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John Cooke

John Rogers Cooke (1822–1891). Photograph in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
John Rogers Cooke (1822–1891). Photograph in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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John Rogers Cooke (9 June 1833–10 April 1891), Confederate army officer, was born at Jefferson Barracks, in Saint Louis County, Missouri, and was the son of Rachel Wilt Hertzog Cooke and Philip St. George Cooke, a native Virginian and career army officer. He shared his name with an uncle (1788–1854) who served prominently in the Convention of 1829–1830. His younger sister Flora Cooke married James Ewell Brown Stuart, later a Confederate major general, and became principal of a female preparatory school in Staunton after the Civil War. His first cousins Philip Pendleton Cooke and John Esten Cooke both achieved national fame as writers.

Cooke took preparatory courses at the University of Missouri in Columbia from 1845 through 1847 and then spent about a year enrolled in school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his father was post commander. He attended school in Alexandria, Virginia, for a time and then studied civil engineering at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School during the 1851–1852 academic year but did not graduate. Cooke worked on railroad construction in Ohio and Missouri before his father secured him a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army on 22 July 1856 (to date from 30 June 1855). He served with the 8th Infantry in New Mexico Territory and Texas.

Cooke was promoted to first lieutenant on 29 March 1861, to date from 28 January. During the secession crisis, he returned to Missouri, and after the Civil War began, he resigned his commission and traveled to Virginia in order to join the Confederate States Army, actions that caused a bitter division with his father, who remained in the regular army and became a Union brigadier general later that year. Named a first lieutenant, Cooke was assigned to Brigadier General Theophilus Hunter Holmes's staff. Following the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), Cooke raised a company of light artillery, which he commanded until February 1862, when he was promoted to major and became chief of artillery in the Department of North Carolina.

In April 1862 Cooke was elected colonel of the 27th Regiment North Carolina Infantry. During the Antietam campaign his regiment participated in the seizure of Loudoun Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry. At Sharpsburg (Antietam) on 17 September, Cooke was ordered to lead his men and an Arkansas regiment in an exposed attack on a Union line of defense. The attack failed after the Confederate units exhausted their ammunition. Reassuming their original positions, Cooke's troops, without benefit of shot, held their line against repeated Union counterattacks. Cooke was promoted to brigadier general on 1 November 1862. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in December he fought at the stone wall on Marye's Heights. Two of his regiments suffered heavy casualties, while he sustained a serious wound just above his left eye.

Cooke recovered sufficiently to resume command of his brigade early in 1863. His troops, stationed for a time in South Carolina, saw little action until they fought at Bristoe Station, in Prince William County, Virginia, in October 1863. The brigade sustained heavy casualties, and Cooke received another severe wound that kept him out of action for the remainder of the year. On 5 January 1864 in Richmond he married Nannie Gordon Patton. They had five daughters and three sons.

Cooke returned to the battlefield in the spring. His North Carolinians performed admirably at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. After receiving a leg wound at Spotsylvania Court House, Cooke became incensed when a superior presumed to assume command of his troops and lead them in an attack while Cooke stayed in the field. He fought at the Battle of Reams's Station, in Dinwiddie County, on 25 August 1864. His brigade remained at Petersburg until the Union army breached the Confederate defenses early in April 1865. During the retreat Cooke successfully extricated his troops from Sutherland Station, in Dinwiddie County. On 9 April 1865 he surrendered the 560 men left under his command at Appomattox Court House.

After the war Cooke worked in Richmond briefly as a route agent for a company that handled business along several area railways and then for about four years managed a large agricultural and stock-raising operation in King William County. By 1877 he had established himself as a Richmond grocery merchant. Active in local and civic affairs, Cooke was a member of the city's Democratic Committee and served as president of the board of directors of the state penitentiary. Remaining devoted to the Confederate cause, he was the third commander of the R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans, and helped found and served as manager of the R. E. Lee Camp, Confederate Soldiers' Home, in Richmond. Cooke was a member of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia and sat on the executive committee of the Southern Historical Society. He acted as chief of staff at the laying of the cornerstone for Richmond's Robert Edward Lee monument in 1887 and at the unveiling of the bronze equestrian statue sitting atop it three years later.

Late in the 1880s Cooke reconciled with his father and ended the estrangement that had separated them since the beginning of the Civil War. John Rogers Cooke died of pyaemia, a form of blood poisoning, at his Richmond residence on 10 April 1891. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

Contributed by Brian S. Wills

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 3:436–437.

Copyright 2006 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.