Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke

Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke

Respected Military Leader

This article originally appeared in Vol.65, No.3 (2018) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Bob Folkman

Colorful, disciplined, and destined for prominence, Philip St. George Cooke was an almost perfect representation of a cavalry officer in the American West before the . He has been referred to as the father of the US Cavalry, and he wrote a widely admired book on cavalry tactics that remained a standard text for the Army for decades.1 Yet Cooke is most often remembered today for his relatively brief association with the Latter- day Saints as the able commander of the in 1846-7. In 1857-8 he encountered the Mormons again as a cavalry officer in the Utah Expedition commanded by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, and in 1861 he was the final commander of the large Utah military post named that was shuttered when the Civil War began.

Born and raised in Virginia, Cooke’s decision to become a military man did not result from a family military tradition. His father was an able physician, and his mother was from a prominent British family known for government service. Philip St. George Cooke was named for the town of St. George, Bermuda, where his parents met during the US Revolutionary War, and St. George was his preferred given name. His signature throughout his long military career was the distinctive “P. St. George Cooke.”

At the age of 14, Cooke was admitted to West Point military academy. Six feet four inches tall and well-spoken, he had a commanding presence. He did well at the academy at his young age, graduating twenty-third in his class of thirty-eight in 1827. The primary focus of the US military prior to the Civil War was to secure the western frontier against Native American tribes and to establish the borders of the nation as settlers moved west in increasing numbers.

Cooke was commissioned as an infantry officer, and he served at frontier posts along the Mississippi River, where he had many encounters with hostile natives. In 1830 he was assigned to a new post at Ft Leavenworth on the Missouri River. There he met and married Rachel Herzog of Philadelphia. He fought in engagements in the Black Hawk War in 1832 and was promoted to first lieutenant in 1833 when the 1st Dragoons, a cavalry regiment trained to fight from horseback as well as on foot, was formed. In 1835 while stationed at Ft. Gibson in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Cooke was promoted to captain. He became widely known among his peers as an expert horseman, a capable commander of men, and an experienced Indian fighter.

The war with Mexico was in its early stages in October 1846 when Cooke was ordered by General Stephen Kearny to take command of the Mormon Battalion on short notice.2 While still officially a captain, his role as commander of the Mormon Battalion required that he be breveted to the rank of lieutenant Colonel, and he was known as Col. Cooke from that time. His tenure with the Battalion was only seven months, ending in May 1847, but his accomplishments as leader of the militarily untrained Mormon volunteers were remarkable. He kept discipline among his men through a long and harsh march on foot from Santa Fe to San Diego and Los Angeles. His command cut a strategically important  road out of the desert wilderness from New Mexico to California and helped secure Southern California for the United States.

Mormon Battalion members wrote letters and kept journals during their march to California, and in later years they added to the record with recollections and memoirs. Perhaps the most consistent theme of these reports is the Battalion members’ description of Lt Col. Cooke. He was regarded as disciplined and demanding, yet fair, and was almost universally admired by his men. He paid sincere respect to the Mormon Battalion members and their accomplishments in his well-known final orders as the Battalion commander on May 13, 1847. Cooke received his promotion to major at that time and was assigned to the new 2ndDragoons. He was posted to Mexico City in command of an occupying regiment there and later took part in several Indian campaigns. He and his unit had peacekeeping duties during the difficult events known as “Bleeding Kansas’ where “free- staters” battled proponents of slavery in both political and armed confrontations in Kansas territory.

His second encounter with the Latter-day Saints began in 1857 when Cooke, now a lieutenant colonel, led the 2nd Dragoons as the rear guard of the Utah Expedition when it came to Utah to put down the imagined rebellion known as the Utah War. Col. Cooke’s cavalry escorted Alfred Cummings—the new governor of the Utah territory—and other federal appointees, following about two weeks behind the infantry and artillery units of the army and their hundreds of supply wagons. The route across Wyoming from the last crossing of the Platte River to South Pass and Fort Bridger is well known to Latter-day Saints for its high altitude and quickly changing weather. Only thirteen months earlier the Martin and Willie Handcart companies had been tragically stranded in sudden winter weather in central Wyoming.

Cooke’s dragoons and their civilian charges experienced similar extreme weather conditions beginning on November 6, 1857. Heavy snow, wind, and sub-freezing temperatures slowed their progress, and a lack of feed for their animals led to the loss of more than half of their horses and mules. Adding to the discouragement of the men of the 2nd Dragoons were the remnants of the army units that had preceded them—perhaps a thousand dead oxen, mules, and horses littered the trail, together with numerous abandoned wagons and other equipment. Once again, as had the men of the Mormon Battalion, members of Cooke’s command credited his firm and skilled leadership for their arrival at their destination and for their very survival. One experienced traveler with Cooke’s unit wrote,

“He suffered nothing to deter him from his purpose. The lives of his soldiers and the property of his government were in his hands and he knew not what suffering a day’s delay might bring upon him. The mountains had to be crossed, for return was impossible.”3

Cooke’s rear guard arrived at the ruins of Ft. Bridger on November 19, having lost only a single man, and that to a case of lockjaw.

In later memoirs, veterans of the Mormon Battalion reported that when Col. Cooke rode into Salt Lake City at the head of his dragoons he removed his cap as a sign of respect for the men he had previously commanded. While there is no contemporary evidence to that claim,4 Cooke had favorable relations with the Mormons during his brief time in Utah and did not take part in the anti-Mormon diatribe that was common among officers and soldiers at the time.

