The Fighting McCooks

T he appellation of 'the fighting McCooks' is still almost as familiar as his own name to every American boy." Thus wrote the editor of the New York Tribune in June 1903, after the death of one of the last survivors of this remarkable group of men. There was "the tribe of Dan," Daniel McCook and his eight sons, and "the tribe of John," brother to Dan and father of five sons--fifteen men of Ohio, all of whom served in the Civil War. Their tremendous commitment and courage brought fame to their family, and those who survived the war added to that fame in civilian life, with prominent careers as doctors and lawyers, ministers and scholars.

The McCooks' fame may have faded, but the Civil War continues to be a matter of debate. What made men volunteer to fight? What kept them in service after the war's horrors became manifest? The opinion that has prevailed for much of this century is that social and economic pressures drove men to volunteer, then loyalty to those with whom they were serving made them stay. But this theory falls short when measured against men such as the McCooks.

When Abraham Lincoln called for an army in April 1861, the two youngest McCooks were students at Kenyon Grammar School, preparing to enter Kenyon College. The faculty was convinced that the conflict would be brief, and they tried to discourage students from enlisting. However, Kenyon President Lorin Andrews had himself set a proud example by being the first man in Ohio to volunteer to fight. Charles Morris McCook, at age seventeen the older of the two brothers on campus, was not to be dissuaded. His father, older brothers, uncle and cousins were taking up war-time posts, and Charles immediately enlisted in the Second Ohio Infantry. Mrs. McCook appealed to her youngest son, John James, to remain in school and await her permission before enlisting. Though sixteen-year-olds who could "pass" for seventeen were lying about their ages and taking up arms, John James's youthful appearance was against him. And so, tempted as he may have been, he remained in Gambier.

The young men's father, Daniel McCook, was sixty-three years old and no longer a strong man. He responded to Lincoln's call by volunteering as a nurse, and thus it happened that he was present, on July 21, 1861, at a momentous conflict--the first battle of Bull Run. One of his older sons, Alexander McDowell McCook, a West Point graduate and soldier of some experience, commanded the 1st Ohio regiment on that battlefield. It is uncertain whether Daniel actually saw his son Alexander that day, but no doubt he heard soon after of the colonel who had fought the entire day, in only his shirt and pantaloons. "Hence," Daniel later wrote to a friend, "he did not become an object for the sharp shooters of the enemy--many of our poor officers that were lost, would have been saved, if it had not been for their gaudy attire in which they appeared on the battle field . . . ." This was the day "Stonewall" Jackson earned his nickname, a dayof humiliation for the Union forces.

Alexander did not attract the rebels' attention that day, but young Charles McCook was not so fortunate. Near the end of the day, he left his regiment to join his father, who was tending the wounded at a field hospital. This unremarkable meeting of father and son set off a chain of events which culminated in Charles's transfiguration into a Union hero.

There are many versions of the tale; the earliest was published within a few months, in a book edited by John Gilmary Shea entitled The Fallen Brave: A Biographical Memorial of the American Officers Who Have Given Their Lives for the Preservation of the Union. In this volume, Daniel McCook tells what followed when his son got word, while at the field hospital, that his regiment had been attacked. At nearly the same moment, rebel cavalry advanced on the Union men gathered around the hospital. Charles set out across a field to rejoin his regiment. "He soon attracted the enemy's attention, and a trooper advanced to make him a prisoner, but with true eye, and steady nerve, he shot the rebel through the head. This deadly shot drew upon him the wrath of the leader of the attacking force, who rushed at him with drawn pistol, demanding his surrender. But the brave boy, with flashing eye and undaunted heart, exclaimed, 'I will never surrender to a traitor!'. . . At this critical juncture his father, seeing him surrounded by the enemy, called upon him to surrender; but the brave boy again replied, 'Father, I never can surrender to a rebel!' At this moment, the trooper circled around and shot him in the back; he demanded his surrender again, but the hero still refused, when the trooper began to strike him over the back with the flat of his sabre, threatening to pierce him through, if he would not surrender." Dan McCook rescued his wounded son and at last found a surgeon to tend him at Fairfax Court House. But Charles's wound was fatal, and as the hospital staff fled from Fairfax, Dan McCook put his son's body in a carriage and drove to Washington. "The report of young McCook's heroism reached the city before his remains," the account continues, "and a company of Fire Zouaves awaited them at the Long Bridge, as a guard of honor, to escort them to his father's residence."

It is not surprising that the tale of Charles's bravery was told and retold for decades and that today several versions can be found in print. The scene, as Charles faced his attackers, is worthy of a great tragedian: the young man, so recently a schoolboy and now a soldier, forced to choose either certain death or humiliating surrender. What is more, his father will witness his choice. Did Dan McCook, begging his son to surrender, speak to the schoolboy or to the soldier? What would Charles have done had his father not been present?

Many years later, Charles's brother John James told the story to a rapt audience of Kenyon students. More remarkable than the story itself is the manner in which it was told. John James never revealed that the young soldier was his brother; he identified him only as his "roommate and intimate friend" from his student days. If the Collegian's account of this speech can be taken as an indication, the students who listened that daynever realized that John James spoke of his brother.

