Author: William B. Obrochta


Giles Buckner Cooke (1838–1937)

Giles Buckner Cooke was a Confederate army officer, educator, and Episcopal minister. Born in Portsmouth, he attended the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he was court-martialed, acquitted, dismissed, reinstated, and disciplined again before finally graduating near the bottom of his class. He supported secession and, at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865), joined the staff of Confederate general Philip St. George Cocke. For the rest of the war, he served as a staff officer, including for generals Braxton Bragg, G. T. Beauregard, and, beginning in October 1864, Robert E. Lee. After the war, Cooke studied for the Episcopal ministry and became head of a Sunday school for blacks in Petersburg. In 1868, he became principal of Elementary School Number 1 in Petersburg, reportedly the first public school for black children in Virginia, and later organized another school for blacks, Big Oak Private School, which merged with Saint Stephen’s Church school. A divinity school was added in 1878 and became the Bishop Payne Divinity and Industrial School. Cooke, who later taught in Kentucky and Maryland, was known for being exacting and upright, although he privately described blacks as “ignorant” and “deceitful.” By 1920 he was the last living officer to serve on General Lee’s staff, and his wartime diaries became a source of interest to scholars, including Douglas Southall Freeman. Cooke died in 1937 at the age of ninety-nine.