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Lieutenant William Cooke – Canada’s connection to Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn

August 2019

Most with even a basic knowledge of American history know about “Custer’s Last Stand”, battle between the 7th Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, suffered a humiliating defeat against the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian tribes during the Great Sioux War of 1876.

LCol Custer and over 270 of his soldiers were killed in the battle, fought between 25-26 June 1876, along the Little Bighorn River in the Crow Indian Reservation, a part of the Montana Territory. Five of the 7th Cavalry’s twelve companies were annihilated.

Among those killed was his close friend and a native of Hamilton, Ontario: Lieutenant William Cooke.

Cooke was born in 29 May 1846 in Mount Pleasant, Ontario, near Brantford, living there until moving to Buffalo, New York at the age of 14. After graduating from school in 1863, Cooke enlisted in the 24th New York Cavalry 1863 and fought in the Civil War, receiving brevet promotions to captain, major and then lieutenant colonel for meritorious service.

Among the battles he fought in were the Siege of Petersburg, where he was wounded, and the Battle of Sayler’s Creek during the Appomattox Campaign.

After the war, Cooke chose to stay in the army, joining the 1st New York Provisional Cavalry while awaiting acceptance into the Regular Army.

Commissioned a second lieutenant in the 7th Cavalry Regiment in July 1866, under command of LCol George Custer, Cooke was promoted to first lieutenant the following year. He was known as an excellent shot and one of the fastest runners of the regiment.

Cooke took part in the Washita Campaign in 1868, also known as the Washita Massacre, when Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment attacked the Cheyenne encampment of Chief Black Kettle at the Washita River, near present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma. The battle was a part of the Southern Plains War that forced the Southern Cheyenne people onto a U.S. government assigned reservation.

In 1871, Lt Cooke was promoted to regimental adjutant to Custer.

It was while serving under Custer that Cooke became a close friend of the Custer family, including brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, who also served in the regiment. While in the regiment, Cooke was known for his dundrearies, long side whiskers.

Cooke’s place in history would be sealed during the Battle of Little Big Horn, a battle during the Great Sioux War of 1876, where the U.S. government sought to obtain ownership of the Black Hills, where gold had been discovered. This land encroached onto lands owned by the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, who refused to give up the land to the government.

Prior to his death on 25 June 1876, Cooke wrote the famous “last message” on behalf of Custer to Captain Frederick Benteen, Battalion Commander for Companies H, D and K, and sent by dispatch rider Sergeant John Martin, ordering Benteen to send re-enforcement:

“Benteen. Come On. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. WW Cooke. P.S. Bring Packs.”

While searching for the Lakota and Cheyenne people, Custer divided his regiment into three battalions, installing Captain Benteen, commander of Company H, as one of the battalion commanders.

However, Benteen failed to promptly comply with Custer’s orders, a controversial decision that some historians say doomed Custer and his men, including Lt William Cooke.

Cooke’s body was found not far from Custer. He had been scalped twice, the second being his side-whiskers.

Also killed were Custer’s brothers Boston and Thomas. Custer’s nephew Henry Armstrong Reed and a brother-in-law of Custer were also among the dead, as was Mark Kellogg, a civilian reporter who rode with Custer. Kellogg’s reports were the only press coverage of Custer and the 7th Cavalry in the days prior to the battle and were picked up by newspapers around the country.

Kellogg is considered to be the first Associated Press reporter to be killed in the line of duty.

Cooke was initially buried on the battlefield, along with Custer and the other members of the 7th Cavalry killed in the battle. A small monument marks the approximate spot where he fell.

In June 1877, he was reburied in the Little Bighorn National Cemetery, but two months later, his body was exhumed and repatriated to Canada.

Cooke was reburied in his family’s plot in Hamilton Cemetery where today, his grave is marked with a standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission grave marker, adorned with the Grand Army of the Republic emblem at the top.

Sources: https://nationalpost.com/travel/the-stories-behind-the-tombstones-in-canadas-oldest-municipal-burial-ground-hamilton-cemeter, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Washita_River, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Armstrong_Custer#American_Indian_Wars, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Armstrong_Custer, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Little_Bighorn, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Sioux_War_of_1876, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Kellogg_(reporter).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/lieutenant-william-cooke-canadas-connection-to-custers-last-stand-at-little-big-horn/

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