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Stern Officer Kept Mormon Troops Alive
Will Bagley
Published: 05/19/2002 Edition: Final   Section: Utah Page: B1

When Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke marched the Mormon Battalion to Tucson in 1846, he was not sure if he would have to lead his 335 ragtag volunteers into battle with the Presidio's Mexican garrison. He drilled his amateur soldiers himself, principally in the art of loading and firing, and in forming columns.               

The first duty of any military officer is to his soldiers. He is obliged not to waste their lives. His men thought their colonel was a slave driver, but Cooke, historian David Bigler wrote, "worried every day about the welfare of his men and agonized over decisions that might put their lives in danger."               

As it was, Commandante Don Antonio Comaduran declined to fight and led his men a few miles south to Mission San Xavier del Bac. Cooke left Comaduran's garrison intact to continue to subdue Apaches, which it did until 1856, when the United States acquired Tucson from Mexico as part of the Gadsden Purchase.               

A little after noon Dec. 16, 1846, the Mormon Battalion marched past Tucson after "the Colonel repeated his last order about meddling with private property, threatening to punish those who failed to observe it" and camped about a mile below the town.                

The next morning Cooke led 40 volunteers on a scouting expedition toward the mission, but canceled it, fearing an ambush in the dense mesquite. About midnight, a sentry thought he saw a double column of Mexican cavalry and within 15 minutes the soldiers were ready to do battle. It was a false alarm.               

From Tucson, Cooke led his men north and marched down the Gila River to the Colorado River. The Arizona deserts were tough, but in the Imperial Valley of California they crossed "deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature."  Had it not been for the "cool headedness and sagacity of our stern commander," Pvt. John Riser recalled, "we must have all perished before reaching our destination. There is no doubt in my mind but what Colonel Cooke was one of the ablest officers in the Army."               

As a soldier who longed for combat, Cooke was disappointed with his "epic but bloodless" campaign during the Mexican War. He continued his record of distinguished service until 1873. He led the Second Dragoons during the Utah War -- and legend has it he doffed his hat in tribute to his Mormon volunteers when the Army marched through Salt Lake City in 1858.               

As the last commander at Utah County's Camp Floyd, renamed Fort Crittenden, Cooke struck the post's colors and gave the flagpole to Brigham Young in 1861. He wrote books on life in the frontier military and the manual for the U.S. cavalry. A Virginian, Cooke stuck with the Union during the Civil War, although his own son became a Confederate brigadier general. Cooke was J.E.B. Stuart's father-in-law.     

           Cooke was an officer's officer who "discharged his buckshot tongue at any man or beast that dishonored the nation and the army," historian Durwood Ball wrote recently. "Whether exploring frontiers, fighting Indians, or policing riots, the Lynchburg dragoon was the army's best all around antebellum officer."               

Commemorative organizations have marked the graves of hundreds of Mormon Battalion veterans with a handsome medallion. Military historian Bill MacKinnon visited Cooke's last resting place at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit recently. It was hard to find because a modern, flat granite memorial had replaced the original headstone. MacKinnon cleaned the leaves and dirt off Cooke's grave, which lacked a medallion and made no mention of his remarkable march in 1846.              

Editors note: This is second part of a two-part story. Part one
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Will Bagley is a Utah historian and author.

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