MAJ. GEN. JOSEPH ALEXANDER COOPER TRIED TO MUSTER UNION SUPPORT IN CAMPBELL COUNTY
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
As the writer has noted in other articles, the area of Campbell County was directly involved in the American Civil War. One name stands out in the County, that of Brevet Major General Joseph Alexander Cooper. At this time we shall focus on a short biography of the Generals' service as well as his life.
A letter written by General Cooper, dating June 4, 1901, from St. John, Kansas, tells a portion of the story of his life. The letter does not specify who the letter was written to. It goes as such:
"Dear Sir I will try to furnish the information you desire. My father was John Cooper from the State of Maryland and he was a bound boy and ran away from home in his teens and traveled and worked around until the breaking out of the war of 1812. He then enlisted in Capt.. Liew [?] Hales Co. which was stationed at Norfolk, Va., and got an honorable discharge from the army and then married in Gracen [?] Co., VA. Her name was Hester Sage.
"He then moved to Ky near Somerset where I was born Nov. 25, 1823. We then moved to Tenn. the following year and located in Campbell Co., 5 miles south of Jacksboro where I grew to manhood and married Mary J. Hutson in the month of April 1846 and in Sept. 47 I enlisted in the Mexican War and served until the close of the war.
"When I returned to my old home until Aug. 1 [?], 1861, and then I organized the first company from the state of Tenn. for the Federal army and made my way under the cover of night to Williamsburg, Ky., and there I was mustered into the service on the 8 day of August 1861 with 101 men. We were ordered to Camp Dick Robinson on the 17th of Aug. to join Gen. Nelson. I was mustered out of the service by a general order from the war department on the 15 day of Jan. 1866.
"I am now living in Stafford Co. Kans. five miles west and two miles north of St. John the county seat. Kind regards. Gen. Joseph A. Cooper."
As was mentioned earlier, Cooper served in the Mexican War as an enlisted man in the 4th Tennessee Infantry of Knoxville under Col. Richard Waterhouse and Captain Jordan Council. His service extended from about the 1st of September 1847, until about August 1, 1848.
As a result of his service during the Mexican War, and having been taught by his father, who had served in the War of 1812, Gen. Cooper set out to train soldiers for the Union. He had taken part in the Knoxville and Greeneville conventions of Federalists and at the latter meeting he signed with others an undisclosed agreement to drill men for the Union army.
Soon after he returned from Greeneville the General selected the King Field, a highland on the ridge above his home as the restricted place of training. This location provided a confidential place to drill. It was located far away from any public roads and allowed the soldiers to drill in completely enclosed space. Within this area they drilled and trained without any type of disturbance
Gen. Cooper tried to a great extent to get the more prominent men from Campbell County to take the initiative for the Union, but most were reluctant to make a choice because the County was just about divided equally in sentiment between the Union and Confederate forces. Failing in this attempt, he "went to work to try to organize as best he could working by day on the farm and riding by night to see parties to perfect arrangements." By this time matters were not considered safe in the County to travel on the highway, "so he used the stock trails and short cuts through the woods at night to see his partys."
Gen. Cooper, as he was gathering men for the Union cause, did not even sleep at home. He was forever making arrangements for getting his troops into Kentucky. His companies of militants were well known. Many of them had planted a crop in the spring of 1861. Cooper, as well as other troops, had to hide out from the Confederates. The General worked by day "in my farm away on a mountain away from the road and my family instructed is anyone called to not know here I was until they satisfied themselves of their friendly purpose, then to send a runner after me."
Gen. Cooper announced to his family:
"I am going to the war; I may be gone a year and perhaps three years, and may never get back home."
That same night Cooper and his men moved slowly and deliberately across the Cumberland Mountains. On August 8, 1861, he was sworn in as captain and his men mustered in at Williamsburg, Ky., as Company A, First Tennessee Infantry. At the time Cooper was 38 years old. He had, except for his stint in the Mexican War, been a farmer most of his life.
His life in the Civil War discloses that he was a direct, practical soldier who despised drunkards, and was a strict disciplinarian concerning military etiquette. He was somewhat disapproving of West Pointers, an explicit example concerning getting a wagon train along a muddy road.
His men always came first! He cared for them during a measles attack in Kentucky. He was always concerned about doing battle in his own home territory of Campbell County.
Several Confederate troops marched from Knoxville to Big Creek Gap (now LaFollette), and on one of the routes in which Union men marched into Kentucky, Cooper assembled his company together in Jacksboro to do battle with the Confederate forces and maintain a way into Kentucky. Some of Cooper's men had guns, some pistols, some scythe blades, others nothing. Asked why they had arrived, the answer was, "When you kill one we will get a gun."
Jacksboro residents were fearful that Cooper's activities would imperil the whole county. These folks believed that the Union forces could certainly defeat the present Confederate forces, but they were clearly apprehensive if a larger force were to arrive in the County.
Shortly after the battle of Fishing Creek, or Mill Spring, in Kentucky, Cooper and his men were in the detail that was to drive the Confederates out of Powell's (Powell) Valley.
In March 1862, the First Tennessee led the attack against the regiment of Confederates encamped at Big Creek Gap. Cooper writes that "such a stampede I have never seen before nor since. I saw my friends had opened the way and had redeemed my promise to my company to lead them home and inspired confidence in the loyal men and sent terror to the hearts of the rebels of the county."
Cooper and his forces, in July 1862, struck at Wallace's Cross Roads, near Andersonville, Tennessee, killing five Confederates and taking prisoners along with wagons and horses. Shortly thereafter, his company attacked a Confederate force at Big Creek Gap, they being located near where St. Mary's hospital is now situated. The Unionists attacked at dawn and within ten minutes the entire enemy force was routed, they being scattered completely around the Gap. While fleeing the scene on horseback several men stopped on the road to Powell's River just above the mouth of Cedar Creek.
As was noted previously, Cooper became Captain in the 1st Tennessee Infantry, becoming in 1862 Colonel of the 6th Tennessee. His service was mainly in East Tennessee and Georgia, and in July, 1864, was made a Brigadier-General, in which capacity he commanded his troops in the March through Georgia, receiving the brevet of Major General in March, 1865.
He held the office of collector of intternal Revenue in Tennessee from 1869 till 1879 and later resumed his farming in Kansas.
General Joseph Cooper served as a Deacon in the Longfield Baptist Church in Campbell County, and in 1842, he joined the Indian Creek Baptist Church, also in the County.
Sometime after the Civil War he was enlisted by Tennessee Governor Brownlow to quell the forces of the Ku Klux Klan disturbance in Tennessee.
General Cooper died in Kansas on May, 1910. Upon his death his body was returned to be buried in the National Veterans Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee.
(Portions of this article were taken from "The Land of the Lake," written by the late Dr. George L. Ridenour. Many thanks to the Campbell County Historical Society personnel for allowing the writer to use this information.)