A Tale of Two Brothers

Two brothers–Wesley and Arthur Cook of Decorah, Iowa–enlisted in the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War on October 25, 1861 at the ages of 21 and 19, respectively. Both Wesley and Arthur were mustered into Company H of the 9th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment and were ordered to proceed to Franklin, Missouri with their regiment for the winter. After almost four years of bitter winters, days-long battles and weeks-long marches through the South, the company was mustered out in Louisville–but only one brother made it home and saw the end of the war. This is my Memorial Day tribute to Wesley and Arthur Cook; a tale of two brothers, if you will.

cook ancstry
The Cook brothers (Arthur Cook is seated on the far right)

Wesley Cook was born on August 5, 1840 in Oneida, New York to Joseph Miller Cook and Betsy Maria Penfield; his younger brother, Arthur, followed soon after on April 4, 1842. Joseph was a farmer; in the spring of 1854, he “thought it best to push further west. So to have better room for home employment for a large family of children, he sold his small home and land possessions, fitted out a prairie schooner caravan drawn by ox teams and well guarded by youthful pedestrians…The happy outfit headed for somewhere in the northwest, but of course beyond the great Father of Waters.” The Cook family traveled across the Mississippi by ferry and eventually made their way to Lime Springs, Iowa.

9th Iowa Infantry Regiment flag dating to 1862 or later // Iowa Valor

When the Civil War broke out, Wesley and Arthur had just reached adulthood, and, naturally, they chose to enlist within a few months of the start of the war. The brothers engaged in their first battle at Pea Ridge, Arkansas on March 7, 1862, and it was a victory for the Union side:

The enemy opened by a fierce attack on the Union lines, and the 9th Iowa was in the thickest of the fight. The 1st attack was repulsed by the Union forces and it advanced on the Confederates. But it was compelled to retire under a terrific fire of muskets, grape and canister from cannon. The battle continued the whole day with alternating advantage throughout the day. There were occasional intervals, during which the men of both sides replenished ammunitions and removed the wounded to the rear. The fighting was most persistent and desperate, and in no battle of the war was the valor of the American soldier more splendidly exhibited, on both sides. This was the first time the 9th Iowa met the enemy in battle. Its officers and men showed the steadiness and bravery of veterans. If this had been the only service rendered by this regiment, it would have been entitled to the lasting gratitude of every patriotic citizen of the Union, which the 9th Iowa Regiment was defending against those in armed rebellion.

The regiment then marched through Missouri to Helena, Arkansas, fought at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou in Vicksburg, Mississippi and made camp at Young’s Point during the winter of 1863. That winter, in particular, was difficult; as Lieutenant Colonel Abernethy described:

The history of the regiment for these two months of February and March is a tale of sorrow. The health of many of its members was already undermined by a six months’ sojourn in the miasmatic regions of the Mississippi valley, and it seemed that but few could withstand the debilitating and enervating influence of this insalubrious climate. The smallpox came now, for the first time, into our ranks. Scores of our number, hitherto stout and rugged, were prostrated past recovery, and now lie buried in shallow graves about the hospitals which once stood in that sickly region…The ordeal of the unpropitious months was the more grievious because it had all the evils of the battlefield, with none of its honors.

9th Iowa Infantry Regiment flag dating to 1862 or later // Iowa Valor

Wesley died of smallpox that winter; on March 8, 1863, Arthur sat by his brother’s bedside at the Van Buren General Hospital in Milliken’s Bend as he took his last breath. He buried his brother on an island along the Mississippi River before marching on with his regiment, and when he had the opportunity to return home in January of 1864, he chose to re-enlist instead. Arthur marched with Sherman to the sea in the years that remained; fought in a few more battles and skirmishes in the South; and was promoted to the rank of Fifth Corporal, all before his regiment was mustered out–and all without his brother.

Cook, Wesley
Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865

According to Arthur’s daughter, he remained unharmed throughout the war: “He was never wounded, but related to us of one very close call. He with two other men were digging a zig-zag trench and were very close to where the trench zig-zagged, when a sizzling bomb fell at their feet. Father saw it and jumped around the corner of the trench and escaped injury. There was not an instant of time to warn the other men before the bomb burst–maybe I should call it shell instead of bomb–and Father said they were killed. My memory says they were blown to pieces.”

Monument to the Iowa 4th, 9th, 26th & 30th Infantry Regiments

After the war, Arthur returned to Lime Springs, purchased land for his own farm and joined the Free Methodist Church. He married Elsie Doolittle, the daughter of Eugene Doolittle and Abigail Whitcomb, on June 18, 1868, and the couple had four children: Freddie (b. 1869); Burritt Kingsley (b. 1871); Mary Abigail (b. 1872); and Ruth Maria (b. 1878). Luther Cook, Arthur’s nephew, described him as a humanitarian: “Uncle Arthur and Aunt Elsie kept Uncle Daniel’s three children for many months after their mother died. Grandpa Joseph spent his last years there and died in the home. They kept other needy children. They gave their own children college degrees.”

Arthur died on February 2, 1919 in Marion, Oregon at the age of 76, and it seems to me that he tried to make the most of the time he was given–to live for both himself and his older brother. I cannot imagine the strength it must take to bury your brother and to never return to say one last goodbye; I admire Arthur and Wesley for their courage and sacrifice, and it’s servicemen and women like them who need to be remembered on Memorial Day–and every day after. Happy (early) Memorial Day; until next time–

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