Nation's Strife Divided Household; Cooke Family Breakup Outlived the Conflict

Article excerpt


The Civil War has been described as pitting brother against brother and dividing families. One of the most famous family quarrels involved Confederate cavalry Gen. James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart and his father-in-law, Union cavalry Gen. Philip St. George Cooke. This acrimonious breakup involved all members of Cooke's family and lasted many years after the end of the war.

The relationships between the Cooke family and Stuart have engendered stimulating prose and conjecture. One historian said an encounter between Stuart and Cooke on the battlefield would have contributed some interesting verbiage to the war's official records.

Stuart, in fact, provided one of the most famous quotes of the war in a letter to his devoted wife, Flora, about Cooke's decision to stay with the Union: "He will regret it but once, and that will be continually."

It is unclear whether Stuart meant that his activities with the Army of Northern Virginia would continue to give Cooke headaches or that, in addition, the split in the family would be sorrowful for Cooke because most of his children would never compromise with his Unionist allegiance. Stuart was furious with his father-in-law and considered him a traitor to the South. Stuart even changed his son's name from Philip St. George Cooke Stuart to James Ewell Brown Stuart Jr.

Cooke was born on June 13, 1809, near Leesburg, Va., and graduated from West Point in 1827. Although he was a Southerner by birth, he and his wife, Rachael, remained loyal to the Union, surprising Union and Confederate officers as well as most of the rest of the Cooke family.

Cooke cherished the Union, as did one of his three daughters, Julia. The other two, Flora and Maria, were loyal to the Confederacy, and his son joined the Confederate army. That son, John Rogers Cooke, had attended Harvard, joined the U.S. Army and resigned in May 1861. He served the Confederacy with great distinction until the end at Appomattox, with a final rank of brigadier general.

Philip Cooke's youngest daughter, Julia, married Jacob Sharpe, a successful Union officer who ended the war as a brigadier general. Maria, Cooke's second daughter, married Dr. Charles Brewer of Maryland, who had entered the U.S. Army as an assistant surgeon in August 1856. Like his brother-in-law, Stuart, and Cooke's son, John, Brewer declared for the Confederacy and resigned his Union commission in May 1861. Later in the war, he served as a surgeon on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's staff.

Jeb Stuart, born at Laurel Hill Plantation in Patrick County, Va., graduated from West Point in 1854. His fellow cadets gave him his nickname, "Beauty," because he apparently was not one of the most handsome of his peers.

Some speculate that he later grew a beard to improve his appearance. It may have helped, as he married Flora Cooke, the eldest daughter of his commanding officer, in 1855 at Fort Riley, Kan., following a whirlwind courtship that surprised her parents. After a successful career in the U.S. Army, he resigned his commission in May 1861 after Virginia's secession.

Cooke's opportunities to confront his son-in-law on the battlefield were confined to Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign in 1862 in Virginia. There, he led a "Cavalry Reserve" division during the battles at Yorktown, Williamsburg and Gaines' Mill. Although Confederate and Union cavalry skirmished at Yorktown and Williamsburg, there was no opportunity for Cooke and Stuart to test each other.

Stuart was active as the Confederate cavalry commander during the subsequent Seven Days Campaign as Lee pushed the Union Army away from the Confederate capital, Richmond. Stuart was most famous for his First Ride around McClellan from June 12 through 15, 1862, during which his father-in-law pursued him in vain.

Some say Cooke did not make a credible effort because he was concerned about what Stuart might do if he captured him. …