Publisher: University of Virginia Special Collections
General Philip St. George Cooke
In a page from The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, published in New York in 1911–1912, Union general Philip St. George Cooke is credited with "commanding the first great federal cavalry charge of the Civil War." In fact, Cooke's wartime service was less than distinguished, and he was noted for a disastrous cavalry charge in 1862 at Gaines's Mill during the Seven Days' Battles near the Confederate capital at Richmond.
Cooke was born in Loudoun County on June 13, 1809. At age fourteen he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and graduated twenty-third in a class of thirty-eight in 1827. Cooke served on frontier duty and fought in both the Black Hawk War (1832) and the Mexican War (1846–1848). In addition, he helped to protect settlers on the Oregon Trail, fought Apache in New Mexico Territory, helped subdue Sioux in Nebraska Territory, helped restore order in Bloody Kansas, and led an expedition against Mormons in the Utah Territory. In August 1860 Cooke took command of the Department of Utah.
When the Civil War began a year later, Cooke, one of the Regular Army's top cavalrymen, chose to stay with the Union, writing, "I owe Virginia little; my country much." It was a decision that caused a long estrangement from his son, John Rogers Cooke, and a rift with his son-in-law, the future Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart. Appointed a brigadier general of volunteers in November 1861, and soon thereafter a brigadier in the Regular Army, Cooke was assigned to the defense of Washington and commanded the reserve cavalry during the Peninsula Campaign (1862). Cooke became a scapegoat after he failed to check Stuart's ride around the Union army in mid-June 1862; later that month Cooke ordered the ill-fated cavalry charge at Gaines's Mill. Shortly thereafter, Cooke left the Army of the Potomac, claiming its commanders were inept. Following the war, his command of troops was massacred by Indians, further tarnishing his reputation.
During his lifetime Cooke wrote two memoirs and a cavalry manual. In the 1880s he finally reconciled with his son. Cooke died in Detroit, Michigan, in 1895.