One of the things that some of us who would prefer to lean towards the “living history” side of the reenacting hobby tend to do is adopt a first-person persona. In essence, we try to become like actors, pretending to be a person from the period we are attempting to recreate. Some make their persona up from whole cloth; others base it on a historical figure. The latter is the case with me. I have two people whose historical identities I attempt to pay homage to– the first being Edwin H. C. Wentworth; a veteran of the 6th Massachusetts Militia, who later served with the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The other, more recently discovered by me, is one Orrin Wilkins Cook.
I first became aware of Orrin Cook when researching the arms of the 22nd Massachusetts. Craig Barry was kind enough to point me at an interesting entry in the catalog of the Springfield Armory (search for “SPAR 100” here), where there was a quote (reputedly from one Orrin W. Cook) that stated:
“Some of our boys got Austrian rifles, some Enfield, and others Springfield. I got the Enfield, and Bob got the finest arm of the whole lot, a fine United States Springfield rifle. Training in the use of these weapons was startlingly belated and haphazard.”
This piqued my interest. The quote indicated a letter or journal entry by a member of the 22nd Massachusetts that was not an officer, but a private. That’s some serious meat to hang on the bones of a first-person impression, should it be findable. So I set off on a quest for Private Cook that led me around the internet and finally into the archives of the Connecticut River Valley Historical Society. There, I was able to lay my hands on the war diary of Private Orrin Cook of the 22nd Massachusetts, Company B.
For me, this was as close to a religious experience as I could come. Here in my very own hands, was the journal of a citizen-soldier who had fought in the Civil War. Some pages were still crusted with battlefield dirt. Another had deep ruddy stains. As Cook had been wounded at the Wilderness– and still found time to write in his diary after the wounding– that was likely the blood he shed.
Reading through the diary, I was amazed at how erudite this ‘common man’ was. His entries were full of wit and wisdom. Others were deeply sarcastic. Still others had the audacity to criticize the mighty and revered. I saw in him a man that I felt I wanted to build my impression around; a man with whom I could see clear lines of sight to our commonalities. I was fascinated with Cook.
I dug deeper into the Museum’s archives. Cook had left behind a massive amount of paper and documentation of his life; most of which was post-war. He’d married his childhood sweetheart, but the marriage had not gone well. A separation, an acrimonious relationship with his daughters and wife, an ugly divorce: All had left scars on Cook, and tainted his legacy. While this made him all the more fascinating, it also marked him as a more somber figure.
Without a doubt: This man would form the basis of my first-person impression. It’s easy to play the hero. Everyone wants to. I find more truth in the embittered, damaged antihero. In my opinion, those damaged by the war– by War itself– deserve perhaps more attention. After all, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Below the break is a brief narrative of the life of Orrin Cook, complete with the bright spots and the bleak. I pray that readers find him as interesting as I do.
Orrin Wilkins Cook was the firstborn to Thomas Cook and Orilla (Baldwin) Cook on the 26th of January 1841 in their hometown of Winchester, New Hampshire. In 1846, brother Edward was born, followed by sister Laura in 1850. The Cooks were farming family of modest means, but Thomas must have had some indication of the potential of Orrin when he arranged for Orrin to attend public schools starting in 1853, then Cold River Union Academy in Paper Mill Village, New Hampshire in 1858, and finally Westmoreland Valley Seminary in Westmoreland, New Hampshire in 1859.
While at Westmoreland, Orrin met a girl who would play a starring role in his remaining years. Harriet White Butterfield came from a wealthy and influential Westmoreland family and herself attended Westmoreland Valley Seminary in 1858. While training to be a teacher at Westmoreland, Orrin doubtlessly met Harriet and began a romance. It was almost without a doubt she that provided him with his war diary. Inside it’s biding in Orrin’s handwriting it reads:
“In the case of my death, this diary to be sent to Miss Hattie W. Butterfield, Westmoreland, Cheshire Co., N.H., if anyone will have the charity to mail it. It will cost letter postage, thirty or forty cents probably”
In a female hand on the opposite page:
That you may live to fill this diary out and many more is the prayer of
In the same hand on a page marked for Sunday, March 20 1864:
That you may life to fill this diary out and many more is the prayer of
Pray for us; for we trust that we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.
