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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fighting McCook -- Alexander McCook

Monday, January 9, 2012

Major General Alexander McDowell McCook, after whom McCook, Nebraska, is named.
(Public domain)
Alexander McCook, our town's namesake, was a very interesting historical figure. Nine months after the war began he became the youngest Brigadier General in the Union Army. Some called him the Union's the most colorful General. To others, he was the most controversial.

Alexander McDowell McCook, the fifth son of Daniel and Margaret McCook, was born in April 1831 in Columbiana, Ohio. Seven of Alexander's brothers and five first cousins served in the Union Army during the Civil War and were collectively known as "The Fighting McCooks." Alexander was the highest ranking of his three brothers plus his two cousins who achieved the rank of General during the war.

By the time Alexander was ready for college, his father, Daniel was already a successful lawyer and judge, with important friends in high places. He was able to secure a place for his son at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1847. At the Academy he was a rather indifferent student. He loved the school. He loved his comrades. He loved life. His brother, Daniel called him "the happiest man alive." But he did not love studying, or the strict discipline at the school. An unacceptable number of demerits and a failure in mathematics caused him to repeat one entire year, taking him five years to finish a four year course.

Upon graduation, in 1852 Lt. Alexander McCook was sent west to fight Utes and Apaches in New Mexico, which he did, with distinction for five years. After this duty he was called back to teach infantry tactics and The Art of War to cadets at West Point for three years.

When the Civil War broke out, Alexander first saw action at First Bull Run, after which he was sent to the Western Front in Tennessee as commander of the 1st Ohio Regiment. He moved up the chain of command quickly, taking part in battles in Tennessee and the capture of Nashville, and joining the pivotal Battle of Shiloh, under General Grant, as a Brigadier General. McCook received much credit for the victory on the second day of the battle (after a disastrous first day of battle -- 13,047 Union soldiers killed, wounded, or captured.). His outstanding leadership in the capture of Nashville, at Shiloh, and the siege of Corinth, in General Buell's Army, led President Lincoln to promote him to Major General.

After these initial achievements in the early years of the Civil War, General McCook's star began to fade a bit. After Shiloh and Corinth, Alexander was given command of the I Corps of the Army of the Ohio, and commanded this unit in the Battle of Perryville.

Because of a lack of understanding and poor communications, Perryville turned out to be a huge Rebel victory. The Union troops suffered heavy casualties. McCook's headquarters was captured. His corps was pushed back a mile and was on the verge of a complete rout. General Alex was frantically rallying his troops to make one last stand when reinforcements finally arrived. They forced the Confederates back down the road and retook McCook's headquarters. But the damage was done. One of the great opportunities to win the war in the west was lost. Gen. McCook became the scapegoat for the battle and was tarnished with the Union defeat.

McCook's command was reorganized into the XIV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in time for the Battle of Stone's Creek. Again his forces suffered heavy losses. Again the Army was reorganized, with McCook commanding the XX Corps, in time for the Battle of Chickamauga, again a Union defeat. McCook had incurred the displeasure of high ranking officers in the Army and influential figures in Washington, who were determined to lay the responsibility of the Chickamauga disaster squarely on the shoulders of Alexander McCook and General Crittenden, who suffered the blame for the defeat.

General McCook received an order for a court martial trial, the charge being "cowardice on the field of battle, for removing his troops from the fray. After only a short time the verdict of "Not Guilty" was received, vindicating Gen. McCook of the charge, with the following statement: "The court are of the opinion ... that in leaving the field to go to Chattanooga, Gen. McCook committed a mistake, but his gallant conduct in the engagement forbids the idea that he was influenced by consideration of personal safety ... The Court cannot regard this act of Gen. McCook other than an error of judgment."

McCook was confident that having been exonerated he would be quickly given another command. In this belief he was mistaken. For almost a year Alexander McCook waited at his home in Ohio for his orders to return to take command of another Army unit.

Finally, in July 1864 Alex McCook was summoned to Washington. It was an emergency. Word had come that Rebel Gen. Jubal Early was marching on Washington D.C. and McCook was to take charge of the defense of the capital.

McCook assembled his "fighting force" at Fort Stevens, set up for the defense of the capital -- a small force of some 1,000 men -- invalids, convalescents, and civilian volunteers. McCook's forces were outnumbered by 10 to 1, and were being attacked by a well-armed, veteran fighting force of Infantry and Cavalry. McCook may have had his troubles in the past, but this old Indian fighter knew how to hold a fort.

McCook's order to his motley crew was to hold their fire until the enemy was a bare 110 yards from the Fort. Then, they opened up with everything they had, firing breach-loading carbines, a few cannons and howitzers.

Early was stopped in his tracks. McCook's invalids and bandaged convalescents even went on the attack and drove the enemy back, under a fresh barrage of cannon fire. Early, mistaking the all-out barrage for reinforcements from Grant's Army, withdrew -- his golden chance to take Washington gone.

McCook had bested Early in generalship this time.

At this battle, President Lincoln came to the fort to witness the action first hand. He was curious and stood up so that he could peer over the parapets. With his stovepipe hat he made a tempting target. At one point someone yelled at him, "Get down you damn fool!" He did.

When the war ended, Gen. Alexander McCook was once again in the good graces of the Army brass and the powers in Washington. He continued his career in the Army and served, in turn, in Texas, as an aide de camp to General Sherman, and as commander of the Infantry and Cavalry Schools at Fort Leavenworth. He retired from the Army in 1895.

Still, the country continued to call upon the services of Gen. McCook. During, and after, the Spanish-American War McCook served on a committee to study the administration of the United States Department of War.

One of Alexander's last bits of service to his country, and probably one of the most pleasant, came in 1896, when Gen. McCook and Mrs. McCook represented President Grover Cleveland at the Coronation of Czar Nicholas II (the last Czar).

Alexander McDowell McCook died in 1903 at his home in Dayton, Ohio, after a lifetime of service to his country. He is buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. He was 72.

-- Source: "The Fighting McCooks," by Chas. & Barbara Whalen; "Alexander McCook" in Civil War Trust

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By