austin Coolidge and John Mansfield, History and Description of New England, General and Local, Vol. 1 (Boston: Austin J. Coolidge, 1859), 491.
[8] George T. Chapman, Sketches of the Alumni of Dartmouth College, from the First Graduation in 1771 to the Present Time, with a Brief History of the Institution. (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1867), 73. Some sources suggest Cogswell graduated at age 19, but he would have been nearly 21 in 1794.
[9] Everett S. Stackpole and Lucien Thompson, History of the Town of Durham New Hampshire, Vol. 1 (Unknown), 279.  (accessed July 20, 2016).
[10] Jameson, 183.
[11] Ibid, 183.
[12] The Republican Party of the early 1800s is not the ancestor of the modern Republican Party. In the 1820s, with the Jacksonian takeover of the party it became the Democratic-Republican Party and later the Democratic Party.
[13] “Thomas Cogswell to Thomas Jefferson, March 19, 1801” The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. (Accessed Aug. 2, 2017)
[14] Nathaniel Cogswell, An Oration Delivered before the Republican Citizens of Newburyport in the Rev. John Giles’ Meetinghouse on the Fourth of July, 1808 (Newburyport: W. and J. Gilman, 1808), 8.
[15] Cogswell, 19.
[16] Ibid., 4.
[17] “To Thomas Jefferson from Nathaniel Cogswell, 11 July 1808,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, The letter to Madison is in the James Madison papers, also in the National archives and is identical.
[18] Jameson, 183.
[19] Jameson, 183. The author claims Cogswell was commissioned as a General. It’s doubtful that Toledo gave such a high rank out. Had he done so, Cogswell would have even outranked Magee, the eventual commander of the forces.
[20] Harris Gaylord Warren, The Sword Was their Passport (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943), 17-18.
[21] “Colonel Nathaniel Cogswell to Generals Gutiérrez and Magee, Pittsburgh, December 29, 1812, quoted in Garrett, 212.
[22] Ed Bradley, We Never Retreat: Filibustering Expeditions into Spanish Texas, 1812-1822 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015), 74.
[23] “William Shaler to James Monroe, 14 July 1813,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 8 February–24 October 1813, ed. Angela Kreider, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, Anne Mandeville Colony, Mary Parke Johnson, and Wendy Ellen Perry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008, pp. 439–440.]

1 comment:

  1. I recent distant cousin (also a Cogswell) sent me your blog about very interesting. He indicates he believes he is a descendant of this Nathaniel Cogswell (B: 1773, graduated Dartmouth 1794). We have a Cogswell genealogy database (last publication in 2019-four volumes). Our database (Cogswell Family Association-descendants of John Cogswell (arrived in America 1635) goes cold for this Nathaniel at his death in 1813. There is no wife or children according to our documentation-but many brothers/sisters and cousins. Did you ever find any indication this Nathaniel Cogswell married/had children? Thank you in advance for reply.