But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner.
— Hebrews, Chap. XIII, Vs 18, 19.
It is nearly certain that the ‘Una’ that Orrin wrote to in the diary was, in all actuality, a pet name for Harriet Butterfield.
His time away at school must have been a comfort to Orrin not just for the presence of ‘Una’, but as a relief from being with his nuclear family. His war diary included a passage that indicates he had something of a strained relationship with them– and especially his father. On September 9, 1864 Orrin wrote:
“My sleep is broken, uneasy and full of dreams lately. Last night I dreamed that war was declared between the old folks and me, and that Una had turned against me. I have dreamed the former a dozen times. It was more than a dream years ago when I was a little fellow and got the abuse of both because I was not sufficiently submissive to my booby brother. I never yielded then, and have never forgotten the injustice of both.”
During the war, Orrin wrote letters home to his mother and sister Laura; but none survive to his father or to his “booby brother.”
Orrin left Seminary in 1859 and took a job working as for the Vermont Times out of Bellows Falls, Vermont. In 1860, he moved back to Winchester to a public school teaching position in District #9. When war broke out in 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in April, Cook had left his teaching job for a tour of eastern Massachusetts, with brief stays in Winchendon and in Boston– where he would no doubt have witnessed the troops mustering, the massive and jubilant crowds wishing them farewell and their departure for the seat of war. Orrin opted not to join the jingoistic throngs, but came out west to Springfield in August of 1862 and taking a job as a clerk at Robinson, March & Co. a lumber company, on the 21st of October.
While in Springfield in 1862 through 1864, Orrin continued his work for Robinson, March & Co., living in a boarding house on Adams Street, just a few scant blocks from the Springfield Armory. The Armory during this time would have been a whirlwind of activity, as it geared up and produced a massive number of the eponymous Springfield Muskets for the war effort. Just north, across the Chicopee River, the Ames Company was engaged in mass producing officer’s swords for the same purpose. Throughout all this time, Orrin resisted the siren’s song that called so many of Springfield’s men off to war.
On July 23, 1863 Orrin Cook’s civilian life came to an abrupt halt when he received a letter from the Provost Marshall, indicating that he had been drafted into the Union Army as a reinforcement, and was to report no later than August 8, 1863. On hearing the news, Orrin’s father Thomas sent Orrin a letter indicating that he would pay for a substitute to serve in his eldest son’s stead. Orrin’s answer to his father’s plea was to take up the arms and accoutrements of a soldier. By November, Orrin was with the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and a member of Company B.
The 22nd Massachusetts was a unit that had already been badly bloodied and depleted by the time Cook and the rest of the reinforcements arrived in November of 1863. The 22nd Massachusetts was formed primarily on the backs of the returning 90-day veterans of April 1861; those members of standing town militias who had answered President Lincoln’s first call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. In those heady days, it was widely believed that the war would be over in the term of service of those 90-day men. The First Battle of Manassas proved them all wrong. The 22nd Massachusetts missed that battle, arrive a few months later in the fall of 1861. The 22nd took part in General George McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsular Campaign in 1862, and was badly mauled at the Battle of Gaines Mill, where they lost many officers, including their Colonel. In 1863, they kept at the fight in places like Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; where they again took heavy casualties. With the unit down to only a couple hundred men, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts authorized reinforcements to keep the badly depleted unit in the fight; some 200 reinforcements that included Orrin Cook.
Falling in with the battle-hardened veterans, Orrin must have felt ill at ease. His diary reveals that generally he thought of himself as a beleaguered outsider. In an entry dated August 25 1864, Orrin mused that:
“I don’t know why I am such an Ishmael; I don’t know what it is in me that makes me to odious to everybody, whether it is my looks, or my ways, or both, or neither. Of the fact that I have every day new and painful proof. If any one would tell me why I am so generally regarded with aversion, he would do me a very great favor.”
