Friday, July 15, 2011

A General and his killer: McCook and Gurley

Robert Latimer McCook

       Robert Latimer McCook was born in Lisbon, Ohio in 1827. He was one of the "Fighting McCook's" that consisted of fifteen men from the same family who fought for the Union in the Civil War. Of those fifteen, four would become generals and Robert was one of those. Robert was a pre-war attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although he was a democrat, he helped organize the Ninth Ohio Infantry and was appointed its colonel. 
       He would begin the war serving under George McClellan in West Virginia. In the fall of 1861, he and the brigade he was commanding were transferred to the Army of the Ohio. He would be severely wounded in the Battle of Mill Springs. He would be promoted to brigadier general while recovering from his wound. After returning to the army, he learned that the unhealed wound prevented him from riding long distances on horseback. 

The death of McCook according to the Northern papers

       On August 5, 1862, McCook was riding in an ambulance because of his wound and he was also suffering from a case of dysentery (diarrhea). He was riding far ahead of his main column accompanied by two members of his staff and nine cavalrymen who served as his escort. McCook was riding in his underwear and there was no way the enemy could know his rank at the time. They were travelling from Athens, Alabama to Winchester, Tennessee and had almost reached their destination when they were attacked by about two hundred troopers of the Fourth Alabama Cavalry. 

Captain Frank Gurley

       The teamster attempted to turn the wagon around, but the canvas top became hung on a tree branch. The wagon swerved and struck an embankment where it became stuck. The enemy cavalry opened fire, one bullet struck McCook just below his rib cage. The Confederates took him to a nearby house where he was visited by Captain Frank Gurley who commanded the group of cavalrymen. It was said that Gurley fired the fatal shot and apologized to McCook as he lay dying. McCook didn't express any bitterness toward the captain. 
       McCook survived until about noon the next day. His last words were to tell his brother Alex that "I have tried to live like a man and do my duty."
       Northern papers proclaimed that McCook was killed by lawless guerrillas led by Frank Gurley. They stated that McCook was killed while lying incapacitated in an ambulance. Captain Gurley was captured while sick in Alabama in December and the Federal authorities decided to try him for murder. Bedford Forrest and William Hardee both wrote letters to Union officers in defense of Gurley. It was claimed that McCook has actually climbed from the wagon and was attempting to dislodge it from the embankment when shot. There was no way Gurley could have known he was even firing at an officer. 
       Grant responded that Gurley would receive a fair trial by Union authorities. The military court found Gurley guilty of murder on January 11, 1864 and sentenced him to death. General George Thomas suspended the execution because he didn't believe the murder to have been a crime, but simple warfare. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt (who would later serve as prosecutor in the Lincoln assassination case) begged Lincoln to overrule Thomas. Lincoln did as Holt asked, but delayed the sentence. 
       Gurley remained a prisoner of war for the next year when he was accidentally released in an exchange. When the war was over, he took the oath of allegiance and was paroled by Union authorities. In November, he was elected Sheriff of Madison County. He was shocked to learn that Joseph Holt had petitioned President Andrew Johnson to arrest Gurley and carry out the death sentence. Johnson agreed and had Gurley arrested and held in Huntsville. 
       Friends of Gurley met with Johnson and persuaded him to stop the execution. Johnson also heard that threats of violence would be carried out against Federal authorities if Gurley was indeed hanged. Holt protested, but Grant urged Johnson to release the man. Johnson agreed with General Grant and had Gurley released.

Robert's Grave

       McCook rests today in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father and one of his brothers would also die during the war. He was described as likable, courteous, brave and devoted to his country. He was thirty-four years old.

Frank Gurley in uniform

       Frank Gurley died of natural causes in Gurley, Alabama in 1920 at the age of eighty-four. He rests there today in Gurley Cemetery. He never changed his story that McCook was killed in a combat situation by regular Confederate cavalry. 

Captain Gurley's grave


  1. Very interesting story. Illustrates the ambiguities of war.