In the fall of 1796, just months before George Washington’s presidency ended, thirty-six-year-old Revolutionary War veteran Johnson Cook (1760-1848), a Connecticut native, petitioned the president for financial assistance and entreated him to spare Cook from living out his final days “neglected.” In his two-page manuscript letter to Washington, written on October 1, 1796, from Marietta in the Northwest Territory (now Ohio), Cook, perhaps in an effort to elicit pity and charity from the former general, chronicled much of the action that he saw during the war. Cook, who had served in the Continental army from 1777 until June 1783, advised Washington about his enlistment as a private in the 6th Connecticut Regiment in January 1777. Cook’s military career also included his transfer to the 4th Connecticut Regiment in 1781, when an army reorganization took effect, and to the 1st Connecticut Regiment in 1783; he eventually attained the rank of sergeant. Instead of including these details about regimental organization and transfers, which were routine during the war, Cook’s letter highlighted the aspects of his career—particularly his war injuries—that surely he thought might intrigue Washington and incite him to offer relief to the veteran. Many of Cook’s injuries left him with lifelong scars and disabilities, and thereby showcase Cook’s heroism and dedication to the Patriot cause. Cook’s letter narrates his participation in skirmishes and other operations between 1777 and 1782, and the suffering he endured on behalf of liberty and his country’s independence.
Cook began his missive by praising Washington’s wisdom and the “good” he had done for his country, and acknowledged him, as would generations to come, as “the farther of Amereca.” The opening paragraph additionally offers a reminiscence about an event that occurred in the last year of the war, namely Cook’s final encounter with the general at Newburgh, New York, in June 1783, when the young soldier received his discharge from the army: “when I Saw your honer last was at Newbery After I receivd my discharge from your army you rode past me I looked after you as far as I Could behold you then the tears did fall freely from my Eyes to think that I never should behold my farther again.” Cook’s sentimental recollection is followed by a chronological narrative of his war service. For instance, he noted his involvement in “the hard battle when fort montgomery was taken,” which referred to the British and Hessian assault on Forts Clinton and Montgomery on October 6, 1777. During late 1777 and 1778, Cook’s combat experience included a “number of skurmishes Near kings brige and white plains” that resulted in the capture of enemy prisoners. Though Cook omitted specifics about these encounters in his letter, newspapers from the war period reported on skirmishes in Westchester County, New York, that involved troops from the 6th Connecticut Regiment to which Cook belonged. The veteran then described his participation in one of the key events in the war that helped boost Patriot morale— the successful assault led by Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s newly-formed light infantry corps on the British post at Stony Point, New York, in mid-July 1779: “was draughted to go into the ligt troops unde Jenrll Wain was at taken of Stoney Point was one of the forlorn hope receivd A wound in my thigh by an Enimys bayonet.” Though British forces soon reoccupied Stony Point following an American withdrawal from the post on July 19, 1779, the initial victory showcased Patriot courage and effective reconnaissance operations. It also proved significant in Cook’s military and personal life. It was at the assault on Stony Point that Cook sustained serious injuries that continued to plague him throughout his life. In a sworn statement dated October 28, 1814, a physician informed a Congressional committee that handled Revolutionary War claims that Cook had “Rec’d Seven Wounds in actual Service at the Storm of Stoney point he Rec’d a Wound which Caus’d a Rupter in his Side which is a great Detriment To Bodily exertion.” The affidavit also mentions a thigh wound that Cook sustained from a bayonet. According to another deposition, Cook was “in the forlorn Hope at the taking of Stoney Point fort” and “Was Ruptured by A fall on A piece of Cannon When he gumped [jumped] down the Walls on the Ennemy.”