Robert Carter, one of the veteran soldiers, seemed to think little of the reinforcements (though he didn’t single out Cook any more than he did anyone else. Carter writes:
“Our conscripts, two hundred in number, have arrived, and we are having great times in this region; our class of men is very good on the whole; a few scatterings, however, betoken a rough element. It is very amusing to see how some of them enter upon their new duties. Last nigh, for the first time since the recuits joined at Hall’s Hill, our quiet camp was changed into a perfect bedlam— shouting, music, talking, gambling and sich were the amusements, and such a clashing I never heard; it made us old soldiers stare.”
On November 7, 1863, Orrin would have seen his first action; with the 22nd Massachusetts taking part in a minor skirmish at the Battle of Rappahannock Station. Unfortunately, his thoughts and recollections of that battle are not recorded in the available papers; and his diary of that year was discarded by his own hand, having been:
“…buried… under some stones in a shell of a stump near a huge oak or walnut and one smaller oak or walnut and the spring southeast of the camp occupied by the 22d Regt. Mass Vols…”
While with the 22nd Massachusetts, Cook continued to enjoy the fruits of an intellectual life, participating in the “Gove Lyceum”, a debating club held intermittently while on campaign, by members of the literati of the regiment, though planned for each Tuesday and Saturday evening with the intent of “declamation, reading, singing and a paper.” Cook seems to have enjoyed these greatly, taking note of the occasions of lectures on astronomy, “Pyscological [sic] Prestidigitation”, recitation of “Sam Patch”, a number of Shakespearian readings, “Shamus O’Brien’s Hanging”, a mock criminal trial, and interestingly, a discussion of the question “Is it strictly the duty of the Volunteers of 1861 to reenlist?”
The scholarly entertainment dwindled with the advent of Grant’s Overland Campaign; and the next conflict in that campaign involving Cook would be his last. On May 5, 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. Cook states:
“Left picket ground for camp. Just before reaching it were about faced and marched back beyond our first position. Saw our reserves building breastworks. Rested in the woods. Found that the enemy were just ahead. Occasional picket firing. Were deployed as skirmishers and ordered to charge at the double-quick. Did so. The Rebs were posted in the edge of a wood at the top of a hill. Our men began firing almost as soon as they left cover. The Capt. in immediate command sensibly ordered them not to throw away their shots, but keep them till they could see something to fire at. Reserved my fire till I saw a Rebel step from behind a tree and fire at us. Sent him a leaden compliment. Just about this time we gained a ridge 10 or 12 rods from the Rebel line, and they poured into us one sudden terrible volley. A man at my right fell wounded, and one at my left fell dead, shot thro’ the brain. Lay down to load. Loaded carefully. When I looked up aw the Rebs advancing from the wood. Wondering what that meant, looked behind me and saw that our men had fallen back and left me while I was loading, and were already half way back to cover. Partly on the impulse of the moment and partly on my old resolution not to be taken prisoner, I started to run. Was shot down at once, without being ordered to surrender. Shot thro’ both thighs. Wonder they didn’t shoot me thro’ the body. Managed to unhitch my knapsack and crawled down the hill a few feet. The Rebels passed me, but soon went back to their breastworks. Soon after a Union reg. charged up the hill past me in column in handsome style, and broke the Rebel line, but, being unsupported, were flanked, cut off, and captured. Bullets fell all around me all the afternoon. One struck, passing thro’ my left thigh. Was in a state of extreme anxiety, hoping the close of the action would leave me in Federal hands and fearing it wouldn’t. Expected to bleed to death. It did grow dark once, but a drink of water brought back the light. Was thirsty, but economized my water. After dark, a Reb came and robbed me of my knife, and was searching for my money when he became frightened at two or three sharp volleys down the line and ran in. Several came to search me, be desisted when they saw I was alive. One gave me water and threw a blanket over me.”
The next day, Cook was brought behind Rebel lines and tended to at the Locust Grove Field Hospital. Cook notes that the nurses “…thought it remarkable that with so many wounds, neither bone nor artery was injured.” As he convalesced, Cook wrote a series of poems that seem to indicate his own concern for mortality, including one on May 12, named “The Death of the Wounded Captive,” where he described the death of a fellow from the Twentieth Maine and the fact that no identification of him was available, and thus his family back home would have no clue as to his fate. He expressed concern for his own family in another entry, stating:
“Likely my folks are ignorant of my fate. Possibly I may have been reported “missing” in the [Springfield] Republican and some one have seen it. Anyhow they will begin to apprehend something after a time, hearing nothing from me and knowing of the battles.”
