Scenes from The Fighting McCooks

By Barbara and Charles Whalen
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The ‘scenes’ that make up this article were excerpted from The Fighting McCooks – America’s Famous Fighting Family by Barbara and Charles Whalen and appear here through the courtesy of the authors.

It was the winter of 1860-61 in the Ohio Valley. On a wind-swept bank of the Ohio River, the western border between free and slave states, a bellicose doctor named John McCook stood beside a little brass cannon. Soon a steamboat hove into view on the broad bosom of the winding river. Downbound, it was rumored to be carrying munitions from the Pittsburgh arsenal to the arming South. When the boat came into range, Dr. McCook fired his cannon furiously, and the startled deckhands dove for cover. Folklore in the Ohio Valley says it was these artillery salvos, and not those fired a few months later at Fort Sumter, that were the opening shots of the Civil War.

Dusk was descending on Washington City as Daniel McCook shouldered his musket in the magnificent East Room of the White House. It was April 18, 1861. The Civil War was six days old.

In the East Room it was a seriocomic scene of swashbuckling adventure as Daniel McCook and sixty assorted Westerners, wearing stovepipe hats and wielding guns with fixed bayonets, marched spiritedly on the thick velvet carpet. They were drilling to the shrill orders of a notorious Kansas gunslinger, clad in a torn shirt and rusty coat, who strutted the ballroom waving a huge sword under the glittering gaslight from three enormous chandeliers. These were the so-called Frontier Guards.

Frontier Guards assembled n front of the White House, 1861

Earlier that afternoon the men had been recruited in the lobby of Willard’s Hotel by the gunslinger who led them up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where he announced that they had come to save President Lincoln from a lynching. This was in response to rumors that an army of fifteen thousand Southerners, flushed with victory after the capture of Fort Sumter, was marching toward the panic-stricken capital to drag Lincoln from his bed and hang him from the nearest tree.

“Is this the ‘irrepressible conflict’ of which we have heard so much?” Daniel McCook mused dryly.

On June 26 Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, with a million readers weekly, began printing a terse demand and repeating it day after day:

Forward to Richmond. The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to
meet there on the 20th of July. By that date the place must be held by
the national army.

Bowing to pressure, Lincoln ordered General McDowell to attack Manassas and then continue “On to Richmond.”

Overjoyed to be on the march, the Northern volunteers were as eager as if going on a picnic. Cocky and self-confident, they strode with a swaggering gait, bragging of their prowess and itching for a fight.

Charles McCook

Private Charles McCook, Company I, Second Ohio, Second Brigade, First Division, trudged the dusty road in his Ohio militia uniform of black pilot cloth, red flannel blouse, gray doeskin pantaloons, wool knit stockings, and heavy brogan shoes. Strapped to his stalwart frame was his Springfield rifle, cartridge belt and box, cap box, bayonet, scabbard, knapsack, canteen, and haversack filled with three days’ rations. He was in what the army called “light marching order.”

It was a spectacular sight as the Union Army surged southward on July 16 under silken banners. Most of the soldiers were members of state militias and their uniforms were as diverse and colorful as the Northern states from which they came.

Some New Englanders sported Revolutionary War tricorn hats. Others wore gray forage caps with red pompons. Pennsylvania boys pinned deer tails on their hats. Massachusetts men were in blue. Regiments from New Hampshire wore gray. Vermont mountaineers marched in green.

New Yorkers were the most flamboyant. Their Fire Zouaves were garbed in costumes similar to those worn by French troops in North Africa, baggy red breeches, short blue coats, yellow cummerbunds, and red fezzes with yellow tassels. They were armed with rifles and huge bowie knives. The Fourteenth Brooklyn was resplendent in show-white gaiters and bright red breeches, modeled on the French Chasseurs. Colonel Blenker of the Eighth New York sported a magnificent red-lined cape. The glorious New York Garibaldi Guards, patterned on Italian bersagliere sharpshooters, wore red blouses and magnificent black hats with sweeping green feathers.

Fanciful and picturesque, much of the Union Army resembled a traveling theatrical troupe.

Behind them came the baggage of war. There were miles of artillery caissons, ammunition carts, ambulances, and white-topped supply wagons driven by wagoners thrashing their six-mule teams and shouting colorful oaths. In their wake plodded a herd of 150 beef cattle to be slaughtered for the victory dinner.

Off in the dusty distance, racing to catch up, careened a carriage driven by the commanding figure of Daniel McCook. With him were four members of the Congress, a large hamper of food, and his loaded Colt revolving rifle.

