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. Barbara Whalen will be speaking to the
Cleveland Civil War Roundtable at its May 13, 2009 meeting.
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 assembled in 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
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
the national army.
Bowing to pressure, Lincoln ordered
General McDowell to attack Manassas and then continue “On to
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.
“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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
The McCooks' Paths
Territory trod and sailed by the
Fighting McCooks in their quest to save the Union.
About the book:
This article is adapted from Barbara and Charles Whalen's book, The Fighting McCooks - America's Famous Fighting Family.
(Westmoreland Press). You can purchase an
autographed and inscribed copy of The Fighting McCooks on the
website: www.thefightingmccooks.com. The book is also available
through bookstores and on Amazon.com.
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. Barbara and Charles
Whalen live in Bethesda, Maryland.