Cook continued to amuse himself with his writing, and shows a sharp wit. He notes on a few occasions of having “… a louse hunt, my shirt being my field of operations. Some game.” His battles continued later as “All the last two nights I have skirmished with lice. Large loss on both sides: large loss of life on theirs and large loss of blood and rest on mine.” He concluded his entry that day quoting Longfellow:
“ ‘Enjoy thy youth, it will not stay;
Enjoy the fragrance of thy prime,
For oh! It is not always May.’Arn’t I enjoying it, Mr. Longfellow?”
“There was a great and mighty chief,
The sachem of a tribe of reds.
Well, to the best of my belief,
The Flatheads or the Copperheads,
At any rate, some tribe of reds,
With a queer name that ends in heads,
This sachem was the man of fame
Thro’ all the wilds away off back,
A fearful warrior, and his name
Was Littulmac.Whene’er he howled his battle cry,
And took his braves on the war-path,
His foemen fled, as they might fly
The Evil Spirit come in wrath.
His equal history nowhere hath,
His stature dwarfed the man of Gath;
His voice was, like the lion’s, dread;
He cast a shadow jetty black.
His name—his name, as I have said,
Was Littulmac.It took eleven skins of calf
To make this sagamore one boot;
Of broadcloth two webs and a half
Was what it took for his surtout;
For this great sachem and astute
Would often don a pale-face suit.
O, very deep and long the head,
And very broad and strong the back,
Of him whom you must have read,
Great Littulmac!When he unsheathed his fateful steel
His foemen suffered very sore;
(But they could still this solace feel,
His own men suffered greatly more,)
For, like the gun that kicked Jim Moore,
He killed more behind more than before.
His warriors murmured not, but sung
His praise for bringing any back,
For sweet and potent was the tongue
Of Littulmac.His foeman never saw his back,
But then they never saw his face;
He knew too well, did Littulmac,
A chief commander’s proper place,
Whence readily to change his bas
To one more sheltered if the case
Should grow too dangerously bad.
His base was just a little back;
A very heavy base he had,
Had Littulmac.The bravest of the tribe might stay,
Dead where the swamp’s foul vapors start,
Always of those that came away
Was this young forest Bonaparte.
He had all valor’s better part,
And he had it thoroughly by heart.
Of all the worse part, for humbler place,
The doughty chieftan might not back,
But prudence was the saving grace
Of Littulmac.He knew how great the loss would be,
Irreparable and severe,
Of him and all his strategy,
To his poor country, held most dear.
‘Twas this, not shrinking selfish fear,
Kept him the landmark of the rear.
To save his country’s wisest son
He shunned the shell, the rifle’s crack;
His country counted “number one”
In 1882, Orrin finally found new work with Dickinson & Mayo, a rag and paper dealer (later known as A. N. Mayo Co. ) By 1887, Hattie had had enough of Orrin and his abuse. Frances writes that:
“He (Orrin) married in 1866 and after 21 years of continuous and increasing abuse, his wife left him, in 1887. This abuse was not caused by drink rather if I may use the term brain-storms. May be in this day it might be called a result of shell-shock. No man ever had a better or truer wife, capable and industrious, pure. She lived with him as long as her life was safe, since a loaded revolver was always in the house.”
Hattie took her daughters and moved into an apartment at Pearl Street in Springfield, supporting the three of them on her dressmaking business, which had expanded to include cloak-making in 1886– a sign of increasing skill. In 1890, Orrin filed for divorce on the grounds of spousal abandonment, but soon withdrew the petition without prejudice– for an unknown reason.In 1896, Orrin’s daughter Mary followed in her father’s footsteps and became a teacher in the Springfield school system. In 1899, she married one Lincoln C. Haynes, a partner in the firm of Morse & Haynes, one of longest lived and most prosperous shoe stores in Springfield. She had five children, including sons Walter and Arnold; daughters Harriet, Frances and Rachel.