The Democrat congressmen, all good friends of McCook, were John McClernand, John Logan, and John Richardson of Illinois, and John Noell of Missouri. They planned to fight as civilian volunteers beside their constituents.

Sixty-two-year-old Daniel McCook planned to fight beside his young son Charlie.

Daniel McCook

Instead of a quick Union victory, the Battle of Bull Run raged savagely on, seesawing back and forth all day on July 21 under a broiling sun. Finally, however, a hard-won Union victory seemed certain about 4:00 p.m. to Daniel McCook. Regimental bands were playing triumphant tunes. Civilians were looking around for unexploded shells to take home as trophies, and reporters were debating whether to go “On to Richmond” with McDowell’s army.

No one realized that the tide was about to turn.

Just then a sentry up in a tall pine tree shouted down that he could see fresh enemy troops running onto the battlefield. They were the last of twelve thousand Confederate reinforcements that had arrived by train from the Shenandoah Valley. Charging across the fields, the Southerners were screaming like nothing the Northerners had ever heard before.

It was like a screech of excruciating pain or a wild animal’s triumphant cry at the kill. It was the Rebel yell.

Union soldiers looked for their own reinforcements and found none. Having been marching and fighting for fourteen hours under the broiling sun, they felt betrayed and quite the battlefield in disgust. At first it was only a trickle. Then it was a stream. Then it was a torrent. Nothing could stop the Union deluge, not even General McDowell himself, galloping the battlefield on horseback and shouting at his men to turn around.

There was no panic in the Union retreat until a shell fired by pursuing Confederates hit a small bridge, blocking the road. People shouted that the Black Horse Cavalry was coming to take them all prisoners, and a wild stampede began.

Artillery wagons fought for space with private carriages. Galloping six-horse teams crashed into each other. Ambulance drivers, hired for the battle, turned their wagons around empty and abandoned hundreds of wounded men. Teamsters dumped their ammunition over the side in order to flee faster. Baggage trains tossed trunks aside. Soldiers cut horses loose and mounted two to a steed. A U.S. senator flung himself on an army mule. The herd of beef cattle, intended for the victory dinner, turned tail and fled.

Daniel McCook, driving fast over rough roads, found that this gave his badly wounded son Charlie great pain. The boy said that he could feel the points of his back-bone cutting his entrails and asked to be laid down by the side of the road.

“I can die one place as well as another.” Charlie said.

But Daniel, anxious to get him to a doctor, kept going. At Fairfax Court House almost all the inns, taverns, and houses had been turned into hospitals. Charlie was carried into one. An army surgeon, after removing the bullet, said that it had severed the rectum, cut off the bladder, and torn up the intestines. The wound was fatal. After the anguished father told his son, he made him some tea and bathed his wound.

By midnight the retreating Union Army had passed through Fairfax Court House on its way back to Washington. The doctors and nurses also had gone. Daniel McCook was left alone with a house full of wounded soldiers and his dying son. As Charlie neared death, he asked his father to give a message to his mother.

“Tell her that I am not afraid of death, that I am glad to die for my country,” he murmured.

Then Charlie quoted a Latin verse from Horace that he had learned at Kenyon College, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria more” (It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country).

In the aftermath of the Union defeat at Bull Run, Congress authorized the enlistment of 1 million men, and the North girded itself for war. The nation, in its struggle for survival, was divided into two main theatres of war. The east lay between the Appalachian Mountains and the sea. The west lay between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

Seventeen “ Fighting McCooks” volunteered to save the Union, fighting mainly in the western theatre. There were three major generals, three brigadier generals, one naval lieutenant, four surgeons, two colonels, one major, one lieutenant, one private and one chaplain.

Robert McCook

“Charge, my bully Dutchmen!” shouted Colonel Robert McCook to the men of his all-German Ninth Ohio Regiment from Cincinnati, as he stood tall in the saddle and lifted his sword high.

It was the bitterly cold morning of January 19, 1862.

Colonel McCook led his men in a furious bayonet attack against the Confederates in a fallow cornfield near Mill Springs, Kentucky. A thousand Germans swept around the corner of a stable wielding their gleaming sabers and screaming their savage Teutonic “Hurrah” battle cries and hurling themselves like demons on the startled Rebels who scattered like chaff in the wind.

It was the first successful bayonet charge of the war. It was the first significant Union victory in the west. And Colonel McCook was promoted to Brigadier General.

