John Esten Cooke was a 19th century poet, novelist and American Civil War soldier.
He was born on the 3rd November 1830 on the family estate in Winchester, Virginia. He had twelve siblings but only five of the children survived childhood. The family were forced to move to Richmond when John was ten due to their property having been destroyed by fire. As he grew up he was keen to make a career out of writing although his father had ambitions to have his son join him in a law firm.
At the age of 18 a few manuscripts were published and he followed these with published books which were so successful that he abandoned his career as a lawyer completely, but not until after the death of his father. His literary output was substantial with at least 31 books being published under his name, these being either novels or short stories. He loved to write about the history of Virginia, either in verse or prose form, often featuring the Civil War in such titles as The Wearing of the Gray and The Youth of Jefferson. He served in an artillery unit called the Richmond Howitzers, achieving the rank of sergeant, and was present at Harpers Ferry following the famous raid by John Brown’s forces.
Cooke’s despatches from the battle fields were published in southern newspapers using the pseudonym “Our Virginia Correspondent” and his literary skills found him promoted to the rank of lieutenant and elevated to a place on the general staff of Major General J.E.B. Stuart. He saw a great deal of action following this including participation in the Gettysburg Campaign but he managed to get through all this unscathed. He would eventually attain the rank of major before the end of the war.
Afterwards, during the year 1867, he settled down to married life and farming, his wife Mary Frances bearing him three children. Tragically she died only 11 years after they were married. He also resumed his literary career, writing biographies of famous men, an example being Stonewall Jackson: A Military Biography, which was published in 1876. There were some inaccuracies in this story, for which he received criticism, but that did not put him off producing other similar pieces of work.
Cooke did, of course, write about battles and military campaigns in verse form but, as can be seen from the example below, these were not always serious pieces. His poem The Broken Mug tells of the loss of this simple object which was accidentally destroyed. It had survived perilous journeys and dangerous raids, having accompanied its owner for a considerable length of time, but was now gone forever. Here are the opening verses of this poem:
John Esten Cooke died at home in Virginia on the 27th September 1886 at the age of 55. He had contracted a fatal dose of typhoid fever. His legacy is The John Esten Cooke Fiction Award which is given annually to writers who have portrayed the events of the terrible conflict between the States in an accurate fashion, in book length form. Attention to historical detail is key and the author must portray Confederate heritage and Southern history in an interesting, but factual, light.