At the end of that sad summer of 1861, John James, who had graduated from Kenyon Grammar School in June, returned to Gambier as a freshman at Kenyon College. The few southerners who had been enrolled had departed, and the remaining students were organized and instructed in military practice. Occasionally they marched into the woods, set up encampments, and posted guards for night-watch. The movements of these young men, with their wooden muskets, caused some excitement in the neighborhood. Not everyone living in the area was loyal to the Union cause; some were deserters. "These people were always expecting a visitation from Uncle Sam's soldiers," one former student wrote to the Collegian, "and when they were told, as they were, that a company of soldiers was marching that way, and later learned that these were camping in the woods nearby, several families hitched up their teams, flung in a few household goods, and fled for safety." These military exercises were sometimes occasions for fun and humor, but overall, the atmosphere on campus was bleak. "We cannot realize, today, the conditions of that time, when you knew not whether your neighbor was a Union man . . . ."

How difficult that year must have been for John James McCook. Hardly a battle could take place without a McCook's involvement. Some writers claim he ran away from school, breaking his promise to his mother. It is probably impossible to determine the truth, but Kenyon's records show that, in June 1862, McCook was for some reason degraded and suspended. He had turned seventeen, but it appears that his mother still withheld her consent.

It was given, at last, in the summer of 1862. Mrs. McCook may have realized that it was useless to try to hold John James back any longer, for the family had suffered a second, and particularly cruel, loss. Months before, General Robert McCook was severely wounded in the battle of Mills Spring, Kentucky. He returned to his command before the wound healed, and that summer he issued orders while lying in an ambulance. On a march in August, while his escort was reconnoitering, a band of rebels attacked the ambulance wagon and killed the defenseless man. The news of this brutal act inflamed emotions throughout the Union states.

And so the youngest McCook went off to war. John James first served as aide-de-camp (A.D.C.) to his brother, Dan Jr., who was recruiting the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Normally an A.D.C. would not attract much notice, but John James became known to the men by way of a ruse he organized and used again and again to trick the enemy. He had found two abandoned Parrot guns and persuaded his brother to let him take them along with the troops, "for moral effect." Though these guns were completely useless, with no ammunition, they made an impressive sight when set up as sham defenses. The enemy, seeing the artillery, would fall back and work out a plan to flank the guns. Colonel Dan, having gained the delay of an hour or two, would then hurry his weary recruits to safety.

John James moved up quickly through the ranks. In June 1863, he was commissioned captain and A.D.C., U.S. Volunteers. He was barely eighteen years old. A month later, another McCook gave up his life. Dan McCook, the father of this "tribe," was then a paymaster, stationed in Cincinnati. When the Confederate General John Morgan brought his raiders across the river into Ohio, McCook joined the troops who went in pursuit. He led an advance party that intended to intercept Morgan as he recrossed the river. Wounded in the skirmish that followed, Dan McCook Sr. died the next day. The tribe of Dan seemed destined to give up one of its members during each year of the Civil War.

In May of 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman invaded Georgia. This drive against Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston's troops would eventually bring the war to an end, but in the first weeks progress was slow. Sherman decided to change his strategy, and against all advice he planned a bold and risky assault on Confederate troops atop Kennesaw Mountain. The army was to strike on three fronts, and Sherman's old friend and former law partner, Colonel Dan McCook Jr., was to lead one of the drives.

When his brigade was assembled for the attack, McCook stood before his men and calmly recited lines from the English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay: ". . . And how can man die better/Than facing fearful odds,/For the ashes of his fathers/And the temples of his gods?" He gave the command and led the charge up the thickly timbered mountain. McCook was mortally wounded early in the first attempt, as Confederate guns took a huge toll. Colonel Harmon seized command and died leading a second charge. Meanwhile, federal troops were suffering heavy losses on the other two fronts, with another brigade commander, General Harker, falling, like McCook, in the first hour of battle. Johnston's defenses held, and the toll taken on his men was small. Sherman's dead and wounded numbered two thousand, a staggering loss. The general claimed that if Harker and McCook had not been struck down so early, the assault would have succeeded; he never ceased to praise the heroism of Dan McCook.

John James McCook, serving at that time in Virginia, had been wounded at Shady Grove. The wound itself was not serous, but gangrene, blood poisoning, and multiple operations finally left John James unable to serve. He resigned that fall and returned to Gambier to resume his studies. After graduating in 1866, John James studied law and began a distinguished career in New York. He served as a trustee of Kenyon and a director of Princeton Theological Seminary. As a leading layman of the Presbyterian Church, McCook earned great credit for his work on the Prosecuting Committee of the heresy trial of theologian Charles Augustus Briggs in 1892. McCook was offered, but declined, a national appointment in the Cabinet of President William McKinley.

The tribe of John had fared better during the war than the tribe of Dan, with father and five sons all living to see war's end. But tragedy continued to shadow Dan's tribe. Edwin Stanton McCook, though severely wounded three times, survived the war; eight years later, he was assassinated while serving as acting governor of the Dakota Territory.

Recently, scholars such as James M. McPherson* havesuggested that our experiences in the twentieth century have distorted our view of the Civil War, that we have been examining that conflict with a lens poorly suited for bringing into focus society's understanding, in 1860, of concepts such as "honor" and "duty." At the foot of Kennesaw Mountain, Dan McCook did his best to inspire his men not only to face, but to charge against, fearsome odds. Sherman's decision to mount that assault may have been a mistake, but once he had decided, he did the best thing he could possibly have done: he sent in a Fighting McCook.

*McPherson's recent works include What They Fought For, 1861-1865 (Louisiana State University Press, 1994) and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.

Back to Top