There was at least one McCook in every major battle in the west. More often, there were three and four fighting on the same battlefield. And there were nine McCooks in the march south to Corinth, Mississippi.

In 1861 they fought at Forts Henry and Donelson. In 1862 they fought at Shiloh, Perryville and Stones River. In 1863 they fought at Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. And in between they fought on many other fields of valor.

Dan McCook

In 1864 as Major General William Tecumseh Sherman fought his way south into Georgia, with him was his former law partner, Colonel Dan McCook Jr. McCook was chosen to attack the key Confederate defense, called the dead angle, on Kennesaw Mountain, the last barrier before Atlanta.

Colonel Dan McCook announced that he would lead the charge up Kennesaw, in spite of the advice of other officers that he stay behind.

“No,” Dan said firmly, “I do not send my men where I fear to lead.”

On the steamy morning of June 27 he strode to the center of his command and, in a loud voice, recited Macaulay’s epic poem, known as “Horatius at the Bridge.”

Then out spoke brave Horatius,
The captain of the gate;
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?

Signal guns fired. Bugles blared. Dan, drawing his sword from its scabbard and lifting it high, pointed it toward the deadly angle of battlements outlined against the clear blue sky and gave the command.

“Attention battalions, charge bayonets!”

Edward McCook

Weeks later, on a scorching day as Sherman neared Atlanta, Brigadier General Edward McCook’s cavalrymen splashed across the Chattahoochee River stark naked, except for their hats and cartridge boxes and carbines. They routed a Rebel outpost and drove the enemy through the woods.

An amused General McCook, known as “Horse Ed”, wrote in his official report:

It was certainly one of the funniest sights of the war, and a very successful raid for naked men to make.

McCook was a dashing cavalryman with a luxurious jet black mustache and fashionable sideburns. He was a charming rogue who wore a large feather in his hat, drank fine wines, smoked expensive cigars, and kept a French Cajun chef on his staff. He also was a renowned ladies’ man who had promised to marry at least three belles during the long course of the war.

On May 24, 1865 the victorious Union Armies of the West marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in a grand review. Some seventy-five thousand westerners in their faded and tattered uniforms swung along in the loose-limbed strides with which they had traversed the vastness of the West.

They were escorted by torn and tattered battle flags from Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Kennesaw, and Atlanta.

The parade stretched for fifteen miles. Regiments marched twelve abreast, gleaming bayonets fixed, as thousands of people lined the avenue to cheer wildly, throw flowers, and cry. Newsmen noted that the westerners were taller and more raw-boned than the easterners who had marched the previous day.

That was true. The quartermaster general had discovered early in the war that western men required larger uniforms. They were also less formal than the easterners. Lumbering behind each brigade were wagons filled with wartime pets – a menagerie of raccoons, dogs, goats, chickens, roosters, eagles, and pigs.

Ohio dominated the day. She had sent more men than any other western state to save the Union – some 320,000 volunteers in 234 regiments of infantry, 29 companies of cavalry, and 27 batteries of artillery.

Latimer McCook

Marching in the grand review was a McCook who was not even in the Union Army. The tall solitary figure of Dr. Latimer McCook, a volunteer surgeon, limped past the White House with the aid of a cane. He had been wounded three times while caring for his men.

Dr. Latimer McCook and his regiment had marched a total of 4,076 miles during four years of war. Winding their way through the south, they reached the sea with Sherman and fought their way up the east coast, arriving in Washington just in time for the grand review.

Seventeen McCooks fought on forty-six battlefields in eleven states and one fought the war at sea. Four gave their lives to save the Union.

“A record of which the nation may well feel proud.”
            – Thirty-ninth Congress of the United States, April 13, 1866.

About the book: This article is adapted from Barbara and Charles Whalen’s book, The Fighting McCooks – America’s Famous Fighting Family. (Westmoreland Press).

About the authors: Barbara Whalen was born in Detroit, Michigan and graduated from Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. She is a former newspaper columnist, radio and television writer, and advertising executive. Her husband, Charles, a former professor of economics at the University of Dayton, served twelve years in the Ohio General Assembly and another twelve years in the United States Congress as Ohio’s Third District Representative.

Together the Whalens have co-authored four nonfiction books, including The Longest Debate: a Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While researching that book, the Whalens came upon the archives of the McCook family, and their initial interest in researching the McCooks turned into a twenty year project, culminating in the 2006 publication of The Fighting McCooks – America’s Famous Fighting Family.

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