On Dec. 12, 1903 — 40 years after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War — a survivor of that holocaust spoke to an audience of veterans in Kansas City, Mo. Ingrained in memory; the story about his Gettysburg experience had the immediacy of a recent event.
Capt. John Darwin Shepard Cook served in the 20th New York State Militia (80th New York Volunteers) as a company commander. After the war, he moved to Missouri and then Kansas, where he practiced law and became a leading member of the firm Cook & Gossett.
John Cook expressed the apprehension he felt at Gettysburg when, as part of the First Corps under Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, he learned that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was engaging Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford on the outskirts of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
The First Corps marched to the cavalry’s relief; and, along the way, Cook observed, “Orchards, meadows, fields of grain, substantial fences, comfortable farm-houses, and above all the mighty barns, the glory of the Pennsylvania farmer…”
As the troops approached Gettysburg, they heard the sound of cannon and musket fire. Arriving near the battlefield northwest of town, beyond the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Cook’s brigade was “posted in a swale of the meadow,” where they heard “the roar of artillery on our right and to the shriek of shells that passed overhead.”
When Rebels dressed in butternut uniforms came up and faced Cook’s unit at short range, he learned “they could shoot all right, and … stood out there in line in the open field and poured in a rapid fire of musketry … and the battle was on.” Another corps, the 11th, arrived on the field, but before long both Union corps were in retreat through the town, with the Rebels hot on their heels.
Cook faced a dilemma when he stumbled across “one of our best and bravest officers” lying near the Lutheran Seminary with a shattered thigh. Unable to carry the wounded man to safety, he was forced to leave him in a ditch that afforded shelter from the hail of bullets.
Clambering over a pig-pen fence, Cook “joined the throng … up a rather steep ascent … on the height [Cemetery Hill].” Of the original 27 enlisted men in his command, four were killed, 15 wounded, one taken prisoner, and two ran away. He had “five men left for duty.”
Not actively engaged on July 2, the remnants of the 20th New York were situated in the front line of the troops who held Cemetery Ridge. Food was scarce, and they had had little to eat the past two days.
Cook described Lee’s plan “to break our army in two by an attack upon the left center.” Around noon on July 3, Rebel artillery opened fire, pounding the Union position. The troops “hugged the ground behind the low pile of rails which partly concealed us, and awaited our destiny with such composure as we could muster.”
When the artillery barrage finally ended, a long line of infantry advanced “in admirable order directly toward us.” This was Pickett’s Charge, with some 12,000 troops marching “like the shadow of a cloud seen from a distance as it sweeps across a sunny field.”
Despite being hit in the leg by a glancing shot that caused a severe bruise, Cook kept up with his command as it moved to the right flank of the enemy, where “the struggle was hand-to-hand.” The Confederate attack failed, with half of their men killed, wounded or captured (see “A prayer for the Confederate dead at Gettysburg,” Coastal Point, Nov. 6, 2015).
The survivors were forced to retreat, but most of the Rebels close to the Union position “sank to the ground and gave up the attempt to get away … dropping their arms and … a white cloth … appeared … as a signal [to surrender].”
After the battle, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday issued a general order thanking the 20th New York and other regiments in his division “for the gallant service which had materially contributed to the victory … repelling of Pickett’s Charge.”
Cook closed his remarks: “Late in the afternoon our division got together and marched a short distance to the south to be ready for the pursuit of the enemy, which we began next morning, and so ended our connection with the field of Gettysburg.”
John D.S. Cook’s “Personal Reminiscences of Gettysburg” come courtesy of his great-grandson Shepard Cook of Dagsboro. The entire speech can be accessed online at http://www.angelfire.com/ny4/djw/20thCookGettysburg.html.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at email@example.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.