Orrin’s eldest daughter Jennie married Royal Sturtevant in 1903. Royal was the scion of a partner in the grocery firm of Sturtevant & Merrick, and later became Vice-President and Treasurer of the company. Hattie moved in with Jennie and Royal that same year. Jennie and Royal had one son, Warren Butterfield Sturtevant.In the case of the marriage of both daughters, the local papers of record make note of Hattie Butterfield Cook as the mother of the bride(s), but make no mention whatsoever of Orrin.
Orrin fought his war with the women in his life under a pseudonym in the local papers. Under the nom de guerre of “Heman Wilkins”, Orrin wrote a number of letters to the editor decrying the influence of women over the affairs of men. In addition to these, as “Hasseky March”, Orrin wrote against tariffs and the dangerous of protectionist economic policy.
Orrin continued to live at the family’s home at 12 Stearns Square throughout this time. He remained separated from his wife and estranged from his daughters. In 1908, faced with failing health that disabled her from continuing her independence via her business, Hattie filed for spousal support in the form of $3000.Hattie’s claim stated that:
“Said respondent utterly deserted your petitioner, and has since failed, neglected and refused to support her in any way; that said respondent was guilty of cruel and abusive treatment of your petitioner.”
Orrin Cook’s petition for divorce was officially granted on 16 January 1911. That same year, he sold the house at Stearns Square and purchased a new one across the river in West Springfield at 9 King’s Highway. He was joined by a housekeeper, Olive Pentland, for the remainder of his years. Orrin continued his abusive ways with Pentland. According to Frances Sturtevant, Orrin would fly into one of his patented rages and would begin to throw Olive Pentland’s plants out the windows of the house. She would endure the storm by locking herself in her room and remaining silent until the waves of anger had left Orrin.Within the community, Orrin remained isolated. He lived a spartan lifestyle– newspaper clippings of photos of the old Civil War veteran inside his home show one with nearly no furniture and no decorations. This stands in contrast to images from the Stearns Square house, that was full of books, knick-nacks and other ephemera. Cook seems to have become increasingly embittered and morose as well. A page from his diary of “My acquaintances that have kild [sic] themselves” was maintained regularly, showing not only a somber preoccupation, but also a reason for it. Orrin gained a reputation as an odd and eccentric character in West Springfield in his last years. A newspaper article from the 1920s shows Old Man Cook with his favorite pet– a rooster– perched on his head, alongside his beloved horse.
Grave of Orrin Cook
Orrin Cook died in his sleep on the 16th of October 1929 at the age of 88. Given his frugal lifestyle, people in the area were stunned by the size of his estate and bequests. To his daughter Jennie– who he wrote that he believed was spreading rumors of alcoholism– he left an insulting token $1. Mary fared better, with a bequest of $4000. His brother Edward received a small bequest and an annual stipend, as did Olive Pentland. John J. Kennedy, Michael J. Manning and George W. Perrin all got small sums. To the Connecticut Valley Historical Society, he left $500 and his war diary. The American Humane Education Society got $3000. The Springfield Home for Old Men received the staggering sum of $10,000. Most shocking of all was the sum left to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: More than $70,000.
(Edit: A personal postscript to this story is that a few years ago, Jen and I happened into the Springfield Public Library, long before I’d ever heard of Orrin Cook. They were having a book sale. Always being interested in Civil War books, I happened across a $5 copy of “Wearing of the Grey” by a John E. Cooke (no relation), dating from 1867– and a first printing. Naturally, I bought it.
After assembling Orrin’s story, I happened to be looking through “Wearing” when I came across a plate pasted into the front cover, reading “The City Library of Springfield, Massachusetts. Given by “Warren B. Sturtevant.” Undoubtedly, the is the same Warren Butterfield Sturtevant that was the son of Orrin’s daughter Jennie. Likely, he inherited his grandfather’s book collection, and gifted some of the books– including “Wearing” to the town’s library.
That book is now in my hands. My own lasting piece of Orrin Cook.)