Joe Lonergan outlines the story of an Irish-American family that had fifteen members serving the Union during the American Civil War
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.
Daniel and John were sons of an Irish revolutionary, George McCook, who had fled from Ulster to the United States about 1780. George’s wife was Mary McCormack of Glasgow. Following their arduous voyage from Ireland, the couple eventually settled in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania.
In time Daniel, an attorney, moved to eastern Ohio, settling in Carrollton. His younger brother John also moved to the ‘Buckeye State’. Daniel was married to Martha Latimer, a daughter of Abraham and Mary Greer Latimer. Abraham’s family was originally from Leicestershire and Mary was of Scotch-Irish descent.
Daniel was sixty-three years old when he responded to Lincoln’s call by volunteering as a nurse, and thus it happened that he was present, on July 21, 1861, at 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.
Alexander did not attract the rebels’ attention that day, but younger brother Charles was not so fortunate. Near the end of the day, he left his regiment to join his father Dan, 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.
As father and son chatted at the field hospital, rebel cavalry suddenly advanced on the Union men gathered there. A Southern trooper advanced on young Charles to make him a prisoner. Charles, with true eye and steady nerve, shot the rebel through the head.
This deadly shot drew upon Charles the wrath of the leader of the attacking force, who rushed at him with drawn pistol, demanding his surrender. But the brave boy, with undaunted heart, exclaimed, “I will never surrender to a traitor!”
At this critical juncture Charles’ father Dan, seeing his son 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 Charles in the back.
A report of young McCook’s heroism reached Washington D.C. before his remains did, where a guard of honor waited to escort them.
Not surprisingly the tale of Charles’s bravery was told and retold for decades to come.
Another son of Dan, General Robert McCook, was severely wounded in the battle of Mills Spring, in Kentucky. Yet he returned to his command before the wound healed, and that summer was issuing orders while lying in an ambulance. However during a march in August, while his escort was reconnoitring, a band of rebels attacked the ambulance wagon and killed the defenceless man. The news of this brutal act inflamed emotions throughout the Union states.
A month later when the Confederate General John Morgan brought his raiders across the river into Ohio, Dan McCook Sr. joined the troops who went in pursuit. He led an advance party that intended to intercept Morgan as he re-crossed the river. Wounded in the skirmish that followed, Dan died the next day.
In June of 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered his old friend and former law partner, Colonel Dan McCook Jr., to lead one of the opening drives during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.
Before 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?”
Leading the charge up the thickly timbered mountain McCook was mortally wounded.
Another brother, John James McCook, while not killed, was wounded at Shady Grove. Unable to serve any longer, he resumed his law studies and became a leading layman of the Presbyterian Church.
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.
Sadly, tragedy continued to shadow Dan’s tribe. Edwin Stanton McCook, though severely wounded three times, survived the war; but eight years later, while serving as acting governor of the Dakota Territory, he was assassinated.
In the story of the ‘Fighting McCooks’, the story of Martha, the mother of the ‘tribe of Dan’ is completely overlooked, which is wrong as it was she who would suffer the most. During the war she saw her husband and eight of her nine sons step forward to serve. Her husband and three of her sons never came home.
Today, in Carrollton, Ohio, the home of Martha, Dan Sr., and their ‘Fighting McCooks’ is a museum, celebrating this Irish-American family for whom the words ‘ultimate sacrifice’ held repeated meaning.