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.