Despite enduring serious injuries, Cook displayed astonishing resilience by continuing to serve in the field. Specifically, Cook fought at the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, New Jersey, in June 1780. His participation in those actions likely involved service in the 150-man corps commanded by Maj. Caleb Gibbs, whose detachment was part of Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s advance corps. Cook, along with Lt. John Armstrong, evidently thwarted an attack by British cavalry on Steuben’s advance corps. “I was with Ltt Armstrong when 22 of us fought A large body of light horse and broke them in thre full Charges,” Cook wrote, “A vicktory Which was thought Much of by the baron stuben.” Though Cook is silent as to whether he sustained any injuries in those actions in the New Jersey theater, he instead underscored his heroism by emphasizing his contribution to a military “vicktory,” surely a deliberate choice on his part to spark Washington’s interest. In a subsequent paragraph, Cook again depicted himself as hero and wounded warrior. His involvement in skirmishes, he claimed, resulted in his having received “four wounds” by Jäger “horse men” in 1781 or 1782. Cook expressed his “determenation” to “Sell” his “life as dear as poseble,” and portrayed his heroism in an action in which he “Slew Captn Derou.” Cook likely referred to the mortal wound inflicted on Capt. Carl von Rau of the Jäger Corps in early July 1781, in Westchester County.
Though Cook failed to describe the nature of the four wounds he received around 1781, a number of depositions testify to the severity of the injuries he incurred during the war. One deponent recorded a hand injury that Cook had received in 1781. On December 14, 1822, physicians testified that Cook’s war injuries included a groin injury and fractured skull; his “Complaint of A sciattaca,” they noted, resulted from poor nutrition and other conditions that Cook had faced during military service and as prisoner-of-war. Another physician certified that a “musket Ball” had broken “the main Bone of” Cook’s leg. He also documented Cook’s fractured skull, thigh injuries, and a bayonet wound to his right ear. Those wounds evidently left permanent scars; a sworn statement given in November 1816 indicated that Cook had complained “for the space of thirty three years of Lameness and pains Which originates from the Wounds” that he had suffered during the Revolutionary War.
Cook’s attempt to elicit compassion in the former general led him to write about additional hardships he endured during the war. In addition to severe injuries and heroic war feats, Cook revealed that he also had faced capture and confinement. He informed Washington that he “was taken prisoner.” A deposition dated December 14, 1822, offered additional details about Cook’s confinement: “He the said Johnson Cook further saith that he Was A prisioner of War in time of the Revolution and that he was shut up in a Cold prison with the short allowence of A half a point of damiged oat Meal and two onnses of pork per day through A winter.” In a petition to Congress, Cook reported that he had been a “Captive in the New city hall at New york at an allowence of half A pint of damaged horse Meal per day and two Ounces of pork.”
Before ending his letter, Cook described his financial hardships that resulted partly from criminal conduct perpetrated by his regiment’s paymaster: “Where is the reward for my Servisces my agent broke with my final Settlements in his hands which he disposed on for goods which he had of his Credittors at newyork and Conneticut.” Apparently, regimental paymaster John Sherman had embezzled settlement certificates, stealing approximately $18,000 that belonged to the Connecticut line, $300 of which was owed Cook. In addition to concluding his lengthy letter by imploring the president for aid, Cook invoked God to grant Washington many happy days and “A peacefull and pleasant Death and A blessed Eternity.”
Rife with misspellings, incorrect or missing punctuation, poor grammar, and occasional misdating of military actions, Cook’s letter reveals a veteran with little education, but also a man of heroic perseverance, who despite having endured tremendous hardship, served nearly until the war’s end. Countless depositions in the pension records for Cook attest to his war injuries and help to corroborate his heroic, and now forgotten, story as a Revolutionary War veteran dedicated to the Patriot cause. In addition, Cook’s service records shed some light on the less significant details of his military career that he omitted from the missive to Washington and that are now largely forgotten to history. For instance, we know that in early 1779, Cook was listed as “on Com[man]d” at Norwalk, Connecticut. In summer 1780, he was “Transferred Lt Infantry.” Records list Cook as “Sick” in Connecticut for several months in summer and fall of 1782, and early 1783. Cook’s letter also omitted details about his post-war life. However, we know that he returned to Connecticut after the war. He subsequently resided in Rutland, Vermont, before relocating to what is now Ohio. He worked as a carpenter and farmer, but his infirmities eventually prevented him from earning a living through manual labor. He died in Lancaster, Ohio.
