- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

Although the literary reputation of John Esten Cooke has faded somewhat over time, he remains a proud son of Virginia and one of the South's most important postwar authors.

Cooke already had established himself as both a lawyer and an author before the Civil War. During the tense years before the fall of Fort Sumter, he wrote articles for a Richmond journal, the Southern Literary Messenger, making it clear he was in favor of secession.

His novels "Leather Stocking and Silk" and "The Virginia Comedians" appeared in 1854, "Henry St. John" in 1859.

He was born in Winchester on Nov. 3, 1830, and attended school in Richmond. Like many of the officer class, he became a peacetime soldier. As a member of the Richmond Howitzers, an artillery company, he witnessed the capture in October 1859 of John Brown at Harpers Ferry by a detachment of U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.

The Civil War divided many families, the Cookes among them. Both John Esten Cooke and his cousin Brig. Gen. John Rogers Cooke were ardent Confederates, but the latter's father, Gen. Philip St. George Cooke, was a staunch Unionist. Ironically, St. George Cooke's son-in-law was J.E.B. Stuart.

John Esten Cooke saw active service throughout the war under the command of Stuart, to whom he was somewhat tenuously related by marriage. He reached the rank of captain, and Stuart attempted to promote him to major but was blocked by authorities in Richmond, "too many majors already" being the reason given.

As a poet, Cooke was capable rather than outstanding. "The Band in the Pines" is only four stanzas, sincere and moving although simply written. Inspired by the death of the greatly respected young artilleryman Col. John Pelham, at Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1862, Cooke wrote: "Oh, band in the pinewood cease, / Or the heart will melt in tears / For the gallant eyes and the smiling lips, / And the voices of old years."

His years of service gave him ample opportunity to meet and study some of the Confederate Army's most distinguished leaders, and his impressions were recorded in "The Wearing of the Gray," published in 1867.

He took part in Stuart's first daring encirclement of the Army of the Potomac in June 1862 and expressed his admiration for Stuart in romantic prose typical of him and of his time. Undoubtedly, his portrayal of the dandified and dashing but resourceful Stuart is accurate enough: "As the young cavalier mounted his horse on that moonlit night, he was a gallant figure to look at."

In describing Stuart as "the young cavalier," he spoke with the authentic voice of the Old South, about which he wrote much and lovingly. It must have come as a cruel blow to him when Stuart was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864.

Of Stonewall Jackson, Cooke recalled vividly how the dour warrior sat on his horse with "knees drawn up, body leaning forward, the whole figure stiff, angular, unbending." Cooke remembered, too, how Jackson's "faded cap was pulled down so low upon the forehead that he was compelled to raise his chin into the air to look from beneath the brim."He may have depicted Jackson as shabby and ungraceful, but he was full of admiration for the man.

After the war, Cooke was a prolific writer. Apart from "The Wearing of the Gray," he contributed two biographical studies, "The Life of Stonewall Jackson" (1866) and "The Life of General Robert E. Lee" (1871).He also poured out romantic novels, sometimes as many as three in a year. He had a real winner in "Surry of Eagle's-Nest" (1866), which drew upon his wartime experiences and became very popular in the South. Others included "The Heir of Gaymount" (1870) and "My Lady Pokahontas" (1885).

Perhaps he found writing fiction too easy and became facile. The critic Edmund Wilson, in "Patriotic Gore" (1962), derided his effusive style and lack of realism, criticizing his "bland and somewhat flimsy charm."

Professor E. Merton Coulter had been kinder in "The South During Reconstruction" (1947), declaring: "Through his romantic and sentimental works of fiction [he] gained himself a permanent place in the esteem of Southerners of his day and thereafter."

Cooke himself once wrote, "The picturesque is a poor style of art when truth is sacrificed to it."

He died on Sept. 27, 1886.


Peter Cliffe, a retired administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became a student of the Civil War while working in this country.


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