In August 1858 Cooke left Utah, having been promoted to full colonel with the 2nd Dragoons, and took a year-long leave of absence from the Army to visit Europe, where he observed the ongoing war by France and Sardinia against the Italian states. He was engaged during these years in writing US. Cavalry Tactics, intending that it be used as a textbook for the Army. Cooke returned to Utah in the summer of 1860 and replaced General Albert Johnston as the military commander of the Department of Utah, headquartered at Camp Floyd in Cedar Valley west of Utah Lake. Cooke reportedly maintained a good relationship with Brigham Young during that time.

Cooke was known as a supporter of the Union despite his Virginia origins, and as commander in Utah he oversaw the removal of the name of the pro-South Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, from Camp Floyd, which was renamed after the pro-Union senator from Kentucky, John B, Crittenden.

The Civil War changed all things military in the United States, even in Utah. As armed conflict between North and South became imminent, most of the troops stationed in Utah returned to the East and chose sides. Camp Crittenden dosed in 1861, and the disposal of livestock, supplies, and equipment from the camp provided a windfall for enterprising locals who had the cash to bid for goods. Even Brigham Young came away with the camp’s sturdy flagpole, presented by Col. Cooke as a gift Col. P. St George Cooke also returned to the East and on November 21,1861, he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of Union Cavalry units defending Washington, DC.

The War caused dramatic changes in Colonel Cooke’s family, as well. Cooke’s only son, John R. Cooke, took the side of the South and became a respected general in the Confederate Army. The division of family loyalties extended to Cooke’s three daughters. Flora had married J.E.B, Stuart, who became one of the South’s most famous generals, and Maria married Charles Brewer, who enlisted as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. But daughter Julia married Jacob Sharpe, who became a colonel in the Union Army and was severely wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester in September 1864, It was not unusual for families to be divided by the Civil War, but few such divisions involved a family as prominent as Cooke’s—one that included three officers who held the rank of general during the Civil War.

General P, St George Cooke saw action in several battles and skirmishes in northern Virginia early in the Gvil War. However, two events led him to withdraw from active field command in 1862, The first was an ill-feted charge he ordered at Gaines Mill during the Seven Days Battles, where much of a regiment under his command was lost and the Union army suffered a defeat. The second was the dramatic success of his son-in-law. Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, during a raid in which he encircled the entire Union Army of the Potomac After 1862 General Cooke held administrative posts until the end of the Civil War and throughout the remainder of his career.

Cooke had literally written the book on cavalry tactics for the US Army, He had proven his skills as a cavalry commander on many occasions. His courage, his skill on horseback, and his ability to command men and carry out orders with efficiency had earned him the respect of his superiors as well as those who served under him. However, the scale of the Civil War did not reward the frontier cavalry skills Cooke understood so well. The massive numbers of men with modem firearms and the concentrated use of artillery made innovative and courageous cavalry tactics less useful.

Although Philip St George Cooke was bom to be a Virginia gentleman, he became a product of America’s western frontier. “I have been a Western man,” Cooke declared in a letter to his nephew, written from his command post in Utah in 1861.5 His letter explained his commitment to the Union and voiced hope that the States would not be divided.

He foresaw the effect the war would have on his family when he wrote, “It is perhaps not the least of the miseries of this mad struggle—that it should in any way—or degree, [sever] the ties and affections of blood, and friendship.” Regrettably, the Civil War dashed his hopes that he might not experience those miseries.

In the same letter to his nephew, John Esten Cooke, he said,

“If I resign, I expect to take myself and family to an honorable poverty and seclusion; and where?—What folly, if owning no slaves, I should choose for neighbors, the owners of slaves!”

He found the answer to his question in 1870, when Cooke was posted to Detroit as commander of the Department of the Lakes, having previously commanded the Departments of the Platte and the Cumberland after the war. He and Rachel remained in Detroit after he retired from the Army on October 29, 1873. He completed his last book in 1878, The Conquest of New Mexico and California, which chronicled the trek of the Mormon Battalion. Gen, Cooke died on March 20, 1895, in Detroit Rachel lived another year and is buried beside him there in the North, far from his Virginia roots.

The Mormon Battalion’s Lt. Col. P. St George Cooke was a committed military man, an exceptional leader and organizer, and a man of principle and integrity. He was the right man in his time and place and made contributions to the American nation that may be remembered with pride.


  1. Cooke’s U.S. Cavalry Tactics: Instructions, Formations, and Movements, 2 vols. (1862) was written at the request of the War Department, Exceptionally detailed, the book even contains sheet for bugle calls.
  2. The Mormon Battalion’s first commander, Lt. Col. James B. Allen, was taken ill and died at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, shortly after the Battalion had departed for Santa Fe. For more information on the Mormon Battalion, see Pioneer, 64.3(2017).
  3. “Diary of Judge William A. Carter—1857,’transcription by David L. Bigler from Carter Papers. Wyoming Archives and Historical DepartmentThis passage is reprinted in William P. MacKinnon, A f Sword’s Point, Port 1, A Documentary of the Utah Warto 1858 (2008), 403.
  4. Former Mormon Battalion officer James Ferguson was one of the few LDS eyewitnesses to the actual military parade in Sat Lake City. He wrote a detailed account of the event to Brigham Young, identifying key military officers, including Col. Cooke, as they led their units through Salt Lake City. He makes no mention of Cooke doffing his hat. Ferguson’s account is contained in the LDS Archives, and is reprinted in William P, MacKin non, At Sword’s Pant, Part 2, A Documentary History of the Utah War, 1858-1859 (2016), 596-8.
  5. Richard W. Etulain,’A Virginian in Utah Chooses the UniomCol. Philp St. George Cooke in 1861,”Utah Historical Quarterly, 42;4 (1974): 381 -5.The letter is in the National Archives.
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