When viewed in the context of the tremendous corpus of Washington’s papers, Cook’s letter initially may not appear all that significant. After all, epistolary requests for assistance commonly crossed Washington’s desk during his two terms as the nation’s chief executive. Washington received countless letters from veterans, widows, and people from all stations of life who sought financial relief, settlements of war debts, or endorsements for entrepreneurial or scientific schemes. For instance, an Irish builder and prospective immigrant to the United States wrote to the president from New York City on December 26, 1796, with the hope that Washington might approve his proposals for fire extinguishing methods. The Irishman felt confident that Washington’s “Approbation” of his scheme would lead the president to “secure an adequate Compensation” for him. Less than two months later, an “unhappy widow” penned a missive to Washington that pertained to her deceased husband’s Revolutionary War expenditures and claims. In contrast to these aforementioned missives, which mostly consist of broad overviews of personal requests or needs, Cook’s letter provides us with a detailed chronological narrative of his war exploits and devastating wounds, revealing a veteran who suffered and persevered through bodily injury, imprisonment, and financial distress in a conflict whose outcome remained uncertain for years.
Despite Cook’s amazing story, there is no evidence that Washington responded to his appeal. When Cook described his war service in a written appeal to then-President Thomas Jefferson, he added: “I have laid this Matter Before Jenl. Washington the year before he Resind his Presedency he did not think proper to answer me on the subgeckt I now am Confident I am about to lay this before A man of tender feelings that will.” Cook represented himself to Jefferson as a sympathizer with the Republican Party, while also briefly summarizing his past war service and sufferings: “I suffered imprisenment in New york cruelly treated by the British almost starved for want of food.” Washington’s apparent failure to reply to Cook does not indicate an absence of sympathy. In the concluding months of his second term as president, Washington was occupied with a series of urgent domestic and foreign relations issues that he would have prioritized over an appeal for assistance. For instance, he and his cabinet officers dealt with tense relations with France that involved the seizure of American trading vessels, a constant threat of war with Algiers over treaty obligations, and the development of the Federal City, now Washington, D.C. He also entered into a profuse correspondence with Mount Vernon farm managers about house renovations and the management of his crops and enslaved workers. Washington sought to keep the nation out of war, improve Indian relations, and promote construction progress on the U.S. Capitol. Finally, as noted above, Washington received numerous appeals for assistance during his presidency; the nation’s urgent concerns did not always allow Washington sufficient time or energy to aid every widow or veteran who sought redress for grievances. However, during the period of the war, it appears that Washington had been aware of Cook’s military feats. Evidently, Cook’s “Discharge signed by Gen. Washington” contained “a Certificate of his having received the Badge of Honor for his extraordianry Conduct & Courage.” This “Badge of Honor” had been established in Washington’s general orders for August 7, 1782: “Honorary Badges of distinction are to be conferred on the veteran Non commissioned officers and soldiers of the army who have served more than three years with bravery, fidelity and good conduct; for this purpose a narrow piece of white cloath of an angular form is to be fixed to the left arm on the uniform Coat.” The same general orders additionally established what is now known as The Purple Heart. So, while national concerns may have prohibited President Washington from acknowledging Cook, General Washington seems to have been aware of Cook’s military accomplishments and devotion to the Patriot Cause.
Though Washington did not directly aid the veteran, Congress adopted a law in 1817 that awarded Cook a monthly pension in the amount of $4. The pension was backdated to November 1816. Cook later appealed for monetary increase due to his hardships.
George Washington’s papers contain countless epistolary gems that relate the now-forgotten stories and patriotic accomplishments of people from all social classes, including veterans. Cook’s story—one of immense courage, perseverance, and patriotic zeal—is among them.
Johnson Cook to George Washington, October 1, 1796, W. W. Abbot et al. eds., The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987-2020), 21:41-46 (PGWPS).
See, for example, The Pennsylvania Ledger: or the Philadelphia Market-Day Advertiser, January 7, 1778, which printed a report about a skirmish involving an enemy “party of rangers” and Col. Return Jonathan Meigs of the 6th Connecticut Regiment.
For a more detailed account of the successful capture of Stony Point, see Washington to Anthony Wayne, July 1, 1779, and enclosure, W. W. Abbot et al. eds., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 28 vols. to date (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985- ), 21:326-31 (PGWRW).
Pension application records for Johnson Cook, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900, Record Group 15 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, M804), Roll 0637 (Johnson Cook: Pension Records).