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The Borderer: The antebellum origins of the Father of the American Cavalry

By Mike Medhurst 

In late 1827, a second lieutenant fresh from the U.S. Military Academy arrived at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. He was Philip St. George Cooke, a son of Virginia whose entrance into the bustling gateway to the west marked the beginning of a remarkable cavalry career.

When Cooke arrived in town, William Clark, half of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition, reigned as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Some of the lands he had surveyed were now the scenes of periodic brutal encounters between settlers seeking a fresh start in the West and warriors who were intent on preserving their way of life.

Culture clashes were unavoidable. In the spring of 1829, Cooke became directly involved in one such event after warriors harassed wagon trains along the Santa Fe Trail. He set out with the 6th Infantry with orders to protect the settlers.

To get there, they traveled aboard a flat boat packed with soldiers, families, crying babies, cackling chickens and a boat captain who labored in a state of confusion. A broken rudder added to the difficult 10-day trip to Cantonment Leavenworth, a frontier military camp. The French-inspired name was later Anglicized to Fort Leavenworth. From here, the settlers and soldiers, including Cooke, formed the Santa Fe Caravan, and it got underway in June 1829.

One of the distinctive aspects of the expedition entailed the use of oxen to pull the wagons, a first on the High Plains. Though slower than horses and mules, the oxen were less expensive—and edible if the situation arose. The experiment was limited to the wagons, as the soldiers kept to their tried and true horses.

Cooke also described his first encounter with buffalo early in the journey.

Buffalo scarf? The scarf worn by Cooke in this circa 1857 portrait may have been a memento of one of his early experiences with Buffalo. Sixth-plate daguerreotype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s Collection.
Buffalo scarf? The scarf worn by Cooke in this circa 1857 portrait may have been a memento of one of his early experiences with Buffalo. Sixth-plate daguerreotype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s Collection.

“We first heard the exciting cry of buffalo! We dashed over the hills, and beheld with a thrill of pleasure, the first stragglers of these much talked about animals; pell-mell we charged the huge monsters, and poured in a brisk fire, which sounded like an opening battle; our horses were wild with excitement and fright; balls flew at random the flying animals, frantic with pain and rage, seemed endued with many lives. One was brought to bay by whole volleys of shots; his eyeballs glared; he bore his tufted tail a lot like a black flag; then shaking his vast head and shaggy mane in impotent defense, he sank majestically to the earth under twenty bleeding wounds.”

In early August, Cooke and his comrades faced a far more dangerous foe when an estimated 500 warriors descended on the train. A 45-minute battle ensued, during which the Indians captured 50 oxen and 19 horses and mules, and killed one soldier.

The rest of the trip went off without another serious incident. But on the return journey, Indian troubles resumed. In one particularly brutal incident, a fight between traders and the warriors ended with one Indian being scalped while still alive, and several others being skinned. Cooke saw one of the Indian skins stretched along the side of a wagon.

“Buffaloes at Rest” by Louis Kurz of Chicago, 1911. Library of Congress.
“Buffaloes at Rest” by Louis Kurz of Chicago, 1911. Library of Congress.

Back at Fort Leavenworth, Cooke enjoyed the softer side of life when he married Rachel Hertzog in late 1830. She was a native Philadelphian who had moved with her family in search of opportunity in booming St. Louis. They eventually had a son, John Rogers Cooke, who was destined to become a Confederate general. They also had three daughters. One of them, Flora Cooke, married the Confederacy’s cavalier cavalry commander Jeb Stuart.

About this time, a St. Louis newspaper, the Beacon, published a frontier story written by Cooke under the pen name Borderer, “Some Incidents in the Life of Hugh Glass, a Hunter of the Missouri.” In the piece, Cooke described how Glass, while working with the 6th Infantry, used his weapon in a face off with a grizzly bear. “The shot was a good one; eventually mortal; but its immediate effect was only to raise to its utmost degree the ferocity of the animal, already greatly excited by the sight and opposition of its intended prey; it bounded forward with a rapidity that could not be eluded.”

Cooke continued, “An appalling roar of pain and rage, which alone could render pallid a cheek of firmness, chilled him to the soul; he heard it as a requiem for a departed spirit; he was overtaken, crushed to the earth, and rendered insensible but to thoughts of instant death.”

Almost two centuries after Cooke’s story appeared, it became the baseline for the 2015 movie The Revenant.

The pen name Borderer was apropos. Cooke, whether by choice or fate, inhabited places near borders. St. Louis and the Santa Fe Trail represented two such locations—and more would follow in coming years.

The Borderer also had something of a knack for crossing paths with present and future American icons. This proved especially true during the 1830s, a decade during which he honed his military abilities and advanced in rank.

In 1832, at the Battle of Bad Axe during the Black Hawk War, Cooke served as adjutant of his infantry regiment, and quite possibly became acquainted with a lanky lawyer who had been elected captain of the Illinois militia volunteers, Abraham Lincoln.

The following year, Cooke was promoted to first lieutenant of the 1st Dragoons, a newly created regiment that formed the basis of the U.S. Cavalry. In this capacity while on a recruiting trip in Tennessee, Cooke was present when the legendary Davy Crockett was elected to Congress.

Moving back to the West, Cooke participated in an 1834 expedition to explore the Southwestern Great Plains. He joined the adventure with such notables as Col. Henry Dodge, Gen. Henry Leavenworth, Artist George Catlin, Lt. Col. Stephen W. Kearny, and captains Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner, David Hunter and Nathan Boone, the youngest son of Daniel Boone. Young first lieutenant Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederate States of America, also enlisted in the expedition, as did guide and interpreter Jesse Chisholm, the namesake of the Texas-Kansas cattle trail.

Cooke’s star continued to rise in the 1840s. His skill as a tactician and experience in Western fighting prompted senior military officials to place him, in 1843, in an independent command to protect caravans from marauding Texans and Indians. One man who worked with him, Kit Carson, praised Cooke “as efficient an Indian fighter as I have ever accompanied; that he is brave and gallant everyone knows.”

When the Mexican War broke out, Cooke signed on with the Army of the West and helped negotiate the surrender of Santa Fe in August 1846. A few months later, he led a battalion of Mormon volunteers on a hazardous trek from Santa Fe to San Diego. The three-month journey included the construction of the first wagon road through the Southwest to California. Cooke’s guide was a mountain man named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. As an infant, Charbonneau had traveled across the continent as part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with his mother, Sacagawea, and his father, interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau. His baby portrait appeared on the Sacagawea U.S. dollar coin.

On the way back to Leavenworth, in the summer of 1847, Cooke traveled with Stephen W. Kearney, now a general. In the Sierra Mountains, they happened upon the remains of a pioneer camp. On June 22, a member of the Mormon Battalion who was also present noted, “We came down the lake to some cabins that had been built by some emigrants last fall. They were overtaken in the snow. There were eighty of them in number, and only thirty of them that lived. The rest of them starved to death. The General called a halt and detailed five men to bury the deserted bodies of the others. One man lived about four months on human flesh. He sawed their heads open, ate their brains and mangled up their bodies in a horrible manner. This place now goes by the name of Cannibal Camp.”

The site would later become known as Donner Pass for the members of the George Donner party who lived and died there.

Cooke took a break from his western adventures for a five-year period in the late 1840s and early 1850s. During much of this period, he acted as Superintendent and Post Commander of the Carlisle Post and Calvary School of Practice in Pennsylvania. He was praised in a statement by the Inspector General of the Army: “Cooke is every inch a soldier, and is celebrated as being one of the most thorough and perfect disciplinarians in the Army. Under his management and tuition, the post at his place will continue to send forth some of the best-drilled cavaliers in the world.”

His duties at Carlisle ended in 1852 when Cooke was called back to the West, where he fought Lipan, Sioux and Apache warriors. By 1854, now a lieutenant colonel, he commanded the garrison of Fort Union in New Mexico Territory, and, in 1855, he took charge of Fort Riley in Kansas. At the latter place, his daughter Flora married Jeb Stuart, just beginning his career as a soldier.

In the years that followed, Cooke and his new son-in-law forged bonds of friendship through military and family ties. Cooke and his cavalrymen fought a losing battle to keep the peace, as the question of slave or free was tearing “Bloody Kansas” apart—a microcosm of the moral and economic struggles that polarized the country. Stuart had his hands full, as his troopers struggled to restrain anti-slavery zealot John Brown.

Cooke never seemed to remain in one place very long. In the latter half of the 1850s, his travels took him to Europe to observe the Crimean War. He then was called back to the U.S. and dispatched to the Far West after Mormon militia slaughtered 120 settlers heading through Utah Territory in September 1857. The event became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Cooke, an acquaintance of Mormon leader Brigham Young, was a helpful figure to have on hand. Cooke eventually commanded the Department of Utah.

The secession of Southern states beginning in late 1860 and the outbreak of war in 1861 fractured the country—and the Borderer’s family.

“I owe Virginia little; my country much. She has entrusted me with a distant command; and I shall remain under her flag as long as it waves the sign of the National Constitutional Government.”

Cooke adopted a view that ran counter to many who hailed from the land of Washington and Jefferson. Responding to a June 1861 call by the governor of Virginia for sons of the state to join the Confederate military, Cooke wrote an open letter to a newspaper from Fort Crittenden in Utah.

“At fourteen years of age I was severed from Virginia; the National Government adopted me as its pupil and future defender; it gave me education and a profession; and I then made a solemn oath to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to ‘serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever.’ This oath and honor alike forbid me to abandon their standard at the first hour of danger. In the national service I have been for thirty-four years a Western man, and if my citizenship be localized, a citizen of Missouri. … To cut this gordian knot of horrors my sword had instinctively turned against the usurping ‘majesty’ of cotton. I owe Virginia little; my country much. She has entrusted me with a distant command; and I shall remain under her flag as long as it waves the sign of the National Constitutional Government.”

Son-in-law, Jacob Sharpe, a New Yorker and West Pointer who worked his way from first lieutenant of the 20th New York State Militia and ended his service as a brevet brigadier general four years later, joined Cooke.

The other two men in Cooke’s immediate family chose the South. His son, John Rogers Cooke, and son-in-law Jeb Stuart, became Confederate generals.

Stuart famously noted of his father-in-law’s decision to support the Yankee cause, “He will regret it but once & that will be continually.”

Stuart would go to his grave after suffering a mortal wound in the 1864 Battle of Yellow Tavern without ever again speaking to his father-in-law.

Carte de visite by Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. Author’s Collection.
Carte de visite by Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. Author’s Collection.

Cooke arrived at perhaps the zenith of his career in November 1861, when he was named a brigadier general and assigned to the defenses of Washington.

During that same month, his groundbreaking manual, Cavalry Tactics, or Regulations for the Instruction, Formations and Movements of the Cavalry of the Army and Volunteers of the United States, was approved by President Lincoln, and published for the use of the service. “I have freely chosen what I judged to be the best points in the systems of France, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England,” Cooke stated in the introduction. He also thanked fellow officer George B. McClellan for his assistance.

By this time, McClellan, in command of the Army of the Potomac, came under extreme pressure by the White House and other political and military men to end the war. McClellan’s lackluster performance during the drawn-out Peninsula Campaign in the spring and summer of 1862 marked the beginning of the end of his military career.

The Peninsula Campaign also marked the fall of Cooke. Assigned to command McClellan’s reserve cavalry, Cooke complained to President Lincoln about being passed over for a larger command in favor of junior officers. Cooke’s performance was less than stellar. He had failed to check a Confederate raid around the Union army led by his son-in-law Jeb—a major embarrassment that was ridiculed by fellow officers and the press. A desperate and ill-fated cavalry charge at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill during the culminating Seven Days Battles further tarnished his reputation. Surrounded by what he believed were inept commanders, Cooke requested a new assignment in protest.

He had made a critical error. Historian Otis Young explained that when Cooke “left the Army of the Potomac on the morning of July 5, 1862, he was fully aware that his career had effectively ended and that he had forfeited all chance of further advancement or even, barring the wildest possibilities, of action.”

Young continued, Cooke’s “own request for other duty was the equivalent of resignation from ambition; one of the chief clauses of the unwritten service code is that no professional officer shall protest his combat assignment, no matter how personally demeaning it may be. Yet on the other hand, when a capable officer has failed, means are found to preserve whatever value to the service he still possesses; he can no longer exercise command in any important place, but there are literally hundreds of administrative positions which he can fill ably as the result of his long experience.”

Cooke spent the rest of the war in minor positions. He ended the war though, with the brevet rank of major general in recognition of his wartime service—small compensation for the man who could rightfully be regarded as the father of the American cavalry.

National Archives.
National Archives.

Cooke headed back to the West, his adopted home and the place where he had risen to early fame as a cavalry officer. But he was unable to recapture the old magic. A lackluster performance against Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, led by Chief Red Cloud, and the December 1866 massacre of U.S. troops commanded by one of Cooke’s subordinates, Lt. Col. William J. Fetterman, sparked controversy. Cooke was eased into a series of low profile assignments back East and elsewhere until 1873, when he retired.

His cavalry manual perhaps stands as his greatest achievement. The two-volume set became a primary guide for a generation of officers in the cavalry service. The books were updated regularly and published as late as 1883.

Cooke settled in Detroit, where he spent the remainder of his days. In the late 1880s, he reconciled with his son John, with whom he had been estranged since they chose different sides in the war.

Cooke died at his Detroit home on March 20, 1895, at age 86. The Detroit Evening News reported that “He had been ailing a long time owing to the wear and tear of many years spent in a life of excitement, fatigue, and exposure, and he gave in at last because age had deprived him of the forces necessary for the continuance of the combat. … He was a noted American soldier when many of the epauletted gallants of the great rebellion were in swaddling clothes and most of the present commanding officers of the army were in the teething period of cadetship.”

The paper also added, “For thirty years before the rebellion he was one of the most intrepid and war-seasoned officers on the plains.”

References: Cooke, “Some Incidents in the Life of Hugh Glass, a Hunter of the Mississippi River,” Southern Literary Messenger (September 1842); “The Journal of Nathaniel V. Jones, with the Mormon Battalion (Extracted)” Utah Historical Quarterly (January 1931); White Cloud Kansas Chief, July 18, 1861; Cooke, Cavalry Tactics, or Regulations for the Instruction, Formations and Movements of the Cavalry of the Army and Volunteers of the United States, Vol. I; Otis Young, The West of Philip St. George Cooke, 1809-1895; Detroit Evening News, March 21, 1895.

Mike Medhurst is a Contributing Editor to MI. He currently serves as the president of the Daguerreian Society.

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